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Herschel's Christie Letter

Herschel's Christie Letter

The so-called 'Christie letter' (packet 34 in the Museum's numbering) contains the largest group (62 items) of specimens from Sir John Herschel's 1839-44 experiments, and the only group that is entirely miscellaneous and drawn from different dates and phases within this period. It has been given this name (originally by Schultze) from the addressee of the letter-cover that forms the wrapper, with the inevitable implication that the cover's original inscription relates to the contents. However, the re-use throughout the Herschel collection of scrap paper, including other letter-covers and even part of an earlier draft letter (which may in fact be to Christie; see 34848), robs the assumption of confidence. In fact Herschel has crossed Christie's name and address out and added his own title, as would be expected in re-using scrap paper. All we can say for certain is that the cover of a letter which Herschel sent to Christie on December 21, 1842 has somehow come back into Herschel's possession and been re-used to contain a large group of his experimental photographs.

The letter-cover is just an ordinary piece of paper folded, and sealed for purposes of posting with a wax seal (as was normal; pre-folded and gummed envelopes were a new thing at about this time). It is addressed to S. H. Christie, Secretary of the Royal Society, at Somerset House, London. It bears an unperforated tuppeny-blue stamp, red wax seal, and three postmarks in addition to the stamp cancellation, two of them dated December 21 and 22, 1842. Herschel has later (most probably in 1843 or 1844) entitled the packet 'J.F.W.H. -- | Photographic Specimens | ...' followed by a longer line of writing so heavily crossed out that it is illegible.

Samuel Hunter Christie (1784-1865) was a physicist, and one of the Royal Society's secretaries (an academic office held by a fellow) from 1837 to 1854. Christie's son later became Astronomer Royal. Christie was a friend of Herschel's and they shared a number of scientific interests, collaborating (for instance) at this very period in arranging for government-sponsored research in terrestrial magnetism (see narrative to Charles Piazzi Smyth's calotypes 11894). Christie and Herschel thus exchanged correspondence on various scientific matters.

Schultze implies that the letter-cover may originally have contained a postscript or addendum to Herschel's third and last Royal Society paper on photography, published in 1843, the postscript as published being dated December 21, 1842. The coincidence of dates is too striking to leave much room for other theories. Though ironically the explanation undermines the notion promoted by Schultze's use of the term 'Christie letter', that the wrapper originally contained photographs when sent to Christie, as there seems little reason why photographs should have been enclosed with this postscript. The subject of the additional note was actually Herschel's spectrum experiments (see narrative to 13106).

A two-penny (2d) stamp when the postal rate was one penny per half-ounce indicates that the 'letter' did contain something heavier than merely a letter on a single piece of paper. That of course is likely, it probably contained a letter plus the postscript written on one or more sheets. The fact that it came back into Herschel's possession is the intriguing thing however. It indicates that Christie returned it, perhaps by hand at a Society meeting in 1843, perhaps containing something borrowed or some document, if not (as seems unlikely) the manuscript that had originally come in it.

The something borrowed might perhaps have been photographs. Herschel's Royal Society papers were certainly accompanied by the showing of specimens (one of the main groups of Herschel's experiments existing outside the Oxford collection belongs to the Royal Society), and Herschel's letters show that he was also in the habit of leaving specimens with the assistant secretary (J. D. Roberton), merely to stimulate or satisfy interest. Being the only packet or section among the 34 original sections (plus a few loose items) of the Herschel experimental photographs to contain entirely miscellaneous specimens, and specimens of greatly different dates (spanning the whole period of Herschel's photographic researches, 1839-44), the present contents of the Christie wrapper may well be thought the kind of selected miscellany Herschel may have shown at one of his Royal Society talks, or have lent to an interested colleague. The final talk (published in 1843, and to which the postscript was an addition) had taken place on November xxx, 1842. These considerations certainly allow for the possibility that the Christie letter-cover did originally contain some of these photographs, not so much when sent to Christie as when returned by Christie to Herschel, justifying the name that Schultze gave it.

It could not, however, in December 1842 or used later to return specimens displayed in November 1842, have contained all of them, as later specimens are also present. They include the 'vapour images' unique to 1843, and also the only experiment in the collection bearing an 1844 date (xxx). Also among them, incongruously, is Talbot's 1839 photomicrograph of lace (79213). The contents of the 'Christie letter' packet have other distinctive if contradictory characteristics. All the chrysotypes come from this group, which is one of the 1842 inventions and thus perfectly consistent with being displayed in November 1842; yet there are few cyanotypes, the other highlight of 1842. Curiously, 1841 samples (such as phytotypes) seem to be entirely absent.

The classified and carefully labelled arrangement of most of Herschel's experimental photographs reflects the care and efficiency with which Herschel conducted and recorded the experiments themselves, and the relevance of keeping and labelling specimens in order to make comparisons and monitor short-term changes. Once Herschel's photographic activities ceased and he returned to astronomy and other occupations, after 1843, the order or tidiness of the collection had little importance. Another packet (91242, packet 32) also represents specimens extracted and either lent to someone or exhibited at a meeting near or after the end of Herschel's research; these too have been kept in the folder to which they were extracted rather than returned to their original packet.

Something of this kind - one or several groups of extracts which it was no longer necessary or relevant to put back in their original packets - obviously explains the large miscellaneous group contained in the Christie wrapper, even if S. H. Christie and the wrapper are themselves red herrings and have no original connection to the contents. No firm conclusion can thus be drawn about the purpose for which Herschel segregated this large number of miscellaneous specimens, nor about the relationship if any between the contents and the piece of paper that has been used to wrap them; but Schultze's implicit characterisation of the whole ensemble as a 'Christie letter' is almost certainly irrelevant.

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