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Special Issue in Honour of Murray Johnston

In November 1984, at the commencement of a Carnegie Trust Fellowship, I was invited to lecture at the
National Library of Scotland. Although the chief thrust of that talk, "The Meaning of a Photograph; a
Leaf from a James Nasmyth Album," was the interpretation of photographic archival resources, Murray
Johnston was intrigued by the enigma presented by my main example. In the absence of a fonnal text,
the following is a recall of the example presented in that lecture (the question posed, by the way, remains
very much open).



Fig.8. P-G. Froment. Paris Rooftops, detail. Trustees of the National Library of Scolland.

A most interesting example of early photography is uncommon) out of hand. In addition to lts
preserved in one of the National Library of contradiction of accepted history, there .are other
Scotland's James Nasmyth albums (Fig. 9). It is a factors that weigh against the accuracy of tbe
somewhat enfeebled but clearly defined positive identification of this photograph. The physical
photograph on an irregular scrap of plain paper structure of tbe album has been disturbed and, most
roughly 120mm square. This image of unidentified suspiciously, tbe date of 1835 has obviously been
Parisian rooftops is bluish against a yellow-tinged added to the inscription. It may not even be in
background. The most intriguing aspect of it is the Nasmyth's hand. l Yet, there are aspects of this
pencil inscription in James Nasmyth's hand written particular artifact that beg to be examined more
in the sky area: closely, attributes that' defend the possibility that
tbis object is what it claims to be. Even if it is not,
The First Photo I ever saw. 1835 taken by G. this photograph is tbe only known early example by
Froment at Paris an independent inventor of photography. It also
establishes an early link between the photographic
Photography was first announced to the public at communities of Britain and France.
toe start of 1839, almost simultaneously in Paris by
Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre. and in Britain by The provenance of the two NLS James Nasmyth
William Henry Fox Talbot. The announcements albums seemingly offers few clues. They were
created quite a stir and within days many persons purchased in March 1945 in London at a Hodgson
on both sides of the Channel were actively engaged & Company auction; this was a "Red Cross Sale,
in discovering new processes. I do not propose to sold on behalf of the Duke of Gloucester's Red
digress into the pre-history of photography here Cross and St. John's Fund." The Library'S
except to say that 1839 was the magic year for 1944/45 Catalogue No.5 describes these as
inspiration, not for technological breakthroughs.
The camera was well-known as a drawing No. 279. Nasmyth (James - Engineer,
instrument for centuries before this, and various 1808-90). A collection of small original
chemical processes that could be applied to caprure pen and ink and pencil sketches, mostly
an image permeated eighteenth- and early topographical subjects, with some of
nineteenth- century literature. Simply put, there is mechanical and astronomical interest,
no basis for doubting tbe existence of an 1835 many signed and dated, with brief
photograph on technical grounds alone. descriptions; also a few by Alexander
Nasmyth (1758-1840) and his son Patrick,
However, the year 1839 is so well established as laid down on brittle brown paper, in
the public birthday of photography that one is portfolio.
inclined to dismiss stich claims (and they are not



in So
he ev.
Was 01
meetin I
Fig.9. P-G. Froment, Paris Rooftops, posilive print, 71835. Truslees oflhe Narional Library of Scotland.
The wbritUe brown paper" had to go, so at some 1885. As one would expect, aU of tb.e photogr.
Joseph ~
unrecorded point the portfolio was reassembled by photographs, including some very early ones, are
the Library into two albums - presumably carefulJ y, in the second volume. All that is, except folio 214,
but of course this always carries with it the the Froment, which is stationed in the first volume
potential of confusion or the possible kindly photogI'
on the page just before an item dated 6 May 1835.
intercession of "good deeds." No record of the It seems unlikely that a post-war manuscript CundelJ
original collation has been traced; mostly likely it librarian would casually scribble a suggested date included
set at least the general pattern for the present on the face of a print, and in such close proximity with the
arrangement, which is strictly chronological. to an original caption. Since all the other SCOtland,
MSS3241 covers the period from 1811 to August photographs are carefully situated in tbeir proper
1838 aDd MSS3242 covers from December 1838 to instructio
place, it seems to me that the mind of a librarian

