Saturday, 24 September 2011

Sepia Saturday 93: Collodion positives, early coloured portraits in Derby

For want of a photograph of a sleeping man for this week's Sepia Saturday contribution I'm going to choose the theme of early photography and the negative influence of Talbot, by continuing with another in what will be a series of posts on hand coloured portraits.

Image © Brett Payne
Early Derby photographers, 1854-1864

The development of commercial photography was in the doldrums throughout England in the early 1850s, largely due to Henry Fox Talbot's fierce protection of his calotype patents and his contention that Frederick Scott Archer's collodion process was merely an extension of his own discoveries. When his court case against Laroche was thrown out in December 1854, the way was clear for portrait studios to produce collodion positives on glass, and there was indeed a very rapid uptake of the by then four year-old technology. In the United States it was patented in that same year by Boston photographer Ambrose Cutting as the ambrotype.

Although Marcus Guttenberg had visited Derby briefly in 1852 (Adamson, 1997), the town's first permanent photographer of the 1850s appears to have been James Brennen who is reported to have "[taken] up Daguerreotype and turned out portraits as good as could be found at the time" in 1854 (Keene, 1886, in Birks, 1934), or perhaps even slightly earlier in 1853 (Craven, 1993). It seems likely, however, that he would have adopted the collodion positive process by early 1855, when both he and Edmund Stowe were listed in a trade directory as "photographic artists" (Kelly, 1955).

Image © British Library Newspapers and courtesy of Gale CENGAGE Learning
William Seville's advert in The Derby Mercury, 15 August 1855
Image © British Library Newspapers and courtesy of Gale

Later that year four more photographers - James Wilson, William Seville, Richard Smith and E.N. Charles - had opened their doors. Seville appears to have been the first to have advertised the new "collodion portraits" in the local newspaper in August 1855. Although some practitioners did not stay the course, either moving elsewhere (Seville and B.W. Botham) or into other fields (George B. Coggan and Frederick Parkes), by the end of the decade, even before the advent of the hugely popular carte de visite, the town could boast of having nine active photographic portrait studios. Thomas Roberts, Derby's first resident daguerreotypist, had returned to the fold in 1856 (White, 1857), and newcomers included John Westmoreland, James Mills and his son, also named James, Arthur Neville, William Pearson, John Thornhill and George S. Bristow (Anon, 1860).

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Either Christina or Elizabeth Slater of Derby, c.1854-1858
Collodion positive portrait on glass by unidentified photographer
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

This delicately coloured portrait of a young girl on glass belongs to Nigel Aspdin, and he believes it to be one of two sisters Christina or Elizabeth Slater of Derby. Christina and Elizabeth, then aged five and three, are shown living with their parents John and Ann Slater and two younger brothers in Fowler Street, Derby in the 1851 Census. I'd say this young girl is about seven or eight years old, which fits fairly well with my estimated date for the portrait of between 1854 and 1858, based on the clothing, hair and sitting styles. Unfortunately the sisters are too close in age for me to be able to deduce which is shown in the portrait without further information.

Deconstructed cased collodion positive portrait
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Nigel also sent me this photograph of the collodion positive which he had taken apart. Although I thought it would be instructive to include this image so that readers could get an idea of how such portraits were usually mounted in a case, I'm definitely not recommending that others try this with their own. Without professional knowledge and extreme care, it may result in significant, irreparable damage, particularly to the delicate photographic emulsion.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Digitally reconstructed underexposed collodion negative

Trade magazines of the time, such as The Photographic News, were full of practical advice to both professionals and amateurs, including the correct amount of exposure to give a plate which was intended for a collodion positive image. This resulted in something along the lines of what I have reconstructed digitially (above), which could then be hand coloured. After colouring, the glass plate was backed with either black varnish or felt, protected behind another layer of thin glass, and then mounted behind a brass matt or finisher with a pinchbeck surround (also known as a preserver), inside a wooden, papier mache or thermoplastic case.

