09.04.2020 Time for Tea, Time for History of Photography

5 pm, 24th day of the first Moon of the first Year of Confinement

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Antique bat printed teapot in the London shape made by the New Hall porcelain company, Stoke-on-Trent, c. 1800

How pleasant to start a conversation on the invention of photography with a tea-pot in hard-paste porcelain, with a 7 shaped handle and bat printed rural landscape scenes.

How pleasant also to investigate the 18th century chapter of the History of photography.

Before transfer printing, ceramics were hand painted, a laborious and costly process. The process starts with an engraved metal printing plate similar to those used for making engravings or etchings on paper. The plate is used to print the pattern on tissue paper, using mixes of special pigments that stand up to firing as the “ink”. The transfer is then put pigment-side down onto the piece of pottery, so that then sticky ink transfers to the ceramic surface.

By the end of the 18th century, a variant technique giving “bat-printed” wares was introduced. This used “pliable glue bats or slabs” of a rubbery texture instead of the paper. The plate printed glue onto the bat, which was then transferred to the piece, and powdered pigments were then added, which stuck to the glue. The technique was associated with the introduction of stippling rather than line engraving as the technique used on the copper plates. The process was much more complicated, and little used after about 1820.

The bulk of production was from the dominant Staffordshire pottery industry. America was a major market for English transfer-printed wares, whose imagery was adapted to the American market. Wealthy industrialists decided to join in a dinner club and informal learned society, called the Lunar Society of Birmingham by 1775. The name arose because the society would meet during the full moon, as the extra light made the journey home easier and safer in the absence of street lighting. The members cheerfully referred to themselves as “lunaticks”, a pun on lunatics.

Antique bat printed deep saucer with a 7 shaped handle, New Hall porcelain company, Stoke-on-Trent, c. 1800

At the core of the movement, also known as Midlands Enlightenment, or the Birmingham Enlightenment, the Lunar society included Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Beddoes, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley, James Keir and Thomas Day.

They were interested in so many subjects, including transfer printing but we have no precise evidence they discussed “photography”. In fact no constitution, minutes, publications or membership lists survive from any period, and evidence of its existence and activities is found only in the correspondence and notes of those associated with it.

This lack of a defined membership has led some historians to criticize a Lunar Society “legend”, but one initiative of some Lunaticks interest us today: the creation of the Bristol Pneumatic Institution.

Antique bat printed deep saucer with a 7 shaped handle, New Hall porcelain company, Stoke-on-Trent, c. 1800 (opposite side)

The Pneumatic Institution was a medical research facility in Bristol, England, in 1798–1800. It was established by physician and science writer Thomas Beddoes to study the medical effects of the gases that had recently been discovered. It was financially supported by James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood‘ son Tom because conventional methods had failed to help against children’s pulmonary tuberculosis, which had previously claimed several sons and daughters of the founding members.

20 years old Humphry Davy joined the Pneumatic Institution since its conception in 1798 as the laboratory operator and headed the laboratory, examining the effects of laughing gas on himself and others, and James Watt designed much of the lab’s equipment.

“Laughing gas parties” were not the only entertainment for the young gentleman who gathered to the Pneumatic Institution which became the “breathing chamber of Romantic Poetry”. Worsworth, Coleridge and Tom Wedgwood experimented also with bang and opium.

The Pneumatic Institution was converted into a normal hospital when typhus broke out in Bristol in 1800. Many of the techniques and tools invented and developed by Beddoes, Davy and Watt for the Pneumatic Institution are still used in modern medicine: oxygen therapy, anaesthetic vaporiser and medical ventilator.

Antique bat printed bowl, New Hall porcelain company, Stoke-on-Trent, c. 1800

During these very last years of the 18th Century, young Tom Wedgwood and Humphry Davy discussed creative ideas and Wedgwood exposed to his friend some experiments he had made about copying pictures upon glass paper and leather with sun light.

We have no evidence of the discussions and experiments but an important report was published in 1802 in the Journals of the Royal Institution.The full credit of the invention is given by Humphry Davy to Thomas Wedgwood:


The full text is accessible on line at Zurich University library.

“White paper, or white leather, moistened with solution of nitrate of silver, undergoes no change when kept in a dark place; but on being exposed to the daylight it speedily changes colour, and after passing through different shades of grey and brown, becomes at length nearly black.

