High Society: Photographs 1897-1914 National Portrait Gallery, London
It is tempting to view the fin-de-siecle lifestyle of the British upper classes either with a sense of righteous indignation at such conspicuous consumption in the face of extreme social privation, or with a sigh - how naive their excesses are in the face of the horror of the First World War, just a few years away. The National Portrait Gallery's exhibition of society photographs taken between the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand has more than a hint of the latter (poignancy sells better). But its strength lies in its unfussy depiction of a time at once alien (is that really the Kaiser, standing between Queen Alexandra and his uncle King Edward VII, in a 1902 portrait at Sandringham?) but one that still holds endless fascination for its eccentricity and extravagance. And because the pages of Hello! are not so different.

The exhibition draws together recently discovered negatives from the three leading studios of the Edwardian era - Lafayette, H Walter Barnett and Bassano. Daguerrotype portraits had been fashionable in France since the 1850s, and the development of other processes, such as the collodion negative, led to a craze for the more economical carte de visite. There is, however, no sense of parsimony in this exhibition: photography was an integral part of Edwardian entertainment.

The Devonshire House ball of 1897 attracted society's most prestigious guests. Sumptuous prints show the great and good posing as historical figures, or after the style of fashionable painters: the Duke of Devonshire as Charles V, after the painting by Titian; Gladys, Countess de Grey as Cleopatra; Daisy, Princess of Hess as the Queen of Sheba; all stand with total self-confidence against intricately painted backgrounds.

The exhibition also documents faddish leisure pursuits: cycling, the motor car, ballooning: and charts the rise of the King's new establishment after his accession in 1910. Lloyd-George, AJ Balfour and an up-and-coming Winston Churchill share the stage with suffragettes, royal mistresses and the "actressocracy".

The most touching print in the exhibition is Rita Martin's portrait of seven-year-old Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, now the Queen Mother, but the photographs most indicative of the era are the fanciful historical confections of Henry Paget, fifth Marquess of Anglesey. We see him as Henry V, as Neptune, as Pekoe; hand-coloured prints of mesmerising gaudiness. His legendary spending bankrupted him, and he died before he was 30. The Bystander said of him: "His example will remain one of the strongest arguments against our hereditary system that the most ardent revolutionary would wish for." The artifice in his portraits is unashamed: it recognised that a public image could be manufactured. Photography was no longer the "pencil of nature".

Mark Wilson

To 21 June

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