Image © British Library Newspapers and courtesy of Gale CENGAGE Learning
B.W. Botham's advert in The Derby Mercury, 15 August 1855
Image © British Library Newspapers and courtesy of Gale

In 1858 and 1859, the The Photographic News published a series of articles containing detailed instructions on colouring collodion positives, extracts from which will serve to illustrate the process:
Photographic powder colours ... furnish the only suitable and simple means of colouring collodion positives on glass. They are applied in the form of impalpable powder, with a dry pencil, to the collodion film. They should, if properly prepared, be brilliant in colour, transparent, and, as far as possible, permanent; they should, at the same time, "bite" well, or adhere readily to the surface of the plain or varnished wet collodion film. Brushes ... For general use camel's hair is more suitable than sable ... for fine lines a few small sables will be desirable ... they should be agitated in a glass of clean water, and brought to a point by drawing them through the lips ... An India-rubber bottle, with tube attached, to blow away superlfuous colour, will be required ... Some colour on the collodion film, and leave it so; others colour thus, and then finish with varnishing; whilst others varnish first, and colour on the varnished film ... A coating of some black varnish is usually applied to the reverse side of the plate to produce the shadows. This is rarely the best method for coloured pictures ... We prefer, for this purpose, a backing of deep maroon velvet, which warms the shadows, and harmonises with the ... tints used in portraiture.
From what I can tell, this portrait only has a single colour added, decorating the girls dress a pale blue. It is a little blotchy, but does not give an unpleasing effect. The portrait itself, even though the photographer has not succeeeded in putting his subject completely at ease, is well composed and in focus, and I think demonstrates at least a moderate degree of skill. Sadly, it's not yet possible to determine who this photographer was. As further examples of portraits from the 1850s are unearthed, however, a more detailed understanding of the photographic community active at that time may bring new clues.


Adamson, Keith A. (1997) Professional Photographers in Derbyshire 1843-1914, Supplement to The PhotoHistorian, No. 118, September 1997, Royal Photographic Society, ISSN 0957-0209.

Anon (1858-1859) Lessons on Colouring Photographs, The Photographic News, Google Books.
Vol. 1, No. 12, 26 November, 1858, p. 138.
Vol. 1, No. 14, 10 December, 1858, p. 162.
Vol. 1, No. 15, 17 December, 1858, pp. 174-175.
Vol. 1, No. 16, 24 December, 1858, p. 186.
Vol. 1, No. 17, 31 December, 1858, pp. 199-200.
Vol. 1, No. 18, 7 January, 1859, pp. 208-209.
Vol. 1, No. 19, 14 January, 1859, p. 222.
Vol. 1, No. 20, 21 January, 1859, p. 234.
Vol. 1, No. 21, 28 January, 1859, pp. 245-246.
Vol. 1, No. 22, 4 February, 1859, pp. 258.
Vol. 1, No. 23, 11 February, 1859, p. 269.
Vol. 1, No. 24, 18 February, 1859, p. 281.
Vol. 1, No. 25, 25 February, 1859, pp. 292-293.
Vol. 1, No. 26, 4 March, 1859, pp. 302-303.

Anon (1860) Directory & Gazetteer of Derbyshire, London, England: Harrison, Harrod & Co.

Anon (1861) Census of Derby, Derbyshire, England, RG9-2505, London, England: National Archives.

Birks, Frank Elliott (1934) History of the Derby Photographic Society 1884-1934.

Craven, Maxwell (ed.) (1993) Keene's Derby, Breedon Books, Derby, pp. 200-202.

Kelly (1855) The Post Office Directory of Derbyshire & Nottinghamshire, Digital Library of Historical Directories, University of Leicester.

Rosenblum, Naomi (1984) A World History of Photography, New York: Abbeville Press, pp. 194-196.

White, Francis & Co. (1857), History, Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Derby, with the town of Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, Sheffield, England: Francis White & Co.


  1. She does not look pleased. I like the negative.

  2. Thank you for another thorough analysis! Knowing potential alternate terms is very helpful.

    One of my current struggles is that many of the photos (various types) were reproduced. I can only hope that the suspected ambrotypes surface.

  3. An amazing amount of information. I know nothing about the different photography processes
    You asked my about the photo in my post, the photo is on card. I have seen a photo of one of my great grandfathers that was on glass but it was a lot later than the photo on my post p the one on glass was taken in the 1880's or 90's. Now I am wondering what process was used for my 1858 photo for it to be on card.

