A hive of minds advanced photography in its early days in England from 1843-1847.
The situation there was quite unlike that in France; because of the restrictions that Henry Fox Talbot had put on his patent for the calotype, only a select few, his circle of friends, and those prepared to pay, had access to the invention.
Only in Scotland, where he had not taken out a patent, were pioneer calotypists given free rein; notably Hill and Adamson who explored and developed the use of this new image-making in the open, photographing the inhabitants of the villages and ports and evolving a distinctive style. The daguerreotype, which was made available ‘to the world’ was undergoing a rapid process of evolution in the hands of the thousands of commercial portraitists.
Nevil Story Maskelyne, who was born on this date in 1823 (†1911), enjoyed strong family links with William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) and John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882) which greatly influenced early developments of Talbot’s invention of the negative/ positive process after its announcement in January 1840.
All three were landed gentry living in elegant manor houses;William Henry Fox Talbot could gaze upon the Avon river flowing through his Wiltshire estate at Lacock Abbey, Dillwyn Llewelyn, whose family’s wealth derived from coal and land ownership, surveyed the Gower coast in South Wales from his estate at Penllergaer, and Nevil Story-Maskelyne was surrounded by the Wiltshire landscape of Bassett Down near Swindon.
All were related by marriage; Dillwyn Llewelyn married Thomasina Talbot whose father Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot (Kit) was a cousin of William Henry Fox Talbot. Later, on 29 June 1858, Dillwyn Llewelyn’s daughter Thereza married Nevil Story-Maskelyne.
All three were botanists with an interest in landscaping, and the estates at Lacock; Wiltshire and South Wales, though the houses at Bassett Down and Penllergaer no longer exist, retain woods, grounds and gardens that still bear the evidence today of their tree planting and conservation.
How do we account for the genius and achievements of these men? They enjoyed tremendous privilege at the height of the British Empire, a rarified coterie at the ‘top of the pile’, supported by servants and toilers in factories, farms and mines across Britain, guarding their privacy, but in constant communication despite physical distance. With the benefit of wealth built from colonial expansion and exploitation they wanted for no creature comfort and there is no doubt that photography, then a capricious, time-consuming medium, was a pursuit that could only be undertaken by those with either the leisure to do so, or the need to profit from it, as was the case of commercial portraitists, though until the 1850s the latter concentrated their attentions on the daguerreotype.
There were artistic considerations too, reflected in the fact that many of these gentlefolk continued to use the calotype into the 1850s, prizing it for its aesthetic qualities, the softness of the paper process, considered the photographic equivalent of an etching or engraving, which they felt set them apart from commercial photographers by their choice of process. It was practical too, for rich travelers making the Grand Tour since paper was lighter and easier to process than glass, and for those in British India, the chemistry of the paper negative best withstood heat and moisture.
Maskelyne and Dillwyn Llewelyn were excited by the disclosure of Talbot’s invention, Maskelyne having encountered the medium when in 1840 optician George Dolland (1774–1852) visited Bassett Down and showed him how to make ‘Sun Pictures’ (photograms).
Both Maskelyne and Llewelyn, like Talbot, were Fellows of the Royal Society and they had the scientific knowledge to improve photography. In 1845, Maskelyne, to the frustration of his father, abandoned his law studies and as a result of attending Michael Faraday‘s laboratory, was thinking deeply about light and chemistry.
As an example of the collaboration and interaction between these men one can follow the course of Dillwyn Llewelyn’s modification of Talbot’s formula in 1854, the procedure and his findings of which he communicated at length to the Photographic Society of London to be published in their Journal;
In developing I make use of aceto-nitrate of silver, and solution of gallic acid in equal proportions, the same as directed for the exciting [the coating prior to exposure in the camera] compound, but without the addition of any water. This must be mixed only immediately before it is wanted, as it decomposes with great rapidity; having prepared a sufficient quantity for a single sheet, say about 1 1/2 drachms, brush it over the excited side of the paper with a clean new brush […] When thoroughly dry, it should be waxed […] It will print much quicker, and is less liable to injury from any chance contact with liquid, and from humidity of the air, than if left unwaxed.
Towards the end of this same letter John Dillwyn Llewelyn goes on to say that he has also used the wet collodion process, but:
…it is accompanied with some difficulties, involving the necessity for a tent, and to the consideration of these, I have for some time past given much of my photographic attention.
…attention directed towards a method of producing some sort of dry plate which would do away with tents. His next communication to the Photographic Society was on 3rd December 1855:
A short time ago my friend Mr Maskelyne sent me from Oxford a sample of glycerine with a recommendation that I should try it as a substitute for honey [the ‘oxymel’ process, a mixture of honey and vinegar, i.e. acetic acid] in the preservation of excited collodion plates.
