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Daubeny's 'Specimens of Drawings'

Daubeny's 'Specimens of Drawings'

The first person to introduce photography to Oxford was Charles Daubeny (1795-1867), who showed specimens of photogenic drawings to fellow members of the Ashmolean Society, the university's senior scientific society, in 1839. In all probability they were lent or given to him by the inventor W. H. Fox Talbot (1800-1877), with whom he was acquainted. From 1842 Daubeny included a brief description of photography in his wide-ranging general chemistry course, and illustrated it by means of two framed specimens of each of the two processes, daguerreotype and calotype. In the 1861 printed list of Daubeny's chemical apparatus and teaching materials these important early photographs are listed merely as 'Photographic apparatus, with specimens of drawings' (page 3).

Daubeny was professor of chemistry at Oxford from 1822 to 1854, and continued to teach science at Magdalen College and to provide a foundation course of chemistry lectures open to all students until shortly before his death in 1867. From 1834 he was also professor of botany, and built himself a house at the Botanic Garden. The university's chemical laboratory was situated in the basement of the Ashmolean Museum (the Old Ashmolean, now the Museum of the History of Science), so it was there that his photographic specimens were first shown. In 1848 he brought his chemical and botanical activities together in a new laboratory at the Botanic Garden, which afterwards became Magdalen's college laboratory, known as the Daubeny Laboratory. The Old Ashmolean laboratory was then used by Daubeny's assistant Nevil Story-Maskelyne (1823-1911), himself a pioneer calotype photographer. A photograph of Daubeny's successor as chemistry professor, B. C. Brodie junior, is attributed to Story-Maskelyne (32782). Like the earliest photograph of Daubeny (47838), it shows him with a chemical balance, symbolic of a modern, precision approach to his science. (For other portraits of Daubeny see 37061, 63304, and the younger lithograph 41443; for more about the beginnings of photography in Oxford see narrative entitled 'The Beginnings of Photography in Oxford'.)

Daubeny's two 'specimens of drawings' showing Talbot's process (31601 and 37304) consist of salted paper prints from calotype negatives in contemporary frames, the wooden backing board of each bearing a paper label inscribed 'Calotyped at Oxford | July 30. 1842 | H. F. Talbot'. The writing has been compared to Talbot's and is the authentic hand of the inventor himself, typical of his neat-writing style and his usual manner of signature. It is important to be certain of this, because it means that the framing is original too - and early calotypes not simply by Talbot but framed by him or under his personal supervision are an exceptional rarity (or possibly even unique). Indeed the propensity of the process to fade was well appreciated, so that salted paper prints (calotype positives) were generally kept in portfolios or albums, and very seldom framed for hanging. It was Daubeny's unusual requirement for something to display to his chemistry class that gave rise to these framed examples; perhaps also he wished to make them consistent with and comparable to the pair of framed daguerreotypes that he already had.

Talbot's photographs were taken on a visit to Daubeny on July 30, 1842, just over a year after Talbot's Royal Society paper had published details of the calotype process, which he had patented on February 8, 1841. His crucial discovery of the latent image phenomenon and its capability of being developed, hugely increasing the sensitivity and speed of the photographic process, occurred in September 1840, and was fundamental to most subsequent advances in photographic chemistry (though for Herschel's anticipation of this discovery see for instance 43358 and 78062).

Talbot took a number of photographs in Oxford at different times. A view of Queens Lane from a position near to the Botanic Garden is the opening image in his famous book The Pencil of Nature (1844-46). Both of Daubeny's photographs were taken inside the Botanic Garden. One (31601) shows the Danby Gate, its 17th-century entrance (left), and Daubeny's recently-built residence (right). Both, especially this one, show a little of the layout and garden furniture (urns etc.); while one of the most significant things they record is the glass-houses, which were an important innovation of Daubeny's. The other photograph (37304) continues to the left (the glass-houses on the right of 37304 and left of 31601 are the same), but from a different angle and from a little deeper into the garden. It shows the modern garden buildings and the glass-houses, with Magdalen College's imposing 15th-century tower beyond. It may well be the earliest photograph of this famous Oxford landmark, which greets visitors from the London direction and was later used by the Oxford photographer Henry Taunt as the title view in one of his series of lantern slides (92027).

Although Talbot had a good eye for composition and a well thought-out pictorial agenda or philosophy for photography, the photograph containing Magdalen College tower comits one of the cardinal errors of photographic composition and perspective, in making the background tower seem to rise from the foreground building. It looks falsely like an old church. Even this error or misjudgement on Talbot's part may give the image a place in photographic history however. For the human eye, or rather eyes, seeing in three dimensions, are not deceived in the same way - like converging verticals and similar photographic bugbears, photography had to be invented and put through its paces before such problems could be diagnosed. The camera's reduction to two dimensions of the impressive view from the Oxford Botanic Garden on this summer's day of 1842 has discovered an unanticipated problem in the syntax of photographic representation.

Talbot's calotypes sit unmounted within their frames, against the wooden backing boards. The backing boards are painted black on the inside, and both are now warped. One of the ensembles (31601) had at some time been affected by damp, causing parts of the photograph to stick to the board and absorb a large amount of black staining, seriously defacing the image. The print was separated and washed in about 1988, and some of the most offensive dark staining successfully removed.

