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Herschel's Paper

Herschel's Paper

The paper favoured by early photographers and explicitly recommended by Talbot was that manufactured by the successors of J. Whatman, whose watermark or countermark is the most famous and respected in the history of British paper manufacturing. It became the paper of choice in 18th- and 19th-century Britain and America both for handwritten official documents and for art and fine printing. The watermark is sometimes 'J Whatman / date' and sometimes 'J Whatman / Turkey Mill / date'. A complete example of the latter, dated 1838, is found in the sheet of paper used by Herschel as the wrapper for packet 25 (in the Museum's numbering) of his photographic experiments (51764). A number of Herschel's actual experiments show part of a Whatman watermark, also usually dated 1838 (51478, 62335). So do Talbot's (98504); and Robert Hunt also used it (34450).

Anna Atkins's cyanotype herbarium issued in 1843 is made on Whatman watermarked paper dated 1842 and 1843 (11887). Early calotype photographers, such as Hill and Adamson and Charles Piazzi Smyth (11894, ff.114-5), generally followed Talbot's advice and used Whatman paper; though for pictorial purposes they also usually heeded his advice to avoid the watermark coinciding with the image. Though he did not always heed it himself, his print of the photograph of the Oxford Botanic Garden (31601) having a full Whatman 1840 watermark. The colouring imparted to the paper by photographic chemistry sometimes made the watermark more obtrusive, especially in dark negatives (as in 98504, and 11937 among the calotypes of John Thomson RN).

The Whatman business was founded by James Whatman (1702-1759) in the 1730s. Their paper mill near Maidstone, Kent, was called Turkey Mill. Whatman's traditional 'laid' paper quickly gained a high reputation. He then became (in 1756) the first European manufacturer of 'wove' paper, which was smoother and finer and avoided the linear structural markings of traditional paper. Whatman's son of the same name (1741-1798) developed a market for wove paper among artists and printers. He sold the business in 1794, with the rights to continue using the by then famous 'J Whatman' name and watermark. 'Whatman Paper' is still made, and favoured especially for fine art purposes, though there is also a variety used for medical filtration.

Talbot and his fellow photographic pioneers were well aware that the paper could affect the appearance and even the chemistry of their photographs. Unlike with glass or film, or even albumen and gelatine prints, where photographic chemistry and image are contained in an emulsion that adheres to the surface, the photogenic drawing and calotype (and other non-coated paper processes) hold the chemistry and thus the image in the upper fibres of the paper itself. The paper thus played a part in the photo-chemical process and affected the quality or colouring of the end product. The manufacturing processes of the paper, its impurities, and especially its treatments during manufacture (with sizes, bleaches, etc.), were all relevant variables and part of the chemical amalgam. So too were its tinctures (faintly blue or yellow etc.), as well as its weight or thickness. Wove paper was obviously preferable for photographic purposes for its lack of distracting structural markings, its smoothness, and its more even translucency.

Herschel's experiments and associated papers as preserved in the Oxford collection clearly illustrate this concern with paper type. They include several packets of raw papers, cut to size ready for use, and carefully identified on the wrappers: 'Yellow wove Post alias Ingalton's Smooth Demy' (packet 3, containing 18 pieces), 'Blue Wove Post' (packets 4 and 5, 21 and 14 pieces respectively), 'Thin Foreign Post' (packet 6, 22 pieces), 'Wove writing Demy' (packet 7, 24 pieces). The latter includes the watermark 'B & T S 1832', also found on two experimental photographs (43534 and 73401). Ingalton is also a manufacturer's name found elsewhere, such as in Herschel's annotation to one of the ageing test specimens (54118) and in the embossed crown logo on one of the letter fragments used as spacers (34848). Ingalton's smooth wove paper was thus also his normal letter-writing paper. Several other incomplete watermarks appear on Herschel experiments (56930, 59306, 97670), together with 'Romsey Mill' on a scrap paper (15863, 86677) and an older 'Rye Mill 1815' watermark on one of the wrappers (88256).

Clearly he tried a variety of paper differing chiefly by weight and colour, as well as by manufacturer. Increasingly during his 1839 experiments, looking at the problem of making adequate positive prints from the negatives, or rather making negatives sufficiently translucent to produce adequate positives, he moved towards a very thin, unwatermarked wove paper for negative photogenic drawings. Doubling them (using two negatives on thin paper attached together) was one desparate technique to exploit their translucency while increasing the solidity of the dark areas and lines; though apparently it was also a remedy to the tendency of the very thinnest papers to have minute holes (see narrative to 27282 and 87974). Photographs could also be made of course on stiff paper or card, so long as translucency was not required, and several experimental examples of that occur too (such as 15672, and Talbot's 49660).

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