Due to unforeseen circumstances, this week’s blog comes with an unexpected introduction from me, as Bodley’s Librarian, the successor to the wonderfully named Bulkeley Bandinel, who was the Librarian at the time that Talbot photographed the Library in the 1840s.
Dr. Kelley Wilder, the author of the guest blog this week, is a respected figure in the world of photographic history more generally, and in Talbot Studies particularly, having been a Corresponding Editor, under the leadership of our esteemed Director, of the Talbot Correspondence Project (which is now hosted at her institution, De Montfort University, at Leicester, of which she is the Director of the Photographic History Research Centre). She now also serves on this project’s Steering Committee. Her guest blog focusses on a topic: the photomicrography of crystals, which was not only another area of Talbot’s innovation and experimentation, but which continues to be an important area of scientific imaging. Richard Ovenden
Photographic research has always benefitted from a close community in which the synergy of friendship and discovery often produce new and exciting research. One such productive friendship thrived between Talbot and the notoriously cranky Sir David Brewster. Larry has already written about Brewster’s visit to Lacock Abbey in July 1842, and the Calotypes they made together. But Calotyping was only one of the many things in which both men were interested. They also shared a passion for the nascent field of crystallography, as it would come to be called.
Since it was May 1952 that Raymond Gosling, working with Rosalind Franklin, took the famous x-ray diffraction photograph called Photo 51, it’s a fitting month to look at how Talbot brought photography to the study of crystals nearly a century earlier.
“I have recovered the art of making circular crystals…” wrote Talbot to Brewster on 29 January 1848. To make them, he…
…dissolved a portion with heat in a drop of water on a glass plate, pressed another glass plate upon it and then placed both glasses in a vice, under as strong pressure as the glass would bear, and left it all night in a room temperature 32º to crystallise. When taken out today the … plates exhibited bands of colour like Newton’s Rings over their whole surface. Transferred to the microscope the reason of this became apparent. The whole surface was dotted with perfect circular crystals of large size & each circle was nearly uniform in colour over its superficies, which colour varied in different circles. But it was seen that all the circles of the same colour lay together, thus for instance some hundred orange circles lay together, & these were succeeded by some hundred purple ones, then some hundred blue ones, … It is strikingly beautiful. All the circles appear fringed with gold which adds amazingly to the richness of the effect.
The scattering of multi-coloured circles of crystals across the surface of the plate might explain talbot’s negative and it’s corresponding print.
The relative sensitivity of different colours to the Calotype makes me read these as a small part of the hundreds of blue or purple circles Talbot saw under the microscope.
I say, ‘under the microscope’, but Talbot would have seen them much larger than we see them here, and in full colour, almost human-height, projected brightly in the dark. It must have been a spectacular sight. The solar microscope he was using was a projection device, with a mirrored arm for directing the sunlight through the specimen and the microscope. Talbot’s solar microscope is in the Royal Photographic Society collection, now held at the V&A Museum in London.
These sorts of devices had been integral to the study of polarised light for some time.
Talbot’s other close friend and collaborator, Sir John Herschel, revealed his own setup in a page of the Philosophical Transactions in 1820, when he published a paper, ‘On the action of Crystallized Bodies’ [Footnote 1].
In his published paper, nearly a year later Herschel wrote that the projection method was more desirable than direct observation with the eye. It allowed for group examination, and a more leisurely observation of all the minutia of the projection (as long as the sun stayed out). He also wrote about how this method might allow for measuring, drawing or indeed tracing these complex polarized phenomena ‘with the utmost exactness and facility’ [Footnote 3].
Talbot apparently made good use of just this suggestion, working with an illustrator to make some drawings of the phenomena of polarized crystals. These were very likely made during his preparation for the Bakerian Lecture in 1837 [Footnote 4]. The Bakerian Lecture and medal are still given every year at the Royal Society, representing some of the most outstanding research in the physical sciences. If we ever wonder why Talbot seemed so disinterested in his photographic research in the 1830s, well, in the face of such acclaim for his crystallography, perhaps it makes some sense. With this lecture, Talbot joined the heady ranks of some of the most famous scientists of the day: Michael Faraday, Humphry Davy, John Herschel and many more. So, Talbot’s crystals should interest us, and the drawings, although not made by Talbot, have made their way into the Catalogue Raisonné.
In the series of crystallography images attributed to Talbot in the Catalogue Raisonné, there are a series of drawings that fit those described by Talbot in his letter to Brewster perfectly, all copied by photography. Some show different single crystals examined under polarized light.
