A Farewell to Sir John Herschel


It was just two months ago that this blog was able to celebrate the birth of Sir John Frederick William Herschel on 7 March 1792. This week, perhaps a little less cheerfully, we commemorate his death yesterday, 11 May, in the year 1871.  I’ve long believed that Herschel was absolutely essential to Talbot’s success, perhaps less for his significant chemical and verbal contributions than for his unwavering support and encouragement of the beleaguered Henry.
Herschel’s image is so well established by his friend and acolyte Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 portraits of him that it is difficult to keep in mind that he was a broken man by then, nearing the end of his life.  The John Herschel who had already established his reputation (both amongst scientists and the ladies) by the time of this 1829 portrait was much more vibrant.


We are fortunate in having two depictions of Sir John done during the early years of photography.  While diminishing in no way the enormous visual power of Cameron’s iconic views, perhaps they give a more nuanced sense of the man during the period of his most active influence on photography.


The one on the left was painted in 1843 by Christian Jensen and Herschel’s wife Maggie considered it to be particularly accurate – we can count on her being a fair critic.  The daguerreotype on the right, by John Mayall, is dated 1848.   The 1840s were a trying time for Henry Talbot but perhaps even more so for Herschel.  In mid-1838 he had returned from an idyllic period at the Cape of Good Hope to a London society for which he had little patience, a London air that  he could not breathe, and a British scientific community at war with itself.  Could his hair have whitened so much in five years?  Perhaps if we allow just a bit of artistic licence to Jensen and admit to the unintentional cruelty of the daguerreotype we can just about accept this.


One of the least known Cameron’s of Herschel is my personal favourite.  The Astronomer  captures the essence of this aging yet  enquiring mind, contemplating the vast universe and still trying to make sense of it all.
Yes, someday soon we must do a fuller blog just on Sir John.


Collections on the move



Those of our readers who follow Dr Michael Pritchard’s constantly updated and invaluable British Photographic History (and you all should be!) will be well aware of the change in direction of the National Media and Science Museum in Bradford (until recently the National Media Museum but founded as the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television). One important aspect of this is the transfer of the historic collection of the Royal Photographic Society, a collection long resident at their headquarters in Bath until not too many years ago. The Victoria & Albert Museum began collecting photographs in 1852 but its collection has now been substantially bolstered by the arrival of the Royal Photographic Society Collection. Quite impressively, some of the images are already available online and this cataloguing is progressiving rapidly. Stay tuned to this space for more detailed information in the near future.





The Launch & early progress of the Catalogue Raisonné


This website was officially launched on 10 February of this year, just a day before Talbot’s birthday.  Our modest staff was truly overwhelmed by the public and private response and it must have seemed to some readers that we immediately went dormant.  Such was not the case.  There were the inevitable technical glitches (I often wondered how scientists could keep a straight face accepting funding to create Ronnie’s Star Wars System, for nothing that complex could ever work 100% perfectly the first time).  And we have had some changes of technical staff, which amongst other human factors made what was happening behind the scenes less obvious to the public.

For those of you who wrote in, either on the web form or directly by email and have not had a response, please forgive me.  There was such a fine reaction that frankly we have a backlog, safely stored and being acted on as quickly as possible.   Your contributions will make it into the online version just as soon as we can.

We have been guided by the public response and within the next few weeks will be making a major change that will hopefully benefit researchers.  Although we have data on approximately 25,000 Talbot negatives and prints worldwide, only about 5% of these records are refelected in the online database so far.   That is soon to change.

By this time next month, this website should mirror Talbot’s Oak Tree in Winter.  We intend to publish skeletal parts of all 25,000 item level records.  Think of that as an armature – or a bare tree – yet to be fully covered.  Record by record we will be adding missing images and detailed information.  It will come one leaf at a time, but hopefully within the year this tree will be in full bloom.  In the meantime,  the user should be able to determine how many different times the Bust of Patroclus was photographed by Talbot;  or what original Talbots are held by the Fotografische Sammlung in the Museum Folkwang in Essen; or what the variant views of The Martyrs Monument might be.

At the beginning, the majority of these basic records will not be illustrated and might be missing detailed information.  However, they should give you a means to get started on your research and will alert you to which collections contain items relevant to you.  Also, please feel free to request things of interest to you, such as any photographs of sculptures by Bailly, and we will try to prioritise the full entries of these.  Obviously we cannot do everything at once but we will make every effort to accommodate as many as possible.

And please keep those suggestions and questions flowing in, either by the weblink or by email.  If you encounter a glitch, or some critical search parameter has not yet been included, let us know.  In modern terms, this is a crowd-sourcing effort, and this is your chance to shape its outcome.

Many thanks for your patience during this period of growth.


Larry J Schaaf


• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk  Julia Margaret Cameron, The Astronomer (detail), albumen print from a wet collodion negative, 1867, Royal Photographic Society Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum.  •  Alfred E. Chalon, John Herschel, miniature painting, 1829; courtesy of John Herschel-Shorland.  • Christian Albrecht Jensen,  Sir John Herschel, oil portrait, 1843,  The Royal Society, London.John Jabez Edwin Mayall, Sir John Herschel, daguerreotype, 1848, The National Portrait Gallery, London. Julia Margaret Cameron, The Astronomer, albumen print from a wet collodion negative, 1867, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.  • Nicolaas Henneman, Zulu Woman, albumen print from a calotype negative, 1852, Royal Photographic Society Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum.  For more on Henneman’s photography of this type see Aztecs, Ice Skating & Miss Mitford’s Dog.    • WHFT, Oak Tree in Winter, salted paper print from a calotype negative, probably 1842-1843, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.