Until the second part of the nineteenth century, images of ordinary men and women were few and far between. To capture the likeness of a more renowned personality was a long process of formal portraiture, including long hours for both the sitter and artist. Alternatively, the process of engravings taken from drawings or paintings was almost as laborious for the artisan.
Looking for ways to produce a quicker method and a more perfect likeness, artists began experimenting with a way to create a drawing image on a viewing surface that could be sketched over. This became known as the camera obscura. As early as 1515, Leonardo de Vinci was experimenting with one, in the seventeenth century Robert Hooke FRS also worked with one and in the mid-eighteenth century Canaletto used it as an aid to his painting in Venice.
However, this method had its weaknesses because as soon as the viewing surface was moved, the image was lost. Although experiments began to improve this method, such as those by Thomas Wedgwood, who at the end of the eighteenth century made photograms by placing objects on leather sensitized with silver nitrate, it was not until the nineteenth century that people began to look in earnest for a faster and more satisfactory way of recording an image. Nicéphore Niépce produced the first photograph by using pewter plates in a camera obscura in 1826. However, it was William Henry Fox Talbot, in Britain, and Louis Daguerre, in France, who managed to capture the public's imagination by creating and fixing images with photosensitive chemicals.
With Jules Duboscq exhibiting daguerreotypes in the Great Exhibition in 1851, the lifting of Talbot's patent in 1852, Fenton's Crimean war photos appearing in 1855, and the formal photography of Queen Victoria by Mayall in 1860, photography took off in Britain.
The Royal Society had taken an active role in this process either in an indirect way, through discoveries by Fellows such as the physicists Isaac Newton, who managed to divide sunlight with a prism and discovered that white light is a combination of distinct colours (seen by Newton as seven) in the seventeenth century, and Thomas Young, who expanded and proposed that there are three primary colours that move in waves; or in a direct way through John William Herschel's correspondence to the Society on photography, the reading of Talbot's paper on photography1 or through the active role of the Royal Society's President William Parson, the Earl or Rosse, in persuading Fox Talbot to lift his patent in 1852 and thus allowing other photographers to use the technology and explore it further.
One of the men fascinated by this new process was Henry Maull (1829–1914), the son of a tradesman, who struggled for half a century to bring photographic portraiture to the general public. Although Maull always worked as an individual photographer in his own studio, he also set up a series of what would become famous partnerships throughout his lifetime.
His first partnership, with George Henry Polyblank, was opened in Gracechurch Street, London, in 1854, and is an example of those studios that took advantage of the lifting of Fox Talbot's patent. The premises soon expanded to include 187a Piccadilly in 1857 and Fulham Road in 1864. The studio specialized in large arch-top sepia photographs with gilt borders, mounted on card.
In line with the Victorian tradition of producing serials they began to publish, in monthly parts, photographs of contemporary personalities together with biographical notes, which were then issued in a bound volume once the series was complete. Their first such publication, Photographic portraits of living celebrities, with biographical notes by Herbert Fry and later Edward Walford, was published in 40 monthly parts, in London between 1856 and 1859. The spine title of the bound volume was ‘Literary and Scientific Portrait Club’ and included photographs of many Fellows of the Royal Society.
In fact the first photograph to be published in this way, in May 1856, was that of Professor Richard Owen FRS, first Hunterian Professor of Comparative Anatomy and Physiology at the Royal College of Surgeons, first Director of the Natural History Museum and an opponent to Darwin's theory of evolution. A copy of this photograph is held in the Royal Society's archives (figure 1).
Another famous celebrity whose photograph was published in this series was that of Michael Faraday FRS, depicted holding a bar magnet in the air. This photograph become famous and was also used to illustrate publications at the time such as an article on Faraday in the Boy's Own Paper in 18792 and is an example of how photographs would begin to overtake engravings as illustrations in printed works. The Society's copy of this photograph is shown in figure 2.
Not only were these photographs published on a monthly basis but they were also included in the many exhibitions up and down the country in which Maull and Polyblank were to participate, including the those of Photographic Society of Scotland in 1856, the Photographic Society, London (later to become the Royal Photographic Society), on several occasions, and an international exhibition held in London in 1862.
The partnership between Maull and Polyblank was dissolved in 1865, possibly as a result of Polyblank's divorce in the same year. However, between 1866 and 1872 Henry Maull continued to work in the studios in Fulham Road and Piccadilly and opened another in Cheapside. Towards the end of his partnership with Polyblank they had embraced a new step forwards in photography known as the carte-de-visite, or visiting card, photograph, which could be mass-produced from one plate and therefore reduced costs considerably. It had been invented and used in France by Disderi to photograph Napoleon III in 1859. Its cost-effectiveness had made it popular with the public in England, who could hand these small sepia photographs to their friends as they would a calling card, and Maull carried on producing these in his new studio.
Since its foundations the Royal Society has always been anxious to hold an image of every Fellow that passed through its doors from its foundations in 1660. Besides taking an active part in the invention of photography it also encouraged the use of photography both as a scientific tool and as a means of obtaining portraits for the collection. It is in this context that about 700 photographs of Fellows taken at the Maull studios were deposited at the Society between the 1850s and the beginning of the twentieth century. Among these is a carte-de-visite photograph of Florence Baker (figure 3), wife of Sir Samuel White Baker FRS, taken by Maull's second studio. This is the only photograph of a woman held in the Maull collection at the Society, and the reasons why it was included can only be speculated upon; perhaps it was because of her notoriety at the time, because Baker was supposed to have rescued her from slavery or because together they had explored a source of the river Nile in Egypt.
In 1879 Maull formed a partnership with John Fox, son-in-law of James Maull, and probably Henry's brother-in-law. This partnership was formally dissolved for bankruptcy in 1885, although the name was kept until John's son Herbert registered it again as a business in 1913. By this time the format of the photographic process had changed to that of a dry-plate process with a larger greyscale format.
The Royal Society photograph used to illustrate the work of this studio is that of William Halse Rivers Rivers FRS (figure 4), the psychiatrist of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon.
The tradition of holding Fellows' photographs in the Society's collection began with this collection, but was continued into the twentieth century. Between the early 1930s and the end of the 1980s Fellows were sent to the Godfrey Argent studio photographers to have their photograph taken on Admission. Today, new Fellows' photographs are taken on Admission Day in the Library. Both the Maull collection and the Godfrey Argent collections have been digitized, and thumbnails can be seen on the Library's online catalogue at www.royalsoc.ac.uk/library.
- © 2007 The Royal Society