Nevil Story-Maskelyne, as a young man of 22 in 1845, expressed to Fox Talbot his devotion to photography and became a lifelong friend. During the Patent trial, Talbot v. Laroche of 1855, courageously for one so young, he threw in his support, opposing the general opinions of the Photographic Society, writing to Talbot:
No man in my belief can take from you this that you first showed, that Iodide of Silver formed in the moist way [i.e., in solution] was capable of being made acceptable of a latent effort under the influence of light, which in subsequent treatment with substances capable of a sort of reducing (dioxidying) [sic] action, was capable of developing into a visible effect. This I believe to be yours and on it, it seems to me your point rests securely’!
He also modified Talbot’s methods by experimenting with some of the rarer metals to colourfully tone his prints and he was particularly concerned with the problem of rendering the green of trees correctly which he attempted to remedy with filters and chemistry.
It was this ‘hive of minds’, bought to bear on a difficult, fast-evolving technology, that demonstrates the other privilege enjoyed by these men; their collegiality and valuable contacts, the cross-pollination (if I may stretch the metaphor) that took place between them and their wide circles established during a long education of the highest quality, and later in distinguished careers. That, along with their experimental, empirical approach, accounts for their achievements and their acceleration of developments of this era of rapid industrialisation, intellectual and technological advancement.
This intellectual ferment generally consists of men in the male-dominated Victorian society, but is increasingly known to include the women alongside the more enlightened amongst them. Thereza Llewelyn (1834–1926), later Story-Maskelyne, was photographed at nineteen by her father with her microscope, and he had constructed an observatory which still stands in Penllergare Valley Woods for her sixteenth birthday. Father and daughter collaborated on astrophotography, meteorology and microscopy, including the imaging of snowflakes. She wrote a report that was read at the Linnean Society of London in 1857 and may have observed Donati’s Comet in 1858 before it was officially announced by the Italian astronomer.
These photographs of Thereza and her father are identical with the same microscope, botanical specimens and the same books. Since the image of Thereza is larger, made with a longer focal length and is of shallower focus than that of Llewelyn, one can presume that he photographed her with his large format camera, and during the same session, she photographed him with her ‘small format’ camera. Thereza notes in her diaries that everyone in the family had their own cameras and, following her marriage to Maskelyne, the two collaborated on experiments in chemistry and photography.
Story-Maskelyne’s grandfather was Astronomer Royal and produced The Nautical Almanac which contributed to the solution to the seemingly intractable problem of determining longitude. His father achieved a double first in mathematics at Oxford, and his mother was an artist and linguist. In 1842 he entered Wadham College, Oxford where he became interested in the sciences, remaining at Oxford in the post of Professor of Mineralogy, becoming one of the leading authorities on minerals, particularly meteorites, and crystallography, and was the first to use polarised light to discover crystalline symmetry, a subject about which he corresponded with Michael Faraday. He was a contemporary at Oxford with mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898) who became a photographer and adopted the name Lewis Carroll and Maskelyne was a friend of the Liddell family prior to their arrival in Oxford in February 1856 (before the birth of their Alice, whom Carroll photographed)
As a mineralogist Story-Maskelyne was able to prepare very thin sheets of mica on to which he coated Frederick Scott-Archer‘s collodion sensitising solution, and was the first person to use this material as a a support for negatives.
Maskelyne was on the first committee of the Photographic Society from January 1853 and gave a lecture in April of that year on the subject of his calotype camera. He was a friend of astronomer Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900) and in 1857 made a photograph of the moon using the telescope of Warren de la Hue (1793–1866).
Having bitter experience of his father’s prejudice against his becoming a professor science (considered to be ‘beneath him’), appropriately Maskelyn fostered links with the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There he gave a joint paper with Llewelyn in 1859 on the current state and knowledge of the photographic image, thus being among the medium’s first historians (Lady Elizabeth Eastlake having ‘scooped’ them with her 1857 paper under the title Photography in The London Quarterly Review, No. 101, April 1857, pp. 442-468.)
These collaborations in the advancement of photography employed efforts toward a systematic scientific method integrating induction and deduction argued by David Hume and being developed in the 19th century by Hans Christian Ørsted and set out by polymath and experimental photographer John Herschel (himself portrayed by Julia Margaret Cameron‘s camera) in A Preliminary Discourse on the study of Natural Philosophy of 1831 which was followed by other books describing and defining scientific method by William Whewell, John Stuart Mill, Claude Bernard and William Stanley Jevons. It is for his scientific approach to the medium, and not as a photographic artist, that Nevil Story-Maskelyne is worth remembering.