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Powerscourt Revisited

Powerscourt photographed by Edwin Smith in 1965In 1965, whilst photographing in Ireland for the book of the same name published in 1966, Edwin Smith visited the formal gardens at Powerscourt in County Wicklow.

One of the photographs he took there has always held a certain fascination for me and my trip to Ireland over the last week gave me the opportunity to visit the gardens and see this impressive place myself. Armed with a copy of this published version of the image on my iPad as a guide, I set out to try and photograph the view as it is today.

The dramatic vista that Smith portrayed is perhaps one of the strongest photographs in the book that ensued, evoking both the beauty and grandeur of the Irish countryside and the great tradition of formal garden landscaping. The garden was designed by Daniel Robertson in 1830 for the 6th Viscount Powerscourt. 

In her accompanying description of the photograph Olive Cook noted that, according to Christopher Hussey, Robertson 'a brilliant but dissolute character', was one of the leading proponents of Italianate garden design, which was influenced by the terraces and formal features of Italian Renaissance villas. He designed the terrace nearest the house but the work ceased when the 6th Viscount died in 1844. It was not until the 1858 that all the terraces were completed, using a combination of Robertson's designs and those of other landscape architects. Robertson is said to have suffered from gout and directed operations from a wheelbarrow, fortified by a large bottle of sherry. When the sherry was finished, work ceased for the day!

A view of the Powerscourt terraces, by Roy HammansView of Powerscourt terrace steps, by Roy HammansThe enormous scale of these terraces may be seen in these views, taken from the bottom terrace looking back towards the house (left) and from the base of the first flight of steps in front of the house, looking down (right).

The actual terrace photographed by Smith is described by Olive Cook in the book: "From the first vast terrace, 800ft long, below the house, a broad shallow flight of steps leads down to a wide lawn, and beyond this tapis vert is the remarkable perron* with its cobbled ramps, the focus of the whole garden composition, going down to five further terraces and the Triton Pool. The striking black and white patterns of the paving are composed of pebbles from the beach at Bray, and the geometric configurations were devised for the 7th Viscount Powerscourt by Francis Cranmer, antiquary to the Royal Academy and amateur astronomer."
* def: 'an outside platform, with steps leading to it'.

My photograph made with Edwin Smith's Autorange camera on 6x9 roll film.I had with me Edwin Smith's Ensign Autorange camera, given to me by Olive Cook in the 1990s, as I believed this may have been the camera Smith used for the original photograph. As it turned out, the Smith picture must have been made with his Graflex on sheet film, with a wide-angle lens. It was not possible with the Autorange to get the field of view required to match the original from the only position where the photograph could have been made.

After looking at the copy of the original held by RIBA (home of the Edwin Smith Archive) on my return, it is clear from the format of that that the negative was not the 2:3 ratio of the Autorange (although the picture was cropped to that format for the book). The image I made, on Tri-X 120 film, is shown on the left. The angle of view with the 105mm Ross Xpres lens on 6x9cm is approximately 47 degrees on the vertical.

An actual attempt to replicate the original was made with a 28mm lens on my Nikon D700 (vertical angle of view ~65.5 degrees). This is roughly equivalent to a 90mm lens on 5x4 film (vertical angle of view ~ 70 degrees). There is now a large conical clipped yew occupying the point from which he must have taken the original photograph, but it was possible – by ignoring the 'Keep of the Grass' signs – to get fairly close.

Powerscourt then and now.The resulting digital image was processed entirely in Adobe Lightroom 3, converted to black and white and cropped to match the original book image as closely as possible. Thanks must go to my trusty assistant Dianne for guiding me to the correct spot with iPad-driven instructions as I trespassed onto the forbidden areas of the lawn in front of the yew bush!

You can see the degree of success I achieved in the pair of images to the left; one shows the original by Smith as featured in the book and the other is my digital version, made 45 years later (click to enlarge).

Smith was perhaps very slightly further to the left in order to frame the view with his camera, but the difference is marginal. Fortunately, the weather conditions and season were very similar, although there is more atmospheric haze in his photograph.

Other than that, it is remarkable how little has changed. Even some of the trees in Smith's view look similar today, 45 years on.

'Re-photographic' projects - attempts to recreate photographs from the same viewpoints as classic originals - are quite common; David Hurn famously followed Atget's footsteps at Versailles and in the US the Rephotography Project by Mark Klett and others is another example. It has long been my desire to do the same with Edwin Smith's classic images, this is the first I have managed.