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  • "I prefer to write my own advertisements on well-prepared polished plates" —Martin Lawrence, 1851

     The self-portrait daguerreotype offered here is remarkable for its large size and clarity. Martin M. Lawrence, its author and subject, was one of the few daguerreotypists to master the difficult process of making images in this large size, referred to as mammoth-plates. Lawrence was one of the most successful daguerreotypists working in New York City, in direct competition with the great Matthew Brady, Jeremiah Gurney, and the immense field of highly-talented photographers practicing their art in Manhattan in the first decades of the medium’s history. The quality of his images earned him numerous awards, two of which accompany this lot.

     

    An artist, entrepreneur, and inveterate New Yorker, Martin M. Lawrence personified the inventiveness and drive-to-perfection that typified American daguerreotypy. In the days when photographic lighting was dependent solely on available sunlight and the practitioner’s ability to manipulate it, Lawrence distinguished himself as a master of this aspect of the art. While the overwhelming number of photographers worked in much smaller formats, Lawrence perfected a method for creating images on large plates. Whereas most daguerreotypes were enclosed in small cases and viewed while held in the hand, Lawrence’s mammoth-plate daguerreotypes hung in handsome frames on the wall and commanded attention. Despite their large size, Lawrence’s images maintained all the detail and clarity the daguerreotype is known for.

     

    Two medals awarded to Martin Lawrence for the excellence of his work in 1851 and 1857, both accompanying this lot

    Lawrence operated a series of daguerreian studios In New York City in the 1840s and 1850s, while maintaining a residence in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. He is first listed at 303 Broadway (at Duane Street), 152 Broadway (between Maiden Lane and Liberty Street), and at 203 Broadway (at Fulton Street), and finally at 381 Broadway (at White Street). This last address (which still stands) is illustrated in an advertisement for Lawrence’s studio, which also illustrates the 1851 medal that accompanies this lot, imprinted with a dual profile portrait of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

     

    Lawrence submitted daguerreotypes into competition at London’s historic Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in 1851. The competition attracted the work of the finest daguerreotypists of the day, and Lawrence was awarded the prize medal of the exhibition. One contemporary commentator praised Lawrence’s mammoth-plate images as ‘truly magnificent. It would seem such portraits might supersede the pencil and the brush. Color alone is wanting and yet there is an earnest and life like expression, a delicacy and decision of character, a glowing beauty in the soft and mellow blending of light and shade which have always given to the creations of the best artists their peculiar power to charm all the lovers of beauty and art’ (Rev. S. D. Burchard, The Photographic Art Journal, February 1851). Amidst similarly fierce competition, Lawrence also won a medal for his work at the prestigious American Institute fair in New York City in 1857, the medal for which is also offered here.

     

    An advertisement for Martin Lawrence’s studio at 381 Broadway illustrating his medal won in the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition (not in sale)

    In addition to his many awards and commendations, Lawrence was known as a talented and generous teacher of the complex and demanding daguerreotype process. In Rev. S. D. Burchard’s 1851 profile, he wrote that Lawrence ‘withheld no secrets from his pupils. He aimed not merely to make them amateurs, but artists. He endeavored to inspire them with his own high sense of the dignity and importance of the art. Excelsior was his motto’ (ibid.)

     

    The impressive size and remarkable clarity of this portrait cannot be overstated. The majority of daguerreotypes made in America in the 1840s and 50s were sixth-plates, which measured 3 ¾ by 2 ¾ inches. The present image dwarfs even the largest standard plate size: 8 ½ by 6 ½ inches. The process of making a daguerreotype of any size was a difficult and painstaking one, and the challenges increased along with the dimensions of the plate. Comparatively few mammoth-plates were executed in the two decades in which the daguerreotype was the primary photographic medium, and very few of those have survived. It is believed that the Lawrence daguerreotype is the first mammoth plate to appear at auction since 1996.

     

    The mammoth-plate for which Lawrence won his 1851 medal at the Crystal Palace exhibition, of General James Watson Webb, is in The Chandler Chemical Museum Collection at Columbia University, New York.

231

Self-Portrait

1850s
Mammoth-plate daguerreotype.
Sight: 11 1/2 x 9 1/4 in. (29.2 x 23.5 cm)
Plate: 13 x 11 in. (33 x 27.9 cm)

Accompanied by two medals awarded to Lawrence, by the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London in 1851, with his name stamped on the edge; and the American Institute in New York City in 1857, with his name engraved on the reverse, each cased.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$25,000 - 35,000 

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Deputy Chairman, Americas

 

Photographs

New York Auction 8 April 2021