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Book of the Month

October 2009

Photographic Pleasures
Popularly Portrayed With Pen & Pencil

 by Cuthbert Bede

London: 1855
Sp Coll Photo Ref. 1

October's book of the month looks at Photographic Pleasures, a comical and satirical illustrated book by the Victorian clergyman, novelist and eventual photographer, Cuthbert Bede. The book addresses the attitudes and challenges surrounding early photography, and attempts to portray a serious, scientific pursuit in a leisurely and light-hearted context.

Portrait of a Distinguished Photographer Who Has Just Succeeded In Focussing A View To His Complete Satisfaction - as it appeared in Punch 21/05/1853.  This illustration also appears, slightly modified,  on the frontispiece of Photographic Pleasures.

Reverend Edward Bradley, who wrote under the pen-name of Cuthbert Bede, was a 19th century novelist, caricaturist and clergyman. Although perhaps best known for his trilogy of novels, The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, Bede was also responsible for one of the first humorous and satirical texts on the then infant technology of photography. Photographic Pleasures provides a jovial and, at times, ridiculous conversation on both the art and the science of early photography, inviting the reader to appreciate the lighter side of what was traditionally viewed as a complex, laborious and serious practice.

The Contents of Photographic Pleasures; Photography discussed in various "lights"

Photographic Pleasures is both a lampooning of "serious" Victorian-era photography and a taunting commentary of the personalities and social attitudes of the time. Throughout the book, comical illustrations by the author are included.  Such illustrations were a common feature in Bede's literary work, showcasing a combination of the author's skill as an artist and his considerable wit. Bede's cartoons and caricatures were also often featured in satirical publications such as Punch.  Indeed, several of the illustrations included in Photographic Pleasures had previously appeared in that magazine.

The book begins with a note to the reader, suggesting that the reason for the increase in popularity of photography as an amateur hobby or leisure pursuit is the fact that the technology is still new and in its infancy. Bede compares the attitudes of both men and women towards photography, with their attitudes towards a child:

"The ladies are enamoured of him: The gentlemen evince their affection by suggestions for his improvement, and by general attention to his welfare. All are fond of him: every one is declaring that he is the most beautiful baby yet born to Science."

Bede goes on to describe his illustrations in the book as being a result of his "unusual degree of admiration" for the infant photography. The purpose of these illustrations is to assist in maintaining a balance throughout the book, providing "amusement blended with instruction".

Illustration XIII: One of the Pleasures of Photography - Visiting Country Houses and Calotyping all the Eligible Daughters

The main body of the book begins in Chapter 1 - Photography Regarded as a Light Subject. This chapter sets a tone and a purpose for the rest of the book, and provides a typical example of Bede's witty wordplay and jocular attitude towards photography.  Bede continues to use "light" as a double entendre throughout the text in order to discuss photography in a variety of different contexts and situations. It is through this method that he is able to discuss photography in both an instructive and amusing manner of relevance to artists, amateur photographers, art lovers, aristocrats and almost anybody who may have had even a tenuous or fleeting interest in the new technology. 

When it was published in 1855, the book's universality and wide-ranging appeal helped to make it both a useful introduction to the art of photography and a cultural and sociological satire. Today, as well as being interesting as an easily digested document on early photography, it also provides us with an insight into Victorian attitudes towards these technological advancements.

Above & Right: The opening pages of the book


A key function of the book is to highlight the significant difficulties involved in early photography. It was often the case that only the most dedicated and serious-minded of photographers became involved with the new technology, because of the time, patience, care and masses of equipment that the processes of capturing and developing pictures demanded. Bede's interpretation of this can be seen in the illustration on the title page of the book, which shows a photographer struggling up a hill with his comically oversized equipment. 

At the time when Bede was writing Photographic Pleasures, there was no definitive or universally agreed-upon method of capturing and producing photographic images.  Bede, however, focuses most of his attention in the book on the daguerreotype process and, to a much greater extent, the calotype process. This process - depicted in many of the illustrations in the book - was labour-intensive, delicate and often frustrating. Rather than using film for the base of the negative, as is the case with more modern cameras, photographers used chemically treated writing paper. This paper was washed with a silver nitrate solution, dried, washed again with a potassium iodide solution and then dried once more, making it ready for storage. When the paper was required for use, it would be coated in a mixture of silver nitrate and gallic acid, dipped in water, partially dried and then loaded into the camera for exposure. Keeping the paper moist, rather than completely dry, tended to make it more sensitive, thus allowing for a sharper and more defined negative. All of the preparation for the negative had to be carried out in either near-darkness or dull candlelight. This added to the difficulty of obtaining images outdoors, as photographers had to set up dark tents - yet another encumbrance in addition to their burdensome wooden cameras, unwieldy tripods and sensitive chemical equipment.

Once the negative had been obtained, there remained the question of producing a positive print of the image. For this step, the same type of writing paper as was used for the negative was employed. The paper was soaked in a salt solution and then brushed with a solution of silver nitrate, causing light-sensitive silver chloride to become embedded in the paper. The negative was then placed between the print paper and a sheet of glass, and the entire assembly was exposed to bright light. This exposure could take anything from fifteen minutes to a number of hours depending on the light available.