would have sought consistency, and would have amateur. 5 Nasmytb remembered that
placed Froment with the others. That is, the
librarian would have unless Nasmyth himself had among my most intelligent private friends
signaned otherwise, either in his manuscript in London were George Cuodell and his
caption, or in his original collation. two brothers. George was agent for Mr.
Patrick Maxwell Stuart, in connection with
James Nasmyth was a highly inventive engineer, his West Indies estates... My special
born in Scotland, but mostly active in Lancashire. friend, George was known among us as
His fertile mind was a rich store of details, making "the worthy master". He was thoroughly
his otherwise self-congratulatory autobiography a versed in general science, and... he had
marvellous window on society and on the the most happy faculty of treating complex
emergence of industrial Britain. 3 His father, subjects, both in science and politics, in a
Alexander, was an important artist in Scotland and thoroughJy common-sense ;manner. His
much of his talent was carried to the son. James two brothers had a ftne feeling for art, and
Nasmyth had interests in etching and other graphic indeed, possessed no small skills as
arts; an example of one of his camera obscura practical artists. With companions such as
drawings is included in the NLS album. By tbe these, T spent many of my Saturday
time of the introduction of photography, his evenings most pleasantly and profitably.
Bridgewater Foundry at Patricroft, near They were generally concluded with a
Manchester, was well situated to take advantage of glass of beer of tbe "the worthy master's'
the railway revolution. Nasmyth's invention of the own brewing. 6
steam hammer in November 1839 was one of the
key contributions to industrial development. Nasmytb's albums were apparently assembled in
the last years of his life - a time when memories
Early photographic activity was particularly intense typically begin to pleasantly blend. However, it
in Scotland and there were important links between seems impossible that a scientific man with so
the photographic enclaves in Edinburgh and many personal associations with the photographic
Manchester. Could a gregarious, artistic, scientific art could have been wildly imprecise about his first
man with interests as diverse as Nasmyth's encounter with the new art. I think, on the
somehow have totally missed all signs of such strength of James Nasmyth's personality, that we
activity, so much so that the first phofograph that must accept that this photograph was by Froment
he ever saw was done at the end of 1839 or even aod was the first one that Nasmyth ever saw. It
later? And then by a foreigner? The Manchester could not possibly date later tban 1839. Was it
Guardian (which Nasmyth almost certainly read) made as early as 1835? When we examine the
was one of the first British newspapers to report on character of the photographer, this earlier dating
Daguerre's discovery, on 19 January. 4 Nasmyth seems less improbable.
nearly always attended the annual meetings of the
British Association for the Advancement of Paul-Gustave Froment, the son of a watchmaker,
Science. Could he have overlooked Henry Talbot's was born in Paris in 1815 and entered the Ecole
display of scores of photographs at the Birmingham Po]ytechnique [the Military Academy of Artillery
meeting in August 1839? This seems most and Engineering] in 1835. In 1837, keenly feeling
improbable, especially when we consider the the inadequacy of bis training, Froment made the
evidence of the interest Nasmyth soon took in pilgrimage to England to study her great
photography. He had direct connections with mecbanical workshOps. Returning to France
photographic pioneers such as Sir John Herschel, sometime near the end of 1839, he soon established
the Joseph Sidebotham, and Charles Piazzi Smyth. his own workshop dedicated to the construction of
are precision instruments (Fig. 10). Coming on the
214, Perhaps the most important of Nasmyth's heels of the turmoil of the Napoleonic years, the
ume photographic contacts was with George Smith period from about 1840 to 1870 was the golden age
835. Cundell (1798-1882), two portrai ts of whom are of French instrument making.' Froment's career
;;ript included in the album. Cundell had close contacts coincided with tbe period in which the Parisian
date with the emerging photographic community in instrument makers were unquestionably the finest in
Scotland, and his 1844 explanation of Talbot's the world, and Gustave Froment was one of the
lther Calotype was the first really clear set of practical leaders. By -1855, Charles Wheatstone felt
'oper instructions in photography available to the confident in recommending him as the "most able

Fig.lO. Part of Fizeau's device for measuring the velocity of light, made by pG. Fromenl, c.1865. T",stces of the Nlllional Museums
of Scotland.

mechanician in Paris. ,,~ the first to employ an electric motor in an industrial

application. Froment's ruling machine worked to
Around 1843, Frornent was involved in perfecting such a level of precision that it could scribe 25,000
the electric telegraph. In 1844 his workshop was lines per inch. At this microscopic level, however,


