Hamilton Revelle was the third of a trio of actor-photographers who infused Broadway portraiture with artistry in the first decades of the 20th century. Unlike Burr McIntosh and Frank C. Bangs, who at points in their careers ceased performing and lived by the lens, Revelle practiced the art as an amateur and achieved the highest level of artistry unconstrained by commercial necessity.
Born in Gibraltar, son of an English Army captain and a French Mediterranean woman, Revelle was a strikingly handsome child. During the family’s billeting at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Revelle became stage-struck to his father's dismay. He fled home, making his way to New York with nothing in his pocket and materialized on the steps of Charles Wyndham who had been a friend of Revelle's mother. Wyndham convinced producer Augustin Daly to take the 16-year-old boy on as a project.
Revelle's tumultuous dark hair, dark eyes, and elegantly sculpted face made him the image of the romantic hero. In his early twenties, he was playing lead to many of the great actresses of the early 20th century: Olga Nethersole, Lily Langtree, Mary Garden, Mrs. Fiske, Olga Petrova. In 1900 he and Olga Nethersole were arrested for "indecent postures, indecent suggestive language, against good morals, and indecent conduct portrayed before public audiences" in New York for the stairway scene in "Sapho." Their acquittal was a landmark in the American stage's resistance to censorship. In 1914 he became an international movie star, playing in sixteen productions in several countries, including important features for Columbia and Samuel Goldwyn.
During the actor's teen years, his godfather, Hamilton Aide, an author and artist, taught him watercolor landscape painting and the art of conversation. He became a noted raconteur and something of a dandy, with exquisite and fastidious tastes. He lived with his mother in a converted Elizabethan Tavern on the Thames, where they entertained the celebrities of stage and society in England until her death. He was obsessed about maintaining his youth, celebrating each birthday with sixteen candles on his cake, and subjecting himself to a lengthy daily regimen of grooming.
Revelle's intense interest in photography perhaps derived from the art's capacity to arrest beauty in timeless perfection. He began carrying his camera equipment with him everywhere and spent his days, before going to the theater in early evening, perfecting his technical mastery of the medium, in platinum, silver, and autochrome. He was an avid experimenter with various printing papers and popularized the print of works on parchment. His portraits were displayed in international salons regularly during the first decade of the 20th century. The Royal Photographic Society of London awarded him its gold medal for excellence in portraiture. While on tour, he carried a custom made French miniature camera with an extremely powerful lens that used negatives the size of a postage stamp.
Revelle retired from the stage with the 1921 hit production of "Captain Applejack" distressed that at age 49 he was beginning to show signs of aging. He resided in Monaco during his long retirement.
NOTES: "Hamilton Revelle’s Interesting Character," Boston Daily Globe (Nov 2, 1919), 60. "Breakfast with Hamilton Revelle," Boston Daily Globe (Dec 17, 1922). "Sapho in Police Court," NY Times (Feb 24, 1900), 7. "Hamilton Revelle’s Hobby," NY Times (May 26, 1912), X8. David S. Shields/ALS
An accomplished watercolorist, a capable pictorialist landscape photographer, Hamilton Revelle's great talent lay in the photographic distillation of character. Using a hand-sized camera with a state of the art lens, he could capture the spontaneity of back stage expression with greater swiftness and tact than any production photographer. Tirelessly experimental, with a penchant for making finished prints unique and gorgeous, he was the last photographic aesthete who had a reputation as a camera artist on Broadway. A resident of hotels during his stateside sojourns, Revelle lived in England, and later Monaco.