Thomas Wedgwood (photographer)

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Thomas Wedgwood Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805).jpg
Thomas Wedgwood

Thomas Wedgwood (14 May 1771 – 10 July 1805), son of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, is most widely known as an early experimenter in the field of photography.

Josiah Wedgwood English potter and founder of the Wedgwood company

Josiah Wedgwood was an English potter and entrepreneur. He founded the Wedgwood company. He is credited with the industrialisation of the manufacture of pottery; "it was by intensifying the division of labour that Wedgwood brought about the reduction of cost which enabled his pottery to find markets in all parts of Britain, and also of Europe and America." The renewed classical enthusiasms of the late 1760s and early 1770s were of major importance to his sales promotion. His expensive goods were in much demand from the nobility, while he used emulation effects to market cheaper sets to the rest of society. Every new invention that Wedgwood produced – green glaze, creamware, black basalt and jasper – was quickly copied. Having once achieved perfection in production, he achieved perfection in sales and distribution. His showrooms in London gave the public the chance to see his complete range of tableware.

Photography Art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation

Photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. It is employed in many fields of science, manufacturing, and business, as well as its more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication.


He is the first person known to have thought of creating permanent pictures by capturing camera images on material coated with a light-sensitive chemical. His practical experiments yielded only shadow image photograms that were not light-fast, but his conceptual breakthrough and partial success have led some historians to call him "the first photographer". [1] [2] [3]

Camera obscura optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen

Camera obscura, also referred to as pinhole image, is the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening. The surroundings of the projected image have to be relatively dark for the image to be clear, so many historical camera obscura experiments were performed in dark rooms.


A photogram is a photographic image made without a camera by placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light. The usual result is a negative shadow image that shows variations in tone that depends upon the transparency of the objects used. Areas of the paper that have received no light appear white; those exposed through transparent or semi-transparent objects appear grey.


Thomas Wedgwood was born in Etruria, Staffordshire, now part of the city of Stoke-on-Trent in England.

Etruria, Staffordshire village in United Kingdom

Etruria is a suburb of Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England.

Stoke-on-Trent City and unitary authority in England

Stoke-on-Trent is a city and unitary authority area in Staffordshire, England, with an area of 36 square miles (93 km2). Together with the neighbouring boroughs of Newcastle-under-Lyme and Staffordshire Moorlands, it is part of North Staffordshire. In 2016, the city had a population of 261,302.

Wedgwood was born into a long line of pottery manufacturers, grew up and was educated at Etruria and was instilled from his youth with a love for art. He also spent much of his short life associating with painters, sculptors, and poets, to whom he was able to be a patron after he inherited his father's wealth in 1795.

As a young adult, Wedgwood became interested in the best method of educating children, and spent time studying infants. From his observations, he concluded that most of the information that young brains absorbed came through the eyes, and were thus related to light and images.

Wedgwood never married and had no children. His biographer notes that "neither his extant letters nor family tradition tell us of his caring for any woman outside the circle of his relations" and that he was "strongly attracted" to musical and sensitive young men.

In imperfect health as a child and a chronic invalid as an adult, he died in the county of Dorset at the age of 34.

Dorset County of England

Dorset is a county in South West England on the English Channel coast. The ceremonial county comprises the non-metropolitan county, which is governed by Dorset County Council, and the unitary authority areas of Poole and Bournemouth. Covering an area of 2,653 square kilometres (1,024 sq mi), Dorset borders Devon to the west, Somerset to the north-west, Wiltshire to the north-east, and Hampshire to the east. The county town is Dorchester which is in the south. After the reorganisation of local government in 1974 the county's border was extended eastward to incorporate the Hampshire towns of Bournemouth and Christchurch. Around half of the population lives in the South East Dorset conurbation, while the rest of the county is largely rural with a low population density.

A pioneer of photography

Wedgwood is the first person reliably documented to have used light-sensitive chemicals to capture silhouette images on durable media such as paper, and the first known to have attempted to photograph the image formed in a camera obscura.

Silhouette image

A silhouette is the image of a person, animal, object or scene represented as a solid shape of a single color, usually black, with its edges matching the outline of the subject. The interior of a silhouette is featureless, and the hole is typically presented on a light background, usually white, or none at all. The silhouette differs from an outline, which depicts the edge of an object in a linear form, while a silhouette appears as a solid shape. Silhouette images may be created in any visual artistic media, but were first used to describe pieces of cut paper, which were then stuck to a backing in a contrasting colour, and often framed.

