The trials of calotyping

I wrote recently about the trials of black and white darkroom photography. They were nothing, however, compared with the hazardous and uncertain business of taking a calotype, the photographic process pioneered by Fox Talbot at Lacock in the late 1830s. I included an account of it in my novel ‘Riven’, available as a Kindle book. The topographical painter Thomas Genoa encounters novice calotyper James Jacks on the Blackdown hills near Taunton in 1849:

“Recent developments in calotyping are sending a chill through our profession – its effects haven’t escaped even the appalling Roger Potts. Three of our number have already defected to the new Photographic Club. John Shanks, who admittedly can put on a show of gloom, had us all tossing back the claret and preparing to thrust knives into ourselves. Twelve months on, and with a slump in business, some of us are beginning to believe that commissions are being prised away from us by pimply young men like Mr Jacks, peddling ‘truth to nature’.

But my suspicion of my new acquaintance in no way killed my curiosity when he invited me to cast my eye over his equipment. Bowing to his boots and tittering, Mr Jacks stumbled backwards across the grass as if he were ushering in royalty, then propelled me into the back of his wagon. He flung a curtain across the door so we were standing shoulder to shoulder in complete darkness. Gradually, my eyes deciphered elements of the interior, which felt like a Puseyite shrine, the row of tiny oil lights on the bench jiggling in saintly communion.

‘Watch how I coat my paper,’ he bellowed, adding the regulation quota of giggles.

But I was barely able to see a finger’s length ahead of me, and the little man might have been changing his suit for all I could tell. Chattering incessantly, he kept elbowing me in the chest as he reached for invisible bottles, and hardly seemed a suitable candidate to be risking life and limb with volatile chemicals.

I’m afraid most of what he prattled on about passed over my head, as I’ve no patience with chemical formulae. I remember he spoke of silver nitrate and some acid derived from what sounded like Aleppo gauls, whatever these delicacies may be.

‘Now I’m coating the paper with acid utilising a fine brush (how very exciting). I’ve formerly employed a mixture of 140 units but I find superior results with 150. Now I’m rinsing the paper in water, distilled, of course (what else? Pond water with newts?). Now I’m drying the sheet with blotting paper.’

At first I found the whole rigmarole diverting, and once or twice sniggered into my cuff. But by now the fumes were turning me nauseous and I wanted more than anything to be let out. Just as I was about to swoon the curtain was swept back and the energetic little man jumped down to the ground. Then he ran as if a mad bull were after him in the direction of his tripod, carrying his picture-taking device and calling for me to follow.

‘Come, there’s no time to waste. I’ve already inserted the sensitised paper. The mixture goes quickly off.’

The contraption he attached to the tripod was no more than a plain wooden box with a lens, and a cork projecting from one end. He pointed it in the general direction of the hillside and whipped off the lens cap.

‘ I presume you’ve already composed the scene?’ I made no attempt to disguise my contempt.

‘No time,’ he replied with a dismissive wave, ‘It’ll be satisfactory.’

There spoke a disciple of the moderns.

For close to a minute Mr Jacks hovered impatiently over the camera and stamped his feet, peering nervously at his fob and fussing over the tripod. Meanwhile, a glorious sun crept out from behind a cloud and streamed down on us, causing him to curse like a publican. And when a straggle of sheep hove into view (I thought they added a decent touch of the picturesque) he squealed with irritation, and snapped the cork lens cap back into place. He shooed them impatiently by, then removed the cap again. Seconds later he slid the bolt, opened the back of the box and drew out the paper, which curled immediately round his wrist like a shirt-cuff.

‘Look!’ He waved the paper in my face.

I waited for the miracle as I remember it described in a recent issue of the Art Journal. According to the sycophantic correspondent I should already be savouring a heady sense of ‘delight’ at the results. However, the sheet stayed stubbornly blank.

‘Can’t see a thing.’

‘You won’t, there’s the alchemy! Quick, come!’

Once again we were stumbling over each other in the wagon, the little man’s arms flailing around as he snatched up more bottles. There was a sudden shattering of glass and I felt something damp running down my leg, I told him I’d had enough of this tomfoolery, and thrust the curtain aside and stepped out into the bright light of day.

‘Look!’ He brandished the dripping paper an inch from my eyes. I watched what looked like a sizeable tea stain, purple in colour, permeate the paper and a similar one permeate the cloth of my trouser leg. I didn’t hide my contempt. If this was an example of the wonders of the calotype I was having none of it. (I confess, too, to being more than a little relieved.)

Mr Jacks tossed the paper over his shoulder. ‘Nitrate’s gone off. I must hurry and mix more before the light goes.’

Before the light goes! As it was only mid-morning with barely a cloud in the sky I got the distinct impression that calotyping was a hazardous business, with no certainty of a result even after a busy day’s toiling over the dishes. I left Mr Jacks to his own devices and started to paint.

