Collection of rare 1916 photos goes on show

The Cairo Gang, 1920 - Collection of rare 1916 photos goes on show - Sean Sexton
The Cairo Gang, 1920, Sean Sexton

Rare photographs of the events surrounding the Easter Rising, many of them never seen in public before, go on display in London this week in the first major 1916 centenary event in Britain

Easter Rising 1916: Sean Sexton Collection, opens at the Photographers’ Gallery on Thursday, and features 80 photographs, out of an archive of more than 20,000, from the collection of London-based collector Sean Sexton.

Exhibition curator Luke Dodd said the show depicts the growth of Irish nationalism, the uprising of 1916, the subsequent emergence of the Irish Free State, and how it all played out in images.

Private

Collection of rare 1916 photos goes on show
Countess Markievicz c 1915, Sean Sexton

He curated the images from a private collection of more than 20,000 prints put together by Sexton over the last 50 years. It includes press and military photographs, amateur shots and postcards.

Said Mr. Dodd: “(Sexton’s) a slightly eccentric character and has searched everywhere – he’s been to every car boot sale, and voraciously collected anything Irish.

“That means there’s a lot of obscure stuff, but that’s also its great strength.

“There aren’t that many photographs of the rebellion, for a number of reasons – the British arrived and imposed huge censorship, and also photographic practice was still very cumbersome so usually you see lots of pictures taken after the rebellion was quelled, lots of shelled-out buildings, and so on.

“But Sexton has amateur shots taken during the uprising, showing barricades and British army officers, and he also has amazing ephemera such as stereoscopic views and postcards.

“They give an insight into how the rebellion was perceived, because initially it had little popular support; but then, because the British response was so draconian, it switched.

“At least half of them have never been reproduced before. (He) has collected about 1,000 early Irish photographs over the last 50 years here in London and there’s a sizeable amount of them that relate to the key events in Irish history, roughly between 1910 and 1930.

“Martial law was introduced so anybody with a camera would have been locked up. What you get immediately afterwards is huge interest but largely in an apolitical way. So there are endless shots around O’Connell Street.

Extraordinary

“There’s the extraordinary sight of the O’Connell monument standing in the midst of absolute devastation. What the Sexton collection has is lots of amateur shots from people who ambled out with their own camera. They’re not particularly sophisticated shots but you get a sense of the absolute shock and awe that people had. They had no idea what had happened.

“Most of the signatories to the Proclamation were absolutely unknown before that and suddenly there’s a very real cast of very photogenic young martyrs and because they were killed so summarily, within a few months their photographs are on sale all over the place and being hung up in people’s houses.

“The archetypes that were established photographically like the martyr, the hunger striker, all of those suddenly come into play hugely.

“It was only a decade before 1916 that photographs became mass-produced. So this is one of the first key events in which photographs played an important role because they were very much in the forefront of changing public opinion afterwards,” he said.

Among the 80 images handpicked by Mr. Dodd are not just showing the shelledout streets and the rebels and troops, there’s two photographs of Constance Markievicz, dressed as a debutante and in full army gear and paired images of brother and sister John French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Charlotte Despard, a Sinn Fein activist.

“You have a shot of French, who was sent there in 1918 to reinstate order, inspecting the troops at Phoenix Park, but then another of his sister demonstrating outside a prison in support of a hunger strike.

“They were raised together, and yet she became a committed revolutionary whereas he was there as part of the British administration,” he said.

View some of these images here:

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• The Easter Rising 1916: Sean Sexton Collection is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery from 22 January to 3 April. www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk

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