Spotlight: a photograph of astronomer John Herschel

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Sir John Frederick William Herschel: wearing a cap and cape. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. Wellcome Library no. 14085i

Sir John Frederick William Herschel: wearing a cap and cape. Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. Wellcome Library no. 14085i

This dramatic portrait, held by the Library, shows Sir John Frederick William Herschel, (1792-1871) esteemed astronomer and mathematician gazing into the distance. Herschel named four of the moons of Uranus (a planet his father William is credited with discovering) and held the posts of President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Fellow of the Royal Society and Master of the Mint.

He was also an important source of expertise in the emerging practice of photography, helping to refine the chemical process of ‘fixing’ photographs – making the images permanent. Photographers continue to use his hyposulphite of soda (known as ‘hypo’) to this day, in the form of sodium thiosulfate.

His chemical knowledge and advice was of invaluable help to the early photographer W.H. Fox Talbot. Many authorities have suggested Herschel was the first to use the word ‘photography’ in English and coined the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ as aspects of the photographic process.

It is particularly fitting then that Herschel was captured in a medium that he helped to improve. Especially as he was instrumental in encouraging Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), another significant and influential figure in the history of photography, to pursue the art.

Herschel and Cameron first met in South Africa around 1836 while he was surveying the stars of the Southern Hemisphere and she was recuperating from illness. They became life-long friends, both becoming god parents to each other’s children.

Herschel’s writings also had a profound and inspiring effect on a young Charles Darwin. When his ship the Beagle landed at the Cape of Good Hope, Darwin was keen to secure a dinner invitation with the revered astronomer. Of their meeting Darwin said: “He never talked much. He was very shy and he often had a distressed expression”(Keynes). Thanks to his chemical knowledge and Cameron’s skilful artistry we can see Herschel’s expression for ourselves.

Underneath the image is written: “From life carbon print from Mrs Cameron’s registered photograph when at Collingwood April 1867 J.F.W. Herschel”. ‘Collingwood’ was his residence in Hawkhurst, Kent where he died on May 11th 1871.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey where, in 1882, Charles Darwin was buried next to him.

Author: Daniel Rees is an Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library

Danny Rees

Danny Rees

Hi, I am Danny Rees, an Engagement Officer for the Wellcome Library, one of my interests is the human face; its physiognomy, expressions and ideas about what constitutes beauty. When not at work I enjoy the Kent countryside and consider radio to be one of the best things in life.

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