vibrations from tbe commerce of the street were With respect to photography (and in spite
sufficient to confuse the pattern. Fromeot powered. of assertions to the contrary by an
his engraving machine with an electric motor (of illustrious physicist Sir David Brewster),
his own design) connected to a clock mechanism Niepce and Thtguerre undoubtedly share
which started. it working in the dead of night. In this glory; but the problem had already
the morning, as traffic was building up, the been stated and could oot fail to be
precision work had already been completed. by his resolved before long. Frament was at that
automated. electric factory. F roment received a time one of those more actively engaged
medal at the Great Exhibition after he presented an in this problem, and once put on the path,
elaborately engraved glass medallion to Prince with his perseverance and his customary
Albert - it was only 1/30 of an inch in diameter and ingenuity, no one will question that he was
had to be viewed under a microscope! Froment capable of arriving at it first. Here,
was a recipient of the Legion of Honour and built furthermore, are some facts which are
the instruments for Leon Foucault's experiments on authentic.
the rotation of the earth. Yet, he sought no
personal fame, so much so that Dionysius Lardner Some time after he left the Polytechnic,
was led 10 exclaim after seeing Froment's display our friend had gone to England with the
at the Great Exhibition that "never was presented a goal of studying the workings of English
more conspicuous example of modest reserve on industrial society. During his spare time,
the part of artistic genius the most exalted. "9 and principally on Sundays, a day so
difficult to spend among our neighbours,
When Froment died in 1865, the aerial photography he would repeat physics and .chemistry
pioneer, Colonel Aime Laussedat. wrote the most experiments, and used to construct
extensive and illuminating obituary of his friend. ordinary and solar microscopes, and in the
Laussedat had difficulty fmding enough room to same way that he bad wanted to put in
enumerate the various inventive and scientific motion machine drawings, he had the
accomplishments of bis respected colleague. Still, greatest desire to preserve or fix the
he could not resist an important diversion: fugitive images projected on his screen.

The second testimony which T can supply The properties of the salts of silver, which
is much more extraordinary, but the fact is he had heard about from M. Dumas, had
undeniable, and I should not pass it in been very striking to him; he had
silence. Froment touched on the reproduced those impressions of lace, of
discovery of photography. delicate leaves, of wings of insects laid on
some paper covered with silver chloride,
When a great invention, like the one of which one employs for demonstrating the
which I speak, has become part of the rapid action of light on this substance. He
concern of the public, it is rather usual to had even fixed them, but there' was yet a
hear people say that it was already Imown, great distance between that and obtaining
that it had been done much earlier, etc. the aerial images of the camera obscura.
Has it not been claimed that the process of Nevertheless, Fromeot attempted the
Daguerre had been rediscovered in the breakthrough, and, on 9 January 1839, he
manuscripts of the Monks of Mount communicated the results, as yet
Athos, and does Fenelon not speak unfinished no doubt, but already very
somewhere in his charming fables, without remarkable, of his researches on the
believing in the truth of it, of portraits subject to the Manchester Philosophical
obtained by making people look into Society.10
certain mirrors?
No published record of such a presentation has
1useums Others, adopting the diametricalty opposite been traced. Unfortunately, the archives of the
opinion, willingly believe that the inventor Manchester Philosophical Society suffered a direct
did everything, discovered everything, as hit during World War II and were largely
lustrial if it were not enough to have known how destroyed. It would seem to be almost too much of
:ked to to remove the difficulties which were a coincidence for Froment to have decided to
25,000 thought to be insurmountable up to then. disclose his process just three days after Daguerre

did so in Paris, and before the news appeared in included him in the short list of those who, like
any of the British journals. Had he received a Talbot, had invented negative/positive processes. II
private communication that goaded him into action?
One would expect that any fonnal presentation to Laussedat indulged himself with a solitary anecdote
the distinguished Manchester & Phil. would in Froment's obituary; as it happens, this provides
have been noted in some form. Was Laussedat an important clue:
perhaps slightly off in his details, but still revealing
an essentiaUy true memory? The Manchester If I were not afraid of giving this notice
Mechanics' Institute, for example, was hosting a an anecdotal character, when I still have
very ambitious and diverse exbibitionat the start of so many important things to say, I would
1839. On 9 January, tbey had a special free day show Froment in the midst of the English
for subscribers. Was this Froment's impromptu family at whose home he was living in
forum in response to word of Daguerre? If so, Manchester, spending his evenings
there might not be a public record of it. making, for the children of the hosts, with
scraps of sheet iron and copper, delightful
Laussedat continued in Froment's obituary: small locomotives which ran on wire rails
fixed to the floor, and which imitated in
It was onJy in the month of October of the all respects the great machines which
same year that the process of Daguerre performed the daily journey to
was made public. Froment was then back Birmingham, and which came forth from
in Paris; he attended the meeting of the tbe workshop which Froment was
Academy of Sciences, where Arago observing. I have other analogous stories
described the process; without waiting for to add to the fooner, but I must relinquish
the conclusion of the explanations by the the pleasure of telling them in order to
illustrious perpetual secretary, he ran to return to the serious aspects of our
his house, rue du Bouloi, and all gasping, colleague's career.
despite the light which was weakening, he Fig. 11
obtained tbat same evening a trial plate. At the dawn of photography, the rail line from calolYl
It is therefore very probable, one could Manchester to Birmingham was the ambitious
even say certain, that our friend was the Grand Junction Railway, a line with a prevailing
first to repeat the experiment which has gradient four times as steep as that of the one
since then become so popular, although at
that time it seemed quite difficult to
running to London. It provided a supreme
challenge to iron horses and to engineering skill.

