Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Franklin Daguerreotypes

Among the most well-known images of the Franklin expedition are the daguerreotypes made of him and his senior officers just prior to their sailing in 1845.  And yet, though these photographs, and engravings based upon them, are very widely distributed, few people are familiar with the facts of their production, or know why they were made.  In this post, I'll give a bit of background on them, and show why, even 164 years later, they still have something to reveal to us.

The idea for having these photographs made was quite likely Franklin's own.  He took an interest in this new invention as early as 1840, scarcely a year after it had been announced to the world by Daguerre.  In the annals of the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science are two letters addressed to Franklin, one by his old friend Dr. John Richardson, and another by one "Dr. Buckland," both from 1840.  Richardson extols this new invention "one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern times," and described the process in some detail.  Dr. Buckland's letter, which was enclosed with an engraving based on a Daguerreotype of Lord John Russell, who calls the process a novelty "not yet made known in London, but of the greatest importance to Science and Art."  He ends his letter with a curious observation: "You are aware that iodine is used in Daguerre's process for getting the solar drawing on his silvered plate. Who could have anticipated that the discovery of a violet-coloured gas in the refuse of kelp would lead to such important results?"

Given that Franklin was aware of this new technology far earlier than most, it's not surprising that he took measures to ensure that a Daguerreian apparatus was included among the instruments brought aboard "Erebus" and "Terror."  Obtaining this equipment was not as easy as it might seem; although Daguerre loudly proclaimed that he had given rights to his invention "to the world," in England the patent rights were apparently reserved.  Only two men, Antoine Claudet and Richard Beard, had had some claim to a license.  Beard, a coal-merchant who had taken to speculating in patents, obtained an interest in an American version of a  Daguerreotype camera, as it was in the United States that many technical hurdles with the process had been overcome.  The standard process was still too slow for portraiture; the sensitivity of the plate had to be increased, and a better means of collecting light devised.  Beard purchased the rights to a camera with a reflecting mirror that accomplished the latter task, and at once set about learning how to use it, taking lessons from John Frederick Goddard, a scientific lecturer at the Adelaide Gallery. Goddard showed Beard how to accelerate the developing process, and early in 1841 he and his partners opened the first photographic studio in London atop the roof of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street.

Within a few months, the income from this studio rose to nearly £150 a month, far beyond anything Beard had anticipated, although before long Claudet opened a competing business in a glass house near St. Martin's-in-the-Fields.  When his income from studio portraiture declined, Beard sought out other areas of work, making some early landscapes, as well as journalistic images of everyday life in London for Henry Mayhew's magisterial London Labour and the London Poor.  So it was hardly surprising that, when word went out that a photographic apparatus was wanted for the new Arctic expedition, Beard proffered his services.

Beard's mirror camera had a singular feature which is not widely known: the mirror had a pivot, something like a modern SLR camera, and by turning it, the photographer could record two images on a single oblong plate.  This gave Beard the opportunity to choose the better of the exposures, or -- if both were satisfactory -- provide two Daguerreotypes and double his profit.  Which is exactly what he did with the Franklin images; one set was given to Lady Franklin, and another to the Admiralty.  In nearly every case, the sitter -- to whom photography was something quite new -- held the same static position for both poses.  Only in the case of James Fitzjames is there an obvious difference; in one image he is stern-looking; in the other -- having picked up a brass telescope -- he gives the faintest hint of a smile, the only one among the fourteen sitters.  Sir John Franklin himself looks ill -- he was said to have been recovering from the 'flu -- and uncomfortably stuffed into his uniform, and yet this has remained the iconic image of the man.

Lady Franklin's set eventually has ended up in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, while the Admiralty's set is on display at the National Maritime Museum

And what can we learn from them?  In my next posting, I'll reveal more; for now, suffice it to say that, with the downturned, shiny brim of the dress hat worn by some officers, there are "reflections" of another kind, images which reveal where the sitters sat during at least some of the session.

After these images were made, the apparatus was stowed aboard "Erebus."  It's possible that at some point in the expedition, images were made with it, although if so they are lost and would likely be damaged beyond recovery if found.  The challenges of sensitizing and exposing a plate, which required (at different stages) vaporizing both iodine and mercury, would have considerable in the Arctic climate; indeed there are no known Daguerreotypes of the frozen regions from this era.  The earliest photographs were to be calotypes, made on paper coated with silver iodide, and in fact among their earliest users was Francis Leopold McClintock -- but I'll save that for a future column.


  1. Franklin Expedition Daguerreotype trivia point for today: did you know that the day they were taken was a rather cold one, so at least one officer (Fairholme) had to borrow Fitzjames' coat? A Commander had larger lapels, and if you look carefully at the two Daguerreotypes you can see it's the same coat.

  2. William, that's fascinating -- you are the first person, so far as I know, to draw attention to this detail. Looking at both Daguerreptypes, you can see the coat's lapels even though it almost looks as though Fairholme is trying to tuck his in so as not to be seen as putting on airs!

  3. Russell,

    Many apologies. How strange that I wrote lapels? I meant 'Epaulettes'!

    I hope I haven't set up another Franklin Expedition misconception!


  4. Ah -- that makes more sense. The main difference, as I understand it, with the commander's epaulettes, was that they had a silver anchor atop each. Since the tops aren't visible in the photographs, the slight difference in size seems to have gone unremarked. In any case, the letter you found from Fairholme clinches it, I am certain; if you'd be willing to share its contents here, that would be great!