Photography, as we know
it, virtually generated by ‘spontaneous combustion’ in France and England,
four decades before the founding of the SPAB. By 1877 photography had
evolved despite patent battles and it had shed a number of processes on the
way, but as John Chillingworth has learned, ancient buildings were often
The term "Photography" was first used by Sir John Herschel, an early
contributor to the science, in 1839, the year in which the general public
first became aware of the photographic process. It derives from the Greek
words for light and writing.
From the start, there was an earnest desire on the part of rich Victorian
amateurs and professional photographers to record everything from
historically important buildings to family portraits, previously the realm
of the rich, who employed a portrait painter.
Many of the first photographers emerged from a scientific background,
travelling the country with their ‘horse and cart’ mobile laboratories. As
they photographed grand houses and ancient monuments, those ‘gentlemen
scientists’ discovered their ability to see the world through the artist’s
eye, as well as satisfying their scientific curiosity.
At the same time, established artists who had quickly realised the visual
potential of the medium found that photography rapidly enabled them to
establish new reputations.
In later decades, artists of the calibre of Degas were to use photography as
an aide memoir for their brilliantly conceived interpretations of
contemporary life and the human form.
However, although the camera obscura, the principle of which was known by
thinkers as early as Aristotle in 1,000AD, the earliest record of use of the
device was in the writings of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), although the
unfixable images projected by the device remained an irresolvable challenge
It was more than three hundred years after Leonardo’s death, before
scientists, both amateur and professional sought, successfully, to create a
method of fixing images by allowing light, transmitted through a camera
lens, to leave its mark, first on paper, then on sensitised glass plates or
other light sensitive surfaces.
When the breakthrough came, it was of Tsunami-like proportions! As early as
the 1820’s experiments showed promise, but failed to lead the way. It was
the combined discoveries of two Frenchmen in 1837, which recorded the first
real progress. Nicéphore Niepce and Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre had found a
way to fix the image, a process which was to be called Daguerretype.
By 1839 an Englishman, William Henry Fox Talbot, a gentleman scholar of
considerable means and social standing, had patented the Calotype
negative-positive process, which was effectively the grandparent of
photography as we know it today.
Fiercely defending his patented his discoveries, he initially inhibited the
growth and exploitation of what has now become an essential element in our
every day lives.
A few years later, Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857), sometimes described
as "A very inconspicuous gentleman, in poor health, with a somewhat
sorrowful look……," came upon the scene. He is honoured, now, as the inventor
of the first practical photographic process to be both sharp and easily
reproducible, taking photography a giant stride forward.
Although Archer was trained in the Calotype process, because he was a
sculptor wishing to record his work, he was not happy with the texture and
unevenness of the paper negative.
He experimented with a variety of solutions and surfaces, and in 1849 made a
breakthrough when he coated a glass plate with a collodion solution and
exposed the plate while it was still wet.
In 1852 he published: A Manual of the Collodion Photographic Process. Images
created using the collodion wet plate process were sharp like the
daguerreotype, easily reproducible like the Calotype, and enabled
photographers to dramatically reduce exposure times.
The process led to a rapid expansion in all areas of photography. The
Ambrotype method of image display, by which a positive was created by
bleaching the negative and backing it with black paper, was a direct result
of Archer’s efforts.
He also made significant contributions in optics and camera design, and
patented several of his inventions. Sadly, had Scott Archer patented his Wet
Collodion process, he could undoubtedly have made a fortune, but he died in
For some years attempts were made to discover ways of keeping the collodion
moist for long periods. The bizarre elements tried included ones like
liquorice, beer and raspberry syrup! It was not until 1871 that the next
breakthrough was achieved by Dr Richard Leach Maddox, when he began using
gelatine to create a dry plate.
At the same time, physicist and chemist, Sir Joseph Swan had also created a
dry photographic plate process that was to accelerate the explosion of
worldwide interest in photography when, in 1880, the American George Eastman
followed in Swan’s footsteps, perfecting a dry plate process of his own,
followed by the introduction of transparent film, which led to the creation
of the Eastman Kodak Company.
Remembered for his fixing on paper the now famous image of the window at
Laycock Abbey, Fox Talbot’s historic home, by 1843 he had ventured as far as
Trafalgar Square, London, with his camera, his chemistry and mobile
By that time, however, others had paid him for the honour of using his
Calotype process and, with an artist’s rather than a scientist’s eye, they
led a headlong rush to create pictures, which would freeze in time the world
around them; for some it was out of historical interest, others for profit.
