by Vicki Goldberg)
This story begins in 1973 with a man in Wales tidying up the mess in his garage and discovering a box of daguerreotypes. Uncertain whether to throw it out, he waited until his brother-in law asked advice from a friend who was a photographer and documentary filmmaker. The friend, Noel Chanan, strongly advised him to hold tight onto a box that must be brimful of history.
And so it proved. The box held 30 or 40 family images from the early 1840s by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, an amateur scientist and pioneering British photographer; the man who owned that box, and his sister, were Llewelyn’s great-great-grandchildren. Mr. Chanan has now written a book, the first major showing of Llewelyn’s work for a wide public since the mid-19th century.
“The Photographer of Penllergare: A Life of John Dillwyn Llewelyn 1810-1882” (Impress, 2013) is graced with an uncommonly generous supply of histories — of Llewelyn, his extended family, the life of the landed gentry, early photographic processes, and more. Photographs, too, are generously supplied, many never seen before, and while Llewelyn’s best images impress themselves on eye and mind, the book reproduces a host of family watercolors, drawings, and ephemera that write history in another visual language. (It is only available through Mr. Chanan’s website, the-photographer-of-penllergare.co.uk.)
Born in Swansea, Wales, Llewelyn was married to a cousin of William Henry Fox Talbot, the Englishman who contended with Daguerre in 1839 for the title of inventor of photography and who invented the negative process — daguerreotypes are not reproducible — thus laying claim to the future of the medium as well as to its beginning.
Llewelyn began photographing in 1839 with Talbot’s earliest process and the following year with daguerreotypes. Apparently, he wasn’t very successful with either, and he gave up photography after a couple of years, returning to it at the beginning of the 1850s, when the technology had greatly improved, and he had, too. Recognition followed immediately.
During that decade, using the recently invented wet-collodion-on-glass-plate negatives and albumin prints (which would soon replace daguerreotypes) or paper negatives and salted paper prints, he made gracious family pictures and memorable rural and coastal landscapes. He also contributed to the advancement of the medium.
In 1854, he devised what Mr. Chanan says may have been the first “instantaneous” shutter that could take photographs in less than a minute of exposure. Then he produced what he called the “oxymel” process, a bath of a solution of honey in vinegar. Although this sounds suspiciously like a salad dressing recipe, it solved a major problem for landscape photographers, who had been using wet collodion, which had to be applied to glass plates immediately before and after exposure. Outdoor photographers had to lug a dark tent and chemicals along with their large cameras and glass plates. Oxymel produced a dry plate that could be kept for days.
Llewelyn’s photographs made him famous. He was on the council of the Photographic Society of London at its founding in 1853 and had 30 prints in its first exhibition in 1854. Prince Albert, a great supporter of the medium, acquired two. (An exhibition of selections from Queen Victoria’s Royal collection of photographs, which opened on Feb. 4 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, also includes one image by Llewelyn.)
His “instantaneous” shutter stilled the sea’s waves, and four such pictures won a Médaille de Première Classe, a top prize, at the 1855 Universal Exposition in Paris. One was a photograph of a small island at Tenby that rose like a sleeping beast from the tame and pallid sea, before tiny people and carriages on the beach.
The rich chocolate color of his landscapes, the near abstraction of his rock and cliff studies, and the quiet, delicate tangle of the Welsh countryside all have the force of both a beautifully seen subject and a reverence for the medium. He planted a stuffed stag on the bank of a river (stags being unaccustomed to standing still for long exposures) and picked out its horns and some bare, hanging branches in bright white, while the dark river zigzagged across the picture, its banks a flurry of minutely observed grasses and a dense embroidery of ground cover.
The British loved and celebrated their landscape in Llewelyn’s time, from Wordsworth and Shelley to Constable and Turner (who began as a topographer and moved on to seascapes) and the photographers Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, Francis Bedford — and Llewelyn. This veneration of the land increased as people moved away from it into crowded cities. Llewelyn not only photographed the land but also landscaped and photographed around his house — he inherited a Welsh estate — turning the property into one great picturesque garden, with a man-made lake and waterfall and many unusual species of plant and tree.
Although the word “scientist” was not coined until 1833, many amateurs of means and leisure like Llewelyn — chemists, physicists, astronomers — contributed to the advancement of science in the early 19th century. Llewelyn was a polymath, an expert in life sciences, botany and more. He also worked on new electric devices, built an early private astronomical observatory and, with his daughter, took early photographs of the moon and of snow crystals. What’s more, he held important local government positions.
The British upper classes of the time could qualify as the last redoubt of the Renaissance Man. As the model of science and technology increasingly depended on visualization, it is not surprising that Fox Talbot, Llewelyn and John Herschel, a prominent scientist, experimented with photography. But Mr. Chanan remarks that these gentlemen pioneers of photography gave the medium up by 1860 as photography grew ever more commercialized (and, not so incidentally, industrialized).
On one or two occasions, Noel Channan’s meticulous research may seem like a surfeit of information. Still, the life of this family is instructive on several levels. It was, Mr. Chanan writes, “a family where photography was so often a shared pastime” — foreshadowing family vacations where people of all ages are photographing either the scenes or themselves.
In 1856, Llewelyn’s wife wrote her cousin, Fox Talbot, “Your delightful art thrives here in full vigor, and I wish you could see how much pleasure it daily gives us all.” She had already effectively forsaken her talent for drawing in order to print her husband’s images. (There is a lovely photograph of her placing the photograph on an outdoor window sill so that the sun, which originally registered the image, will finish by printing it.) Thereza, his eldest daughter, both photographed and printed. She was a scientist, too. In the mid-1850s she made extensive observations of the flowering of plants under all weather conditions, but because she was a woman, she could not deliver her statistical report to an important science meeting and had to ask a man to present it for her. Her life is a reminder of how many Victorian women were actively, and fruitfully, engaged in science but largely unrecognized and now unremembered. And of how many women were engaged in photography in one way or another (Julia Margaret Cameron’s hands were stained with silver nitrate from her darkroom work.)
Mr. Chanan sought out family albums, the thousands of Llewelyn’s photos in private and public collections, as well as family diaries, letters, and Thereza’s unpublished memoir, crammed with information.
It makes you wonder: A century from now, will someone be able to retrieve tens of thousands of tweets, texts and emails from communication companies and obsolete platforms (and, who knows, even the National Security Agency) to fashion so panoramic a tale?