These are very likely to be copies of drawings made by the one ‘Curtis’ mentioned in letters in Talbot’s correspondence. This might well be Charles M. Curtis, a botanical and zoological illustrator who contributed to J. F. Stephens’, Illustrations of British Entomology (1828-1846). The last sight of Curtis’s illustrations in ‘WorldCat’ is 1839, putting these drawings toward the end of his life.
In 1838, Talbot appears to have sent several drawings to John George Children, who then gave them as a gift to the Duke of Sussex, then president of the Royal Society. They even appear to have attracted the admiration, according to Children, of Queen Victoria. The drawings don’t disappear though, as we find Talbot sending drawings by Curtis to Brewster in 1847, when his research appears to have been rekindled. This recurrence puzzled me until I began to think of ‘copies’. In 1838, Constance Talbot was busy making copies of the circular crystal drawings, with some difficulty, she says. Although it is impossible to know which drawings were sent to the Royal Society, and I will look for them next time I’m in London, it is possible that some of Constance’s copies are circulating as Curtis’s original drawings! I will keep looking for an answer and perhaps some readers of this blog can shed some light.
There is little doubt that these drawings relate to at least one of the prints in the Catalogue Raisonné. Schaaf number 5055 shows a distinctive black ring right at the outer edge of the drawing. This ring puzzled Brewster, who had never observed anything like it…
I have preserved with great care the three drawings by Mr Curtis which you kindly gave me. One of them shews two & another three black rings close to the minute sectors of light in the Centre of the crystal, but not the external black ring. I have never seen more than one black ring where your drawings shew two & three.
Talbot’s description of the circular crystals might explain the ring however. He described them as having a golden edge. Gold is one of those colours so difficult to reproduce in nineteenth century photographic technology. It would have left a dark ring had Brewster been looking at a photograph, rather than a coloured drawing. There isn’t time today to go further on this crystallographic journey, but it serves as a reminder of the many hands involved in early photography, and the many lives entangled in the Catalogue Raisonée.
Next week I will follow up on the experiments Herschel made on polarized crystals, and show how they have been propagated with photography over nearly a century.
Dr. Kelley Wilder
- John Herschel, ‘On the action of Crystallized Bodies on Homogenous Light, and on the Causes of the Deviation from Newton’s Scale in Tints Which Many of Them Develop on Exposure to a Polarised Ray’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Royal Society of London, 1820, Plate V, p.100
- The Royal Society of London, RS:HS 4:249, letter not dated, but likely 24 November 1819.
- John Herschel, ‘On the action of Crystallized Bodies on Homogenous Light, and on the Causes of the Deviation from Newton’s Scale in Tints Which Many of Them Develop on Exposure to a Polarised Ray’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Royal Society of London, 1820, p.80
- William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘Further Observations on the Optical Phenomena of Crystals (Bakerian Lecture)’, Royal Society Proceedings, iii (1836), pp. 455-66, William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘On the Optical Phenomena of Certain Crystals’, Philosophical Magazine, ix (1837), pp. 25-7.
• Questions or Comments? Dr. Kelley Wilder can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org • WHFT to Brewster, 29 January 1848, The British Library, London, Doc. No. 06094. • WHFT, Arrangement of seven crystals, salted paper print, Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, 1995.206.300, Schaaf 5304. • WHFT and possibly William Crookes, Photomicrograph of seven crystals or circular interference patterns, waxed paper negative, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-2510, Schaaf 1479. • WHFT’s Solar Microscope, Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A Museum, London, previously Inv. No. 1936-430. • J. F. W. Herschel, ‘On the action of Crystallized Bodies on Homogenous Light, and on the Causes of the Deviation from Newton’s Scale in Tints Which Many of Them Develop on Exposure to a Polarised Ray’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, The Royal Society of London, 1820, Plate V, p.100. • WHFT and possibly William Crookes, Photomicrograph of three crystals, waxed paper negative, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-2512, Schaaf 1477. • WHFT, Photomicrograph of a crystal or circular interference pattern, waxed paper negative, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-2507, Schaaf 1481. • WHFT and possibly William Crookes, Photomicrograph of a crystal or circular interference pattern, salted paper print, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-2508, Schaaf 5054. • WHFT and possibly William Crookes, waxed salt print, Photomicrograph of a crystal or circular interference pattern, National Museum of Science and Media, Bradford, 1937-2511/1, Schaaf 5055. • J. G. Children to WHFT, 20 February 1838, The British Library, London, Doc. No. 3646. • Brewster to WHFT, 31 December 1847, National Science and media Museum, Bradford, Doc. No. 6070.