Amongst them was the painter and founding member of the Royal Scottish
Academy, David Octavius Hill.
He had turned to photography as a means of artistic expression with the help
of young chemist, Robert Adams. They collaborated from 1843 to 1848 and in
that time photographed many views of Edinburgh and small Scottish fishing
Sadly, Adams died young, but there were many more scientists and artists who
found satisfaction, not only in the creation of images, but in the
development of better cameras and optics.
In the grand Victorian amateur tradition, William Donaldson Clark, a trained
industrial chemist, also photographed several Edinburgh street scenes in
1860 and Sotherby’s still auction a Clark print for high three-figure sums
from time to time.
Another photographic milestone was The Photographic Society, which was set
up for "the promotion of the Art and Science of Photography, by the
interchange of thought and experience amongst photographers".
The catalyst behind its formation of the Society was Roger Fenton, a
solicitor by profession, but he was like many other early amateur
photographers from a wealthy background, with the time, money and
inclination to follow his own interests. He is best remembered for his
coverage of the Crimean War (1853-1856), but he was also a highly regarded
architectural photographer, as well as being the official photographer to
the British Museum.
The general public had been made aware of photography by the Great
Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, where the photography section,
displaying Calotypes, Daguerreotypes and a few prints made on Frederick
Scott Archer's newly invented wet Collodion negatives on glass, which
aroused great interest.
In December 1852, a photography exhibition, held at The Society of Arts,
displayed almost 800 photographs, delighting an enthusiastic audience and,
at around that time Fox Talbot, the rich dilettante was prevailed upon to
relax the patent of his negative/positive process, which became freely
available to amateurs.
Those rich amateurs, rapidly followed by the people who were already earning
their living by use of the photographic process, soon identified its
valuable contribution to contemporary life and to posterity, when images
were displayed by a photographic image fixed permanently on to a sheet of
Many turned first, as did Fox Talbot, to architecture and the preservation
of memories of the country’s passing glories, reflected in the castles,
historically significant grand houses and occasionally the conditions
endured by the proletariat.
Others recognised the commercial opportunities provided by a medium, which
eventually swept away envy of portraiture in oils on the walls of the
privileged few. Portraits reappeared in the albums and display cabinets of
the general public, as soon as scientists found ways to reduce,
dramatically, the time that it took to record an image.
It served to intensify the public’s ‘love affair’ with photography and
became a lasting obsession for those early photographers. No doubt, those
photographers who chose to view the country’s history through the
architectural merit and the charm of its buildings made an understandable
discovery. Houses do not move!
In his recently published book, ‘Building with light’, Robert Elwall,
Photographs Curator at the British Architectural Library at the Royal
Institute of British Architects, he features that illustrate,
photographically, the architectural trends and key themes, which have
developed since the early 1800’s.
Elwell observed, “There was a distinct contrast between early photographs
taken in France and Britain. The French images aimed to provide accurate
details of a structure from the architectural point of view, while British
photographers often approached the subject with a view to placing the
building in the context of its environment.”
Interestingly, there were a number of photographers operating commercially
by the time of the Great Exhibition and it was a phenomenon reflected in the
images reproduced without credits in Elwell’s book.
Early photographers of buildings were largely travellers, some for
photography or others on business. Fox Talbot and others would often
photograph from their hotel windows and other elevated locations in the
countries they visited. Roger Fenton, often referred to as the first war
photographer, took many fine architectural studies, both in England and on
visits abroad, including one of Moscow at around 1850.
The later travellers like Francis Frith and Samuel Bourne using wet plate
cameras, returned home with fine architectural studies from around the
The great challenge for them, because long exposures were still needed, was
that the subject of their pictures would look different as light and weather
changed! It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the images from that
era were monumental, giving the subjects an impression of import and
Frederick Evans (1854-1943) was one of the last great architectural
photographers working in the early tradition. He was also a very fine
portraitist, but some of his best work was of the exteriors and interiors of
England's great medieval cathedrals.
For his interior views, Evans concentrated on the light projecting down
through the often dusty air, illuminating the majestic pillars. Some agree
that his most famous architectural study was of the 'sea of steps' leading
to the chapter house of Wells Cathedral, a subject since copied by many
The ‘rich amateur’ tradition served the cause of early photography well, but
there is no doubt that it was the magnificent skills employed by the many
professional photographic businesses, which evolved subsequent to the
invention of photography, were the real ‘powerhouses’ of British
architectural photography and that is another story altogether!