The date of his first experiments in photography is unknown, but he is believed to have indirectly advised James Watt (1736–1819) on the practical details prior to 1800. In a letter that has been variously dated to 1790, 1791 and 1799, Watt wrote to Josiah Wedgwood:

James Watt British engineer

James Watt was a Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist who improved on Thomas Newcomen's 1712 Newcomen steam engine with his Watt steam engine in 1776, which was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.

Dear Sir, I thank you for your instructions as to the Silver Pictures, about which, when at home, I will make some experiments...

In his many experiments, possibly with advice on chemistry from his tutor Alexander Chisholm and members of the Lunar Society, Wedgwood used paper and white leather coated with silver nitrate. The leather proved to be more light-sensitive. His primary objective had been to capture real-world scenes with a camera obscura, but those attempts were unsuccessful. He did succeed in using exposure to direct sunlight to capture silhouette images of objects in contact with the treated surface, as well as the shadow images cast by sunlight passing through paintings on glass. In both cases, the sunlit areas rapidly darkened while the areas in shadow did not.

Wedgwood met a young chemist named Humphry Davy (1778–1829) at the Pneumatic Clinic in Bristol, while Wedgwood was there being treated for his ailments. Davy wrote up his friend's work for publication in London’s Journal of the Royal Institution (1802), titling it “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver, with observations by Humphrey Davy. Invented by T. Wedgwood, Esq.” The paper was published and detailed Wedgwood’s procedures and accomplishments, as well as Davy's own variations of them. In 1802 the Royal Institution was not the venerable force it is today and its Journal was:

a little paper printed from time to time to let the subscribers to the infant institution know what was being done ...the 'Journal' did not live beyond a first volume. There is nothing to show that Davy's account was ever read at any meeting; and the print of it would have been read, apparently, if read at all, only by the small circle of members and subscribers to the institution, of whom, we may be pretty sure, only a small minority can have been scientific people. [4]

Nevertheless, the paper of 1802 and Wedgwood's work directly influenced other chemists and scientists delving into the craft of photography, since subsequent research (Batchen, p. 228) has shown it was actually quite widely known about and was mentioned in chemistry textbooks as early as 1803. David Brewster, later a close friend of photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot, published an account of the paper in the Edinburgh Magazine (Dec 1802). The paper was translated into French, and also printed in Germany in 1811.

Another pioneer, J. B. Reade's work in 1839 was directly influenced by reading of Wedgwood's more rapid results when using leather. Reade tried treating paper with a tanning agent used in making leather and found that after sensitization the paper darkened more rapidly when exposed. Reade's discovery was communicated to Talbot by a friend, as was later proven in a court case over patents.

The account given by Reade of his experiments was entirely retrospective. His recollection was shown to have been in error, made in 1840 and not 1839, drawn from recollections he made in 1851, more than ten years after. [5]

There are two additional points relevant to Reade's erroneous claim: he was discussing the use of Gallic acid with silver nitrate. Silver nitrate is not a halide and unlike the chloride and fluoride of silver it has not the potential to develop the latent image. In addition Reade failed to understand or to make a distinction between tannic acid and gallic acid, referring to either "tincture, infusion of, or a decoction of galls" and gallic acid as though all were interchangeable. Any of these solutions would contain little more than 3% gallic acid, which is relatively slow acting. Tannic acid, on the other hand, which constitutes between 60 and 79% is fast acting. The result being that it would immediately act upon any gelatine present to render it insoluble; hence its use, since time immemorial, to tan leather which is a strategic material (ie.,for solder's boots, and harness to attach guns to gun-carriages etc). Talbot would have known of this group of organic compounds and there is evidence that he had experimented with gallic acid (2-3-4 tri-hydronitrobenzoic acid) since 1835 at the latest. First synthesised by Carl William Scheele in 1786 whose studies were widely known (earlier, in fact if you reference his experiments with secret writing). [6] Reade's images darkened quickly because the tannic acid component of the"extract of galls" has the power to spontaneously reduce silver nitrate to its metallic state.

Rumours of surviving photographs

Wedgwood was unable to "fix" his pictures to make them immune to the further effects of light. Unless kept in complete darkness, they would slowly but surely darken all over, eventually destroying the image. As Davy put it in his paper of 1802, the picture,

immediately after being taken, must be kept in some obscure place. It may indeed be examined in the shade, but in this case the exposure should be only for a few minutes; by the light of candles and lamps, as commonly employed, it is not sensibly affected.

Salted paper photogram of a leaf, circa 1839. A speculative attribution to Wedgwood in 2008 was later retired. Foglia wedgwood.jpg
Salted paper photogram of a leaf, circa 1839. A speculative attribution to Wedgwood in 2008 was later retired.

Although unfixed, photographs such as Wedgwood made can be preserved indefinitely by storing them in total darkness and protecting them from the harmful effects of prolonged open exposure to the air—for example, by keeping them tightly pressed between the pages of a larger book.

