Friday, August 25, 2023

The newfound Franklin Daguerreotypes

Courtesy of Sotheby's
Sometimes, historical artifacts can be doubly lost -- lost in the sense that their present location is unknown, but also lost in the sense that nobody even suspected that they existed. Such is the case with the set of Daguerreotypes soon to go before the hammer at Sotheby's -- they are apparently Lady Franklin's own presentation set -- and will offer yet another doubling of the views we now possess.
The main reason that no one was previously aware of them -- other than the fact that their owner, a direct descendant of Sir John, is said to have been very private -- is that we thought we already had them. That is, we'd assumed that the fine, gold-toned ones at the Scott Polar Research Institute -- given as part of the Lefroy bequest (these were Sopia Cracroft's relatives) were Lady Franklin's set. And yet, all the while, this extraordinary set had remained in family hands, well and quietly looked after, in what appears to be its original presentation case from the firm of Richard Beard.

A close look at the set reveals that it's not completely unseen -- in fact, this very set was used as the source for the full-page woodcut in the Illustrated London News. Both the left-right orientation and the order of the Daguerreotypes match; this makes it quite clear that this set was the likley source. Somewhat confusingly, the ILN seems to say that the set they engraved was based on Beard's set, but if so it must have been identically arranged. Another curious feature, noticed by Peter Carney, is that -- judging from the buttons -- some of these images are copy Daguerreotypes, since the copying process reverses the reversed image and puts the buttons back on the "right" side!

The one other set of images that we have -- the mounted copies now in the Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock --  seems to have used the same source Daguerreotypes, but in a different order. This set is associated with Franklin's daughter Eleanor, and there's reason to regard it as her personal one (it's since come to light that the paper prints were more probably made around 1875, so a set of the originals certainly remained in family hands at that time).  All this of course leaves even more mystery around the long-known Daguerreotypes at Scott Polar, many of which show the subjects in different poses, and which set is missing any image of Francis Crozier -- had Sophy purchased some "second poses" at the same time as her aunt's set? Did some of the officers not claim their likenesses?

But whatever the actual differences in arrangement and provenance, it's clear that, as Sotheby's has indicated, the set they have on offer is the "premier" set -- one assembled at the time, in a contemporary case that may very well have been made for them by Beard's. In his letter of May 19th, Reid underscores this point: "Lady Franklin hase ordered all the officers Likeness to bee taken and mine amongst the Rest, with my uniform on - She keeps them all by herself." All that is consistent with the newly known cased set.

Image on left Courtesy of Sotheby’s
So what do we learn from these new images? Well, for one that the engraver for the ILN was not a terribly good portraitist; many of the faces seem quite wrong, and (by way of example) Reid seems a good two stone lighter in his woodcut. But now that we can compare the original Daguerreotypes to the paper copies, we can see how much was lost in the translation. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the images of Francis Crozier, who seems almost a different man in his Daguerreian version; as my friend and fellow Franklin researcher Logan Zachary put it, 
"It's an extraordinarily different Crozier, despite being the exact same photograph.  His face has quite literally been "fleshed out" now, with details added back in that we didn't know we were missing.  His eyes and chin have much more definition, and somehow even his lips and nose look fuller in the new image.  He simply looks like a different man.  The worried, almost indecisive look from the old photograph melts away -- he looks like a Captain now, someone who gave orders."
Part of this, of course, is due to the careful gold-toning and tinting with which these new images were prepared, in addition to the going-over of all the buttons and hat-bands with a translucent golden ink. But the level of detail is simply magnitudes higher; Calotypes are paper prints from paper negatives, and are by their nature a tad "grainy"; Daguerreotypes are metal plates, sensitized and developed by vapors, and their thin skin of exactitude has a grain size not much larger that a molecule of silver halide, roughly 1-2 micrometers.

Image Courtesy Sotheby's
Seeing Crozier whole is thus a powerful experience on so many levels. Some, I know, might wish they'd skipped the golden ink, and its application to his slightly-scrunched hatband looks a tad silly -- but, combined with the flesh tones of the face, it seems to me to add considerably to the sense of "presence." Daguerreotypes, as a form, have that particular ghostly quality, one that the cultural historian Walter Benjamin called the "aura." And -- though there is nothing quite like holding a Dag in one's hand and tilting it until, in a feat of angular magic, lo, the apparition comes! -- it seems to me that these crisply digital copies have nearly that same aura. They will give me, and many others for whom this is such an essential story, food for thought for a long while yet.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Russell - so glad you managed to post this from afar. As you say, the set now at Sotheby's is so much more 'in the flesh' - although, like you, I found the gilding slightly excessive! I hope there will be sufficient time to close remaining research loops while they're still able to be viewed.