One reason Daubeny may have wanted his specimen 'talbotypes' to be framed may have been that he already had his specimen daguerreotypes, which came to him framed. The two daguerreotypes (11950 and 89963) are certainly older. Among their primitive characteristics are that they are laterally reversed, which by 1842 was routinely corrected within the camera; and they are not gold toned, which became widely used for strengthening and darkening the finished image of daguerreotypes. They are full-plate size, which was much less commonly used for daguerreotypes after the early demonstrations of the process in 1839-40. And they originate entirely - including frames, mounting, and even their hand-written captions - in France. By 1842 sample daguerreotypes could easily have been procured from London, or from Oxford itself, the first photographic (daguerreotype) studio there being opened in that year. It seems reasonable to conclude that these two early daguerreotypes dating from 1839 or 1840 came to England from Paris before such things were available from English suppliers.

The themes of the two daguerreotypes indeed resonate with the excitement and national pride that accompanied the first announcements of photography's invention in 1839. The significance of the Chambre des Députés (11950) - not perhaps one of Paris's most famous or photogenic buildings - is that this was the scene of some the earliest reports of Daguerre's invention, and where its acquisition by the French government in return for rewards to the inventors was debated, championed by the leading French scientist Arago, a member of the Chamber. On June 15, 1839 the Chambre des Députés conferred state pensions on Daguerre and the heir of Niepce. This surely explains its inclusion alongside France's premier architectural monument, the west front of the cathedral of Notre Dame (89963).

The copper plates bearing both images are marked with the name Lerebours, indicating that they come from the atelier of N. M. P. Lerebours (1807-1873), one of the first of the Paris optical specialists to join the daguerreotype bandwagon. Soon after Daguerre's process was made public in August 1839 Lerebours was marketing the chemicals and apparatus necessary. He was also taking, commissioning, and selling photographs, one of his projects being to publish a series of topographical and travel engravings copied from daguerreotypes. Excursions Daguerriennes appeared in parts between 1840 and 1843. The first landmarks to be photographed were those nearest home of course; and Daubeny's view of Notre Dame is one of them. The engraving in Excursions Daguerriennes is either copied from it or copied from a sister photograph taken at nearly the same time; only the shadows differ.

Because of the extremely smooth resolution of its surface of silvered copper, compared to the relatively coarse texture of paper, the daguerreotype was capable of registering a huge amount of fine detail, and a building such as Notre Dame was a perfect test and sample of this capability. The image is also in a good state of preservation. The Chambre des Députés has not survived so well; indeed the image is barely discernible. It has at some time suffered the indignity of being wiped or even polished, a temptation that has destroyed the delicate image surface of many daguerreotypes. Luckily the image does survive, if the correct viewing conditions are attained, and was successfully photographed during conservation in 1988.

Within their frames, the copper daguerreotype plates were attached to their card mats or masks with blobs of contemporary sealing wax. Again the Notre Dame has fared better than the Chambre des Députés, whose over-zealous cleaner detached the wax fixings and replaced them with sellotape, and also replaced the outer backing paper. The Notre Dame daguerreotype retains most of its original features, including an original hanging hook on the top edge of the frame, and the framer's printed label on the back - 'Faubonne, doreur sur bois, en meubles et batimens, ... a Paris'.

We may never know for certain how Daubeny came to possess these two very early Lerebours daguerreotypes, framed and captioned in Paris. One attractive and plausible theory, which does not conflict with any of their various characteristics, identifies them with the first daguerreotypes to be seen in Oxford, as well as giving them a unique place in the history of photography and art, if it be so. The story is that John Ruskin, when he was a student, in or about 1840, sent to Paris for specimens of the wonderful French invention he had heard about. They were duly sent to him in Oxford, where daguerreotypes had not yet been seen (the first public displays had occurred in September 1839 in Paris and London). Most early viewers were impressed by the crisp detail of daguerreotypes, and their superiority in this respect to Talbot's photogenic drawings. But although Ruskin's interest later revived, and he later used and may even have taken daguerreotypes (such as 73580), it was of no immediate relevance to him at the time, and during much of 1840-41 he was in poor health and away from Oxford.

Ruskin was however one of those who attended Daubeny's chemistry lectures, along with his friends Henry Liddell and Henry Acland, of whom Acland in particular, aiming for a medical career, was very much a Daubeny protégé. What more natural, having satisfied his curiosity, than for Ruskin to have passed on the daguerreotypes sent to him from Paris to the chemistry professor who had told them about Talbot's and Daguerre's inventions and was (as we know Daubeny was) always eager to add to his collection the latest chemical discovery, invention, or apparatus? Or alternatively, Ruskin may have left them with Acland, who for the same reasons might naturally have passed them on to Daubeny. This theory gains credibility because it arises not from an attempt to make the Oxford daguerreotypes seem more important - they are sufficiently interesting without it - but from seeking to explain how it was that Daubeny came to have in his possession two such early French specimens, and why in 1842 Talbot supplied him with two framed calotypes to go with them.

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