achieve successfully. Of the twelve firms that had supplied tbe sixty-four
locomotives to the Grand Juoction by 1840, only
To tell the truth, before gomg to the one, Sharp, Roberts & Company, was based in
meeting at the Academy, Froment had Manchester. 12 The inventive genius of the firm,
prepared everything. The camera obscura the person to whom Froment would most likely
and the very ingredients which he could have been attracted, was Richard Roberts (1789
foresee needing were made really. But is 1864), a Welsh-born inventor whose influence was
this not precisely the best proof that the felt in many fields. Textiles, of course, were a
shrewd operator was himsel f on the verge mainstay of the British economy. Roberts'
of reaching the same goal? maduoes fabricated the reeds for looms and his
most famous invention, his 1825 Self-Acting Mule,
Laussedat, remembering back more than twenty was a cornerstone of the Manchester cotton mills.
five years, was wrong about the month of His planing machine, an important invention in
Daguerre's first disclosure. The process was itself, was used by his own finn to make diverse
revealed by Fran~ois Arago at the Institut de products, including precision iron billiard tables.
France on 19 August to a wildly enthusiastic and Roberts was also one of the pioneers of railway
overflowing crowd at a joint session of the construction. Hi s 1845 electro-magnet was the
Academies des Sciences and des Beaux-Arts. most powerful in the world. 1J He lectured at tbe
Just siJ
Reactions such as the one ascribed to Fromellt were Manchester Mechanics' Institute and had frequent
widely reported. But Fromenl's work went beyond commerce with colleagues in France.
of Shal]
merely repeating the direct positive process of
these t~
Daguerre. At the end of 1839, Baron Seguier Tn the autumn of 1830, James Nasmyth was an
same ma

Let us speculate further. Let us assume that
Froment did make experimentfll photographs during
his student years in Paris. He might well have
brought along examples when he went to England
(as Niepce had done a decade before). Assuming
Roberts is the engineer with whom Froment Stflyed
from 1837, is it oat it likely that Frament would
have met Nasmyth through him and perhaps
showed him these examples? Perhaps this was a
gift in 1839, after the public announcement, but of
a photograph made years before.

Gustave Frament. the maker of this print. was an

exceptional person - be was creative and inventive
.[ and ahead of his time in many ways. He was
s credited in late 1839 with being an independent
n inventor of pbotography. All of this points towards
b. the type of individual who could have and might
o well have invented a photograph ic process by 1835.
n F roment also shunned personal fame and in 1839
was just lauDching a career in another field, a
career that would prove to be highly successful.
;h Virtually everyone was amazed by the "magic
to mirrors" of Daguerre. In these personal and public
ur circumstances, it seems quite understandable that
Froment would choose not to press an independent
Fig.ll. D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson, James Nasmylh, claim.
ca.Jotype, 1843-1846. Scottish National Portrait Gallcry . .

We might expect that Richard Roberts, the likely

apprentice in the famous engineering works of
ng intennediary between Froroent and Nasmyth, would
Henry Maudsley in London. When his master had
IDe have raised a defence ofFroment. After all, it was
to travel to the Continent on business, the young
me Franz Bauer in England who reminded France of
Nasmytb took a month off for his own journey into
ill. Daguerre's deceased partner, Joseph Nicephore
Eogland's industrial heartland. After seeing
:Jur Niepce, when he was initially overlooked in 1839.
Stephenson's Rocket in its trial runs, Nasmyth
nly Roberts might have been expected to have played
recalled that his guide
in a similar role for Froment. However, by 1839, he
would have been distracted by personal problems.
at once proceeded to take me to tbe
:ely Roberts was becoming increasingly estranged from
extensive machine factory of Messrs.
89 his firm, leaving it soon afterwards. A better
Sharp, Roberts, & Co... Mr. Roberts, an
was inventor than capitalist, tbis brilliant man was to
admirable mechanic as well as an
'e a die in poverty,'S
inventor, had derived many of his ideas on
~rts' the subject while working with Mr.
his James Nasmyth, the recipient of this print. was an
Maudsley in London, and he had carried
'ule, exceptional witness. He was a scientific person
thero out with many additions and
~lls. who kept detailed records. He was personally
improvements. Indeed, Roberts was one
n in acquainted with many of the pioneers of
of the most capable men of his lime, and
'erse photography. Something exceptional must have
is entitled to be regarded as one of the
)les. happened, whetber it happened in 1835 or later, for
true pioneers of modem mechanical
lway him to claim tbis particular item as the "first {'hOlO
mechanism. 14
the 1 ever saw".
t the Just six years after this meeting, Nasmyth
luent It is often by studying the exceptions that we are
established his Bridgewater Foundry near the works
able to establish the fundamental truths about a
of Sharp, Roberts & Company. Is it not likely that
field, especially a field so young as is the history of
these two masters of their field, both pupils of the
IS an photography. At the minimum, this photograph is
same man, would have maintflined regular contact?

