October 7: His most notorious photograph was a portrait of Catherine the Great of Russia. In 1952 it was discovered that his real name was Władysław Małachowski and that he was Polish, not Russian or Hungarian, as had been variously assumed. Yet he is mentioned in two hundred articles in The British Journal of Photography, such was the extent of his contribution to photography.
Though his dates of birth, 26 May 1837, and death, are certain, his origins were a mystery. After his death on this date in 1900 in Geneva, his obituary in The British Journal of Photography claimed he was Hungarian, and contemporary Russian writers claimed him as a compatriot, but his family were Polish-Lithuanian nobility living in a part of the Russian Empire which is today Belarus, Poland then being divided into three parts occupied by Russia, Prussia (Germany) and Austro-Hungary.
Two unsuccessful Polish revolutions against Russia, one in 1830-31 and that of 1863-64 in which Małachowski took an active part, each prompted stampedes of Polish political emigration to the West, usually to France. Thus, early Polish photographers often changed their names, and it was only in 1952 that photochemist Witold Romer, writing in Wiadomosci Chemiczne (Chemical News) established from first-hand sources that the Polish Wladyslaw Malachowski was the well known English scientist Leon Warnerke, the name on the passport he used to evade capture and escape to England in 1870, or earlier. On arrival, the freshly minted Warnerke lived in London where he set up as a photographer then opened one of the earliest photographic industrial laboratories.
By 1880 he had business interests in both in the United Kingdom and Russia, where he opened a factory producing photographic materials and equipment; rather bold, given his previous identity as an insurgent from 1863, a member of the Lithuanian Executive, and revolutionary head of the city of Vilnius.
Warnerke’s contributions to photography were many, but one that stands out had implications for the medium of the twentieth century; roll film. The development of a dry collodion process, then a very current problem, was the subject of his study and experimentation, and one of the properties of the paper-based medium, unlike glass plates, was the flexibility of its base and the possibility, pondered since the days of the talbottype, of making strips of sensitised paper.
This led him to the invention of a roll-film camera (below in two illustrations). Though preceded by the Spencer-Melhuish roll-holder of 1854 for waxed paper negatives, Wernerke’s 1875 solution was ingenious; it looks very like the cameras of the early 1900s, from the cassette (housing photographic paper sufficient in length for 100 photos) in a folding camera, to the first instance of the orange window through which the frame numbers on the back of the paper could be seen, to assist in winding it into position for the next shot.
Clearly to be marketed to the tourist-photographer and amateur, this was a welcome simplification of camera operation. However, the processing of the negatives was complex, and expensive; the photosensitive layer was a dry collodion layer containing the photosensitive silver salts, poured onto paper pre-coated with a solution of rubber in petrol. The layer was removed from the substrate after the picture was taken, glued onto the glass plate and printed like normal glass negatives.
The paper gave excellent pictures, but its slow speed was improved in 1881 with a silver bromide formula incorporated in a gelatin emulsion. So much more sensitive was this that the orange window could no longer be used because it would expose the negative through the back of the paper so, undaunted, Warneke inserted into each cartridge a battery and a small electric bell, activated by perforations along the paper strip. The idea is echoed one hundred years later in the paper/plastic image of Polaroid SX-70 camera and its battery-powered cartridge technology.
However the texture of the Warneke’s paper interfered with the resolution of the image, a well-known effect of paper negatives usually reduced by impregnating it with castor oil or parrafin. With audacity characteristic of the man who once foiled a police search by stealing the officer’s revolver, Warneke/Małachowski (ever ready for alternatives) covered the paper with emulsion on both sides so that the pattern of the paper texture was copied on the underlying layer of the emulsion and in the developed negative image self-masked the grain. His paper proved to be better than that of his competitor Eastman (‘Kodak’-to-be) who in 1885, began mass production of a roll-film cassette with an electric bell.
That year, however, Warnerke was ahead of their game. He envisaged a camera ideal for…
…the modern photographer [who] does not like complicated manipulations. If some good genius would realise the dreams of a modern enthusiast of photography, the camera would be something like a snuffbox with a small crank, from which you would receive a large photo, immediately framed.
…was he thinking of the iPhone?
This omnivorous genius turned his mind also to the complexities of sensitometry; the calculation of emulsion speed essential to correct and reliable exposure. His work on measuring photosensitivity of photographic materials brought him longer-term success than his roll film. Wernerke’s device, for which he used the established term, the sensitometer, enabled the first standardisation in this field (in the 1900s replaced by DIN, ASA then ISO) through its approval in 1881 by the Photographic Club committee in London. The sensitivity of mass-produced negative materials was graded in ‘Warnerke’s until the end of his life.
