It is especially important, particularly in view of the speculation on pre-photo history generated by the appearance of the recent photogenic botanical leaf specimen offered for sale at Sotheby's New York last April (Lot 43), to take a more circumspect and measured approach concerning its attribution. While there is no doubt that the Bright Album images are an interesting and enigmatic survival, it appears doubtful that they are the early precursors to the photography medium, as we will see below.
There are several fundamental lines of inquiry to follow and in this specific case we have the benefit of seeing four of the group of six images from the Henry Bright album, which was the source of the Sotheby's lot, being botanical specimens; this makes it possible for us to draw upon the specialized knowledge of expertise outside of the photographic domain. Besides the photograph in question formerly at auction, two images from this group of six (including the specimen referred to immediately below) are now to be found in the Getty collection in Malibu, plus one in the Metropolitan Museum collection, New York.
Examination of the Subject Matter for Dating Clues
The specimen most valuable to the research in dating these prints and the most interesting, in my view, is Getty 84.XP.927.7, which, on the photograph that was kindly sent to me by Weston Naef, bears the inscription on the verso in pencil, 'Acer palmatum'. I can confirm this, having consulted Steven Falk's "Catalogue of Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull Trees" from which I have been able to determine that it was a frond from an Acer Palmatum Rubra (Japanese Red Maple or Acer Japonicum Rubra), first introduced into the United Kingdom from Japan circa 1820, according to Falk.
If this information is correct then it would rule out any possibility of Sotheby's Lot 43 "photogenic drawing" having been made by Thomas Wedgwood or by any other individual prior to this date, given that the images in the group all appear to have been made at approximately the same time. This specimen, according to Larry Schaaf in the notes in Sotheby's recent catalogue, was "one of six photogenic drawings that were in an album belonging to Henry Bright, titled in manuscript on a paper label on the cover 'Knoll Lodge, 1869'." And, all were "purchased by dealer Hans P. Kraus, Jr., who subsequently attributed the work to William Henry Fox Talbot" or by collector Michael Wilson, whose two images are now at the Getty.
Image Appearance and Chemical Earmarks
Close examination of the Getty Acer Japonicum Rubra image reveals that the end of the uppermost frond of the stem on the right is of a much weaker density than the main stem of the plant, so it appears that there are two distinctly separate areas of density for the same image. This in my view is not without significance, as it introduces the possibility of after-development or treatment--and, not necessarily by the original maker--and opens up the intriguing possibility that the image might have been intensified either shortly afterward or much later (but prior to 1984 when auctioned) by some as yet unidentified individual.
The density and depth of color of the Bright prints is deeper and stronger than any of the surviving specimens made by W. H. F. Talbot, circa 1834-35. This is the factor that concerns me most. The Bright prints have none of the characteristics to indicate that they have been halide-stabilized. They do look more like images that have been well-fixed with hypo.
I also believe these Bright prints to have been float-coated. The two circular shaped aberrations on both upper corners of Sotheby's Lot 43 are--in my experience--what happen with a novice's first attempts at sensitization by floatation. The fact that this characterizes all of the specimens that I have been able to study in person leads me to the conclusion that these images were made sometime between 1850 and 1858 (1860 at the latest). [Editor's note: all the photograms showed such signs when published in the 1989 Sotheby's catalogue.]
The final problematic issue for me is the nature of the paper upon which the Bright album images are printed. It is a wove paper and of a type that could not have been made before 1809 at the earliest. (I suspect that its manufacture date is even later, perhaps in the early, or even mid to late 1850s). The paper is thin and the fibers are very even and tightly bonded, the surface on both sides is smooth, and it is the equivalent of about 150-180 gsm, so the paper is most probably machine made. GSM is defined as the gram weight of one square meter of paper. This means that the higher the gsm, the more paper density and weight.
James Whatman was the first in the UK (and the world) to make what today we know as wove paper in about 1757. Until then all papers were mould made, by hand, and had the characteristic linear makings of the brass or copper wires impressed within the sheet. James Whatman, drawing upon the skills of the weaving industry, was able to make a much finer mesh that enabled him to make a paper where the impression of the mould no longer affected the localized thickness and texture of the paper. With this innovation watercolor artists were able to lay down a wash that was even and without the regular grid that the earlier laid paper imparted to their works. However, even then, this paper was still very rough and was a much heavier product (equivalent to 250-400 gsm or more).
