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Calotypes Attributed to John Thomson RN

Calotypes Attributed to John Thomson RN

A group of 19 early paper photographs, mostly negatives, was given by the Oxford professor of human anatomy Arthur Thomson to his technician Mr W. Chesterman, and given by him to the Museum in 1937, noting that they had belonged to Professor Thomson's father. Professor Thomson was born in Edinburgh in 1858, the youngest son of John Thomson, RN, a naval surgeon. Little else is known about this person. Although the photographs are varied in appearance and subject matter, the extremely low probability that someone of this generation would have collected photographic negatives by others leaves us with the working hypothesis that John Thomson RN is himself the photographer, and a hitherto unknown amateur calotypist of no mean accomplishment.

Military and medical men are both typical of those who took up photography in the first generation. Some degree of education and affluence is usual; these can be assumed not only from his skilled profession, but from the fact that John Thomson sent even his youngest son to university. In an age of large families, a youngest son born in 1858 might suggest for the father an approximate date of birth in the decade 1810-20, placing him at the right age to hear of the invention of photography in 1839 and become an adherent of the calotype fashion in the mid 1840s. The fashion's particular hold in Scotland led to a disproportionate number of early Scottish practitioners, and incidentally of early Scottish practitioners named John Thom(p)son. John Thomson RN is certainly not the famous Edinburgh-born photographer John Thomson (1837-1921), who took pioneering photographs in London and China; and presumably he is not the Edinburgh commercial photographer John Thomson (1804-1881), at one time in partnership with James Ross; nor does he appear to be the John Thomson of Leith, a wine merchant or wine merchant's son, whose early (1839) photography scrapbook the Museum has (from an unrelated source).

As stated, the photographs are varied in subject, although most of them are landscapes or groups of buildings, and none are portraits. None have inscriptions to help identify or date them, though they belong within the period 1845 to 1855. A view of a port or harbour is obviously oriental or middle-eastern, from the style of houses that form the harbour town (11935). Ruined classical columns are likewise presumably in the Mediterranean or Middle East (11930 and 11922). The recording of such locations would naturally be one of photography's chief attractions to a naval man.

By contrast a series of views of a village beneath hills have a distinctly English flavour (11852, 11936): the place could perhaps be in Scotland, but it looks like a typical northern English Pennine village. A view of a church (11937) may be in the same place. This negative has added interest from the presence of a 'J Whatman | Turkey Mill' watermark (see narrative accompanying 11937), though unfortunately the date that follows the watermark is cut off at the edge of the paper, depriving us of the one opportunity of discovering a more exact date for these photographs. There are also two views (essentially the same, 11933 and 11934) of an urban or suburban residential street; and another pair of a similar but different urban street, with shops (11924 and 11925, one with and one without a small cart). Such repeated or closely similar negatives suggest a photographer taking great care with either (or both) the composition or the technical quality of his photographs.

A very attractively composed view of a country-house driveway surrounded by trees, or the entrance to a park, with posed figures, as well as having again two very similar negatives (11926, 66697), is also accompanied by a contemporary salted paper print (97053; the narrative under this number discusses its pictorial and artistic merits further). It is one of the few photographs in the group to contain figures, which along with the presence of the positive print might suggest it had some importance to the owner. It is possible that one of the men shown is John Thomson RN; this would not preclude his also being the photographer (if he had an assistant to remove and replace the lens cover).

Another unusual and interesting photograph is a negative of a sleeping dog (95134). Early photographs of pet animals are uncommon, for obvious reasons. It is a genuine calotype negative; but it is not clear if it is a direct camera negative or a copy of some kind, as the dark border is contrary to expectations for a camera image. However the image itself is certainly photographic (not a painting or engraving, in other words), so if it is a copy it is a copy of a contemporary photograph.

Most intriguing of all is a print (11923, of which there is no negative) of a small building, seemingly set amidst mountains, or possibly by a coast, marked 'Tun Photographic Rooms' (in bold lettering on the front of the building). A rich person's carriage, with horses, mounted driver, postillion, and (seemingly) rich persons inside, is parked at the front, as if that more than the building were the subject; several figures or bystanders stand near the doorway. The single-storey building has a colonial appearance, though the style could equally be that of a lodge or toll-house. Likewise the mountain landscape could be British or foreign. No places called Tun can be found - the name sounds as likely to be Asian as Scottish - nor alternative meanings suggested for it. It remains a mystery, but again its presence tempts us to assume a special relevance to the owner, and thus perhaps a connection between John Thomson and the Tun Photographic Rooms.

It is one of three positive prints among a group chiefly of paper negatives. One of them is the conventional salted paper print of the driveway or park, mentioned above; the other is an early albumen print (invented in 1850) of one of the ruined classical columns (11922). The Tun Photographic Rooms print is different from either, and may represent a transitional technique of some kind. It is on coated paper, and is therefore presumably albumenised; but in other respects it has the appearance of a salted paper print, and is purplish in colour, with relatively whitish highlights. Its top corners have been cut to a rounded shape, with the intention of mounting it on card or in an album.

The 'meaning' of a group of early photographs like this is inherently ambiguous. Even accepting the logical probability that they are the work of one photographer, the likelihood in such cases is that they are not the selected cream of the photographer's oeuvre but a residual group of leftovers, only recognised as worthy of preservation at a much later date. Most negatives from the great age of paper and glass photography have been discarded. Prints stood more chance of being treasured, and were usually placed in albums, though even these have not necessarily survived the posthumous bonfire. So extremely interesting as they are, especially if they represent the work of an otherwise undocumented early calotype photographer, a handful of miscellaneous loose paper negatives such as these is almost certainly an accidental and unrepresentative survival.

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