Charlotte Bridgeman's Journals

February 1846 - January 1857

About Lady Charlotte

Photography

Together with her older sister Lady Lucy, Lady Charlotte Bridgeman had their own camera. In the 1850’s they were pioneers in the early years of photography.

Christopher Simon Sykes in his book “Country House Camera” (1987 by Pavilion Books Ltd.) describes these early years of photography and shows lots of photographs, also made by the Bridgeman sisters.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) a British inventor and photography pioneer invented the calotype process, a precursor to photographic processes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Talbot was also a noted photographer who made major contributions to the development of photography as an artistic medium. His work in the 1840s on photo-mechanical reproduction led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. The glory for the invention of photography did not however go to Fox, but to a rival of his, Daguerre, who, unknown to Talbot, had been working simultaneously in France on his own process.

That English aristocrats should have been among the prioneers of the art of photography is less surprising when it is considered how beautifully this new process combined their then fashionable interests. In an age when no lady worth her salt could fail to exhibit some degree of skill with the paintbrush or pencil, and when it was not unusual for a gentleman to dabble in the sciences, here was a fascinating new pastime. Moreover, the pursuit of photography, a process bristling with difficulties, had various requirements of which the upperclasses, more than most, were not short: namely time, money and space.

As far as space concerned, Fox Talbot foresaw this particular problem when he wrote that portrait photography “must necessarily be in comparitively few hands, because it requires a house to be built or altered on purpose, having an appartment lighted by a skylight etc., otherwise the portrait cannot be taken indoors, generally speaking, without great difficulty.” The attic of a country house would have provided just such a studio, while there was usually any amount of space for a darkroom.

In it’s early days photography, like most new inventions, was also expensive. In 1850 Horne and Thornethwaite, Opticians and Philosophical Instrument Makers, one of the best known firms dealing in photographic equipment, were offering for sale three different outfits. They included a camera and all the required chemicals, as well as a knapsack and travelling cases. The cost of the outfit varied according to the sizes of the glassplates between 21 and 36 pounds. None of these outfits included a portable dark tent, indispensable for anyone wishing to travel with a camera, which cost between 3 and 6 pounds extra.

When thinking of the great early amateur pioneers of photography, the name of Julia Margaret Cameron springs most readily to mind. However, she did not possess a camera until 1863, while there were many unknown country house photographers who had already been hard at work in their darkroom for several years.

One of these, Sykes writes further, Lady Lucy Bridgeman, was a daugter of the 2nd earl of Bradford and in the early 1850’s she took many succesful photographs of her family and friends. Most of her work was done at Weston Park and Castle Bromwich, but she also travelled extensively with her camera to other great houses such as Powis Castle, Scotney Castle and Haddon Hall. She gave great charm and elegance to the groups and family studies, while her portraits possess a natural quality and a clarity which are remarkable for the period in which they were taken.

The quality of Lucy Bridgeman’s photographs shows just how well she had mastered the tricky problems of early wet-plate photography, a development of Fox Talbot’s process by Frederick Scott Archer which had been introduced to the public at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was a cumbersome and difficult business, involving the use of various hightly poisonous chemicals.

Collodion containing potassium iodide was first poured on to a glassplate which was carefully tilted until evenly coated. This plate was then sensitized by being immediately dipped into a bath of silver nitrate solution where it remained in darkness for three to five minutes. It then had to be exposed while still moist, because the sensitivity deteriorated rapidly as the collodion dried.
Development had to follow directly after exposure, with either pyrogallic acid or ferrous sulphate. The picture was fixed with hyposulphate of soda or potassium cyanide. As the recommanded time between the flowing of the collodion and the final development was between eight and ten minutes, the whole process involved a considerable amount of rushing about.

The type of camera which would have been used by Lady Bridgeman was almost certainly a sliding-box camera, as this way was by far the most popular camera between 1840 and 1865. It consisted of two open-ended boxes, one with a lens fitted to it, the other with the ground-glass or dark-slide. The two boxes slid one within the other for focusing. Later the sliding-box form was replaced by the folding bellows camera.