Peter Bower, a colleague and founding member of the Society of Paper Historians notes: "The first attempt at a paper machine to mechanize the process was patented in 1799 by Frenchman Nicholas Louis Robert, but it was not a success. However, the drawings were brought to England by John Gamble in 1801 and passed on to the brothers Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, who financed the engineer Bryan Donkin to build the machine. The first successful machine was installed at Frogmore, Hertfordshire, in 1803." It should be born in mind that other sources indicate an even later date of 1807 for the establishment of a papermaking machine.
Bower goes on to further state that: "The paper was pressed onto an endless wire cloth, transferred to a continuous felt blanket; and pressed again, it would have been cut off the reel into sheets and loft dried in the same way as hand-made paper. In 1809 John Dickinson patented a machine that that used a wire cloth covered cylinder revolving in a pulp suspension, the water being removed through the centre of the cylinder and the layer of pulp removed from the surface by a felt covered roller" (later replaced by continuous felt passing round a roller). Note that the patent was not taken out until 1809, and it would have taken at least five to ten years before this new innovation would have made serious inroads into the paper market. [See British Association of Paper Historians' website at: http://www.baph.org.uk , and, in particular, "The Whatmans and Wove (Velin) Paper" by John Balston, http://www.wovepaper.co.uk/ , in which he gives a comprehensive account and history of the development in a three-volume work.]
Prior to the introduction of the continuous web Fourdrinier paper-making machine, it was virtually impossible to make paper with any degree of continuity with regards to obtaining an even thickness and consistency across individual sheets, and even consistency of distribution of sizing within individual sheets. Peter Bower's account of the development and introduction of the Fordrinier continuous web paper-making machine demonstrates that, for the first time, a manufactured paper could successfully be used for photographic purposes. Although this machine was originally a French invention, its development and manufacture could only have been possible at this time in England, not least of all because of the tumultuous events that were taking place in France during this period. For the first time it was possible to produce a paper that was thin and had a high wet strength, and--most importantly--that the gelatin sizing was evenly and consistently distributed throughout the whole sheet. Then, and only then, could wove paper have been suitable for use by Talbot circa 1834 and for its subsequent uses in photography.
In spite of all claims made regarding the superiority of hand-made over machine-made paper; photography was a completely different ballgame where even machine-made papers posed problems. Most of the trouble that Talbot had (and all other practitioners had at this early period) was obtaining a suitable paper for photographs. It was possible to discover a paper that worked well, but more often than not, when returning to the same supplier a second seemingly identical batch could fail miserably. There was no reliable way of obtaining consistency of supply. Even as late as the mid-1850s, Thomas Sutton, upon discovering a paper made by W.T. Hollingsworth of Maidstone (the area where most paper mills were located) which gave outstanding results, went to enormous lengths to track down and buy as much as he could from that particular 'make'. We know this from an article and advertisements that appeared in 'Photographic Notes'.
Bear with me for the last time, and, I admit that I am straying into a now more subjective mode. The nature and quality of the paper used to make the prints from the Bright album makes me think that it (the paper) was made by a typically French method. My reason is that the surface texture and "feel" has all the characteristics of starch-sized paper, as opposed to gelatin; gelatin-sized papers are more 'rigid' and have a higher note when held by one corner and 'flexed'. (I do not suggest, by this comment, that I subjected either of the two institutions' original specimens to this test!)
It is highly unlikely that any of the images from the Bright Album could be attributed to Wedgwood or even tenuously to Talbot; to the best of my knowledge no British paper mills used corn starch as a sizing. It was not until the introduction of Canson and Marion's papers into England around 1852 that starch-sized stock became available for photographic purposes. Without going into too much detail, gelatin papers possess a much greater 'wet strength' than those sized with starch, the norm on the European mainland (with the exception of Italy), which was the primary reason why it was necessary for Gustav Le Gray to wax his paper before impregnating the fibers with rice starch, the carrier for the light sensitive silver iodide preparation.
