We know the Spain of the second half of the 19th century, its public works, its monuments, its rulers or its popular types, largely thanks to a French photographer based in Madrid named Jean (or Juan) Laurent. Born in Burgundy in 1816, but living in Madrid since he was 27 years old, Laurent became a photographer in our country and, with a wise combination of artist and businessman, left an invaluable historical testimony. Thousands of photos, donated to the state archives, allow today to recreate that time of progress, on the one hand, and great social contrasts, on the other.
A school for Jean Laurent, the pioneering photographer whose memory has been mistreated by Madrid
After several exhibitions of his work in recent years, which popularized his immense legacy, a public manifesto of intellectuals and cultural institutions calls for a tribute to his figure by changing the name of the Francisco de Quevedo public school in Madrid, located in the building where Laurent had his studio and his home, an initiative that has been rejected. The manifesto was signed, among others, by the photographers Joan Fontcuberta and Daniel Mordzinski, the filmmakers Fernando Méndez Leite and Sol Carnicero, the writer Javier Sierra and the director of the Prado Museum, Miguel Falomir.
The restoration of a part of the mansion in which he lived in Alcalá de Henares and the launch of a future museum dedicated to his work is not being easy either. Today, the Calasanz School. The Piarist sisters took over the property in 1903 and have had to resort to crowdfunding to complete with 25,000 euros the 10,000 provided by the Complutense City Council, plus another amount contributed by the nuns and thus carry out the restoration works of the impressive 18th century staircase that presides over the palace. With that money they managed, at the end of last year, to emergency repair the cracks in the dome, fix the plaster decoration that was about to come off, and consolidate and clean the frescoes on the wall, which were peeling. The stained glass windows have also been restored and lighting has been installed. But another 45,000 euros are needed to complete the restoration and the museum project, money that they hope to obtain via donations and contributions in the tickets of small theatrical and musical shows performed at the foot of the magnificent staircase, whose visits will resume in September. “If we have to wait for everything to be restored, it would take a long time,” says Rosa Carmona, director of the school. “Currently, much remains to be restored but the most difficult and most expensive has been done,” she adds.
The photographer José Aleixandre, who was the curator of a recent exhibition on Laurent in Valencia, does not hesitate to state that “Jean Laurent created a new concept of photography, a renewed style with the impulse of correspondents who worked for his firm and toured Spain and Portugal. In fact, it can be said that he started the first press agency with a very entrepreneurial mindset. Along these lines, the Laurent house offered for sale numbered catalogs that buyers could choose from. This system of selling photos has allowed thousands of his images to reach the present day”.
Both Laurent himself and his collaborators dedicated themselves to photographing historical monuments in various cities or, above all, public works such as the construction from 1858 of the railway line from Madrid to Alicante. They used to travel by train or in a curious car-laboratory where they developed and, later, transported the images. The State has a replica of this original mobile unit, stored in a warehouse, which it has promised to give to the future Jean Laurent museum in Alcalá de Henares, which will be possible thanks to an agreement with the City Council.
That dark and frowning photographer, with a beard and dressed in a frock coat, was a pioneer of new techniques such as wet collodion or albumen paper copies. His inventiveness and his commercial sense were extraordinary and, as an example, it is enough to remember that he applied photography to fans, a very widespread complement in his time. But his documentary work, which today we could describe as photojournalism, was magnificent and an unbeatable legacy that today belongs to the Ministry of Culture. To give a dimension of Laurent’s work, suffice it to say that the State digitized 6,300 photos of his studio in March 2021. “To cite just one very significant detail,” explains Aleixandre, “the laurent file It has six photographs that together offer a total panoramic view of the passage of the Turia river through Valencia. That image is an incomparable historical testimony because most of the buildings that bordered the river have already disappeared.
A network of correspondents
But the enormous work of the Laurent house was not limited to architecture or urban planning, because that wide-ranging photographer also became a notable portraitist who worked for the court of Elizabeth II or left valuable images of popular types, trades and labors. Carlos Teixidor, photography historian and technician at the Cultural Heritage Institute, points out that “Laurent is among the three greats of 19th-century Spanish photography, along with his partner, José Martínez Sánchez, and with Charles Clifford.” As proof of his prestige during his lifetime, Teixidor highlights: “Laurent portrayed Isabel II, the provisional government of the 1868 revolution, Amadeo de Saboya and even Alfonso XII. In any case, it should be emphasized that Jean or Juan Laurent was not a French photographer who arrived in Spain, but rather an artist who learned this trade in Madrid and practiced it throughout our country. He set up a very extensive network of correspondents, which he called envoys from the Laurent house, in a business that covered Italy, Germany, France and Portugal. Thanks to this network, very good photos of Europe are preserved”.
Laurent made a lot of money from photography until his death in 1886, although his family later had financial problems as they were unable to maintain the business. His role was also very relevant as a kind of cultural ambassador and his collection of public works represented Spain at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867. Eclectic in political matters in a very convulsive time that the monarchy of Isabel II went through, the glorious revolution , the First Republic, the very brief reign of Amadeo of Savoy and, finally, the Restoration with Alfonso XII, the photographer Laurent was immersed in a profession that he was passionate about and that, moreover, he was able to transform into a business. Author of several monographs on Laurent, Carlos Teixidor admits that, in recent times, the figure of the Spanish-French artist (he never lost his original nationality) has been rescued from specialist circles to reach the general public or, at least, photography enthusiasts. “Anyway”, says Teixidor, “there is still a bit of recognition to be had. The manifesto in defense of the memory of Jean Laurent, which was presented on July 20 at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, aims to partially cover this gap. I believe that the Community of Madrid will end up accepting this proposal to give his name to the school where his home-studio was built”. His legacy preserved in various institutions, some of them of the relevance of the Prado Museum, the National Library or the Film Academy support this request, the ball is now on the roof of the Community of Madrid to pay tribute to an authentic character who portrayed the changing and agitated second half of the 19th century.
There is still much to discover about Laurent. Rosa Carmona warns that her personal file has not appeared. Hardly any family photos of him survive, such as the one he took at the door of his mansion in Alcalá de Henares and in which the writer Alejandro Dumas appears seated, with whom he was friendly and whom he portrayed on different occasions. It is an image that is not preserved in the Spanish collections, but in the Collection of the Société des Amis d’Alexandre Dumas of the AKG Paris agency, but it is hoped that a copy should be in that future museum. His personal belongings are not preserved either, although during the restoration works on the staircase, a small box with gunpowder, newspaper sheets, a fossil, nails and pellets appeared, “like a time box”, that would be to be dated but would belong to both the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The Colegio Calasanz has an open bank account ES91 0049 6791 79 2616005473 to continue collecting funds to complete the restoration and the future museum).