A Life in Colour:
The Autochromes of Sir Robert Bland Bird Bt.
Curated and described by Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS
Robert Bird (1876-1960) was the grandson of Alfred Bird, a Birmingham chemist and food manufacturer, best known for Bird’s custard and blancmanges. He joined the family business in 1867, taking over completely in 1878 and remaining with the company until 1956. On his father’s death in 1922 he was created a Baronet. Robert was also active in politics as a Conservative MP for Wolverhampton West between 1922 and 1945, except for two years. He established particular connections with France. From 1904 Robert lived in The White House, Solihull, in the West Midlands, with his wife, Edith, and daughter, Pamela.
Robert Bird’s photography
Very little is known about Robert’s photography. He seems to take taken up making autochromes in 1915 but may have had an interest in photography prior to this. He joined the Royal Photographic Society in May 1915 and remained a member until his death. He exhibited several of his autochromes in the RPS annual exhibitions between 1915 and 1917. With increasing business and political commitments, he stopped making autochromes and carried on with normal amateur photography. He also became interested in amateur cinematography, making films that recorded events and his travels, using the newly introduced 16mm film format, from 1923.
Robert seems not to have exhibited after 1917. He did show some of his autochromes at a RPS Colour Group meeting in the 1950s. After his death he was described as one of the RPS’s oldest members.
The autochrome was sold commercially from 1907 and immediately found interest from photographers keen to bring colour to their photography. The plates were expensive and more complex to process than traditional black and white plates. They produced positives on glass that required a special viewer or a light box to see them.
After the initial enthusiasm for the autochrome had died down by c1910, there was a renewed interest in the process around 1915-1920. After World War One as new colour processes were introduced the autochrome was gradually superseded so that by the 1930s it fell into disuse.
Robert Bird’s autochromes
Robert’s autochromes are not dissimilar to other collections. They make good use of colour and subjects such as gardens, flowers and family mainly feature. There are a small number of local views and views from elsewhere in Britain. Of particular note are the interiors scenes in The White House. According to Robert’s grandson, ‘he built up a particular reputation for…using artificial light’. The collection at the RPS is Robert’s complete ouvre.
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