The Issue of Wedgwood/Bright Family Connections
Larry Schaaf relies on some of the family connections between the Bright family and the Wedgwoods and Thomas Wedgwood's circle. The Bright family maintained a rather confusing family tree with many different children being named after other relatives, especially Henry and Richard in particular. According to Sotheby's 1989 catalogue notes, the Henry Bright who apparently put together this album was an English watercolorist of some note, and Philippe Garner, who was the Sotheby's expert at the time, confirms that this was apparently the information provided by the consignor, who claimed to be an ancestor of Henry Bright, the watercolorist. But this was in error, according to Schaaf's research.
Larry Schaaf attributes the album to another Henry Bright, who was born to a Richard Bright and Sarah Heywood in 1784. Note the different birth date. Indeed there was a Henry Bright born at this time, but perhaps not the Bright family member who put the album together in 1869. In fact, Richard Bright's son Henry actually passed away on March 26, 1869. It is likely that Richard Bright is actually the grandfather of the Henry Bright who put the album together, but not his son as Schaaf notes. Henry Arthur Bright (1830-1884) was the son of Samuel Bright, who was the brother of the Henry Bright that Schaaf attributes the album. As the elder Henry's nephew, it is possible that Henry Arthur Bright inherited the photographs from his uncle or another source. Of course, Schaaf's speculation about the inheritance of these specimens could be extended by one more step. Isn't it more likely that the younger nephew would have put together his uncle's (or other relative's) materials in an album made shortly after that relative died?
Additionally, Schaaf points to Samuel Highley's article in the 1885 Photographic News, where Highley noted seeing "some of Wedgwood's experiments with chloride of silver on bibulous paper", questioning: "Were these in fact, those very examples preserved by Henry Bright?" Not if the original Sotheby's 1989 consignment came from the Bright family, as even Schaaf now assumes.
More to the point, the assumed link between the Wedgwoods and the Brights in the Schaaf essay in the Sotheby's catalogue is largely based upon the attendance of Thomas Wedgwood's elder brother John and Richard Bright (possibly watercolorist Henry Bright's grandfather) at the same institution. Richard Bright (1754-1840) attended Warrington Academy at the same time as John Wedgwood (1766-1844), (eldest son of Josiah Wedgwood), whose principal interests were in botany and horticulture, a founder member of the Horticultural Society and was a partner in the Wedgwood pottery works from 1790 to 1793 and 1800-1812. This was well before John Wedgwood's younger brother Thomas' proto-photographic experiments were made either in the late 1790s or early 1800s. Both John Wedgwood and Richard Bright for a time came under the tutelage of the Rev. Phillip Holland at the Warrington Academy. Again this clearly has no significant bearing on this investigation considering that their possible brief association occurred several years before Thomas Wedgwood's proto-photographic investigations took place.
John Wedgwood's younger brother Thomas' education was overseen by his father Josiah Wedgwood at home, and by such tutors as John Waltire, an able chemist originally from Birmingham and founding member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Institute (also Joseph Priestley's collaborator and chemical assistant during his time as librarian at Bowood Wiltshire); M. Potêt, from whom he received lessons in French; Alexander Chisholm the chemist at Wedgwood's Etruria works, formerly assistant to William Lewis; and John Leslie (1766-1832), afterwards professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University. As you might see, no Bright connection was directly made with the younger Thomas, nor with Henry Bright himself.
It should be borne in mind that we are talking about a relatively small section of society; all were Quakers and radical reformers operating outside of the establishment, on the whole wealthy, educated industrialists, part of a scientific and cultural movement. This cannot lead to the supposition that there is some form of magic conduit that links Thomas Wedgwood with the Bright family at a point in time that coincides with his interest in experiments with the salts of silver and the camera obscura.
Considering all the above, I think that the Met is right to leave the attribution of their image completely open.
Michael Gray is currently a director and partner of Image Research Associates. He was curator of the National Trust Fox Talbot Museum from 1989-2004. He was also an external adviser for the British Library, Department of Manuscripts Jerwood Project Board from 2001-2006. He has also acted as consultant for Arquivo Nacional de Fotografia, Museus Português, Lisbon 1992, and has been scientific director for the University of Pordenone and Udine Consortium, Ikonscentre Project, Pordenone from 1994-2002.