Sykes writes that it would be no idle speculation to suggest that Lady Lucy Bridgeman and her family were among st the visitors of the 1851 Great Exhibition, housed in the three-tiered, glass winter palace “the Crystal Palace”. This exhibition was a celebration of every achievement of the age across the globe. Among the many new inventions at which they wondered was that of photography.

Whatever the truth may be, it was in the early 1850’s that Lucy Bridgeman took possession of her first photographic outfit and began her experiments at Weston Park. The results were kept in a small book by her sister Charlotte Bridgeman. It is clear that, to begin with, Lucy faced similar problems to those later encountered by Julia Margaret Cameron, who wrote of her first efforts at photography: “I did not know where to place my dark box, how to focus my sitter, and my first picture I effaced to my consternation by rubbing my hand over the filmy side of the glass.”.

It must be remembered that as yet there was no tradition in photogaphy. there were a number of books available to give some sort of guidance, but the directions given were usually of a very general nature and many vital points were left to the interpretation or even imigination of the reader.

That Lucy was a fast learner is clear, however, from the fact that her failues very soon gave way to success such as the beautiful study of the servants at Weston. To these servants who acted as guinea pigs for theit mistress’s first experiments, photography, as it did to many at the time, must have seemed like magic.

The photographs with which Lucy followed up those of the servants at Weston, such as the studies of her brother and sister-in-law, Lord and Lady Newport, and their children, and her brother-in-law, Robert Windsor-Clive, very much reflect the new role that the country house had assumed since the accession of Queen Victoria: that of the family home.

Thus what Christopher Simon Sykes writes in his book “Country House Camera” regarding Lucy Bridgeman’s pioneering work as a photographer.

From Lady Charlotte’s diaries we are able to clarify several aspects that Sykes writes about.


Lucy and Charlotte as photographers

What strikes most is the fact that Sykes only writes about Lady Lucy Bridgeman as the photographer. From Charlotte’s diaries we know for certain that photography was a joint venture between the sisters Lucy and Charlotte Bridgeman. It is unknown why Sykes writes in such a certain way about Lucy being the photographer, although it must be said that in some other literature one only reads about Lucy Bridgeman in connection to photography.

Sykes writes that Lucy often signed her pictures with her initials L and C, on either side of the B of her surname. Indeed were Lucy’s initials LC for Lucy Caroline. But it would then be more obvious that she would sign her pictures as LCB. The most probable reason for signing the pictures LBS will be the fact that they were taken by Lucy and Charlotte together: the initials of the sisters on either side of the B for their surname Bridgeman.


First encounters with photography

Although we know for sure that Charlotte visisted the 1851 Great Exhibition several times, her first encounter with photography was a year earlier.

On November 12th 1850 Charlotte writes in her diary:
“The greater part of between luncheon & breakfast was spent in watching Mr. Cheney take photographic drawings of the house, the temple & the sundial in the temple walk. The process is very curious. “

Robert Henry Cheney lived at Badger Hall, which he had inherited from his uncle. Cheney was a watercolourist, specialising in architectural and landscape subjects, and he became a noted pioneer photographer. Cheney was a literary figure who built a significant and unusual collection of art while residing in Venice. He first showed an interest in photography in 1845, when he approached Talbot’s printer offering to subscribe to “Sun Pictures in Scotland” if a copy of “The Pencil of Nature” could be located for him. Just when interest turned to active participation is unknown, but about 1850 Cheney took up amateur photography, although he never exhibited or openly participated in photographic circles. He was a prolific and highly accomplished photographer nonetheless. His known works are almost exclusively architectural, concentrating on grand country houses but also including more unusual subject matter such as seascapes and the British Museum under construction.

Cheney was very well liked by Charlotte and her family, and a welcome guest at Weston and Castle Bromwich.

The next time we read about Mr. Cheney again photographs, this time of Castle Bromwich, was in September 1852.