My brush moved swiftly, my washes flowed, and I soon had the bones of the piece sketched in. I paused for a pipe and looked across to see how my curious friend was getting on. He was darting back and forth between wagon and tripod, wedging sheet after sheet of damp paper into his contraption. His stance during the exposure of each scene was oddly affecting, and in complete contrast to his accustomed clumsiness: poised athletically on one leg, and with the lens cap held delicately between outstretched fingers, he peered out at the scene before him, and apart from his ludicrous head of hair, he was as graceful as a piece of statuary. I went back to my own work and within an hour or so had finished my sketch. It was, to use the calotypist’s watchword, satisfactory.

‘Capital, Tout, capital. It’s a fine study. Now, come and see the fruits of my labours.’

We set off for the wagon, with Jacks glancing sheepishly down at my trousers. He urged me to enter.

‘I think not,’ I replied, rubbing my trousers with the back of my hand.’

I stood outside dousing myself in sunlight, tracing the line of feeding flocks across the belly of the down. Our calotypist shouted a constant commentary from behind the curtain.

‘I’m waxing the negative with bees wax using a hot iron. It’ll soak into the paper and impart to it a translucent quality’ (I’m afraid I’d reached the point where I didn’t give a damn). ‘I’m now placing a previously prepared sheet of salt paper in contact with this waxed negative. I’m coming out to expose it.’

I wish he’d warned me a little earlier – he jumped down from the wagon and cannoned into me, almost breaking my leg, then turned an acrobatic somersault, somehow managing to keep the papers out of the dust. He attached them to what looked like a music stand and suggested we go off for a quarter-hour and share a pipe. I’m afraid I’d had enough and left him to it, and spent the rest of the time cleaning my brushes and palette.

Some while later he called me over, and we were back together, our eyes fixed like twin lenses on the surface of the sensitised paper hanging from the stand. To my surprise I watched an image appear: the vaguest outline of hills, woods and downs tinged a truly bilious hue of purple. But they faded as quickly as they’d emerged, as if a fog had come down over the miniature universe he had conjured.

‘You see? I allow the picture to over-darken, then I dunk it in Mr Herschel’s celebrated hypo.’

What picture? There was no picture. By now he was back in the wagon, which resumed its characteristic rocking motion.

As Mr Jacks went about his business I decided that calotyping was hardly a restful occupation. We artists may complain about our job, yet bring any one of us a bright morning, an acre of open down, a ruin, a palette of paints and a sheet of Harding’s paper, and we’ll be the merriest grigs on God’s earth. Our preoccupations slip gently away until the view before us, and its image on the easel, sink deep into our consciousness and we become, in that sublime phrase of Wordsworth, ‘living souls’, lost in the immensity of the creation. Mr Jacks, in contrast, gives the impression that he suffers constant disorientation, adrift on the unknown seas of calotyping chemistry, well out of sight of land.

‘There! So, what d’you think?’

My heart came close to stopping. Wonder of wonders, the purple stains were gone and in their place I saw a Sunday afternoon amateur’s charcoal sketch in heavy sepia. It was terrible, rubbed and over-worked, the subject ill-defined and speckled. What could I say? Should I be honest and tell him the entire composition was flawed, the foreground too high, the middle ground congested, and the distant lands flat and devoid of focus? I turned it to the light and looked more closely and saw something very different: it was as if I were viewing the reality of the sunlit scene itself, albeit through a smoked glass. Glancing at my own ‘faithful’ painted record of this self-same scene, I understood for the first time that no matter how sternly I school myself to paint what I think my eye sees, my sketches are never more than careless impressions, and furlongs from the truth.

‘You’re excited? I hear Ruskin himself is keen.’

So what do I feel about this odd collision with the world as it actually is? I’m unimpressed. Why? You’ll know that things blur with distance. We painters express this using the device of perspective and varying densities of washes. Such subtleties are entirely absent from Mr Jack’s calotypes.

My conclusion is that recording reality in this most simplistic of mediums may well conjure complete fidelity, yet it doesn’t result in uplifting art.

But I didn’t want to hurt the fellow’s feelings, so kept my opinions to myself. I saw how this curious young man was perfectly adapted to the new process of calotyping. He seemed, admittedly on a few short hours of acquaintance, a man without a soul. This was obvious in the way in which he enthused over his leaden images.

‘I can guess what you are thinking. But, remember, my art’s in its infancy.’

An art he was already calling it!”

About Terence Sackett

I am a writer and designer. I live in Nether Stowey, which is on the borders of the Quantock hills. I am a committee member of the Friends of Coleridge, and wrote and designed the booklet/visitor guide for the National Trust’s Coleridge Cottage. I look after the website for the Friends ( My novel about Siamese twins titled ‘Riven is now on Kindle. It can be read with a free downloaded Kindle app for an iPad, smartphone, tablet, or computer. The book is available from Amazon. What’s it about? Brief blurb below: It is the story of the Victorian painter Thomas Tait Genoa and his desperate flight through the West Country to save his conjoined twin daughters from the surgeon’s knife. This was before the era of anaesthetics. A 5-start bAmazon review: 'A masterpiece, truly deserving of the five star rating I have given it. The very human experience described so eloquently could not fail to tug at the heart of any parent who has ever gazed on a poorly child in the dark hours of the night and anguished over what to do for the best. This novel might be set in a very particular time and space but the heartfelt emotions of the protagonists are timeless, I have no hesitation in recommending this wonderful work to anyone who has a heart.
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