George Robinson Fardon - Photographs New York Wednesday, October 12, 2022 | Phillips

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  • George Robinson Fardon’s seven-part panorama of San Francisco is a seminal document of the young city as it looked in 1855. Taken from a rooftop on the southeast corner of Stockton and Sacramento Streets, the composition proceeds from north to south, encompassing the view straight down Stockton Street in its first panel, proceeding to Telegraph Hill, showing the teeming harbor and Yerba Buena Island, the view down Sacramento Street, and, in the last panel, the view over Happy Valley. Within its scope, the panorama sets forth a myriad of minute detail documenting businesses, residences, and public buildings. In its short history, San Francisco had been destroyed by fire and rebuilt several times by the time Fardon set up his camera, and this cycle would be repeated in subsequent decades. Fardon’s panorama nonetheless captures the essential energy of the nascent city that would grow into one of America’s most important metropolises.


    The rarity of Fardon’s work is extreme. Born in England, Fardon worked in San Francisco only briefly, arriving around 1854 and relocating permanently to Vancouver Island in 1858. During that short period, Fardon integrated himself into San Francisco’s vibrant photographic community, producing views of the city and its notable buildings and sites. Fardon’s work does not survive in quantity, and the panorama offered here is one of only four known examples. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, holds one example of the panorama, as does the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Another is in a private collection. This is the only example of Fardon’s panorama to appear at auction.


    San Francisco has a rich early photographic history, and this is evident in Fardon’s panorama. When gold was discovered in 1848, prospectors and fortune hunters flooded into California using San Francisco as a base camp. Photographers were one class of merchant catering to the miners, and daguerreotype studios cropped up throughout the city to make their portraits. Three such businesses can be seen in Fardon’s panorama. The studio of Robert H. Vance, perhaps the best-known daguerreotypist in the city, can be seen in the panorama’s fifth panel, on Sacramento and Montgomery Streets, recognizable by its bold signage.



    James M. Ford’s Daguerrean Gallery is conspicuous in the fourth panel, above Keyes & Co. Golden Gate Clothing Warehouse at the corner of Clay and Kearny Streets. Less conspicuous in the same panel is another daguerreotype studio: the partially obscured sign for the Cosmopolitan Daguerrean Gallery is visible on what is likely Clay Street. Peter Palmquist, the recognized authority on the history of photography in California, speculates that this studio was run by daguerreotypists Charles F. Hamilton and Jacob Shew. The San Francisco Directory for 1856 gives Fardon’s address nearby at 203 Clay Street.



    A full cataloguing of the buildings, businesses, and locales documented in this panorama is beyond the scope of this entry, but a few bear mentioning. The City of Paris department store is visible in the fourth panel. This store was founded by Frenchmen Felix and Emile Verdier who first sailed into San Francisco with imported merchandise in 1850. Such was the demand for their wares that they sold out before unloading the ship, the Ville de Paris. After replenishing their stock, the brothers opened their first location on the corner of Sutter and Kearney Streets; the City of Paris remained in business until 1976.



    In the panorama’s fifth panel, showing the view straight down Sacramento Street, numerous business signs in Chinese script are visible, illustrating the early presence of Asians in the Bay Area. Signage for a number of manufacturers of coffins is also visible in this panel.


    Dominating the 6th panel is St. Mary’s Cathedral which was still in-construction when Fardon photographed it. Now known as Old St. Mary’s, the church stands today on the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue.




    George Robinson Fardon remains something of a mystery to modern photographic scholars. It is unclear, for instance, where and from whom Fardon learned the craft of photography. His advanced skill is evident in the creation of this panorama, which would have required meticulous planning and execution to produce a sequence of seven adjoining images that would line up perfectly when mounted contiguously.


    Anonymous portrait of George Robinson Fardon

    Mysterious, too, is the fact that he worked with the new technique of wet-plate glass negatives and made photographic prints on paper when daguerreotypes were very much the dominant photographic technology. In the 1850s, non-daguerreian photographic imagery was a novelty, and it is likely for this reason that Fardon used the terminology ‘daguerreotypes on paper’ to contextualize this new type of photograph for his audience.



    One reason for Fardon’s choice of paper prints may have to do with his intention to publish his views. Unlike the daguerreotype process which yielded one unique image, negatives allowed for multiple positive copies to be made from a single exposure. In addition to the panorama, which he produced in an extremely limited quantity, he also published San Francisco Album: Photographs of the Most Beautiful Views and Public Buildings, an album of photographs published in 1856. Like all of Fardon’s output, examples of this album are rare and there are only nine known copies extant, each unique in terms of the selection and number of photographs included. Six of the images that comprise the panorama appear within these albums, each mounted singly to a page.


    The provenance of the present panorama is steeped in California history. It belonged originally to William Franklin Whittier (1832-1917), the pioneering San Francisco businessman who is perhaps best remembered today for the grand mansion bearing his name on Jackson Street at Laguna. Coincidentally, Whittier arrived in San Francisco around the same time as Fardon. In 1856, the San Francisco City Directory listed Whittier as a clerk in the firm of Sawyer, Johnson, and Co. Several years later, he and a partner bought the firm. Shortly thereafter, he formed Whittier, Fuller, and Co., which became the largest firm dealing in paints, oils, and glass on the west coast. In the 1880s, Whittier cofounded the Lake Hemet Water Company which dammed the San Jacinto River and provided a reliable source of irrigation for the San Jacinto Valley. According to family history, the Fardon panorama hung in the Whittier, Fuller, and Co. offices in San Francisco; its original frame and glass accompany this lot. The Fardon panorama has remained in the family ever since.

    • Provenance

      Collection of William Franklin Whittier, San Francisco, 1855
      By descent to the present owner

    • Literature

      Other examples of the panorama, as well as individual panorama images from San Francisco Album:

      Palmquist, Fraenkel, Kraus, et al., San Francisco Album, Photographs 1854-1856 by George Robinson Fardon, pls. 1, 5, 9, 13, 14, 16; cat. nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18
      Harris, Paper Promises: Early American Photography, pl. 79
      Harris and Sandweiss, Eadweard Muybridge and the Photographic Panorama of San Francisco 1850-1880, cat. no. 15
      Sobieszek, ed., San Francisco in the 1850s; 35 Photographic Views by G. R. Fardon, pls. 1, 5, 9, 13, 14, 16


San Francisco, Cal.

A panorama of seven salt prints from glass negatives, mounted contiguously.
7 5/8 x 53 3/8 in. (19.5 x 135.6 cm)
Photographically printed labels, 'San Francisco, Cal., 1855' and 'G. R. Fardon, Photographer, San Francisco, Daguerreotypes [on] Paper' affixed to the mount, with penciled inscriptions in an unidentified hand on the mount edges. Accompanied by the original wood frame and glass.

Full Cataloguing

$150,000 - 250,000 

Sold for $189,000

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs, New York

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Deputy Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 12 October 2022