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SHADES OF LIGHT online

Based on text from the original book: Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988
Gael Newton, 1988 Australian National Gallery

CHAPTER 1     THE SPEED OF LIGHT

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News of photography reaches the Antipodes, 1839-1842

On Saturday evening 19 October 1839, readers of the Cornwall Chronicle in Launceston, Tasmania, were provided with a detailed description of Dr Fyfe's experiments with photogenic drawing as compared to W.H. Fox Talbot's process(1). Dr Andrew Fyfe (1792-1861) was a Fellow, later President, of the College of Surgeons at Edinburgh University in Scotland(2). The report (listed under ‘miscellaneous' on the back page) in this small local paper, is the earliest known Australian reference to the birth of photography in Europe.

The Chronicle's report was unlikely to have been the first news of photography to reach Australia. As voyages from England to Australia in l839 took an average of 134 days(3). English newspapers and journals with articles on daguerreotypes and photogenic drawing could also have reached the Antipodes by the middle of the year.

Curiously the next known Australian reference comes from a smaller and even more isolated colony, Western Australia. On 4 April 1840, the Perth Gazette ran an article extracted from the English paper the Spectator called 'Self Operating Processes of Fine Art — The Daguerreotype', which, in contrast to the dry technical account in the Launceston paper, was full of wonder:

An invention has recently been made public in Paris that seems more like some marvel of a fairy tale or delusion of necromancy than a practical reality: It amounts to nothing less than making light produce permanent pictures and engrave them at the same time in the course of a few minutes. The thing seems incredible(4).

The Chronicle of 19 October merely reprinted without comment, an article from an as yet unidentified British publication; a number of which had reported Dr Fyfe's various demonstrations(5). The relative speed with which the report reached Launceston indicates that what was once the Terra Incognita of the Antipodes was, by 1839, part of a global network of Western culture.

It is a mystery as to just how many of the 6,000 or so people in Launceston would have understood the report, let alone have attempted similar experiments(6). Nevertheless, in the 1830s despite its small size and isolation, Tasmania was the most advanced Australian colony, intellectually and scientifically. A number of fledgling learned societies of a scientific bent existed, including the most significant, the Philosophical Society of Tasmania, formed in Hobart in 1838 by the Lieutenant-Governor, the famed Arctic explorer and naturalist Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) and his wife Lady Jane (1791-1875)(7).

One of the earliest and best known direct experiences of photography by emigrants to Australia was that of English artist and writer Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895). In England in April of 1839, Louisa married her cousin Charles from Tasmania, and returned with him to settle first in New South Wales and later in Tasmania. Prior to their departure on 6 June 1839, the Merediths attended a soirée in Oxford given by Professor Charles Daubeny (1795-1867) that included a display of photographs. Meredith gave a description of this soirée much later in 1886. In her old age Meredith confused Talbot's photogenic drawings with daguerreotypes since her description of the exhibits does not evoke the detail of the latter:

The most memorable incident on that pleasant evening was the exhibition of Daguerre's first essay on sun printing — the very dawn of photography. These were shadowy impressions of leaves, more or less distinct and were examined by the throngs of guests with wondering admiration(8).

Charles and Louisa Meredith arrived in Sydney on 27 September 1839. Whether the Merediths contributed to the spread of the news about photography in New South Wales is not known(9). At least two important scientific gentlemen from England also arrived in 1839, the Reverend W. B. Clarke (1798-1878), an Anglican clergyman and the country's first geologist, and William S. Macleay (1792-1865), a zoologist trained in Paris, who had emigrated to join his father, Alexander (1767-1848), another distinguished natural scientist. Any such educated free settlers could be expected to have an awareness of new developments in Europe and might, like the Merediths, have seen original photographs before their departure. However, Sydney's scientific community was not as well organised as the Tasmanian Society in these years(10). One Sydney artist who did show an interest in photography was the landscape painter Conrad Martens (1801-1878). He had entered a recipe for photogenic drawing in his Commonplace Book before 5 August 1840(11).

Charles and Louisa Meredith moved to Tasmania in October 1840. By that time photography was possibly already known to Governor Franklin, who would have just had time to receive a letter dated 5 February 1840, from Dr John Richardson (1786-1865) in Glasgow containing details of daguerreotypes and of engravings made from them. Richardson, a naval surgeon, had served under Franklin on two earlier Arctic voyages as a naturalist. His letter to Franklin is known only from an extract printed in the first issue of the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, published by the Philosophical Society from 1841-1848. It was the first such scientific journal in Australia. The full letter was read out at the Society's meeting of 3 March 1841(12). However by the time the first number of the Tasmanian Journal appears to have been advertised for sale on 24 August, 13 Captain Lucas had already made the first daguerreotype in Australia on 13 May.

