Friday, December 19, 2014

New Photograph of Lieutenant Irving

Image courtesy City of Edinburgh Council – Libraries
Thanks to a posting by Stuart Tedham over on the Remembering the Franklin Expedition Facebook page, we now can look upon a never-before-noticed photographic image of Lieutenant John Irving. Because the family name was sometimes spelt "Irvine," and the photo was catalogued under that name, it had been missed by generations of Franklin scholars. It's appropriate, indeed, that Mr. Tedham -- who hails from Dumfries and Galloway -- rediscovered this Scottish photograph in the electronic archives of the city of Edinburgh.

The photograph is a Talbotype -- or more properly, a salted-paper positive print made from a Talbotype paper negative. Developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, this process postdated that of Daguerre, but had the advantage of not conflicting with Daguerre's patents (contrary to Daguerre's claim of having donated his invention to France and the world in exchange for a pension, he enforced his patent in Britain and the United States). Thus, while in all of England only Antoine Claudet and Richard Beard were licensed to take photographs, in Scotland, a number of photographers took up Talbot's process with his informal knowledge and consent.  Among the pioneers there was Dr. John Adamson, whom we know took at least one photograph of Harry Goodsir, and his brother Robert Adamson, who with David Ocatvius Hill formed the firm of Hill and Adamson.

The Talbotype process had one further advantage -- unlike Daguerre's, which produced a single opaque image (the metal plate from the camera itself), Talbotypes were negatives on paper, which could produce one -- or more than one -- positive print. Sensitized paper was placed atop the negative, and the resulting contact print or prints were positives. The image of Irving is one of these, and shows a high degree of skill and professionalism; Irving is posed in from of some buildings (or possibly a backdrop), but the depth of field is such that he is in sharp focus, with the background blurred. He is wearing civilian dress, with broad sideburns (a popular style choice on the Franklin Expedition, being also favored by Goodsir, Gore, and Fairholme). There is, according to the curators, no further information about the image in their files, but it's reasonable to assume that Irving had his portrait made not long prior to departing for London and thence to the Arctic. There's also good reason to attribute the image to Hill and Adamson; the style is quite like theirs, and few other photographers active at this time would have been able to make such a fine portrait.

It's remarkable to note that Franklin's expedition may not have been the first to be photographed, nor the first to have taken photographic apparatus to the Frozen Regions -- Talbot himself corresponded briefly with one of the officers of James Clark Ross's Antarctic expedition, who sought training and supplies to try his process there -- alas, we don't know whether these plans were ever followed through.


  1. I want to speak to the Irving/Irvine portion of this situation. I've learned through hard experience NOT to discount the mention of a name in historical records - or even that attributed to an image - simply because the spelling differed from what I knew to be "correct" at the time. People changed their names, or even misspelled their own names; by way of example of the latter, I have a medal on the edge of which the sailor scratched his name, and due to his semi-literacy, he transposed two letters. The medal had been an institutional collection for several decades before it was auctioned, in a collector's hands, auctioned again, in another collector's hands, and finally in my care. Upon inspection, I pointed out the transposition to the last collector, which had been missed all the way down the line. In short, take nothing for granted!

  2. Well written and exciting blog Russell. It is great to see someone literally searching out of the box and discovering an Expedition member taken as a Tabotype. Heres hoping for more discoveries like this! -- Bill Schultz

  3. Thanks Glenn, and Bill. And yes, I'll wager there are still a few discoveries such as this one to be made!!

  4. A question: Could this finding mean that all the officers of the Franklin expedition were portrayed? Who ordered it? Lady Jane? If the answer ifs yes, Why weren't all those pictures taken at the same time? Did Irving join late to the expedition, and therefore, he had to go to the photography studio instead to the deck of the ship to be portrayed?

  5. Andrés, I don't expect that this image was the result of any general demand, by Lady Franklin or others. First, it's very likely that this photograph was made in Scotland, ergo prior to John Irving's departure for London and the expedition. If Irving had had his portrait made in London it would have had to have been a Daguerreotype, and been done by either Beard or Claudet. Second, the fact that the existing Dags are all (with the exception of Crozier) of the officers of the "Erebus" suggests that, if Lady Franklin did make the original request, it was for portraits of her husband and the officers of his ship, rather than of all officers on the expedition.