The alterations of colour take place more speedily in proportion as the light is more intense. In the direct beams of the sun, two or three minutes are sufficient to produce the full effect. In the shade, several hours are required, and light transmitted through different coloured glasses acts upon it with different degrees of intensity. Thus, it is found that red rays, or the common sunbeams passed through red glass have very little action upon it; yellow and green are more efficacious, but blue and violet light produce the most decided and powerful effects…

Some new experiments have been lately made in relation to this subject, in consequence of the discoveries of Dr. Herschel concerning the invisible, heat-making rays existing in the solar beams, by Messrs. Ritter and Bbckman in Germany, and Dr. Wollaston in England.

The 1802 article

About the Royal Institution: three years earlier, in 1799, Count Rumford had proposed the establishment in London of an ‘Institution for Diffusing Knowledge’. The house in Albemarle Street was bought in April 1799. Rumford became secretary to the institution, and Dr Thomas Garnett was the first lecturer.

In February 1801 Davy was interviewed by the committee of the Royal Institution, comprising Joseph Banks, Benjamin Thompson(who had been appointed Count Rumford) and Henry Cavendish. Davy wrote to Davies Gilbert on 8 March 1801 about the offers made by Banks and Thompson, a possible move to London and the promise of funding for his work in galvanism. He also mentioned that he might not be collaborating further with Beddoes on therapeutic gases. The next day Davy left Bristol to take up his new post at the Royal Institution. He became soon Professor and Public Lecturer in Experimental Philosophy, Mechanics and Chemistry with a huge success.

Antique bat printed bowl, New Hall porcelain company, Stoke-on-Trent, c. 1800

The 1802 article had a slow but wide distribution, was reviewed by Hershel, translated in French language, reprinted several times.

Davy published many articles. In January 1814, he announced the discovery of silver iodine : “Some experiments and observations on a new substance which becomes a violet coloured gas by heat”.

Davy was an important inspiration for both Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and WHF Talbot :

“I find all Dr Davys new discoveries which are very interesting – I wonder you do not become a convert to chemistry However: quot homines tot sententiæ: so many men so many minds…” (Letter to his mother, 17 March 1812)

“I have made acquaintance lately with Sir H. Davy, in general it is much easier to form acquaintance with continental than with English literati, who are less accueïllant. They are forming a new club of 500 members, of persons attached to literature science or the Arts – I am a member, I think it will be useful in enabling one to meet people otherwise inaccessible – Ld Lansdowne & Sir H. Davy are among the leading members” (5 March 1824)

Talbot is mentionning the Athenaeum Club. Humphry Davy had also been elected President of the Royal Society on 30 November 1820. Although he was unopposed, other candidates had received initial backing.

The Society was in transition from a club for gentlemen interested in natural philosophy, connected with the political and social elite, to an academy representing increasingly specialised sciences. The previous president, Joseph Banks, had held the post for over 40 years and had presided autocratically, natural history being prominent.

Davy was the outstanding scientist but some fellows did not approve of his popularising work at the Royal Institution. Davy was also only 41, and reformers were fearful of another long presidency.

In his early years Davy was optimistic about reconciling the reformers and the Banksians… He spent much time juggling the factions but, as his reputation declined in the light of failures such as his research into copper-bottomed ships, he lost popularity and authority… In November 1826 the mathematician Edward Ryan recorded that: “The Society, every member almost … are in the greatest rage at the President’s proceedings and nothing is now talked of but removing him.”

In the event he was again re-elected unopposed, but he was now visibly unwell. In January 1827 he set off to Italy for reasons of his health. It did not improve and Davy resigned the presidency on account of ill health, and Gilbert became president for 3 years.

The Society was divided on the question of reform of its administration after the long reign of Banks, and there was much in-fighting among the fellows.

This is the moment Nicephore Niepce came to London hoping to meet with Davy…

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Un Clair de Lune, héliographie from a print, c. 1827 (The Royal Photographic Society Collection)

To be continued …

Résumé en français: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fit le voyage de Londres en 1827 pour présenter son invention à Humphry Davy et aux membres de la Royal Society qu’il préside. Mais Davy, malade, ne peut rentrer d’Italie où il espérait une guérison et la période est confuse pour la Royal Society. Niépce rentre au début de 1828 sans avoir réussi à trouver des soutiens financiers.

Davy avait publié un article sur les recherches de Tom Wedgwood qu’il avait rencontré dans l’établissement du Dr Beddoes en 1798. Ces recherches de l’héritier d’une importante famille de céramistes, les Wedgwood, inspirèrent les différents inventeurs de la photographies. Elles précèdent de 40 ans la proclamation d’Arago et sont contemporaines de la technique de transfert sur porcelaine dénommée bat-transfer.

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Photography Investigation
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