Slowly getting interested in photography

Again a few years later Charlotte writes on May 17th 1854, while staying in London (Belgrave Square):

“went to Dickenson's to see all his photographs. I like them & I don't. I think they are wonderful likenesses but hardly the sort I should like to have of my friends to look at always.”

Dickinson Brothers, a partnership of the brothers Lowes and Gilbert Dickinson, was a leading firm of printers and publishers. The company achieved national recognition for a set of fifty-five large, coloured lithographs, entitled “Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851”, which illustrated the various display areas at the Crystal Palace. By 1855 they had become interested in photography and had established two photographic portrait studios in London, one at their premises on New Bond Street and the other on Regent Street.


Starting making phorographs themselves

The next entry in Charlotte’s diaries about photography is on October 1st, 1855, at Weston, when she writes:
“There was a great examination of photographs of course in the evening.” Although there is no mentioning in her diaries about photography between May 1854 and October 1855, it is clear that in the meantime there must have had more encounters with photography which she did not write about in her diary.

That Charlotte’s diaries are not a complete picture of what was going on illustrates her entry on October 3rd, 1855, at Weston, when she writes:
“The morning pouring wet. The rest of the day dull dark & cloudy & most unfavorable to photographing, but we tried a little all the same, but they were not very successful. “

This shows that they must have started making photographs themselves (shortly?) before that time. Unknown is which camera they used, because they did not have a camera of their own yet.

The next day, on October 4th, new attempts are made to make photographs:
“Photographed all the morning & did some very successful groups, some in the drying yard, some by the dairy & one in front of the house of the pony carriage. It was a lovely morning but rained hard most of the afternoon. Mrs. Holyoake & Isy & Miss Grey called & we tried them, but not very successfully, for by that time it was very cloudy & the atmosphere damp & heavy.”

Also the next day, October 5th, they photographed the whole morning, and on October 6th, they “Photographed again like mad & found it a very good clear day for it.”.

They also started to make photographs (a short distance) away from Weston. On October 26th, 1855, Charlotte writes:
“Almost all the party went to Tong in the morning to talk over the restauration of the church & take photographs.”

The next day, October 27th, Charlotte writes:
“Selina came with us back to Ironbridge & we stopped again at Brosely to drop Mrs. Forester & photograph. Mary, which plate promises well in spite of the dulness of the day, foggy & damp. Glad we had the close carriage.”

They must have been photographing more and more. On November 6th, 1855, Charlotte writes (still at Weston):
“Newports children all but Georgey came yesterday. From Friday till yesterday meeting the Maharajah of Lahore, christening a child & photographing.”


The Dark Room and a Camera of their own

On November 7th, 1855, Charlotte writes:
“After Mrs. M(onckton) was gone I walked by myself & shuttered myself up in the Temple to see if the stone parlour would do for photograph messing in, for Colonel Pennant has kindly made us a present of his machine but it has not arrived yet.”

Nowadays there are still black remnants to be found in the stone parlour in the Temple from the time Lucy and Charlotte used it as their Dark Room.

On November 10th the long awaited for camera arrived, but it was broken:
“ The long wished for photograph machine has actually arrived & set us dancing with delight. The camera is unluckily broken & as there is no book & we don't know the exact quantities & mixtures of the chemicals, we must wait a little while before commencing operations. We had it sent at once to the Temple & Selina, Gerald & I after a visit to the children at Blymhill, drove there met Lucy, unpacked it & put it away in the cupboards.”


Getting started

Charlotte was very eager getting started. Two days later, November 12th, she writes:
“Took a run to the Temple with Gerald too late for my purpose which was connected with photographing - fire apparatus &c.”.

The first attemps were not very good, as Charlotte writes on November 13th:
“Mr. & Mrs. Forester came over to see & aid in our photograhic attempts & brought Lady Colville with them to luncheon. We spent till luncheon time in vain attempts & cannot satisfactorily make out what made them do so badly. The effect on the camera was enchanting.”

