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Herschel's February 7th

Herschel's February 7th

The earliest dated item among Sir John Herschel's photographic experiments is inscribed by Herschel 'Feb. 7/39'. It is unexceptional of itself, and by no means his earliest experiment -- he began a week earlier, on January 29, and it is quite likely that experimental photogenic drawings made between January 29 and February 7, but undated, exist in the collection. Perhaps, as he perceived that the work might continue longer than anticipated, he commenced the practice of dating his specimens on or about February 7 (just as he began after a while numbering his chemical preparations). Subsequent dates in February cluster especially around February 13-17 and February 26-28. But just the one survives bearing the early date of February 7, 1839; the next earliest is February 13 (63865, no visible image).

The photograph is a positive (a print, as they would come to be called), contact copied from a negative, and the negative was a contact copy of an engraving. The negative in fact survives in the collection of the Science Museum, London/Bradford. It is thus both a fixing experiment, part of the series of trials with various agents, but mostly hyposulphite of soda (sodium thiosulphate, the ubiquitous 'hypo' universally used by all subsequent photographers), which formed the main thrust of his early experiments; and an experiment in 're-transfer' or 're-reversal' (as Herschel at first called it), making a positive photogenic drawing from the negative in order to correct the negative's reversal of tones.

It is obviously not a very successful image. In common with many of the experiments of similar date it is very faint and lacking in contrast, the fixing and washing in water (if any) having not cleaned it of an over-all fawn or pale sepia colour typical of the chemicals used. The fixing agent is not recorded, but the colouring suggests hypo. It will probably have looked substantially as it does now soon after Herschel made it, its faint quality or condition is not significantly the result of susequent fading. Given its sheer early date we should hardly expect better; though in fact even in February significantly better (as well as worse) experimental results were achieved (see for example 60339, or 22115).

One reason for its poor quality, in this particular case, is its being a positive experimentally copied from a negative. In addition to the inevitable loss of clarity that came with copying, the negative itself probably shared the same characteristics, lacking the clean detail and contrast needed to produce a good image when copied. The other reason, common to Herschel's experiments during the early months of 1839, but resolved during further trials between June and August, when hypo fixing was perfected (see for instance 18871), is that nearly all photographic processes require to be finished by very thorough washing in water. Even in the late 20th century good darkroom practice was to wash photographs under running tap-water for several hours after fixing. That this was an essential part of the hypo fixing procedure was something Herschel came gradually to realise during these 1839 experiments.

The original engraving depicted in this early photograph does not survive among the engravings in the collection. Its source has however been identified. It was from an illustrated part-work entitled Modern Athens! Displayed in a Series of Views ... (1829-31). Britain's claimant to be the 'modern Athens' was Edinburgh, and the building is the Edinburgh Royal Exchange, engraved by W. Watkins.

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