the only known survivor of Froment's early work. House, the Gemsheim Collection at the University
I t establishes Nasmyth' s initial contact with the new of, and in the Edinburgh Central Library.
art. It provides a clue of a link between Britain
and France. And, just perhaps, it will some day 6. Nasmyth, Autobiography, pp 155-6.
prove to be one of the earliest photographs known.
7. For the context in which Froment flourisbed, see
Notes and references 1. rayen, "La Construction des Instruments
Scientifiques en France au XIXe Siecle" ,
1. Since giving this lecture, I have published some Nineteenth-Cefltury Scientific Instruments and their
others that explore aspects of the prehistory of Makers, edited by P.R. de Clercq (Amsterdam:
photography: "The First Fifty Years of British Rodopi, 1985), pp. 159-182.
Photography: 1794-1844", Technology and Art;
the Birth and Early Years of Photography, edited 8. Letter to Mr Brookes, 22 April 1855. Archives
by Michael Pritchard (Bath: Royal Photographic of the Wellcome Institute Library.
Society Historical Group, 1990), pp. 9-18;
"L'Amour de la Lu rni he: Herschel, Talbot, et la 9. D. Lardner, The Great Exhibition and LOlldo1l in
Photographie" , us Multiples lnventiOfiS de La 1851 (Londou: Longman, Brown, Green, and
Photographie (paris: Association Fran~ise Pour La Longmans, 1852), pp. 423-439. Dr Lardner's
Diffusion du Patrimoine Photographique, 1989), pp review is an important source of information on the
115-124; "Niepce i.n 1827 England\ Proceedings workings of Froment's Paris operation.
& Papers, Symposium 1985 (Bradford: European
Society for the History of Photography and the 10. Translated from the original French. Aim6
National Museum of Photography, 1988), pp. 112 Laussedat, "Notice sur les tTavaux de Gustave
121. Froment, Iue dans la seance du 3 juin 1865 de 1a
Societe philomathique de Paris", L 'Institut, Journal
2. It does appear to be a nineteenth-century Universel des Sciences, v.33 n. 1644,5 July 1865,
inscription, however, and the number eight 1S pp. 209-220. Other biographical notices appear in
shaped in the same fashion as Nasmyth's. several of the standard French and scientific
biographical dictionaries.
3. James Nasmyth, Autobiography, edited by
Samuel Smiles (New York: Harper & Brothers, 11. M. le baron Seguier, "Rapport sur la
1883). proposition de divers prix pOUf Ie perfectionnemenl
de la photographie," Bulletin de ta Societe
4. "New Method of Taking Views from Nature W
, d 'Encouragement pour L 'industrie Nationale, v.28,
Manchester Guardian, v.19 n.l047, 19 January December 1839, p. 481.
12. Francis Whishaw, The Railways of Great
5. George Smith Cundel1, WOn the practice of the Britain and Ireland (London: Simpkin, Marshall,
Calotype Process of Photography" London, and Co., 1840), pp. 124-5; Appendix VI.
Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and
Journal of Science, 3rd series, v.24 n.160, May 13. Samuel Smiles, Industrial Biography; Iron
1844, pp. 321-332. The fourteen calotypes Cundell Workers and Tool Makers (London: John Murray,
made to illustrate this paper survived in the British 1863), pp. 264-273.
Museum until at least 1870, but all recent efforts to
trace them have been to no avail. See John 14. Nasmyth, Autobiography, p.162.
Hungerford Pollen, The First Proofs of the
Universal Catalogue of Books on Art (London: 15. See the entry in the Dictionary of National
Chapman and Hall, 1870). Substantial collections Biography.
of Cundell's work survive in the George Eastman


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