Tuesday, June 30, 2009


This image of the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte on the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena was presumably taken sometime during the period from 1859 to 1875, which was the heyday of the popular commercial photographic format known as the carte de visite. The photographer may have been named Hayward, as that last name and a first initial I can't make out are handwritten on the reverse of the card.

The tomb apparently still stands much as it was, although the outer fence shown here has evidently been removed. But even at the time this photograph was executed the emperor was no longer in his tomb, his remains having been repatriated in 1840 at the request of the French government.

This image, on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery. [See update at bottom.] It was issued by one "A. Hall, Photo-Artist" who operated a studio at 217 West Madison Street in Chicago, probably the photographer Albert K. Hall who is listed at that address in the 1876 Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago, but I haven't been able to pinpoint the scene it depicts. I don't know if the little pinnacle at right is a natural outcropping that's been adapted, or a wholly manmade structure. There's a cross on the roof, so it was presumably located either in a Christian country or in some colonial outpost, which in the second half of the 19th century could have meant almost anywhere. Perhaps a geologist could tell whether the arrangement of rocks on the shoreline is consistent with tidal activity, or just the shore of a large lake. There's no sign of vegetation anywhere, unless the dark stain at the far right is indicative of algae. It reminds me of nothing so much as the final scenes of Planet of the Apes.

Did the door open onto an anchorite's cell, a tomb, or even a tiny chapel? Was it some Crusoe's desolate hideaway at the end of the world? Does it still stand, or has it been long since battered apart by the waves?

Update (2021): The structure shown has been identified as the Capelinha do Calhau in the village of São Vicente in Madeira. Constructed in the late 17th century, it still stands. (Thanks KRW for the identification.)

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