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Manufacturing Pictures: Photographic Experimentation at the End of the Eighteenth Century

Research Lunch – Fionn Montell-Boyd

  • 5 May 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Paul Mellon Centre

In the decades before photography was announced to the public in 1839, a number of individual experimenters devised ways of using the light-sensitive properties of metallic salts to form images. This paper takes up two sets of investigations of particular significance, carried out between 1780 and 1802: those of Elizabeth Fulhame, an amateur chemist working in Edinburgh, who used metallic reductions to adorn textiles, and of Thomas Wedgwood, son of the famous Staffordshire potter Josiah, who developed a process by which images of objects of varying transparency could be formed on samples of prepared paper and leather.

Fulhame used photochemistry to transform pieces of silk, linen and calico into lustrous novelties, with elite consumption in mind. Creating maps of cities and waterways in silver and gold, her vision of commercial utility aligned with contemporary developments in the Forth valley, including the modernisation of the cloth trade and the introduction of a network of canals, described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations as “the greatest of all improvements”. Wedgwood’s experiments, too, were enmeshed in an industrial landscape: new methods of chemical image transfer were on the rise in the potteries, a setting in which the division of labour had grown apace, stimulated by new mass markets and long-distance trade.

Working in different parts of Britain, Fulhame and Wedgwood appear not to have been in contact, yet they moved in overlapping circles of industrialists and reformers who sought to define chemistry as an enterprise of public benefit.

Examining the ways in which these experiments were tied into industrial networks by way of both the materials from which they were made and their pictorial function, this paper traces early photography’s response to the demands of the manufacturing economy. Fulhame and Wedgwood’s published accounts both came to be cited by later experimenters in 1839, yet their roles have been minimised within a history of photography centred on figures for whom there are large bodies of extant photographs. This rereading of Fulhame and Wedgwood’s experiments seeks to open up the discussion over photography’s origins, providing an expanded frame through which to consider the medium’s relationship to modern industry.

Listing image caption: David Allan, Lead Processing at Leadhills: Pounding the Ore, 1780s. Oil on canvas, 38 x 58 cm. Edinburgh: National Galleries Scotland. https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/99123/0?overlay=download

About the speaker

  • Grey headshot of Fionn Montell-Boyd

    Fionn Montell-Boyd is a doctoral candidate in history of art at the University of Oxford, whose thesis examines the political economy of the emergence of photography in Britain between 1780 and 1841, with a focus on the role of silver as the commodity which formed photography’s light-sensitive basis. Her research foregrounds the materials of photography and the labour behind their production; themes she has developed through teaching and exhibition making.

    Prior to her doctoral studies, she obtained degrees from the University of Oxford and University College London and worked as a curatorial researcher for the Ashmolean Museum.