The title page from Photographic Pleasures

Illustration XX: Exciting For The Sensitive
Outraged Protectionist (whose ideas have not been "developed" in proportion with those of photography): "Hoi!  You There!  Ollo!  I'll teach you wot it is to being yer theodderlite 'ere and come a measurin' for railroads on my land!"

It is worth noting once again that, in 1855, photography was very much a new phenomenon. Athough taken up enthusiastically by some, it was not universally popular. Artists and portrait painters were often put off it by the time required to obtain a single picture, as well as being concerned (and possibly threatened) by the apparent lack of artistic skill or merit required to produce a realistic image. When using the daguerreotype method of processing, portrait subjects would have to sit perfectly still for up to twenty minutes in strong, natural light in order to ensure a clear likeness.  Bede, however, argued that "this daring feat of salamanderism" was not necessary with the other methods of processing, which would usually allow a negative to be captured in a matter of seconds.  Perhaps the most surprising response to the growth of photography, when viewed in hindsight, was that expressed by the Church in the German newspaper Leipziger Anzeiger in 1839:

"To fix fleeting images is not only impossible, as has been demonstrated by very serious experiments in Germany, it is a sacrilege. God has created man in His image and no human machine can capture the image of God. He would have to betray all his Eternal Principles to allow a Frenchman in Paris to unleash such a diabolical invention upon the world." (quoted in Freund, 1980)

While this is certainly a comparatively extreme reaction, there is no doubt that the initial response of many to photography was that of suspicion. Bede uses his illustrations in the book to make light of these attitudes.

It is clear that Bede's portrayal of Victorian attitudes towards photography and Victorian personalities in general was meant as a form of satirical social commentary, and this is why his illustrations appeared in publications such as Punch.  It is also arguable, however, that Bede adopted his jovial tone for this book so that he may attempt gently and unobtrusively to address some of the misconceptions and quell the ill feelings of those who felt threatened by the new technology.

As well as discussing the more obvious applications of photography, Bede proves himself to be fairly forward-thinking in terms of the camera's potential in other fields. In the final chapter of the book, entitled Photography In All Manner Of Lights, he raises the possibility of using photography to aid the preservation of books and manuscripts. Citing the example of the British Museum's catalogue, he argues that its usefulness and value could be increased if its records were to contain small photographs of the front covers of their corresponding titles. This is an idea which has only recently been introduced to the online catalogues of many libraries, but Bede points out that it had already been implemented by the French National Library in Paris in 1855.  Bede also suggests that photography could be used to create facsimile versions of rare and fragile items "which are at present lost to the general world". All of this, he predicts, could be achieved "merely by an application of our friend Camera!" 

In keeping with this progressive view of photography, there is also a chapter dedicated to the use of photographs in police detective work. Put simply, Bede discusses in this chapter (Photography in a Detective Light) the practice of creating mug-shots of convicted criminals. In a rare display of doubt concerning the power and reach of photography, however, he comes to the conclusion that photographs may not be assuredly depended on as a reliable method of tracking criminals. Bede concedes that such photographs may not actually provide accurate likenesses of criminals, due to a combination of police officers' ineptitude with the camera ("your policeman being a cleverer manipulator of rascals than chemicals") and the criminals' attempts to sabotage or distort photographs (see the example of Mr Priggins, right).

Illustration XXII: Photographic Focussing & Hocussing

From Illustration XIX: Photographic Faces - Portrait of a very unsteady young Gentleman

From Illustration IV: Photography In A Legendary Light - Mons. Daguerre Introduces His Pet To Mr. Bull

From Illustration XIX: Photographic Faces - Portrait of a very beautiful young Lady, who had the misfortune to sneeze at the moment of removal of the cap

While it is known that Bede eventually became a practising professional photographer - illustrating, for example, one of his later books with his own photographs (The Visitors' Handbook to Rosslyn and Hawthornden) - there is relatively little evidence of his work still in existence.  It is also noted in various short biographies of Bede that his writing, whilst undoubtedly entertaining and interesting, contained so many errors as to suggest that he had a comparatively limited understanding of the finer technical points of photography.  Nevertheless, Photographic Pleasures, Bede's only major contribution to the progression and the history of early photography, remains an important and informative work.  His witty wordplay, combined with a sharp sense of humour, incisive illustrations and keen interest in photographic processes provide a truly unique and light-hearted document of the struggles and absurdities surrounding early photography in Victorian society.  
The following have been useful in creating this article:

Freund, G. (1980). Photography & Society. Fine Arts T14 FRE

Gernsheim, H. (1962). Creative Photography: aesthetic trends, 1839-1960. Fine Arts T14 GER2

Hannavay, J. (Ed.) (2008). Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. Volume 1Fine Arts T9 HAN

Henisch, H.K. & Henisch, B.A. (1994). The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: images and attitudes. Fine Arts T14 HEN

Jay, B. (1986). Photographic Pleasures, Popularly Portrayed with Pen and Pencil, 1855 in The British Journal of Photography, 10 January 1986. Also available from :

Sutton, T. (1856). The Calotype Process: A Handbook to Photography on Paper. Sp Coll Photo Ref. 3

Schaaf, L.J. (1999). The Calotype Process in The Hill and Adamson Collection: An Introduction.

Watkin, S. (2009). Cuthbert Bede/Edward Bradley.


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Andrew McAinsh October 2009