A List-maker in the Stacks: Photographically illustrated books in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 1844-1900.

Cités et ruines Américaines …, by Désiré Charnay[1]

by Colin Harris

Those who love lists, and I assume anyone reading this blog falls into that category, will know that they can become a bit of an obsession. In a retirement project on photographic collections in the Bodleian Library, I have found that so-called obsessive list compiling can have concrete rewards. I have resurrected a list project initiated in the 1980s when the Library was fortunate to have a photographic conservator with a small, dedicated team. Their aim was to identify published works illustrated with original photographs–that is, mounted or tipped-in photographs–in order to remove the most important/vulnerable of those works to a more secure and environmentally suitable location (‘Arch. K’). The project was never completed and largely went into abeyance when these staff left. Their records formed the basis of my current project, but they were supplemented with great advantage by my handwritten lists made during my own time in the 1980s for my personal use, curiosity and enjoyment. In my lunch breaks and on Saturday mornings when I wasn’t working, I would trawl the shelves in the closed stacks, bay by bay, floor by floor. Within a short space of time I was able to recognise books likely to contain mounted photographs simply by the style and robust nature of the bindings, then by looking down upon the text block for card or heavy-duty paper necessary to sustain such photographs. I was lucky to have undertaken this survey in the 80s when most holdings were on-site and yet to be placed in conservation boxes as most rare books now are. Using the lists I compiled back then, I have been able to continue and considerably expand the Library’s original project, making good use of published, typescript and online lists as well.

For anyone exploring the scope and extent of photographically illustrated books, the essential guide (and list) is Helmut Gernsheim’s Incunabula of British photographic literature: a bibliography of British photographic literature, 1839-1875 and British books illustrated with original photographs (Scolar Press, 1984). Interestingly, Bodley’s project began in 1982, two years before this ground-breaking work was published. I suspect the Bodleian’s lead conservator must have been inspired by Julia Van Haaften’s 1977 list of New York Public Library’s holdings of such books,[2] and another, American (selective) listing, produced as a catalogue in The Truthful Lens: a survey of the photographically illustrated book, 1844-1914 by Lucien Goldschmidt and Weston Naef (Grolier Club, 1980). An unpublished, typescript listing by John Lambert Wilson has also proved very useful.[3] In recent times, a major, funded, online project was established to list all the British Library’s holdings of photographically illustrated books to 1914.[4] No doubt I will be checking it against my listings as one of the main sources to exploit. Its scope is impressive with very detailed metadata and includes many photographic examples. The project is ongoing.

1). Preparing for market [exhibited at The Salon in 1874]: Woodburytype of a painting by Emile Auguste Hublin (The Picture Galley, 1879-80).2). Woodburytype (‘permanent’) portrait of Adelina Patti, opera singer, by Herbert Rose Barraud, in Men and Women of the Day (no. 17.1, May 1889).

My remit and that of others compiling such lists demands a set of parameters to render the project not only enjoyable, but also realistic and achievable. At the outset, it is obvious that, short of inspecting every publication for the prescribed dates, no such compilation can ever be truly described as complete. Then there are the questions of how the results will be presented, what are their purposes and who will benefit from them. My own purpose is to help identify and protect Bodley’s holdings and provide a largely untapped source of contemporary photographs that are ideal for reproduction in print or online, complete with historical evidence and often the name of the photographer. Photographically illustrated books are essentially hand-crafted and in general only printed in limited numbers in view of the costs involved, and consequently they are quite rare.

3). Cités et ruines Américaines …, by Désiré Charnay (Paris, 1863), plate 30, an albumen print by Charnay, ‘Palais des Nonnes, A Chichen-Itza’.

With the agreement and encouragement of the Head of Rare Books in the Weston Library who has generously provided me with a desk, PC and two of her staff who, between them, set aside an hour or two a week to upload expanded bibliographical records according to my advice, I have returned to my old off-hours pursuit. I have set about surveying books for original photographs, ordering up a trolley-load at a time. After a tentative start to see how our strategy would work, mutually acceptable parameters were soon reached, the essentials being: coverage, 1844-1900; mounted (tipped-in) photographs; recording type of photograph (e.g. albumen prints); name of photographer or photographic firm if stated and the number of prints. In general only publications with 3 or more photographs are routinely included in our survey (there are simply too many with single frontispiece photographs), but worthy exceptions are accepted.

4). ‘Hookey, Alf‘ [Ted Coally], Whitechapel, a Woodburytype by John Thomson, photograph published in Street life in London (London, 1877) by Thomson and Adolphe Smith, radical journalist [who supplied the narrative].5). A plate exemplifying ‘Joy’, heliotypes of phtographs by Duchenne de Boulogne, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, et al, in Chalrs Darwin’s The expression of the emotions in man and animals (London, 1872).