A week later they are still getting things sorted out. Mr. Cheney was so kind to send his servant to help them. On November 21st Charlotte writes:
“ I did not go out. Were to have photographed but the distilled water which was essentially necessary never came so I could not get my lesson. Mr. Cheney's servant made a very tolerable attempt of Davis's head with what chemicals were already prepared.“

A couple of days later they are still strugling, as Charlotte writes on November 26th:
“Lucy & I tried to do business in the photograph here in the morning, but gained nothing but experience, for want of distilled water could not sensitise paper & for Elisha's dilatoriness in sending back our things could take no pictures.”

And the next day:
“Lucy & I spent the morning at the Temple among our photograph things. But the stuff we made for sensitizing the paper proved to be in doing thing (?)but a clean bottle & we had the whole trouble of filtering it all over again & we still have to do the paper tomorrow. It certainly is very uphill work at present but I hope we shall get into the swing of it soon. We tried Wisey & Orlando but it came out very badly.”

On December 1st, a box arrived, and things seem to be improving:
“Our long-waited-for box having at last arrived, Lucy & I spent the morning photographing & decidedly advanced a step, but had a few contretemps still. But it is promising.”

Photography meant hard work, as Charlotte writes on December 3rd:
“Lucy & I spent the greater part of the morning at the Temple - tidied, arranged, filtered & sensitised paper, but did no photographs because of the fog & snow. In the afternoon Lady B., Letty & the boys drove to Shiffnal, called on the Cunliffes & shopped. Lucy & I went to see Miss Adams & Holt's boy who had his finger cut off & called at the Rectory. Then went again to the Temple where I staid some time finishing off & filtering & came home without waterproof or umbrella, in pitch dark & pouring rain.”

On december 5th, charlotte used Davis as a guinea pig:
“I photographed all the morning with Davis but don't improve much yet.”


Help is at hand

On December 10th Charlotte writes:
“ Among other things Lucy & I did a great deal of business with Mr. Blunt & he is to send over his man to give us a lesson in photographing on Monday.”

It seems the sisters are practising more and more, but it is still not satisfactory. On December 26th it even gets to Charlotte’s nerves, when she writes:
“Having more to do in the short space of time between Church & luncheon than mortals could do in a day, meeting with photographic contretremps &c &c & to crown all a ...(?) message from Lucy I was to write to Mr. Blunt about chemicals. Well I can't do it. So it can't be helped Lucy. It was too bad of Lucy as she had given me so much else to do & I didn't know before I could be so put out of temper ! I had to go to the Temple for Nitrate of Silver & after luncheon I attempted to sensitize paper, had more contretemps & had only done 6 sheets when it was time to go to the Rectory to the schoolchildren's tea & Xmas tree & when we came back it was too late to do any more.“

Charlotte must have been very angry and upset, because she never writes about her own feelings in her diaries.

The following days are spent in making photographs and sensitizing paper. Also the family had to contribute to the sisters efoorts in photography, as Charlotte writes on December 29th, 1855: “Photographed. Isabel rode with Georgey but joined us & formed part of a very tolerable group. It was the only successful one for tho' a bright day & not cold the wind was so high we had to go to the dark side of the Temple.”

On January 3rd, 1856 we read some positive news about their photographic efforts:
“We had a grand photographing morning & succeeded very much better & are quite pleased with ourselves. We did a little biggie of Agnes & some big biggies of Selina & Isabel & some groups. A statue in a niche of Edmund smoking was unluckily not so succussful & one of the groups got spoilt. So tired I did not go out again but spent a quiet afternoon.”


Going away with the photographic equipment

On January 14th, 1856, preparations were made to go to Torquay:
“In the morning I went to the Temple with Davis & fetched away all the photograph concerns we need at Torquay.”

But arrived in Torquay (January 21st) it seems that more things were needed getting started:
“Rainy day. ….. Made many arrangements about our photographing ..(?) - have to get a yellow curtain, a drugget or matlin (?) & a table. Hope to get it usable in a day or so”

More than a week later, on January 31st, they are making photographs, but with poor results:
“Photographed in the morning, not very successfully I fear. … I came straight home & sensitized paper.”