The expository tone of Dr Richardson's letter suggests it was intended for communication to the Society. As a response to photography it also reveals what hopes scientists had for the future of the medium:

One of the most remarkable discoveries of modern times is the art of causing rays of light to act on oxides of silver, so as to give minute representations of objects placed in the focus of a camera obscura. The Daguerreotype, as the instrument has been called from its discoverer, or at least principal inventor, is so far improved that the images it produces are fixed; and a further step has been made of engraving it, by means of galvanism; so that, at a very moderate expense, the most minute representations of material objects may be multiplied and printed off. Plates of fossils have already been published, which bear inspection by a microscope. A common line engraving on copper may also be reproduced, line for line, by galvanism. The process is rapid and simple(14).

The extract goes on to describe the galvanic method and provides news of another invention, the electric telegraph. The inclusion of this news as well as reproduction of daguerreotypes, merely reinforces that these two areas of research and development were related(15). They were vitally interesting as a means of shrinking the distances between the greatly enlarged geographical, political, and cultural arena of the British Empire.

A second extract from a letter dated 5 September 1840 was published in that same number of the Tasmanian Journal. This was from another friend of Franklin, Dr William Buckland (1784-1856), a fellow member and President of the Royal Geographical Society, London, and included three examples of Captain L.L. Boscawen Ibbetson's (w.1839-c.1841) method of taking lithographic impressions from daguerreotypes(16). In a later letter of 5 March 1842(17), Buckland further advised Franklin of the development of Talbot's calotype process and Charles Hullmandel's (1789-1830) method of colourwash lithography of 1841.

No references to photography have yet been found in the correspondence between the Franklins and Sir John Herschel (1792-1871). Herschel was one of the most eminent English scientists and an important independent inventor of several photographic techniques. It is surprising if they did not correspond in view of the fact that in August 1839, just before the departure of the British Antarctic Expedition (1840-1843), Herschel wrote to Louis Daguerre seeking a photographic apparatus to send to the Antipodes(18). This expedition, led by Sir James Ross (1800—1862), was based in Hobart from August to October 1840 and the expedition officers attended meetings of the Philosophical Society of Tasmania and contributed papers to the Society's journal.

An approach on behalf of the expedition was also made to Talbot who agreed to a proposal to instruct Robert McCormick, the surgeon and naturalist, and Joseph Hooker, (1817-1911) the assistant surgeon, in his photogenic drawing process. A letter from McCormick to Talbot on this subject adds another voice to the sentiments in the Richardson and Buckland letters. Photogenic drawing is described as 'an art which promises to be of incalculable value in delineating the various objects of Natural History'(19). Despite these efforts neither daguerreotypes nor talbotypes were made during the Antarctic Expedition, although some cyanotypes were made later after Herschel developed this process in 1842(20). Nevertheless, it is most likely that the officers of the Ross Expedition at least discussed photography with their Tasmanian hosts.

The opportunity to attempt the first photographs in Australia and the Antarctic had therefore escaped the Ross Expedition(21). Much was said about the applications of photography to natural history studies and expeditions but little was achieved in the earliest years, particularly in Australia where both science and the arts had a precarious existence(22).

More detailed news of photography may have preceded the arrival of both the Ross Expedition and Dr Buckland's letter, through the Polish explorer and geologist Paul Strzelecki (1797-1873) who arrived in Launceston from Melbourne on 24 July 1840(23). It seems he had already told Melbourne artist and surveyor Robert Russell (1808-1900) of the development of the daguerreotype(24). Strzelecki became friendly with Sir John Franklin and communicated his own enthusiastic response to the developments described in the Tasmanian Journal, views which Sir John would have shared:

The Daguerrism [sic] is surprising; and before long will become a valuable instrument in Meteorology for ascertaining the Diaphaneity of the atmosphere and other not less interesting problems of solar radiation. I delight at all these discoveries, and the cheering prospect of peace and advancement of Science which the enquiring mind of the age in the diffusion of knowledge hold out to the world(25).

The confluence of all this news of photography from such letters, the arrival of the Ross Expedition, and contacts with new arrivals such as Louisa Meredith and Strzelecki, confirms that within a year or so of the announcement of photography in Europe even the most distant colonial settlements were well informed of its progress. However, it seems that all this enthusiasm did not result in any local experimentation with photographic processes by any of the parties who knew of photography as early as 1839-1840. This was most likely due to the lack both of any real examples or any technical manuals. None of Daguerre's technical manuals of 1839 are known to have reached Australia.

George Goodman, the first professional photographer to work in Australia, had arrived in Hobart in August 1843, but Sir John and Lady Franklin, both so interested in photography, do not appear to have had their portraits taken before their departure for England in November(26). There is also no evidence that members of the Tasmanian Society made any attempt to pioneer the systematic application of photography for natural history purposes either before or after the commercial introduction of the daguerreotype(27).

The great boost to the development of photography in Australia would come not from science, but from commercial portraiture.

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List of illustrations used in the original publication (captions may be abbreviated):

P.2: William Henry Fax talbot: Leaf of a plant, 1845

P.3; julie Margaret Cameron: Sir john herschel, 1867

P.3: Anna Atkins: Polypodium effusium, Jamaica, c.1850

P.4: (wood engraving) capt Sir john franklin KHC aboard the Erebus, London, 1845

 

 

 

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