Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, October 13, 2014

John Jabez Edwin Mayall

Although the title, date, and even the subject content of this hand-colored Dageurreotype by John Edwin Mayall has long since been lost, it's plain to see it's not a portrait, not a landscape, nor does it seem to have any purpose other than its face value as a work of art. In the collection of the Denver Museum of art, it's dated from Mayall's period of residence in the United States (1842-46), quite early in the history of photography.
John Jabez Edwin Mayall
Today, as I was pursuing the impact of photography on what we loosely term "fine art," I came upon a name I'd never before encountered--that of John Jabez Edwin Mayall. Those who write about art love to encounter the word "first." Whether it's the first person to place a stick of graphite between two layers of wood (Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti, 1560); or the guy who discovered that a hunk of rubber on the end of this drawing device was quite valuable in correct errors generated by the other end (Hymen Lipman, 1858). Though perhaps not quite as important to art and human endeavors as the invention of the pencil, Mr. Mayall is considered to be the first fine art photographer, in a sense, the first to draw artwork using light (somewhat the opposite as using a pencil). When you peruse the photographer's art on the Internet today, you get some idea of how important this development was to the history of art.

Mayall's Daguerreotype of
Jacques-Louis Daguerre, 1846
Mayall did not "invent" photography, though the fact that his father was a chemist in the West Yorkshire dye industry did give him a boost in his continuous efforts to improve the science of photography, first that of Louis Daguerre and later other processes as they came along. Mayall was born in 1813 and died in 1901, so he saw a lot of that sort of thing in his lifetime. The French inventor, Nicéphore Niépce, made his famous first photograph, View from a Window in Paris shortly after Mayall was born. Mayall was nearing thirty when he first began working with the crude, but popular Daguerreotype around 1840. Already photography had come a long way since people like Niépce, Fox Talbot, and Daguerre began the back and forth competition between the French and the English to see who could lodge the most patents and then sue each other for infringement. Mayall also encountered problems involving patent protection as a result of some of his improvements to Daguerre's chemistry and techniques.

The Daguerreotype Studio of Mayall
and van Loan at 140 Chestnut
Street, Philadelphia around 1844.
Whether that was the reason or not, in 1842 Mayall apparently decided the Daguerreotype competition in London was too tight so he took his wife and three sons (one, a mere infant at the time) and headed for America where he settled in Philadelphia.There, a year later, he began a partnership with fellow Brit, Samuel van Loan. It was during this time that Mayall began to view the Daguerreotype as more than just a miniature portrait medium. He is said to have executed a series of ten Daguerreotypes illustrating the Lord's Prayer, though I've not been able to locate any images related to this effort. The Denver Museum Daguerreotype (top) apparently comes from this period. Besides popular images of Niagara Falls, one of his Philadelphia images is titled "This Mortal must put on Immortality." The Mayall-Sloan partnership won a silver medal at a Philadelphia's Franklin Institute competition. During this time Mayall wrote and lectured on his efforts to produce color Daguerreotypes. The partnership lasted but two years before Mayall set up his own studio and gallery in Philadelphia, which he promptly sold a year later before going back to England.

The Falls of Niagara Panorama, ca. 1845, John Edwin Mayall
Karl Marx as seen by Mayall.
By 1847 Mayall was an experienced and talented Daguerreotypist, working for a short time for famed Antoine Claudet at his London studio before setting up his own enterprise emphasizing his "new discoveries" through which "...he is enabled to take daguerreotype portraits by an entirely new process, of a degree of delicacy, depth of tone, and lifelike reality, never previously attained by himself of any other photographic artists." (Hyperbole was not a 20th-century invention.) His Niagara Falls panoramas and Lord's Prayer series were immensely popular. Up until Mayall began creating "fine art" Daguerreotypes the techniques, chemistry and any artistry employed, was totally aimed at creating miniature portraits. That's where the money was. Although Mayall created as many portraits as the best of them, he was primarily interested in pushing the science of photography and probing its potential as an artist's medium. Beyond experiments with color, he began producing the largest Daguerreotypes known at the time, up to 29 inches in width, 25 inches in height. His introduction of a weak solution of ammonia not only improved the appearance of Daguerreotypes but shortened the exposure time by nine seconds. He also pioneered the use of lamp black (a fine soot) in polishing his photographic plates. His exceptionally detailed images of London's 1851 Great Exhibition (below) boosted Mayall to the top of his profession.

One of Mayall's prints, the Crystal Palace,  based upon his "super-sized" Daguerreotypes.
A hand-colored Daguerreotype
of England's Prince Albert by
Mayall dating from around 1860.
As a result of his new-found fame, John Edwin Mayall came to the notice of England's Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria. From around 1860 on, he became the official royal photographer producing a number of individual and group images of the royal family and its nine rambunctious offspring. This royal patronage led to Daguerreotype portraits of such mid-19th-century personages as Daguerre himself, Karl Marx, Charles Dickens, David Livingstone, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many others. Besides engineering exceptionally large photo images, Mayall also pioneered microphotography in the hope of utilizing such images on jewelery. He also developed an artificial ivory as a base for his images. As he grew older, Mayall switch from the Daguerreotype to what we'd now think of as traditional black and white photo images on paper. Mayall deserves much more notice and respect than he's been afforded in the crowded pages of photographic history. Quite apart from his numerous innovations, Mayall always considered himself an artist first, who just happened to employ a camera and the growing refinements of chemistry in the creation of his work.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, and their royal brood, 1861, as composed by John Edwin Mayall.
(This must have taken hours to set up not to mention several minutes of motionless exposure time.)

No comments:

Post a Comment