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National Library of Wales
Coburn, Alvin Langdon, papers

Reference code(s): GB 0210 COBURN

Held at: National Library of Wales

Title: Alvin Langdon Coburn Papers

Short Title: Coburn, Alvin Langdon, papers

Creation date(s): 1903-1980

Level of description: Fonds

Extent: 0.076 cubic metres (4 boxes)

Name of creator(s): Alvin Langdon Coburn


Administrative/Biographical history: Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was an influential and innovative photographer, who is regarded by many as the father of abstract photography. He also attained notoriety for his extensive portraiture studies of prominent contemporary literary and political figures, and for his landscape and cityscape studies, especially those of London and New York.
Coburn was born into a middle class Massachusetts family on 11 June 1882 at Boston. In 1899, he accompanied his distant cousin, the photographer Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), to London in order to help with the hanging of an exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society. In 1901 he returned to America where he opened his first studio on Fifth Avenue in New York, and, at the beginning of 1903, held his first solo exhibition at the Camera Club in New York. In 1904 he once more travelled to London where he befriended, and photographed, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). Shaw was influential in arranging other notable sitters for his friend, and over the next few years Coburn went on to photograph many great men of literature, including the American writer Henry James (1843-1916). 1906 saw an important one-man exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society of London, to which he was later invited to become a member, and in 1909 he set up his own press and studio at Hammersmith from where he produced high quality photogravures of his work. In 1912 Coburn married Edith Wightman Clement at Trinity Church, New York.
In 1913 Coburn published the first of his famous collections of portraits under the title Men of Mark . This would be followed by a companion volume called More Men of Mark in 1922. In 1916 a new chapter in his career began when he developed a kaleidoscopic device of prisms and mirrors that he fitted to a lens, so as to produce what are regarded as the first truly abstract photographs. He christened his invention the Vortoscope, and the resultant pictures he termed Vortographs. Between 1914 and 1921 he complied a portfolio of thirty-three portraits of famous composers and musicians which he intended to be published as a third volume, but which never came to fruition.
Coburn's association with Wales began in 1916 when he visited Harlech, Merionethshire, at the invitation of his close friend George Davison (1854-1930), Managing Director of Kodak Limited in Britain. Two years later he bought a plot of land upon which he built a small house, calling it 'Cae Besi'. After the publication of The Book of Harlech in 1920, for which he provided both illustrations and text, he began to become less actively involved in photography, though in 1924 he mounted another solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society.
It was during this period that Coburn started to turn more and more to esoteric groups in search of spiritual fulfilment. He joined the Theosophical Society in 1919, and shortly afterwards became initiated as a freemason, and, around 1920, he joined a British comparative religious group called The Universal Order. His deep interest in mysticism, and especially freemasonry, was to occupy the greatest part of the remainder of his life. Coburn did much research into the history of freemasonry, as well as on aspects of the occult and mysticism. He presented numerous lectures based on his findings to Masonic gatherings, travelling extensively throughout England and Wales. He also took a particular interest in the ceremonial rituals and rites performed, and in their origins and symbolism. He attained high office within several different orders, becoming the Inspector General, Thirty-third Degree, for North Wales of The Ancient and Accepted Rite in 1946 as well as the Provincial Grand Master of the Mark Degree for North Wales in 1952.
1927 saw Coburn made an honorary Ovate of the Gorsedd, being accepted into the order at the 1929 Eisteddfod held in Liverpool, and where he took the bardic name 'Mab-y-Tiroedd' (Son of the Triads). In 1931 he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, to which he had donated his large collection of photographs and associated material the previous year. In May 1932 he became a naturalised British subject. He left Harlech in 1945 and moved to Rhos-on-Sea, Denbighshire, mainly because of his wife's failing health. His beloved Edith died on 11 October 1957. In 1962 the most comprehensive exhibition of his work took place at the University of Reading, and in 1966, as well as the publication of his autobiography, his last solo exhibition took place at Colwyn Bay Library. Coburn died only thirteen days after the opening of this final exhibition on 23 November 1966.


Scope and content/abstract: The fonds comprises the personal papers of the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn and consists mainly of correspondence concerning his association with several orders of freemasonry, 1903-1966. There is also a small amount of correspondence relating to his work as a photographer, 1913-1965, mainly concerning lectures broadcast by the BBC, but also including letters relating to the sale, by Coburn, of a small collection of letters from the American writer Henry James. The fonds also consists of lectures and associated notes, again mainly concerning Coburn's interest in freemasonry, 1937-[1966], dealing particularly with its history and origins; a few lectures reflecting particular aspects of his career as a photographer, and on his approach to photography, 1924-[1966]; together with some printed material, 1924-1966, primarily circulars from various Masonic lodges concerning forthcoming events. Given Coburn's important contributions to photography there is surprisingly little material which is of direct relevance to this aspect of his life within the archive. The additional group of material consists mainly of correspondence and papers relating to the administration of the estate of Alvin Langdon Coburn following his death and includes copies of his will and codicil and a Probate document proved at Bangor.


Language/scripts of material: English , unless otherwise specified.

System of arrangement: Arranged at NLW into four series by record type: lectures and notes; correspondence; accumulated papers; and estate administration.

Conditions governing access: Readers consulting modern papers in the National Library of Wales are required to sign the 'Modern papers - data protection' form.

Conditions governing reproduction: Usual copyright laws apply.

Finding aids: A hard copy of this list is available at NLW and the catalogue can be accessed on-line.


Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information: All papers donated to NLW have been retained, with the exception of original newspaper cuttings which were photocopied prior to their destruction (see 3/2).

Accruals: Accruals are not expected.

Archival history: After Alvin Langdon Coburn's death in 1966, the papers were deposited with Edward Jones a'i Fab, solicitors, Blaenau Ffestiniog. Since no claim had been made on the papers, the archive was transferred to NLW in 2002.

Immediate source of acquisition: Donated by Mr Aled Ellis, Edward Jones a'i Fab, solicitors, Blaenau Ffestiniog per Mr Ceris Gruffudd, NLW, February 2002, February 2009, August 2010 and May 2013.


Related material: Printed works owned by Alvin Langdon Coburn are in NLW. Sixty-one photographs, together with other material, are in NLW, Special Collections. Coburn's personal collection of photographs, with accompanying catalogues, letters and press cuttings, are held by The Royal Photographic Society, Bath. See also file description 2/2.


Note: Fonds title supplied from provenance, series and file titles supplied from contents.

Archivist's note: Compiled by Ifan Prys Jones and Martin Robson Riley.
The following sources were used in the compilation of this description: Coburn, Alvin Langdon, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Photographer (London, 1966); Bellman, David, Quest for Beauty: Alvin Langdon Coburn : artist-photographer (Mold, 1994); Schriver, Janet, 'Alvin Langdon Coburn; The Silent Bard', History of Photography , Vol. 17 No. 3 Autumn 1993 (London, 1993).

Rules or conventions: This description follows NLW guidelines based on ISAD(G) Second Edition; AACR2; and LCSH.

Date(s) of descriptions: June 2002 and March 2014.

Freemasonry | Wales

Personal names
Coburn , Alvin Langdon , 1882-1966

Corporate names


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