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Herschel's Engravings

Herschel's Engravings

Preserved with Sir John Herschel's photographic experiments are a considerable number (54) of the small engraved prints that he used as test objects for contact copying. Not all the prints preserved are represented in surviving photographs (in particular, little use was made of the slightly larger prints); and not all pictures shown in surviving photographs are now found among the prints. But most of those he used most frequently are present. On first consideration they may seem of only peripheral relevance compared to the important experiments in photographic chemistry that they accompany. But in fact they are capable of provoking discussion and research in several different directions.

The most important point to stress about them, though the easiest to disregard, is that their presence elevates Herschel's work to the level of true scientific experiments. No chemical or biological experiment is valid without a control; no scientific discovery is valid unless it can be repeated by others. The engravings provide repeatability, and a kind of control, against which the experimental results can be judged. It is not just the obvious point, that the original is kept for comparison with the copy. Herschel's experiments cover a wide range of different chemical processes, and also of different procedural processes - re-copying the negative, direct positive, bleaching and reviving. In all these experiments over several years, some of the same prints were used repeatedly, providing a consistent comparative test on the ability of the different techniques to render a faithful copy of the original.

The early photographic pioneers and experimenters tended to envisage photography becoming a new method of copying and multiplying prints. That Herschel experimented almost exclusively with contact copying prints (while other experimenters preferred leaves and plants and pieces of lace, and of course camera images) was first and foremost a scientific decision. Even so, his work reflects the prevailing expectation that photography's future would be principally as a new print-making technology. Indirectly the invention of photography did quickly influence traditional printing. Photolithography was invented while Herschel was doing his experiments; two specimens of very early photolithographic printing (dated 1842) were acquired by Herschel and kept with his photographic experiments (42737 and 90088). Meanwhile several French pioneers tried to turn daguerreotypes into etched printing plates; and Talbot and others proceeded to work on photo-mechanical processes that became the basis of halftone and photogravure.

It is impossible to look through Herschel's experimental photogenic drawings and the original prints of which they are copies without feeling that they represent a distinctive pictorial taste. Perhaps it is no more than the taste of the period; in fact the high quality of the engravings he chose makes them, fortuitously, a fine little collection of the best work of his day. But inevitably Herschel's selection was subjective and betrays predilections for certain styles or genres or subjects. He evidently liked pictures of elegant ladies, and of Italianate or middle-eastern landscapes. That his ladies are very pretty may be no less important than that the contrast in their white faces and black hair, and the details in their ringlets and lacey frocks, provide the kind of challenge that photography must master in order to be viable. That his landscapes are usually framed by trees with distant hills, sea, or setting sun (or all three) gives them a similar appropriateness.

In some instances Herschel delicately retouched these significant features in the experimental copies (hair, lacey frock, setting sun, clouds), and occasionally even in the engravings themselves (29622 and 56241). Such retouching clearly indicates his awareness that to be successful the photogenic drawing process, which had serious limitations in this regard (especially compared to the daguerreotype), must be made sufficiently sensitive to register these details, and sufficiently clean at the end of the process to preserve delicate lines and white highlights. In some senses this was the experimental goal he had set himself at the beginning of 1839. Evidence that he used the engravings very deliberately to provide this challenge and deferred to their features in his inspection of the results is provided in a few annotations, where he refers specifically to things like 'The tall outstanding tree' (95542, copied from engraving 60353) and 'the hair ... the dark shades of the dress ...' (46015, copied from engraving 63470).

Herschel was a talented artist in his own right and had done many drawings aided by the camera lucida. Two drawings by him are found among his experiments (11888 and 83403), where they served the same purpose as the engravings, as test objects for photographic copying. The latter (83403), a drawing of fir trees in negative tones, is unique in having been made specially for this purpose. Later photographers with artistic aspirations, including Julia Margaret Cameron (see 47848) and the French calotypist and scientist Victor Regnault, acknowledged Herschel as influencing their work, and they did not just mean scientifically. Talbot of course promoted photography as an artistic medium very directly, suggesting and illustrating its various pictorial possibilities. By some more subtle means, while never becoming a proper photographer himself, Herschel too mediated certain aspects of pictorial taste to the early amateur and artistic photographers. One could almost say that his pictorial taste, or his collection of engravings, represents the basis, in pictorial style, from which the stylistic repertoire peculiar to photography began.

The source of most of the engravings is illustrated part-works published serially and very fashionable in the first decades of the 19th century. They were generally literary works in fashionable genres (such as Sir Walter Scott), and works of travel, history, or biography, chiefly valued for their high-quality engraved illustrations. Talented artists, some of whom were to become famous (such as Turner), worked for this market. The illustrations in these part-works were printed on separate sheets (not incorporated into the text), and were thus collected in their own right and often framed; but for Herschel's purpose what was important was that they were blank on the back. We know the source of at least some of Herschel's prints, because the home-made envelopes or packets that contain some of the experimental photographs are made of covers from one of these serial works (see 24319, 83758, 92152) - The Rhine, Italy, & Greece Illustrated, by various well-known illustrators of the time, with text by G. N. Wright, published in 1841 by Fisher, Son, & Co.

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