In the middle to late 1830s, both Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre found ways of chemically stabilizing the images their processes produced, making them relatively insensitive to additional exposure to light. In 1839, John Herschel pointed out his earlier published discovery that hyposulphite of soda (now known as sodium thiosulfate but still nicknamed "hypo") dissolved silver halides. This allowed the remaining light-sensitive silver salts to be completely washed away, truly "fixing" the photograph. Herschel also found that in the case of silver nitrate, a thorough washing with plain water sufficed to remove the unwanted remainder from paper—at least, the type of paper Herschel used—but only if the water was very pure.

In 1885, Samuel Highley, an early photography historian, published an article in which he remarked that he had seen what must have been unfixed examples of early pictures made by Wedgwood, presumably dating to the 1790s. His was only one of several latter 19th century claims alleging the current or former existence of improbably early photographs, usually based on decades-old memories or depending on questionable assumptions, which investigators determined to be unverifiable, unreliable or definitely mistaken. [7]

In 2008, there were widespread news reports that one of Wedgwood's photographs had surfaced and was about to be sold at auction. The photogram, as shadow photographs are now called, showed the silhouette and internal structure of a leaf and was marked in one corner with what appeared to be the letter "W". Originally unattributed, then attributed to Talbot, an essay by Talbot expert Larry Schaaf, included in the auction catalog, rejected that attribution but suggested that it could actually be by Thomas Wedgwood and date from the 1790s. [8] An authentic Wedgwood image would be a key historical relic, avidly sought by collectors and museums, and would probably sell for a seven-figure price at auction. Considerable controversy erupted after the announcement and Schaaf's rationale for such an attribution was vigorously disputed by other respected photography historians. A few days before the scheduled sale, the image was withdrawn so that it could be more completely analyzed. [9]

If any special physical analysis was later done, the findings had not been made public as of mid-2015, when Schaaf presented some new discoveries which apparently solved the major mysteries and laid his unexpectedly sensationalized scholarly speculation to rest. The initial "W", it now seems, is that of William West, an entrepreneur who was selling packets of "photogenic drawing paper" to the public only weeks after instructions for its preparation were unveiled by its inventor, Talbot, early in 1839. [10] The image was probably created that same year by Sarah Anne Bright, a previously unknown amateur. [11]

Patron to Coleridge

Wedgwood was a friend of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and arranged for him to have an annuity of £150 in 1798 so Coleridge could devote himself to philosophy and poetry. According to an 1803 letter, Coleridge even attempted to procure cannabis for Wedgwood to alleviate his chronic stomach aches. [12]

Related Research Articles

The following list comprises significant milestones in the development of photography technology.

Calotype an early photographic process

Calotype or talbotype is an early photographic process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot, using paper coated with silver iodide. The term calotype comes from the Greek καλός (kalos), "beautiful", and τύπος (tupos), "impression".

Henry Fox Talbot British inventor and photographer

William Henry Fox Talbot FRS FRSE FRAS was an English scientist, inventor and photography pioneer who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries. His work, in the 1840s on photomechanical reproduction, led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. He was the holder of a controversial patent which affected the early development of commercial photography in Britain. He was also a noted photographer who contributed to the development of photography as an artistic medium. He published The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), which was illustrated with original salted paper prints from his calotype negatives, and made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York.

Daguerreotype First commercially successful photographic process

The daguerreotype process, or daguerreotypy, was the first publicly available photographic process, and for nearly twenty years it was the one most commonly used.

Collodion process early photographic technique

The collodion process is an early photographic process.

Louis Daguerre French photographer, artist and chemist and inventor of the Daguerrotype

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, better known as Louis Daguerre, was a French artist and photographer, recognized for his invention of the daguerreotype process of photography. He became known as one of the fathers of photography. Though he is most famous for his contributions to photography, he was also an accomplished painter and a developer of the diorama theatre.

Cyanotype a photographic printing process

Cyanotype is a photographic printing process that produces a cyan-blue print. Engineers used the process well into the 20th century as a simple and low-cost process to produce copies of drawings, referred to as blueprints. The process uses two chemicals: ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide.

Albumen print photographic technique / process

The albumen print, also called albumen silver print, was published in January 1847 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, and was the first commercially exploitable method of producing a photographic print on a paper base from a negative. It used the albumen found in egg whites to bind the photographic chemicals to the paper and became the dominant form of photographic positives from 1855 to the start of the 20th century, with a peak in the 1860-90 period. During the mid-19th century, the carte de visite became one of the more popular uses of the albumen method. In the 19th century, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company were the largest makers and distributors of the Albumen photographic prints and paper in the United States.

