Sunday, 28 June 2009

More on the Franklin Expedition Daguerreotypes

I owe a huge debt of thanks to Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of Collections at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge and her colleagues Lucy Martin, Picture Library Manager and Fiona Cahill, Conservator. Last Friday 26th June, they very kindly permitted me to see the original Daguerreotypes taken in 1845 of members of the Franklin Expedition in their collection and were extremely generous with their time and expertise. Here's a picture of me with one of the Daguerrreotypes.

What are the Daguerreotypes like? That's one of them in front of me on the desk. (Incidentally that is NOT a half-drunk bottle of scotch next to me - it's something mysterious in a bottle of theirs...) Each Daguerreotype is about 4 inches by 3 inches and is kept under glass in a neat little box. The detail on them is very fine, much more than appears to be the case from the reproductions which circulate on the internet at the moment, and most of them also have some slight colouring, which was a tinting applied to the image after it was taken. Here is a near-contemporary description of how they were taken:
and the FAQ’s of the Daguerreian Society are also instructive:
One point of significance is that a Daguerreotype is an original image, not a positive derived from a negative like a conventional photograph. As the Society’s FAQ’s say, it is “normally a reversed (or, correctly stated, a laterally-reversed) image. The only way to get a correct orientation was to copy the image with a second daguerreotype, or to make the original daguerreotype using a reversing prism or mirror. Besides the complexity, a problem with a reversing mirror was, if taken outdoors, it may be subject to movement by a breeze causing a blurred image. So typically people just lived with a reversed image”. There are twelve Daguerreotypes at the SPRI in total.
The other images in existence are what appear to be early copies of Franklin Expedition Daguerreotypes which are held at the Derbyshire County Archive in Matlock, and what appear to be photographs of these copies in the National Maritime Museum’s image collection, which you can see here:
The National Maritime Museum’s collection has fourteen images, which proves that fourteen of the twenty four officers on the Expedition were Daguerreotyped. A comparison of the images in the two collections suggests that perhaps more were originally taken. Here’s why. In ten cases, the image in the photograph in the National Maritime Museum is identical with that of the Daguerreotype now held at SPRI. This is true for Franklin, Reid, Collins, Stanley, Le Vesconte, Gore, Osmer, Fairholme, Couch and Goodsir, although five of them (Franklin, Stanley, Le Vesconte, Osmer and Goodsir) have been reversed. This suggests that they not all the copies were made at the same time. In two cases, Fitzjames and Des Voeux, the picture on the National Maritime Museum photograph is of a different Daguerreotype. It is well known that two Daguerreotypes were taken of Fitzjames – in the National Maritime Museum image he is holding a telescope and in the Daguerreotype at Cambridge he is not. But I don’t think it has previously been realised that the images of Des Voeux are also different – in the National Maritime Museum image he is hatless, but in the Cambridge Daguerreotype he is wearing a hat. And two officers appear on an image at the National Maritime Museum, Crozier and Sargent, although there is no Daguerreotype of either of them at Cambridge. This prompts some further questions:

1) What are the images at Matlock, from which apparently the National Maritime Museum photos were derived? They are undoubtedly taken from Daguerreotypes, but when were they made, by whom and with what process?

2) Were the Derbyshire images made directly from the original Daguerreotypes? Perhaps the ones which are reversed went through a further intermediate step?

3) Where are the Daguerreotypes of Crozier and Sargent, which the Derbyshire copyist had access to but which seem now to be lost?

4) If these two Daguerreotypes have been lost, could others have been lost also? Des Voeux and Fitzjames were both taken twice, so perhaps each officer was taken twice? It is noteworthy that in some Daguerreotypes the subject is wearing his hat and in others he is hatless. This might suggest that two Daguerreotypes were taken of each subject, one with and one without his hat, although Fitzjames is hatless in both images. That would suggest that twenty eight Daguerreotypes were taken – two of each officer – with sixteen surviving until the date the unknown copyist made the Derbyshire/National Maritime Museum copies, and twelve finding their way into the SPRI Collection at Cambridge.

5) Why, with the exception of Crozier, are all the officers taken from the Erebus? Was a similar set of Daguerreotypes taken of the officers on board the Terror? The connection with Derbyshire suggests that the Daguerreotypes which have survived may have passed through Lady Franklin’s hands. The Erebus was of course Sir John Franklin’s ship, so that might suggest why she kept these Daguerreotype. If two were taken of the officers on the Terror, do some of them still survive, unrecognised, in other museums, collections or in the hands of descendants or relatives?

I may be wrong with some of these speculations and there may be other questions which can be asked (and perhaps answered) too, but I hope this analysis and these questions can serve to help others take this picture research forwards. Before closing I’d just make a few more comments.

Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones of the Scott Polar Research Institute has already observed that in the polished peak of Lt. Gore’s cap can be seen what appears to be the reflection of the rigging of a ship. Most of the Daguerreotypes seem to have been taken in the same place and in fact what appears to be rigging or reflections of images derived from ships can also be seen in the peaks of Osmer’s, Fairholme’s and Goodsir’s caps as well. Someone with a skill at optics might be able to consolidate these reflected images and build up a better picture of the scene where these Daguerreotypes were taken.