But eventually things improved, as on February 16th, still in Torquay, Charlotte writes:
“We photographed in the dining room. The upper servants in a group & then me - both successful. We also did Miss Hope after luncheon before going out.”


Professional help

On March 29th, while still in Torquay, Lucy went to a lecture about photography:
“She (Lucy) went to a photographic lecture instead given by Mr. Maxwell Lyte who got the first prize for photographs at the Paris Exhibition.”

Farnham Maxwell-Lyte (sometimes Farnham Maxwell Lyte) (10 January 1828 – 4 March 1906) was an English chemist and the pioneer of a number of techniques in photographic processing. As a photographer he is known for his views of the French Pyrenees.
Two days later Mr. Maxwell-Lyte even visited the sisters and gave them advice:
“Monday. Mr. Lyte came this morning & gave us a great deal of advice & explanations on the subject of photography & took one for us of Lucy & Letty & we think & hope we shall do better with the new lights we have got. He lunched here.”

Maxwell-Lyte’s advice was immediately put into practice and with result, as Charlotte writes on April 1st:
“Photographed in the morning & improved on the effects of Mr. Lyte's instructions. Helen Hope came to luncheon & we did her. …… I dined at Oversfield, where Mr. & Miss Swinton came after dinner & Mr. Glossop's photographs.”

A few days later, on April 5th, Mr. Maxwell-Lyte came to help again:
“… Mr. Lyte came as he had promised, but there was no possibility of photographing. But he was a refuge in trouble, for a portfolio of Mr. Glossop's beautiful photographs had come to sad grief on the way from Oversfield & arrived wet, soiled & bespattered with mud & put us all into into despair, but Mr. Lyte's fortunately being there, he told us how to put them right & with the aid of a bath of water, fresh mounts, paste(?) glass paper, paint(?) ...(?) &c &c he managed to make them better than before. He even took them himself to Cockrem's to get them passed thro' a printers press. It seemed positive magic. He was most good natured & staid for long both before & after luncheon busy over them.”

Two days later, on April 7th, Maxwell-Lyte again came:
“Mr. Lyte came before we had done breakfast & gave us a great deal of instruction & soon after 11 Mr. Littleton & one of his boys came to be photographed by appointment & Mr. Lyte did one of them & after he was gone we did another - both very successful.”

On April 12th. all photographic affairs were wound up, probably for leaving Torquay.

During their stay in London it appears that also Mr. Forester was a keen photographer, as Charlotte writes on June 6th, 1856:
“I went early to see Selina & found Mr. Forester photographing.”


Photography is improving

Later that year it seems that the photography is improving, as Charlotte writes on October 7th, while at Weston:
“Lucy was photographing prints morning & afternoon successfully. Selina & I drove to Blymhill, saw the children & then drove up the Forge Croft to the Temple Walk, joined Lucy & walked home. George here.”

The next day Lucy also was busy photographing at the Temple, but the day after that the sisters again photographed together:
“Lucy & I spent the morning at the Temple photographing. So tired I did not stir out again.”


Echoes from the past

Unfortunately the diaries stop at the end of January 1857 and so does the story about Lucy and Charlotte’s photography, were it not that some of the pictures they took have survived. In archives, museums, or in private collection.

Some years ago their photo album "Victoria Album" was sold at Sotheby's in London comprising one hundred and fifteen photographs, Albumen Prints and two Salt Prints, the majority mounted at each corner to the album page, others loose (some with pencil annotations on the reverse), various sizes between approx. 50 by 40mm and 200 by 170mm, one stamped 'Extra Albumine' on the reverse, the majority with manuscript captions below the image, with printed title 'Victoria Album' on upper cover and printed frontispiece 'Royal Album' annotated in ink 'for/Photographs' in a contemporary hand, partially disbound, 8vo



See for information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history: British photographic history.