Photographic history seems to go in and out of favour in long periodic cycles. In the very beginning years of the art, historians such as Robert Hunt and Isadore Niépce wrote from a contemporary’s point of view, having first-hand knowledge of the actors and observing history as it unfolded before them. In the 1860s-1870s there was a re-visiting of the early years, with Victor Fouque and Eliza Meteyard representing radically different visions of history (or imagination, alternative facts, &c, if you will). As the centennial of photography approached in 1939 there was a marked uptick in historical activity, tragically cut short by international events. I’ll never forget the anguish in the letters between the Austrian Joseph Maria Eder and his American friend and co-author Edward Epstein as they were progressively and forcibly isolated from each other. Closer to our own time, the 1970s saw an explosion not only of photography but also of photographic literature examining the history of photography. This continued into the 1980s but began limping seriously in the 1990s with historical investigations being subsumed into theoretical and rhetorical meanderings. Happily this new century is seeing a resurgence of proper historical investigation, often unexpectedly spearheaded by members of the conservation community in their increasingly sophisticated quest to figure out just what it is that we are actually looking at. One of these periodic high points of photographic history was spurred on by the sesquicentennial of 1889 and continued through the 1890s.
Guest post by Pete James
Today’s guest blog by the photohistorian Pete James is about a ‘relic’ of that period. Formerly Curator of Photographs at the Library of Birmingham, Pete is now an independent photographic historian and curator. He is currently working with contemporary artists on two companion exhibitions for summer 2017 which explore and represent critical moments in the history of photography in Birmingham in 1839: Thresholds, with Mat Collishaw; and White House in Paradise Street with Jo Gane.
When Talbot’s first paper on photography was read before the Royal Society almost exactly 178 years ago a good part of it outlined some of the potential applications he envisaged for his revolutionary process. Including portraiture, architectural and landscape images, and the recording of scientific phenomena, Talbot concluded with the observation that his “invention may be employed with great facility for obtaining copies of drawings or engravings, or facsimiles of MSS.” Five years later, Talbot brought this idea to life in The Pencil of Nature: ”To the Antiquarian this application of the photographic art seems destined to be of great advantage.“ The copying of paintings, engravings and manuscripts for commercial, archival and historical purposes subsequently became a common practice, so much so that we don’t even stop to think about its implications today. It was not long before Talbot’s invention was also being applied with equal facility to the antiquities of photography itself, coping preserving and spreading knowledge about its icons and relics. A little known example of this practice which forms our subject today.
Near the end of the 19th century, the noted Birmingham photographer Sir Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) was one of the most high-profile public figures in the world of photography. Stone shared Talbot’s interests in botany, astronomy, archaeology, and politics, but as one contemporary observed, his passion for photography “like the rod of Scripture, had swallowed all the rest.” A collector of record photographs since his days as a schoolboy, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the limited choice of commercial offerings and in the 1880s began taking pictures himself, using his camera primarily to record antiquities, ancient buildings, folk customs, relics and ‘survivals’ of historical interest for the future. The press frequently carried reports about his efforts to “preserve records of all the interesting inanimate objects which are found in Great Britain” for the benefit of posterity. In 1900, one Birmingham journalist outlined the debit which historians like Stone owed to Talbot: his invention “had made it easy to perpetuate the faces of our loved ones, to retain a lasting memorial of all that is beautiful in architecture and nature,” and furthermore “made it possible for such men as Sir J. B. Stone to place upon record for future reference some of the old-world relics.”
In May 1898, Stone copied at least two pages from an album of photographs loaned to him by John Henderson, one of Nicolaas Henneman’s former assistants at the Reading Establishment in the mid-1840s. The loan followed on an exchange of letters sparked off by Henderson, who wrote to Stone complaining that ”the writer of the Articles (in the Standard of April 28th),” had given ”chief credit to Daguerre for the discovery of Photography.“ Keen to set the record straight, Henderson politely refuted the newspaper report (“this is not quite correct”) and set out to recall his own memories about Talbot, Henneman and the discovery of photography. Based on his somewhat hazy recollections of working at the Reading Establishment, it has some obvious flaws but equally some unique information.
The album containing more than forty Talbotype pictures was accompanied by seven larger moounted prints. It had been assembled by Alfred Harrison, an assistant in Lovejoy’s Bookshop in Reading, who worked part time at the Reading Establishment between 1844 and 1847 along with Henderson and Thomas Malone. Later in life, Henderson somehow became re-acquainted with the album and acquired it in 1897. In a 19 May 1898 letter to Stone, Henderson explained that the photographs in the album had been ”taken by Mr. Nicholas Henneman, the gentleman engaged by Mr. Fox Talbot, the discoverer of the Art, who carried out the early experiments at his Studio in Reading.”
