Thomas Wedgwood (photographer)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Thomas Wedgwood (14 May 1771 – 10 July 1805), son of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, was an early experimenter with Humphry Davy in photography.



Thomas Wedgwood born in May 1771 in Etruria, Staffordshire, now part of the city of Stoke-on-Trent in England.

Wedgwood was born into a long line of pottery manufacturers, grew up and was educated at Etruria and was instilled from his youth with a love for art. He also spent much of his short life associating with painters, sculptors, and poets, to whom he was able to be a patron after he inherited his father's wealth in 1795.

As a young adult, Wedgwood became interested in the best method of educating children, and spent time studying infants. From his observations, he concluded that most of the information that young brains absorbed came through the eyes, and were thus related to light and pictures. His attempts to create permanent pictures created by the use of light might have been an attempt to aid in the improvement of teaching, although they led him to invent photography itself (see below).

Wedgwood never married and had no children. His biographer notes that "neither his extant letters nor family tradition tell us of his caring for any woman outside the circle of his relations" and that he was "strongly attracted" to musical and sensitive young men.

He died in the county of Dorset.

The pioneer of photography

Wedgwood is credited with a major contribution to photography and technology, for being the first man to think of and develop a method to copy visible images chemically to permanent media.

In his many experiments with heat and light – and possibly with advice on silver nitrate from his tutor Alexander Chisholm and from members of the Lunar Society – Wedgwood first used ceramic pots coated with silver nitrate as well as treated paper and white leather as media of print, and had the most success with the white leather. Although he originally tried to create images with a “camera obscura,” his attempts were unsuccessful. His major achievements were the printing of an object’s profile through direct contact with the treated paper, thus creating an image’s shape on paper, and, by a similar method, copying transparent paintings-on-glass through direct contact and exposure to sunlight.

The dates of his first experiments in photography are unknown, but he is known to have advised James Watt (1736–1819) on the process of photography, circa 1790 or 1791. Watt wrote to Wedgwood...

"Dear Sir, I thank you for your instructions as to the Silver Pictures, about which, when at home, I will make some experiments."

Sometime in the 1790s, Wedgwood devised a repeatable method of chemically staining an object's silhouette to paper by coating the paper with silver nitrate and exposing the paper, with the object on top, to natural light, then preserving it in a dark room. The establishment of this repeatable process was, essentially, the birth of photography as we know it today. Wedgwood thus became one of the earliest experimenters in photography – and certainly the earliest who deserves the title of "photographer", conceiving of prints as pictures. It should be noted, however, that new discoveries in the prehistory of photography are being made by historians almost every year.

Wedgwood met a young chemist named Humphry Davy (1778–1829) at the Pneumatic Clinic in Bristol, while Wedgwood was there being treated for consumption. Davy wrote up his friend's work for publication in London’s Journal of the Royal Institution (1802), and titled it “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver. Invented by T.Wedgwood, Esq.” The paper was published and detailed Wedgwood’s procedures and accomplishments, yet the institution was not the venerable force it is today. At the time the Journal was:

"a little paper printed from time to time to let the subscribers to the infant institution know what was being done ...the 'Journal' did not live beyond a first volume. There is nothing to show that Davy's account was ever read at any meeting; and the print of it would have been read, apparently, if read at all, only by the small circle of members and subscribers to the institution, of whom, we may be pretty sure, only a small minority can have been scientific people." (Litchfield, p.196-197).

Nevertheless, the paper of 1802 and Wedgwood's work directly influenced other chemists and scientists delving into the craft of photography, since subsequent research (Batchen, p. 228) has shown it was actually quite widely known about and was mentioned in chemistry textbooks as early as 1803. David Brewster, later a close friend of William Fox Talbot, published an account of the paper in the Edinburgh Magazine (Dec 1802). The paper was translated into French, and also printed in Germany in 1811. Certainly J. B. Reade's research in the 1830s was directly influenced by knowledge of Wedgwood's procedure of tanning the leather for his prints. Tanning photographic paper was discovered to be helpful by shrinking the size of the silver nitrate grains, and this method was communicated to Fox Talbot by a friend of Reade – as was proven in a court case over patents. Fox Talbot found a suitable fixative for the process, around 1838. Photography quickly became popular thereafter. For instance, in Charlotte Bronte's novel Shirley (1849), toward the end of chapter XXIV the author writes of a portrait photograph – described as having been made of eight-year old Caroline, one of the main characters in the novel. In the novel this should have happened somewhere in 1802.

It is commonly assumed that Wedgwood was initially unable to permanently fix his pictures to make them immune to the further action of light, as was stated in Davy's paper of 1802. The picture, Davy wrote...

"immediately after being taken, must be kept in some obscure place. It may indeed be examined in the shade, but in this case the exposure should be only for a few minutes; by the light of candles and lamps, as commonly employed, it is not sensibly affected."

However, in 1885 Samuel Highly published an article in which he remarked he had seen what must have been fixed examples of early pictures made by Wedgwood, pictures presumably made in the 1790s. One of the major historians of early British photography, Dr Larry J Schaaf, has suggested at length that a surviving photogenic drawing of a leaf (attributed to William Fox Talbot) could in fact be by Wedgwood, and might date from 1790. If this can be confirmed, then Wedgwood would be the true inventor of the standard photographic process, though limited to photograms and not true camera obscura photographs.

Patronage of Coleridge

Wedgwood was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and arranged for him to have an annuity of £150 in 1798 so Coleridge could devote himself to philosophy and poetry. According to an 1803 letter, Coleridge even attempted to procure cannabis for Wedgwood to alleviate his chronic stomach aches.

Afterlife in fiction

Thomas Wedgwood starred as a leading character in the historical mystery novel titled The Spyders of Burslem (2011).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Thomas Wedgwood (photographer)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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