  4. As usual you have given us such a source of great information! The young lady appears to be really ready to just go outside and play, don't you think!

  5. It's like dipping into an encylopaedia when we visit your post Brett. The little girl doesn't look very relaxed and was obviously there under sufference. She'd probably rather be off playing somewhere.

  6. The photo of the little girl is so beautiful, thanks for another fascinating post.

  7. I agree with Kristin, I like the negative. It does not portray the stern look on the face of the little girl as much....great post Brett.

  8. In the photo type of the girl, to me it appears that her head was added to the portrait of her seated. Lots of information here today.

  9. I think that the color really makes the photo more interesting.

  10. The amount of information you give always surprises me. I'll never take old photos for granted again.

  11. She looks frightened to me, poor soul. It immediately reminded me of a friends son who had to go for an x-ray and asked if he really had to smile.

  12. Fascinating and important information. And I love the ads. The line saying "Sunshine not required" is priceless." And I always find it fascinating when the only thing tinted are the clothes. It does look like there is perhaps a wee bit of pink to her cheeks.

  13. If you're interested in this stuff (and I am) then this is a very interesting read. Thank you!

  14. I really was not aware of the process, which is fascinating.

  15. Fascinating seems an inadequate word for this post. The ad line on no sunshine required suggests that the public had some idea of how photography worked and how some early photos were poorly exposed.

    What kind of men took up the trade of photographer in this early period? Were they from a fine art background, or enterprising tradesmen? The development of modern chemistry must have attracted a kind of amateur scientist too. It was such a new technology, it must have been like the early days of computers when the entrepreneurs struggled and competed for customers.

  16. Kristin & Rosie - Me too, it has a quality which is hard to define, but is quite different from the positive.

    Liz - Yes I hope so too, for your sake. With practice, it's often possible to tell what kind of photograph the original was, provided that you are working from decent scans, of course.

    Marilyn - It's worth considering that yours could originally have been taken in 1858, and then copied into that format at a later stage by some different process.

    Karen & Little Nell - Thank you and yes, I agree - so much better than being indoors in a smelly photographic studio, with a strange man making unusual demands.

    LisaB & Rob - And thank you for visiting.

    Pat in MN - I think perhaps that's a reflection of the discomfort of the pose she was asked to endure. What I hadn't considered, although I should have, since it now seems obvious to me, is that she was possibly further encumbered by a "neck clamp," a device used to keep sitters' heads still during long exposures. When done correctly they were not visible around the neck, although the base of the stands are sometimes visible on the floor. In this case, if there is one it is well hidden.

    Postcardy - The colour adds a little life, yes.

    Bob - If that's all I have achieved, then I've done my job :-)

    Sheila - That's an excellent story, which I must remember. Agaian, I think the almost frightened expression may be due to the awkward feeling of the neck clamp.

    T+L & Mike B - As with even modern photographer, the more light there is, the shorter the exposure time. Early photographers would therefore often photograph outdoors so that they could reduce exposure time, which for early photographic emulsions was fairly lengthy. Studios were designed with long rows of large windows to let in plenty of sunlight, and if there was enough natural light, then portraits culd even be taken indoors without brilliant sunshine. As emulsions became more sensitive, the times, and the need for sunshine, were reduced further.

    Christine - I'm glad that it was of some use then!

    Mike B - Regarding backgrounds, well that is not easily dealt with in the form of a comment. Backgrounds were extremely varied, from artists (painters and silhouette cutters) to booksellers to chimney sweeps. Perhaps it's worth doing a post on early Derby photographers and their origins at some stage.

  17. a most delightful and informative post. thank you!!

  18. This is really fascinating. I had thought the colldion process was not used until the 1890s at which time it was used in cabinet card photography. Am I misunderstanding the various resources I have read?

  19. whowerethey - Yes, I think you are mistaken. Wikipedia has a concise history of the process, introduced in the early 1850s, and replaced in turn by gelatin dry plates in the 1880s. The albumen substrate used for photographic prints, as opposed to negatives, was used from the 1850s until around the turn of the century.

  20. Good research and a very interesting post. Thanks!


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