Searching for Hidden Early Women Photographers

By Rose Teanby

Thomas Carlyle wrote about the documentation of history, comparing it to an oak tree falling in a forest. It makes a loud noise so we certainly notice it, but simultaneously the tree’s acorns are scattered, destined to make their own profound impact, silently. The same could be said of our hidden women of early photography.

The theme of Photo Oxford 2020 is Women & Photography: Ways of Seeing and Being Seen. Being seen is the greatest challenge facing women from the dawn of photography. There are many women exponents of the art of the sun picture, but they are so well camouflaged, obscured within a patriarchal Victorian society, that they slip from view and consequently from history. My Photo Oxford online talk The First Women of Photography 1839-1860, in collaboration with the Royal Photographic Society, highlights some of these extraordinary photographers from a growing list of previously forgotten names.

So why have they been overlooked and what can be done to remedy this? There is no easy answer. Women’s early photographic images provide a unique insight into mid Victorian life, created within the boundaries of their social and domestic limitations, often illustrating life on their doorstep and photographing those dearest to them. Occasionally there are exceptions: the use of photography to preserve antiquities, or the intrepid photographic travellers taking heavy, cumbersome equipment and associated chemicals on their ambitious expeditions abroad.

Fig. 1 St Peters from the Pincian, Rome by Jane Martha St John - 1856–1859Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Finding these women can be a difficult task, sometimes aided by a chance encounter with a relative or photographic collection curator, occasionally through a referral from a photographic colleague. Women’s anonymity is so widespread, it challenges the dedicated researcher to stumble from one brief glimpse to another, following a trail of photographic breadcrumbs, hoping to uncover the life story of just one of the many. But there are many more who remain invisible.

Yet we are at a very fortunate point in time now, with the Bodleian Talbot Catalogue Raisonné now available online and worldwide access to galleries and museum holdings covering many aspects of photographic history. Images have been made available in digital format, promoting the work of the first generation of women photographers, and websites listing early members of the Royal Photographic Society and photographic exhibitions from 1839 contain records of several pioneering women.

Fig. 2 Mr. and Mrs. Hussey in the Scotney Castle Library by Lucy and Charlotte Bridgeman c. 1853–1858 ©Philadelphia Museum of ArtPromised Gift of Theodore T. Newbold and Helen Cunningham in memory of Anne d'Harnoncourt

Nineteenth-century women have a habit of vanishing from official records; they changed their surname on marriage, sometimes additionally assuming their husband’s first name, becoming completely subsumed into his identity. Spinsters present one name throughout their life so quickly become research favourites.

In 1851 Anna Atkins neared completion of her ground breaking photographically illustrated self publication, yet remained under the photographic radar, represented in the census as a blank line following her name, defined only as a “wife”. Anna’s ten year dedication to the creation of Photographs of British algae: Cyanotype Impressions can now be viewed online at New York Public Library. Many contributions by early women photographers were in an amateur capacity, their subsequent preservation entrusted to the caring hands of their descendants. Such was the extensive oeuvre of Viscountess Clementina Hawarden, presented to the V&A in 1939 by her granddaughter. The National Library of Wales holds photographs by Mary Dillwyn, an online collection of her distinctive flair resulting from Mary’s use of a smaller camera to enable an unobtrusive, natural style to evolve.

Fig. 3 Harry and Amy Dillwyn (children of Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn) by Mary Dillwyn c.1853
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru/National Library of Wales

Women took part in photographic societies and exhibitions; Photographic Society member Catherine Verschoyle contributed to the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1857, regarded as the largest exhibition of art to be held in the UK.

Fig. 4 Madresfield Court by Catherine Verschoyle 1862Michael Pritchard Collection

In addition to disappearing names there is also lack of documentation in census returns. The professional photographer was recognised as an occupational category in 1851, and only Mrs Ann Cooke was documented in that category, with fifty men, despite the existence of other women professional photographers. Some women preferred to be listed as an artist if art had been their primary calling, others slip through the net because their studio was established between census enumerations. A married woman working as a professional photographer would sometimes completely vanish on a census. Marital law gave ownership to the husband consequently leading to trade registration in his name.

Documentation cannot be corroborated by consultation of the electoral register because these women were denied the vote, and unless they traded in an independent capacity they would not appear in the contemporary trade directories. One photographer documented throughout photographic history is Miss Jane Wigley whose professional photographic portraiture spanned approximately ten years in two cities from 1845. But she is absent from census records as a photographer due to her self declaration as an artist in 1851. Despite extensive documentary evidence of her existence as the first woman photographer of Fleet Street, London, Jane’s work remains hidden from view, her photographs hanging in the same invisible gallery as many of her contemporaries.

Official records can only tell you so much. They are the scaffolding of life, travelling in straight lines of birth, marriage, census and death. But these missing women photographers can be found just outside the usual genealogical avenues, around the corner and into the shadows. They remain hidden in plain sight, in the archives of 1840s newspaper cuttings, county gazetteer guides, in the listings of contributors to photographic exhibitions, auction catalogues, family memorabilia and photographic bibliographies. Some appear as a footnote in a literary memoir, others as a fleeting mention within private correspondence.

These are some of the “sliding doors” chance encounters of photo history, sometimes yielding a hitherto untold story of the extraordinary life of an early female photographer, of importance not only to photography but also of wider significance to women’s contribution to modern history.