I first came across this pair of photographs and correspondence quite by chance in Birmingham Reference Library many years ago. The prints and letters were stored amidst the vast Sir Benjamin Stone Collection in enclosures labelled ‘Miscellaneous.’ Like all busy curators, having looked at the material I made a mental note to return to it when time permitted – of course, years passed. Late last year I had a flurry of emails emails with Brian Liddy and Larry relating to the Mat Collishaw’s upcoming Thresholds project, a virtual reality artwork based on Talbot’s exhibition of 93 Photogenic Drawings in Birmingham in August 1839. No good deed goes unpunished, so my casually mentioning the Stone material elicited a thinly-veiled order to put this into a guest blog. This kicked off an unanticipated little research project which has had all three of us scurrying back through files, references and past contacts. It uncovered a complex and confusing story which posed more questions than answers, something that will be readily apparent in this initial exploration. Sometime in mid-May 1898, Stone photographed at least two pages of Henderson’s album but somewhat unusually he omitted to register any details about the images in his negative index and simply described both prints as ‘Copies of Fox Talbot’s first photographs’ in his Catalogue of Photographs. The handwritten captions on the mount bearing each print describe their subjects respectively as ‘Copies of early photographs taken by Mr. Fox Talbot’ and, using the terminology of the antiquarian, as ‘Copies of Talbot relics’.
The first of the photographs shows an album page upon which are mounted six prints: three architectural studies, and three portraits. Most of these can be matched to originals among the 25,000 works to be incorporated into the Catalogue Raisonné. Now that we know that the photograph on the right originated in Reading, it can help attribute another known negative and print. One of the markets that Henneman was pursuing was that of depicting the residences of gentlemen.
Helpfully two of the portrait subjects are named and the ‘Mr. Bailey’ now fills in a person for a previously unidentified portrait.
Working on the assumption that this was a local person, in consulting the 1848 Reading directory we find a Mr William Bailey of 41 Oxford Street listed under ‘Gentry’ – our subject’s confident comb-over surely betrays a feeling of rank. These portraits are similar to a large series of such awkwardly done likenesses, most likely taken by Henneman at Reading. In his note of May 19th, 1898 Henderson tells Stone that the portraits in the album depict ‘friends of Henneman’s who used to give him sittings’ and that ‘some of these were taken as a commercial matter.’ This supports Larry’s theory that these types of images were intended to ”explore the market for daguerreotype portrait alternatives.“ Commenting on these and other portraits in the album, Henderson’s note of 19 May concludes with the observation that ”the art of ’touching up‘ portraits had not then been discovered.“ It’s not clear whether this represents a comment on the countenance of the sitters or the skills of the photographer.
Drawing on his antiquarian interests, Stone describes the subject of his second photograph as ‘Copies of Talbot Relics.’ The album page shows two cartes de visite portraits slotted into a page either side of a small architectural study of a doorway. Below each image Harrison or Henderson has added some explanatory notes about each of the subjects. The portrait of Talbot on the left appears is a cropped and copied version of the famous portrait taken by John Moffat at a meeting of the Photographic Society of Scotland in Edinburgh on 7 March 1864.
The two album pages copied by Stone provide tantalising evidience about an important photo-historical ‘relic’ whose full history has yet to be uncovered. They contribute to the identify and authorship of a few of the ‘Talbot’ pictures, which can now say with some confidence were made by Henneman. Why did Stone only make copies of two pages, and why these two pages in particular? Perhaps in due course Larry can be encouraged to write a blog based on the originals.
But what of Missoula, Montana, you ask? In the early 1960s, Vernon Snow, an American academic living in that town came across the original album and letters in a local antiques shop. Henderson’s relics had followed a descendant who emigrated there. In 1966, Snow joined with the curator of the Science Museum, Dr David Thomas, in writing an article about the Reading Establishment, largely based on Henderson’s archive. Larry remembers discussions with both Dr Thomas and Prof Snow about this in the 1980s and had a chance to examine the originals in 1988. Before his death a decade later, Snow sold the entire group, which is now preserved in a private collection.
• Questions or Comments? Pete James can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org • Please feel encouraged to contact Prof Schaaf directly at email@example.com • WHFT, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans), 1844-1846. The quote is from his discussion of plate IX, ‘Fac-simile of an Old Printed Page,’ issued in fascicle two in January 1845. • Spy, “East Birmingham,” lithograph from Vanity Fair, February 1902; private collection. • “The Father of the Camera,” The Birmingham Mail, 1 February 1900, p. 3. • Sir Benjamin Stone Collection, MS 3196, Leaflets and Correspondence, E12 (Miscellaneous), Library of Birmingham – a description of this collection can be found online. • A very helpful timeline of Henneman’s operation in Reading is in Arthur T. Gill, “Nicolas Henneman, 1813-1893, Chronological Notes, “ History of Photography, v. 4 no. 4, October 1980, pp. 313-322; “Nicholas Henneman,” correspondence by Gill, v. 5 no. 1, January 1981, pp. 84-86. • Nicolaas Henneman, Ornate House, Presumably in Reading, England, calotype negative and salted paper print (the latter enhanced here), ca. 1844, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-3157 and 1937-3158; Schaaf 1023. • Nicolaas Henneman, Portrait of Mr. Bailey, salted paper print, ca. 1844, Fox Talbot Collection, the British Library, London, LA892; Schaaf 4416. • V. F. Snow and D.B. Thomas, ”The Talbotype Establishment at Reading 1844 to 1847,” The Photographic Journal, v. 106, February 1966, pp. 56-66. You can download a pdf of this article here.