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Sphere No. 8: Thomas Sutton Panoramic Camera Lens

Autumn, 1998

IN seeking spheres for this column, one would perhaps not immediately think of looking among a collection of historic cameras. Even if one were to do so, examples of spheres would not be very easy to find: granted, cameras lenses are candidates in theory, but most are in fact complex combinations of lenses of different shapes, convex, concave, and asymmetrical, often in achromatic pairs. However, the Museum’s collection of cameras and accessories contains one very notable exception to this rule: a perfectly spherical photographic lens made in the early 1860s to the design of Thomas Sutton.

Sutton’s lens was a novel solution to the problem of taking panoramic pictures. Most conventional cameras have an angle of view of about 40 to 55°. This is of course quite adequate for most subjects but not for taking photographs of large groups of people or of large buildings, when a wide-angle view is required.

Panoramic photographs go back to the very beginning of photography in the early 1840s. The photographic pioneer W. H. Fox Talbot made panoramas by gluing together several photographs taken with his camera by rotating it carefully on its tripod mount. Later, when cameras using roll film became the vogue, special tripod heads were manufactured for producing panoramic vistas by exactly the same means.

This technique, however, only works for totally static views. Where there is the possibility that the subject might walk out of the frame, less ponderous techniques were required. Two that became almost immediately popular were the use of cameras with rotating or swivelling lenses and fixed backs, and rotating cameras with moving plates or with moving film.

While the Museum’s collection does not contain any cameras with moving film, several rotating-lens cameras are represented, most made by Kodak at the turn of the century. Kodak manufactured a number of models of camera with moving lenses in large quantities up to the late twenties. All are essentially large box cameras in which a clockwork-driven lens moves in a 142° arc. They used roll film, which had to be secured in a curve at the back of the box to ensure that the entire scene was in focus.

A third technique for creating panoramic photographs is by using a wide-angle lens. Because of its demands on the technology of lens design and manufacture, this was the most challenging. The lens in the Museum’s collection is a specimen of the earliest panoramic wide-angle lens ever produced, patented by Sutton on the 28th September, 1859. It consists of two glass hemispheres in brass mounts, 80 mm in diameter. At the centre is a hollow cavity, 36 mm in diameter, which would have been filled with water. Very few such lenses have survived.

Thomas Sutton (1819-1875) graduated twenty-seventh Wrangler at Cambridge University in 1846. The following year he moved to Jersey where he opened a well-known photographic studio under the patronage of Prince Albert. In 1856 he founded the magazine Photographic Notes. Apart from his liquid lens, Sutton invented the first reflex camera in 1861 and also worked on the development of dry photographic plates, an innovation often associated with Richard Leach Maddox. He returned to England in 1874 and died at Pwllheli in Wales in the following year.

For his panoramic lens, Sutton was initially inspired by one of the ‘snowstorm’ souvenirs popular with the Victorian tourist. With one brought home from Paris, he observed how images were projected onto the curved glass surface by light passing through the water-filled sphere. This led to his discovery that a sphere of glass filled with water could be made into a wide-angle lens.

In order to make it more suited to photography, Sutton introduced into the centre of his lens a butterfly-shaped diaphragm to equalize the exposure over the whole angular field. The field of view could be up to 120°, but was reduced somewhat to cut down on distortion caused by spherical and chromatic aberrations.

The London camera maker, Frederick Cox, began the manufacture of Sutton’s lens and a camera for use with it in January 1860. By November Cox was advertising the camera as being available in four sizes, of which the most expensive, using curved photographic plates of 6 × 15 inches, cost £26. However, the manufacture of the water-filled lenses gave Cox many difficulties and he sold very few cameras, perhaps not more than half a dozen.

In January 1861 Sutton announced that the manufacture of his lens would be taken over by Thomas Ross, one of the earliest members of the Royal Photographic Society, operating at that time from the Featherstone Buildings in High Holborn. Ross had his first panoramic camera ready by the beginning of May 1861, with a considerably improved lens.

Ross purchased Sutton’s lens patent from him in August and by November was advertising the camera in a total of three different sizes. He was evidently proud of his achievement, choosing to describe the camera in a lecture to the Royal Photographic Society on the 3rd December, but his sales may not have been much better than Cox’s. The London firm of Bland & Co subsequently advertised the camera and kit, but they ceased business in 1864, when their entire stock of photographic material and optical and meteorological instruments was taken over by Negretti and Zambra.

The panoramic camera in the Museum’s collection is signed ‘Sutton’s Patent Panoramic Lens, made by T. ROSS, London. N1 234’. Apart from its curved back, with curved focusing screen, plate holder and glass plate, it is essentially just a conventional mahogany box camera, 250 × 270 × 210 mm in size. This was the smallest in Ross’s range and sold for £22.

The lens is fitted with a central stop of f12 and the shutter is of a very simple construction, consisting of a mahogany flap that hinges in front of the lens. Focusing is by means of a screw situated at the back, and there are spirit levels to ensure that the camera is horizontal. The kit supplied by Ross included a tripod and carrying case, curved sensitizing baths and twelve glass plates. Panoramic prints on paper were made from the glass negatives by using a curved printing frame.

One of Ross’s first customers was Camille Silvy, aristocrat, diplomat and keen amateur photographer turned professional. While on diplomatic service in London in 1859, Silvy bought a grand house in Porchester Terrace which he turned into a fashionable portrait studio, becoming one of the most sought-after society photographers. Cecil Beaton gave him the title the ‘Gainsborough of commercial photographers’ and high society vied to be among his sitters.

Silvy was noted for his use of innovative techniques, not just in portrait work but in landscape photography. One technique that he exploited was to combine different negatives for the sky and the ground in the creation of artistic scenes. Panoramic photography was therefore a natural choice for him to experiment with.

Although little is currently known about the work Silvy undertook, he must have viewed it as having some promise, since in 1867 he patented a roll film holder for the Ross camera, an example of which is preserved in the collections of the National Museum of Science and Industry. By using roll film he would have been able to circumvent many of the problems inherent in curved glass plates and thus open up fully the creative possibilities that Sutton’s panoramic lens had to offer.

W. D. H.