Bessie Morrissey-Murin

Research Project

Copyright, Photography & Art: Commerical And Cultural Effects In Britain 1862-1878

My research focuses on the commercial practice of reproducing artworks through photography and registering them under the Fine Art Copyright Act of 1862.

Photography, Modern, Europe, Media, Technologies, Untold / Marginalised Narratives, Archival Documents
Bessie Morrissey-Murin, Boxes of copyright entries from COPY 1, 2021.

My dissertation looks at when photography first became a copyrightable medium – and how this intersected with the Victorian art market and the public's appetite for reproductions alongside changing concepts of authorship, originality and property.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the booming contemporary art market contributed to calls for copyright protection to be given to all works of fine art (engravings had first been granted protection in 1735 and sculpture in 1798). After several years of debate, copyright protection was extended to painting, drawing and photography in 1862 under the Fine Art Copyright Act. Although the inclusion of photography within the act was controversial as photography did not enjoy the same status as so-called 'works of the mind', many photographers took it up enthusiastically. 

My research focuses on the commercial practice of reproducing artworks through photography and registering them under the new copyright legislation. By exploring this body of copyright registrations now held at the National Archives, I intended to shed light on the practice of fine art reproductions made via photography and how it coincided with the law, as this has largely been an area overlooked by historians of photography.
I found that the litigation often associated with photography and the Fine Art Copyright Act in the historiography of copyright was the exception rather than the rule. New technologies transformed how reproductions of artworks were consumed. Those working in older reproductive methods such as engraving had to grapple with the growing market for cheaper copies made by mechanical processes. In the 1860s, this led to a series of legal disputes involving photographs of engravings being reproduced and sold illegally, to the chagrin of publishers in the printing industry who had invested heavily in the production and commission of engravings (often taken from paintings of acclaim). In an attempt to control the market of reproductions, members of this class registered photographs of engravings under the Fine Art Copyright Act as a precautionary measure against potential pirates.

However, compared to the majority of entries depicting photographic reproductions of artworks, photographs of engravings were one of the least registered for copyright protection (in my sample years 1863, 1866, 1869, 1872, 1875 & 1878), whereas paintings were the most photographed medium. The evidence supplied in this dissertation points to a much larger narrative within the history of photography regarding the commercial practice of reproducing artworks beyond what legal historians specialising in copyright law have tended to focus on.

Copyright registration form for

  1. 'Photograph of 'The Acquittal', from engraving'.
  2. 'Photograph of 'Waiting for the Verdict', from engraving'.
  3. 'Photograph of 'An Event in the Forest', from engraving'.
  4. 'Photograph of 'The Duke and Duchess of Beaufort', from engraving'.
  5. 'Photograph of 'Life's' Sunshine', from engraving'.

1866, COPY 1/10/56 National Archives, 2021.

Stereoscopic photographs of 'The Sleep of Sorrow, the Dream of Joy' by Raffaelle Monti, at the 1862 International Exhibition, taken by the London Stereoscopic Company. V&A Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection E.1306-1992, 2021.

Photograph attached to a copyright registration form for 'Photograph of drawing by Edward Burne Jones. Study of head of female looking over shoulder', 1878. COPY 1/42/187 National Archives, 2022.

In Addition
My work on the MA course focused on the history of photography. I have a background in art practice and history of art (University of Edinburgh Art Fine Art MAFA).

My historiography essay explored the change in how stereoscopy was written post-1990 after the publication of Jonathan Crary's Techniques of the Observer, focusing on the idea of new media/dead media.

I wrote my object essay on an albumen print of the cast of Trajan's column being built at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). The photograph was taken by the second 'official' museum photographer Isabel Agnes Cowper in 1873. This object highlights the technological and material complexities of electrotyping, casting and photographing monuments and works of art.

My dissertation centred around photography, copyright and the issue of property when commercial photographs of artworks were taken. Looking at copyright records held at the National Archives between 1863-1878, my research sought to investigate the prevalence of photographs taken of artworks (painting, sculpture, engravings etc.) registered for copyright under the Fine Art Copyright Act of 1862.

©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA