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Photographs by Washington Teasdale

Photographs by Washington Teasdale

A small collection of photographs by Washington Teasdale (1830-1903) was preserved in the manuscript and photographic archive of his friend Richard Inwards and came to the Museum with the Gabb archives in 1949. Teasdale was the archetypal Victorian scientific amateur. An engineer by profession, his hobbies and interests included astronomy, meteorology, geology, geometry, mechanics, microscopy, and of course photography. The photographs are interesting not least for reminding us of the range of activities typical of such a person.

Teasdale gave talks and published papers on photography as early as 1854, in the waxed-paper era. None of his early work survives in the collection, the Museum's photographs dating from the later part of his life, 1880s onwards. Many are printed using the cyanotype process that was fashionable among amateurs for proof-making and even pictorial purposes at that period. They are mostly just 3 by 3¾ inches. Some of them are no more than snapshots, plus several straightforward copies of flat items. Yet a much more deliberate creative intent is manifest in the two scientific tableaux or still life arrangements, while several pictorial views and portraits demonstrate his eye for a perfectly composed image.

Two of these photographs were taken at Kirkstall Abbey, near to Teasdale's home in Leeds. One shows his friend Henry Perigal, aged 82, among the abbey ruins (83890), and was taken in 1883 (the only photograph in the group with a precise date). In the other a complete view of the abbey framed in the middle distance is looked over by Teasdale himself, seen from behind sitting on a park-bench (96943). It is in the nature of photography that a body of amateur snapshots may sometimes contain an accidental masterpiece. But that Teasdale was careful and deliberate about his photographs, consciously investing them with meaning and compositional elegance, is shown by his unique representative still lifes.

The astronomical tableau (38479), printed on the same format as most of the other photographs, is afforded special status by being mounted on card. It illustrates less an interest in general observational astronomy than in orbital geometry, thus linking with another great interest of Teasdale's circle (shared for instance with Perigal and Inwards), mechanical geometry, in particular the mechanical generation and analysis of curves by means of the geometric chuck and the harmonograph. Perigal was famous for this, and the print or broadsheet at the centre of Teasdale's composition is Perigal's application of his 'kinematic bicircloids' to represent the orbital motions of the planets. The geared device to the left, displayed on top of an ornamental box, is also a Perigal invention: a 'rotameter' intended to demonstrate what Perigal believed to be 'the errors in the present system of Astronomy' (1879).

The instrument to the right is a cannon sundial (a more conventional sundial is also on Teasdale's desk in the portrait 35156); and the centre-piece, in use by a manikin, is a small portable transit instrument, evidently home-made. The small oil lamp behind would stand on the tray at the near side of the instrument to illuminate the cross-hairs in observing at night. Teasdale was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and helped re-establish the Leeds Astronomical Society, of which he became president. His photographic statement is that of a modest provincial astronomer and geometrician, rather than a 'grand' amateur observer, and (by association with Perigal) one whose opinions were independent of the academic establishment.

Teasdale's strikingly evocative microscopical tableau (67947) similarly portrays him as a modest amateur equipped with a couple of microscopes, one of them at least partly home-made, a little lamp, and a few textbooks, including the standards by Quekett and Carpenter, and (left) the less well-known "Marvels of Pond-Life; Or, A Year's Microscopic Recreations ..." by Henry J. Slack (1861). The several framed pictures are photomicrographs, either daguerreotypes or collodion positives. This time the print on the wall at the centre of the ensemble is James Glaisher's 1855 observations of 'snow crystals' (snowflakes), a deliberate representation not just of Teasdale's interest in meteorology but of his particular admiration for Glaisher.

The microscopical still life is larger than the other photographs, and vertical in format. Both images are achieved simply by arranging common objects on a table or sideboard in his study. They are essays in the rare genre of still life as self-portrait. The actual portrait of him at his desk (35156, probably 1897) also has meaningful objects, including sundial and microscope; while others, most of them presumably self-portraits, show him using the harmonograph that he made (54814; see also 60866) and using a microscopy instrument (34237, dated 1902). Other portraits are 22530 and 67926. Teasdale's obituary stated that his home 'was a veritable treasure house of scientific apparatus, works of art, interesting curios ...'.

Perigal lived surrounded by an equally eloquent clutter of objects in a two-room flat in London, captured by Teasdale in a stereoscopic photograph (80981; compare also 76721). The subtle three-dimensionality afforded by the open door into the other room, revealing (very tiny) the man himself sitting reading, once again attests to Teasdale's eye for an expressive compositional effect, as well as (more unusually) his understanding of the syntax of stereoscopy (see narrative to 12013). It seems likely that Teasdale was also responsible for the delightfully odd photograph of Perigal and Glaisher together in the garden (59764), the 96 year-old Perigal cradled in a hammock (in his top hat) - surely the greatest snapshot of scientists, or old men, ever taken.

One way of looking at the two still lifes is as tributes by Teasdale to these two scientific patriarchs, his heroes as well as his friends. Henry Perigal (1801-1898) was the leading mechanical geometrician of his day. The Museum has an archive of his papers, and quite a number of photographs of him - he evidently loved being photographed (examples include 12338, 13176, 20919). But he was also a renowned eccentric. James Glaisher (1809-1903) was a more 'establishment' figure, and a more fitting scientific hero. Teasdale's photographs include copies of a printed portrait of Glaisher and of the snowflakes print (85836, 85686).

Glaisher was president of the Royal Microscopical Society at the time that it received its Royal Charter (1866), and one of his snowflakes was adopted as the society's emblem. And for over twenty years he was president of the (Royal) Photographic Society. So as well as his distinguished attainments in the field of meteorology, for which he is best remembered, he was for a time the figurehead of the microscopy and photography worlds too. Teasdale also took a photograph that became famous among microscopists, showing the room at King's College, London, that was home of the Royal Microscopical Society until 1890. In 1898 it received wide distribution by virtue of being printed as a frontispiece to the society's Journal (12336, original photograph 61326).

Societies and sociability were important ingredients of the Victorian scientific community, and neither living in Leeds nor being an amateur excluded Teasdale from it. He came to London to attend meetings of the various societies and to visit his scientific friends. The three men were also Freemasons. Teasdale's masonic monogram and motto can be seen in the photographs of fossils (84273, 91609, 99707), where they are part of the ruler used as a scale: his initials are made up from a T-square superimposed upon two pairs of dividers made to form a W. The stones are from Dudley, famous for its fossiliferous limestone. Several other photographs show geological themes, including the spectacular anticlinal fold revealed in a quarry at Draughton, Yorkshire, with diminutive scattered figures (17898).

The photographs themselves, and their exchange and distribution, formed part of this friendly network of shared interests and memberships. As mentioned, this group of Teasdale's photographs survive not from his own papers, but because they were given to and treasured by his friend Richard Inwards (1840-1937). That the peculiar power of photographs is not merely that they communicate, but that they somehow define who people are, is seldom better illustrated than by the Teasdale group, and especially by the two tableaux representative of his main interests.

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