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Herschel's Lace

Herschel's Lace

Two of Sir John Herschel's experimental photogenic drawings are contact copies of lace - one a plain lace, one decorated with flowers. The latter (30855) is annotated with the date April 19, 1839 in Herschel's hand. This annotation, in Herschel's typical style, as well as the clarity of the highlights, leave little doubt that they are by Herschel, as does their place in the sequence of Herschel's papers (in packet 19, entitled by Herschel 'Pretty good photogs'). Schultze however attributed them to Talbot, perhaps because lace and leaves, the real objects universally employed by the earliest photographers, were so untypical of Herschel. His only other contact image of an actual object (as distinct from an engraving) is the oak leaf (60339).

The two lace images appear to be silver-based and probably fixed with hypo (a fixing method to which Talbot was a hesitant convert during the course of 1839), although both exhibit a slightly unusual pink or reddish colour, the reason for which is not evident. It falls even so within the fairly wide range of colours obtained from silver-based photographic chemistry by both experimenters.

A third lace image among the Herschel experiments is certainly by Talbot (79213), and is annotated in his handwriting on the back. It shows a portion of lace magnified and photographed by means of the solar microscope (which projects an enlarged image using sunlight). Early experimenters commonly tried this technique, which lent itself to photography because the image from the solar microscope was very bright. Herschel acknowledged receipt of some 'very pretty specimens of Magnified Lace' in a letter to Talbot of September 10, 1839; it is thus one of the earliest surviving microscopical images captured by photography (photomicrographs). The lilac/mauve colouring and the quirky semi-circular shape the paper is cut to are typical of Talbot's photogenic drawings.

Three cyanotype contact images of lace, of exceptionally high quality, dating from the 1840s, are in the Hartwell House commonplace book (11893), though there is no indication who made them. Herschel was one of John Lee of Hartwell House's best friends; but Lee's wide circle of acquaintances included various other scientists and amateurs who tried out early photographic processes (such as J. B. Reade, George Dollond, Charles Piazzi Smyth, James and Cecilia Glaisher). Most probably the lace images were done by one of these men or women to whom Herschel had shown his cyanotype or blueprint process (see narratives to 11887).

One of the fortunate peculiarities of copying lace by the primitive photogenic drawing process, and its derivatives such as the cyanotype, is that the negative image produced shows the lace white - and thus apparently correctly. White would normally represent the darker parts of the original and translate into black (or sepia or blue) when printed as a positive. Hence paradoxically a positive print of a lace negative would not be true to the original, whereas the reversed tones of the negative appear functionally positive.

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