Ambrotype positive photograph on glass made by a variant of the wet plate collodion process

The ambrotype or amphitype, also known as a collodion positive in the UK, is a positive photograph on glass made by a variant of the wet plate collodion process. Like a print on paper, it is viewed by reflected light. Like the daguerreotype, which it replaced, and like the prints produced by a Polaroid camera, each is a unique original that could only be duplicated by using a camera to copy it.

Johann Heinrich Schulze German academic

Johann Heinrich Schulze was a German professor and polymath from Colbitz in the Duchy of Magdeburg.

Rev. Joseph Bancroft Reade FRS FRMS was an English clergyman, amateur scientist and pioneer of photography.

History of photography the invention and development of the camera and the creation of permanent images

The history of photography began in remote antiquity with the discovery of two critical principles: camera obscura image projection and the observation that some substances are visibly altered by exposure to light. Apart from a possibly photographic but unrecognized process used on the Turin Shroud there are no artifacts or descriptions that indicate any attempt to capture images with light sensitive materials prior to the 18th century. Around 1717 Johann Heinrich Schulze captured cut-out letters on a bottle of a light-sensitive slurry, but he apparently never thought of making the results durable. Around 1800 Thomas Wedgwood made the first reliably documented, although unsuccessful attempt at capturing camera images in permanent form. His experiments did produce detailed photograms, but Wedgwood and his associate Humphry Davy found no way to fix these images.

Talbot v Laroche (unreported) was an 1854 legal action, pivotal to the history of photography, by which William Fox Talbot sought to assert that Martin Laroche's use of the unpatented, collodion process infringed his calotype patent.

Salt print photographic process

The salt print was the dominant paper-based photographic process for producing positive prints from 1839 until approximately 1860.

Henry Collen British artist

Henry Collen was an English miniature portrait painter to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and the Duchess of Kent. Later in life he turned to photography and was the first professional calotypist in London.

Reade Peak mountain in Antarctica

Reade Peak is a peak, 1,060 m, rising 1 mile south of Sonia Point and Flandres Bay, on the northeast coast of Kiev Peninsula, Graham Land, Antarctica. Mapped by the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS) from photos taken by Hunting Aerosurveys Ltd. in 1956-57. Named by the United Kingdom Antarctic Place-Names Committee (UK-APC) in 1960 for Joseph Bancroft Reade (1801–70), English pioneer of photography, who obtained photographs on paper coated with silver nitrate, developed with gallic acid and fixed with hyposulphate of soda, in 1837.

Sarah Anne Bright English artist and photographer

Sarah Anne Bright (1793–1866) was a 19th-century English artist and photographer who produced the earliest surviving photographic images taken by a woman. Images she had produced were not attributed to her until 2015 when her initials were discovered on a photogram that was previously consigned to an auction at Sotheby’s in New York.

John McCosh or John MacCosh or James McCosh was a Scottish army surgeon who made hobbyist photographs whilst serving in India and Burma. His photographs during the Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848–1849) of people and places associated with the British rule in India, and of the Second Burmese War (1852–1853), count as sufficient grounds, some historians maintain, to recognise him as the first war photographer known by name. McCosh wrote a number of books on medicine and photography as well as books of poetry.



  1. e.g. Litchfield, book title et al.
  2. Talbot, W.H.F. (1844). The Pencil of Nature, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1844. On page 11, Talbot acknowledges that the original 1802 account of Wedgwood and Davy's experiments, which he did not see until his own experiments were well underway, "...certainly establishes their claim as the first inventors of the Photographic Art, though the actual progress they made in it was small."
  3. "Thomas Wedgwood | British physicist". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-01-24.
  4. Litchfield, pp. 196-197.
  5. See R. D. Wood "J.B.Reade, FRS., and the early History of Photography, part II Gallic Acid and Talbot's Calotype Patent", from The Annals of Science Vol.27, No.1, March, 1971
  6. Mike Weaver, Henry Fox Talbot; Selected Texts and Bibliography (Oxford: Clio Press, Ltd., 1992): Michael Gray, Secret Writing
  7. Litchfield, appendix C.
  8. An Image Is a Mystery for Photo Detectives, Randy Kennedy. New York Times , April 17, 2008.
  9. E-Photo Newsletter, Issue 148, 9/28/2008. See first two articles by Alex Novak and Michael Gray. Retrieved 7 May 2013.
  10. Schaaf, Larry. (2015). "More on 'The Damned Leaf'". Retrieved 3 September 2016.
  11. Schaaf, Larry. (2015). "Tempestuous Teacups and Enigmatic Leaves". Retrieved 3 September 2016.
  12. Coleridge Letters


Further reading