The Scott Polar Research Institute have made really high quality digital copies of the Daguerreotypes in their collection, which will soon be published on their Freeze Frame website. This will be a superb resource for scholars of photography as well as of the Franklin Expedition and I am sure will enable a lot more information to be gleaned from these important images. I think people who are familiar with the National Maritime Museum images will be surprised by some of these. For example, the National Maritime Museum image of Collins is very overexposed, yet the SPRI Daguerreotype image of him is a superb and detailed portrait, as is that of Couch.

A final thought is that the lettering on the log-book which Lt. Le Vesconte is holding looks as though it is likely to be legible under a microscope.. That will be interesting – perhaps that is the closest we will ever get to reading the log of the Erebus?


  1. William,

    A fascinating post -- at last, we have some really clear information about the only actual daguerreotypes in existence. I'll try to address each point:

    1) The Matlock images are almost certainly calotype copies from daguerreotype originals, and date to 1851. From the captions, which closely follow those in the Illustrated London News, I think it almost certain that these copies were made for that purpose -- or, if made for family use, that this was done at the same time. Eleanor Gell has been proposed as a possible person for whom they would be made; she and Lady Franklin were estranged at this time, and thus she might well have wanted a set for her own use. That the copies ended up in the Derbyshire archives, which have a great quantity of other Gell family materials, supports this surmise.

    2) Yes. With the exception of Fitzjames and Des Voeux (more on these two anon), it looks to me and to Bill Schultz as though these were made directly from daguerrotypes; they are very sharp and crisp copies. The calotype was a negative process, and would normally have thus preserved the horizontal reversal (reversed dag, corrected negative, reversed print), so someone here has gone to the extra step of using a reversing prism, at least in most cases. The engraver for the ILN apparently engraved from these corrected images. and this had the result of there being reversed again when printed (note that with original dags, the same practice would have produced corrected images). Whether or not these dags were the same as the ones now at SPRI could easily be established by making a close comparison of minor irregularities.

    3 & 4) In this case, a practice I learned in studying textual editing may be of help. This is the postulating of "stemmata" or lines of descent, which assumes that if two manuscripts, B and C, both contain a great many common variants not found in manuscripts D and E, that they must share a common "ancestor." So how would this work here? Well, in both the M and S sets, all images except two are identical, and S does not have some of the items in M. We know that in all cases except two, M is a copy of S (well three, in fact, as S does not contain any copy of Crozier). To account for this, we could postulate that there was a "super" set "A" which contained 16 daguerreotypes, including the two duplicates, which was still complete when "M" was made and later lost two members. In such a case, the maker of the calotype copies just "happened" to select a particular image from two available. But what are the odds that this happenstance choice would in both cases hit upon the one which is NOT in "S"? And also to have Crozier, not in "S"? The odds would seem against it.

    What then of the notion that there were two sets of 14? In this case, we'd have to imagine that with the exception of Fitzjames and Des Voeux, everyone held the exact same pose. If the small irregularities do match, then this theory is discarded, but if they don't, we could simplify things by assuming that the M set was simply a copy of a different "ancestor", and that the set S is independent; the original is not "A" but "B." Such an explanation doesn't require the unlikelihoods of the previous "happenstance" account.

    There's also a mixed possibility; supposing that Lady Franklin's set only had the 12, and the ILN or whoever, in search of the missing "Crozier," then tracked down a second group, which happened to contain other variants . But wouldn't this person have already copied the earlier versions of Fitzjames and Des Voeux?

    So: I'm hoping you have good scans at hand -- if so, I'd look at any of the SPRI dags to map their small irregularities, such as spots in the background, scratches, smudges, etc. Comparing these one-on-one to the Matlock images should show whether the SPRI dags are the source.

  2. Truly fascinating - it must have such an interesting trip. Great photo and the Daguerreotype on the desk looks like a jewel - well worth a guinea. Did you experience any particular emotion as you handled them and looked at the images?

    In any photographic process which uses a negative it's easy to flip a negative over, accidentally or on purpose. If I understand the photogravure process correctly, the ILN's printing plates would have been made from negatives of line drawings traced from the Matlock images which in turn were printed from negatives taken of the original dags.

    The images may have been made during a training session for the officers who were going to use the camera on the voyage and processed onboard Erebus as part of that training.

    Beard started his studio using a camera invented by American Alexander Wolcott which used a concave mirror instead of a lens, in the manner of a Newtonian telescope. Apparently pictures taken with that camera are not laterally reversed. The fact that the SPRI images are laterally reversed and exhibit vignetting (dark corners) suggests they were taken with the Petzval portrait lens of which Johann Voigtländer was the most prominent maker. The camera is shown reflected in the peak of James Fitzjames's cap in both versions of his portrait. One version also shows what may be a building with overhanging gables or possibly a figure in a cocked hat. What appears as just a blur in the low resolution images may well prove to be the photographer - a thought which reminds me of the famous image with Armstrong's reflection in Aldrin's visor.

    It's astonishing that, well known as these images are, there is still so much to learn about them. One further suggestion would be to try to find out if there is anything in Lady Franklin's diary in connection with the 1851 ILN article.

  3. Always happens - having thought about it for another five minutes after posting, I think what I identified as the camera is actually a brass buckle on the strap above the cap's peak! The cocked hat shape on the no-telescope Fitzjames is still pretty intriguing though.