Later in his successful career Warnerke was to reside in a villa in the then affluent and sylvan Champion Hill near Ruskin Park and Camberwell in south-east London. Its name Silverhowe was written in phosphorescent paint and in the evening it glowed. His fascination with phosphorescent compounds found application in his invention of an actinometer – a light meter to determine exposure time when taking pictures, based on the use of a phosphorescent plate. In practice it was exposed to the light to be measured, and then, after 30 seconds, the brightness of the phosphorescence was visually evaluated through ever-darker numbered filters until one obscured the phosphorescent light; that number was used to calculate the exposure time. The inspired invention aroused quite a lot of interest but was not widely adopted.
The sensitometer, with which he achieved ongoing success, also employed phosphorescence; material to be tested was clamped in a contact frame under a cover with 25 numbered filters with gradually increasing density which was then covered with phosphorescent calcium sulphide as a reference light source exposed beforehand by the light of an inch of magnesium tape ensuring full saturation of phosphorescence, after which the darkslide is pulled for 30 seconds, letting light through the filters. The number of the least visible field of the sensitometer was read off the developed material to establish the calibration.
Warnerke’s undoing was his exploitation of the tanning action of pyrogallol on sensitised gelatin. He obtained patents for the use of this effect and the “Progress Medal” of the British Photographic Society in 1881, an award granted annually for the best achievements in the field of science or photographic technology. The tanning phenomenon he used to create reliefs by rinsing the remelted gelatin with warm water. This proved to be full of potential for colour photography and photographic printing techniques, widely used in colour film hydrotype, such as “Technicolor”, which uses gelatinous reliefs for a silver image for which Wamerke predicted the possibility of dyeing these reliefs with organic dyes. Warnerke delivered papers on its application to colour photography which were still referenced until 1925.
The technique proved useful in another of his activities which is shrouded in mystery; while traveling to Russia for business, he usually visited his mother in Krakow and close close relatives in Warsaw, always anxious during his stays because of the danger of accidentally revealing his real name.
This is where his photography of the portrait of Catherine the Great comes in…
…in the last years of his life he somehow became involved in passing counterfeit ruble banknotes. The portrait of the empress, copied from a genuine note, was the easy part; it was his knowledge of paper-making, and his adaptation of the photo-filigrane relief process to impress images resembling watermarks into the paper that made his notes a successful forgery.
In Marseille he was sentenced to a heavy prison term but vagueness over the extent of his involvement stayed his incarceration. Nevertheless, after the trial, Warnerke withdrew from public life and died in Geneva on 7 October 1900 alone, leaving his daughter Zofia running a junk stall at London’s Caledonian Market using the pseudonym Marie Leon (her mother’s and father’s first names) and later a book shop at 4 Baker Street. The British Journal of Photography, Apr 26, 1901 reports that a sum of £2 10s was raised to support the wife and daughter ‘of the late Mr. Leon Warnerke’.
Romer contacted Zofia by letter in 1939 and 1940, first from Poland and then from France, to ask for samples of her father’s inventions and memorabilia for a museum collection, but by the time he visited the then 74-year-old daughter in 1944, her father’s possessions had been destroyed during the bombing of London, leaving only family portraits as a souvenir.
Romer writes in his ‘Wladyslaw Malachowski-Leon Warnerke, 1827- 1900,’ in Wiadomosci Chemiczne (Chemical News), No.2 (1952), pp. 473-478, that he consulted with J. M. Eder in Geschichte der Photographie (1932) and L. P. Clerc editor of Science et Industries Pbotographiques (1940) and both confirmed that Warneke/Małachowski was suffering from an incurable disease at the time of his suicide.
Peter Johnson’s report in the London Times on September 12, 1991 was headlined Builder cashes in on faked roubles after the discovery of Wernerke’s ‘forgery kit’ with a genuine 100 ruble note then valued respectively at £20,000 and £8,000 and many counterfeit notes, worth over £1,000,000 if they had been authentic, and yet so expertly forged that police raised concerns over their possible on-selling to collectors as real notes. The Times report concludes;
[Auctioneer Phillip’s representative] Mr. Asquith said: “The operation involved such impressive talents and organisation that it could not have been a one-man affair. He may have been part of an ‘officlal‘ secret operation to destabilise Russia’s currency. An historian suggests his methods “point to an anarchist job”.
The article reports Wernerke as being ‘Austrian-born’.