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The Beginnings of Photography in Oxford

The Beginnings of Photography in Oxford

by A. V. Simcock

The 150th anniversary of the invention of photography is being marked throughout the world by exhibitions, publications, and events. Oxford contains important photographic collections, and has made respectable contributions to the science and art of photography. Yet the story of how the invention was first heard of in Oxford, and who Oxford's earliest photographers were, has still to be reconstructed. Here is a sketch of those beginnings.

When the invention was announced - the French 'dageurreotype' (on metal) on January 7, 1839, and the independently-invented English 'photogenic drawing' (on paper) on January 25 - public interest was immediate. The newspapers were full of reports and comments, and numerous scientists, artists, and others became active in developing the invention, re-inventing it (for details of the processes were not revealed at first), thinking of new applications (photo-lithography, for instance, was being practised within months), or even claiming that they had already invented it years before!

By the end of February 1839 most of the newspaper readers in the Oxford common rooms had probably heard of photography (under one name or another). In the same month the English inventor W. H. Fox Talbot's Royal Society paper appeared as a pamphlet; during March the initial improvements by Sir John Herschel were made public; and by April an outfit of papers and chemicals for Talbot's process was on sale. It was not long before the first practical manual, Photogenic Drawing Made Easy by Nathaniel Whittock, entered the literature. A London drawing master, Whittock had formerly lived in Oxford, where in the 1820s he did lithographs for the Ashmolean Museum and for Oxford's scientific community, and published the first of his many drawing textbooks, The Oxford Drawing Book. Like the inventor, he saw the photogenic drawing in this context. Although undated, his manual precedes the detailed publication of L. J. M. Daguerre's method in August 1839.

Meanwhile photography had been truly introduced into Oxford by Talbot's friend Charles Daubeny, the chemistry professor, whose laboratory and lodgings were in the basement of the Ashmolean Museum (Old Ashmolean). Here on May 7, 1839, Daubeny exhibited specimens of photogenic drawings to members of the Ashmolean Society - the first people to see photographs in Oxford. Subsequently, Daubeny included the chemistry of the two photographic processes in his lecture courses, illustrating them with a pair of framed daguerreotypes by the Parisian photographer, Lerebours, and with two framed 'calotypes' (Talbot's refined process which superseded the photogenic drawing in 1841) taken by Talbot himself on a visit to Oxford on July 30, 1842. These four photographs survive in the collection of the Museum of the History of Science.

For the first daguerreotypes to reach Oxford credit is claimed by John Ruskin, who, perhaps in 1840, sent for examples from Paris after being told of the invention by his fellow student Henry Liddell. In fact, there is reason to believe that those sent to Ruskin may be the very two later used by Daubeny, with whom both Ruskin and Liddell, and more so their friend Henry Acland, were acquainted. They all saw the potential of the new medium; and Ruskin later used daguerreotypes as 'sketches' and records of detail for his drawings, and for the engraved illustrations of books such as The Stones of Venice (1851-53). The daguerreotype showed more and sharper detail than Talbot's calotype, though the latter created a more expressive, artistic print - like a fine etching or a Rembrandt painting, according to comparisons often made at the time!

The best first-generation calotype photographer in Oxford was a pupil of Daubeny, Nevil Story-Maskelyne, who took charge of the Old Ashmolean laboratory in 1848. He photographed many of his friends and colleagues, as well as views and compositions much in the style of Talbot (who was a fine pictorial photographer himself). His work forms a bridge, stylistically, between Talbot and Oxford's own Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll.

While the calotype remained a rather specialised taste among talented amateurs, the early commercial successes went to the daguerreotype. It was produced as an attractive artefact in a velvet-lined case, and often beautifully tinted by hand, making it the direct successor to the miniature painting. Many portrait studios arose to serve a fashionable market for daguerreotypes, especially during the 1850s. The first in Oxford, W. Tuckwell's 'Photographic and Daguerreotype Portrait Institution', was opened in 1842 at 64 High Street, and taken over about 1844 by Edward Bracher, whose business flourished for over twenty years.

Bracher followed the usual pattern of the early professionals, starting as a daguerreotypist and moving, around the mid 1850s, to new processes which had evolved from Talbot's. The collodion glass negative, collodion positive (packaged like a daguerreotype), and albumen paper print had altogether ousted the daguerreotype and calotype by the end of the 1850s, and are the standard forms of photograph we all associate with the Victorian period. In 1856 Oxford's most famous amateur, Lewis Carroll, took up photography using the new techniques, and Oxford's most famous professional, Henry Taunt, began his apprenticeship with Bracher. Alone in the city until about this time, Bracher had been joined by ten other photographic businesses by 1864. And the rest is history.

[From The Ashmolean, no.16, 1989, pp.15-16]

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