However, making selections is not quite as straightforward as these criteria might suggest. For example, what constitutes a ‘mounted’ photograph? In most cases, these are visually identifiable as a print pasted onto card or heavy-duty paper, being part of the text block, but in some instances, prints are so cleverly mounted on paper that they appear to have been printed directly onto it (cf. photomechanical prints). We must also make judgments concerning which types of photographic image merit inclusion. Of all the lists of photographically illustrated books I have seen there is no absolute rule and, indeed, I have not formed one! The reason for this lack of clear criteria is that some photographs are so demonstrably important (mainly on the grounds of their subject matter or their first or early use of a given process) that there are compelling reasons for them to be included on our list. The types of prints I have always listed comprise salt prints, albumen prints, carbon prints, and Woodburytypes, but I could not resist adding heliotypes and autotypes, and where appropriate other photomechanical prints such as Artotypes and Wothlytypes, even extending to certain photogravures and photolithographs. I might add, however, that the identification of the type of print is often quite difficult, the number of processes being tried and perfected in the 19th century being considerable. All such categories are being added as ‘General Notes’ for these books’ bibliographical records in the Bodleian Libraries’ online catalogue of printed works, ‘SOLO’.[5] In addition, books listed in ‘Gernsheim’ are duly cross-referenced with his allocated item numbers. Any Goldschmidt & Naef and NYPL item numbers not already recorded by Gernsheim (i.e. notably non-British imprints, photographs post 1875 or publications simply not recorded by him) are due for referencing as well.

6). Photogravure of a portrait photograph of Lord Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron in Sun Artists (No. 5, Oct. 1890), ed. W. Arthur Boord.7). ‘Ghost’ photograph (albumen print) of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln with the spirit of her husband and son, Human nature 8 (1874).

As alluded to above, one of the great advantages of having photographs in published works is that de facto they are either dated or datable. Additionally they are usually captioned or listed in ‘illustrations’; the photographer is often named; and, most importantly, they are generally well-preserved, in particular carbon prints/Woodburytypes which have amazing clarity, depth of field and definition, as well they might, being described in their time as ‘permanent’ images. Subjects covered are wide-ranging, embracing the humanities and the sciences. There are, however, several main categories: reproductions of works of art (especially numerous), portraits, architecture, ethnographic and travel photography, national/local/family history, scientific exploration, medical conditions/procedures and art photography.

The joy of my project is that I am able to inspect every publication with photographs before the bibliographical record is enhanced. I get to see so many wonderful and memorable images, knowing that many could and should be made more known and available to researchers. My only regret is that the scope of the current project does not allow for photographs to be individually listed, apart from a very few instances, nor was it reckoned feasible to measure each photograph, though the size of the publication provides a good indication. As yet there is no intention of compiling a stand-alone catalogue, published or online, though, of course, my records would provide the basis if it were deemed desirable and feasible. The project is into its fourth month. Already almost 400 publications have been reviewed and online records updated.

8). Albumen print by Capt. Waterhouse of the telescope and spectroscope used to observe the total eclipse of the sun, published in Report on the operations connected with the observation of the total solar eclipse of April 6th, 1875, at Camorta in the Nicobar Islands.

In case you were in any doubt, I love 19th century photographs, and the Bodleian, as a ‘copyright library’ has a wonderful collection, largely hidden from view because of its mainly uncatalogued and scattered nature. Perhaps, like Julia Van Haaften, my next list will be photographic albums. In fact I have already listed a good portion of those in the Bodleian as well, so I have a head start!

[1] All photographs in this blog post reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

[2] ‘Original sun pictures: a checklist of the New York Public Library’s holding of early works illustrated with photographs, 1844-1900’ (Bulletin of the NYPL 80.3, Spring 1977). The list includes all publications regardless of place of imprint.

[3] ‘Catalogue of a collection relating to the literature of photography, 1639-1905’, unpublished typescript by John Lambert Wilson, 2 vols. 1992.

[4] http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/photographyinbooks/welcome.htm

[5] http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

10 thoughts on “A List-maker in the Stacks: Photographically illustrated books in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, 1844-1900.

Add yours

  1. Well done Colin Harris, these amazing photographic records need to to be made available and accessable to help us understand and appreciate the lives of those who have gone before, history can provide an anchor for us to hold on to in this ever changing and unpredictable time that we live in, keep up the good work, I would love to peruse through an album of old and forgotten photographs and prints and wonder at the lives the subjects lived, when can I buy an album ?


    1. Although I am saddened that these sorts of jobs are no longer deemed realistic, I am thrilled that you are volunteering time to list these photographs which would otherwise be lost or at least buried. I know the Weston must be thrilled. As a cataloguer, I know how sparse so many of the catalogue records are, even at the Weston. For you to be making these books findable, and the photographs conserved or protected where necessary is a real service. Thanks.


      1. Hi Kathleen,

        Thanks for your comment! I’m posting Colin’s reply on his behalf — see below.

        all best,
        — Martha

        Hi Kathleen,

        Many thanks for your kind words regarding my blog piece. I would imagine very few libraries have the luxury of having someone devote themselves to a single project, especially as it is so time consuming and labour-intensive in terms of ordering up material, checking each item in, then reviewing each work thoroughly for photos, noting what is held, type of photography and whether special restrictions should apply, then checking them out and returning after each catalogue record is upgraded. It may sound like hard work, but the reward is great, especially when ‘gems’ are unearthed [I’m writing a piece for the Bodleian Library Record for one such at the moment]. Yes, a most enjoyable project, made even better knowing that potentially the results will be exploited by others. Making the information available has been my main intention.




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