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Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection

From serene landscapes to haunting portraits, this exhibition brought together over 200 extraordinary highlights from the collection of the world’s oldest surviving photographic society: iconic images taken by some of the greatest names in photography.


Drawing from the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, founded in 1853, this selection of treasures spanned the history of photography. The exhibition included some of the earliest known photographic images, dating back to the 1820s; work by pioneers of photography such as Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron; and contemporary works by some of today’s most influential figures, such as Don McCullin, Terry O’Neill, Martin Parr and Steve McCurry.

About the Royal Photographic Society

The Royal Photographic Society is the world’s oldest photographic society, having been in continuous existence since 1853. It aims to ‘promote the art and science of photography’ and its activities support both its membership and the wider public.

The invention of photography was announced in Britain and France in 1839, and the subsequent Great Exhibition held in South Kensington in 1851 did much to popularise photography. The Great Exhibition acted as a catalyst for the formation of the society: an inaugural meeting was held on 20 January 1853, with Sir Charles Eastlake in the chair and Roger Fenton as honorary secretary. Those attending the meeting agreed to the formation of the Photographic Society.

The birth of the society

At the first proper meeting of the new society on 3 February 1853, new members were elected and photographs exhibited. A month later the Journal of the Photographic Society was published, making it the world’s first photographic periodical, and in January 1854 the society held its first public exhibition of photography. This pattern of meetings and lectures, an annual exhibition and the publication of a journal continues to the present day. The society and its special-interest groups and regions organise over 300 events each year, and its annual exhibition has now been joined by online competitions.

From its formation the society had attracted the interest of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and they gave their formal patronage to it in June 1853. The society eventually adopted the ‘Royal’ prefix in 1894 and in 2004 it received a Royal Charter. The society established an annual award in 1878; this has since been supplemented by others to recognise individuals across all areas of photography. Its distinctions to recognise the photography of members started with the Fellowship in 1895, joined by the Associateship in 1924 and Licentiate in 1972. The society moved its headquarters from London when it opened the National Centre of Photography in Bath in 1980.

The origins of the collection

Prince Albert suggested that the society collect photographs as early as 1853, but it was not until 1892 that it began to do so. Within a few years it was able to mount exhibitions of important historical material and loan photographs and equipment to other institutions such as the Science Museum. The society’s collection began to develop in a more structured way with the appointment of John Dudley Johnston as honorary curator in 1924, a role he held until his death in 1955.

Inspired by Light photography competition

Drawn by Light featured iconic images by some of the greatest names in photography from the 1850s onwards. We challenged a new generation of photographers to create images inspired by the works in the exhibition, using the theme of light as a starting point.

Read more about the competition and see the winning photographs.

Further reading

On our blog

Other websites

In print

  • Tom Hopkinson, Treasures of the Royal Photographic Society 1839–1919 (London, Heinemann, 1980)
  • J Dudley Johnston, Masterpieces of Photography (London: The Royal Photographic Society, 1936)
  • J Dudley Johnston, The Story of the RPS [1853–1869] (London: The Royal Photographic Society, 1946)
  • Michael Pritchard, ‘The interchange of thought and experience: 1853 and the founding of the Photographic Society’, The RPS Journal (February 2013), pp 38–41
  • Pam Roberts, Photogenic: From the Collection of the Royal Photographic Society (London: Scriptum Editions, 2001)

A note on the collection

The Royal Photographic Society collection was in our care between 2002 and 2016. In 2016 we announced that it would transfer to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A).

Read our press statement

Find out how to access the RPS collection

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