J. B. Reade’s Early Photographic Experiments:
recent further evidence on the legend

By R Derek Wood

British Journal of Photography, 28 July 1972, Volume 119, No. 5845, pp.644–646, 643



In August 1847, an unsigned 40–page article entitled ‘Photography’ was published in the journal The North British Review. This article by Sir David Brewster was innocuous enough except that it contained an extract from a letter of 1839 describing photographic experiments by the Rev J. B. Reade (1801–70), in which silver nitrate was used in conjunction with an infusion of galls, and hypo was used as the fixer. The use of these photographic chemicals was known well enough in 1847: indeed, the use of gallic acid was familiar to all who used the paper negative technique known as the calotype or talbotype — for it had been in September 1840 that W. H. F. Talbot had made the important discovery of the use of gallic acid as a developer of a latent image, a discovery that was the basis of the calotype technique and, in effect, of the modern photographic process.

The calotype technique became known to the public in 1841 when Talbot obtained a patent for it, a patent that became the source of considerable dispute. Talbot’s somewhat self–centred patenting activity caused some contempt in the 1840s, but it was in the early 1850s that the greatest ill feeling arose. Not long after the stimulating introduction of the wet–collodion method in 1851, Talbot was asked to relinquish his patent rights: he did so but with the very important exception of retaining the calotype patent rights for professional portraiture. The professionals in England were required to pay for a licence (the cost was negotiable but was quite commonly £150 per annum or 8 shillings per portrait [1]). They were, of course, then using Archer’s wet–collodion technique, but, because Talbot interpreted his calotype patent to include all forms of processes other than the daguerreotype, considerable dispute arose. Tension naturally increased as the end of the 14–year period covered by the patent drew near. A number of legal actions were the result of this, and the situation became more critical when it appeared that Talbot was to apply for a 7–year extension of the patent rights. Opponents of Talbot were obviously eager to gather as many arguments against the patent as possible, and at this stage J. B. Reade’s name was recalled.

Reade’s experiments become known

A few years earlier, the photographic manuals of two leading photographic suppliers in London — T. and R. Willats and G. Knight and Sons — had referred to Reade in connection with the calotype patent. Willats’s manual of 1847, Plain Directions for Obtaining Photographic Pictures, edited by J. H. Croucher, had stated ‘The Calotype, or Talbotype, is ... the invention of Mr. Fox Talbot, or is claimed by him. — So early as April, 1839, the Rev. J. B. Reade made a sensitive paper, by using an infusion of galls after nitrate silver ...; and Mr. Brayley, in his public lectures in April and May [1839], explained the process’. Reade’s experiments became known primarily because The North British Review published his letter that was described as having been ‘communicated by Mr. Reade, on the 9th of March 1839, to E. W. Brayley, Esq., who explained the process and exhibited the drawings referred to at one of the soirees of the London Institution on the 10th April 1839’. Although this publication of the letter was not until 1847, when the calotype patent had been well established for several years, attention was later particularly drawn to the fact that it had been read in public 2 years before the patent was sealed. This fact was hopefully used by the two professional photographers — James Henderson and Martin Laroche — against whom Talbot had instituted legal actions in 1854 as an argument that the calotype patent had never really been valid.

Reade was brought forward in 1854 to substantiate this argument and gave evidence in court during December 1854 in support of the defence at the final calotype patent lawsuit of Talbot v Laroche [2]. But, in addition to the substantial claim of having used infusion of galls in 1839, Reade also stated in 1854 and many years later that he had used the process in 1836 or 1837. In this way, a legend arose, which gradually became incorporated into the history of photography, of the Rev J. B. Reade as an independent pre–1839 inventor of the photographic process.


The legend of Reade’s photography before 1839

The writer has previously considered in detail the evidence for the legend [3]. All that need be said here is that the story thrived upon ambiguities and unreliable reminiscences of events many years after they took place; it relied upon secondhand sources that were themselves derived from intrinsically poor material, and there was a complete lack of contemporary photographs, documents and real facts of any kind.  However, in more recent years, some contemporary evidence has become available.

In 1960, a manuscript letter, written by .J. B. Reade to his brother George on 1 April 1839, was sent to the Royal Photographic Society, and this provided the first direct evidence of Reade’s early photographic experiments. A. T. Gill [4] has pointed out that, in the letter, Reade spoke of making the discovery on 26 March 1839 of ‘a certain chemical process’; the most likely interpretation of this is that it referred to his method for increasing the sensitivity of silver nitrate paper negatives with nut–gall infusion. This letter of 1 April 1839 was unable to supply unequivocal evidence, but it was able to raise considerable doubts that Reade’s earliest experiments could have been made in 1837.

In 1969, the present writer found that Reade had written a letter on 28 February 1839, dealing with minor chemical modifications of the photogenic drawing technique.  This letter was to the leading scientific society, of which he was a fellow, The Royal Society of London, where W. H. F. Talbot’s papers had been read a few weeks before. From this second piece of manuscript evidence, along with a full assessment of the background to Reade’s life and work, it was possible to conclude that the Rev. J. B. Reade did not discover photography independently of W. H. F. Talbot — he began photographic experiments, as did many other persons, only after Daguerre’s and Talbot’s disclosures of January 1839 [3].

One inconsistency in the story remained, however. The date of the published letter ‘communicated by Mr. Reade on the 9th of March 1839, to E. W. Brayley’ did not accord with the evidence available from the manuscript letters of 28 February and 1 April 1839.  Unfortunately, the manuscript of the letter to Brayley was not found, but it has been necessary to conclude that the published date must have been a mistake, perhaps for 29 March 1839 but most likely for 9 April 1839.


Significance of the date

At first sight it might seem strange that so much attention should have been given to this exact date of 9 March — after all it was 1839, not 1837. But it is of notable significance: and is, in essence, the beginning of the whole legend that Reade began photographic experiments before 1839. Probably little recent notice would have been taken of Reade’s later reminiscences if it were not for this date.

The first hint (and in some ways the origin) of the problem comes from the following remark by Sir David Brewster about ‘the ingenuity of Mr. Reade’. Said Brewster in The North British Review: ‘The first public use of the infusion of nut–galls, which ... is an essential element in Mr. Talbot’s patented process, appears due to Mr. Reade, and his process of fixing his pictures by hyposulphite of soda, which has since been universally used as the best, and was afterwards suggested in 1840 by Sir John Herschel, must be regarded as an invaluable addition to the photographic art’.  The key comment in this remark of Brewster’s is, surprisingly, not that regarding nut galls, but the further comment that Reade had preceded Herschel in the use of hypo.  Herschel did, in fact, describe this before 1840, but the point made by Brewster was still valid, for it is well known that the use of hypo was first publicly described in England by Sir John Herschel in a paper read to the Royal Society on 14 March 1839 [5]. However, Reade’s letter to Brayley mentioning the use of hypo was dated 9 March 1839, 5 days before Herschel’s paper was read!

The fact that Reade’s letter was dated before Herschel’s paper was presented has lent credence to the possibility (and even in spite of the weight of other evidence) that Reade may, after all, have been ahead of all other investigators and that his work with gallic acid and hypo could have extended back for another 2 years.  It has therefore been tantalising that the accumulated evidence has suggested that 9 March must have been a mistake, probably for 9 April — for, with moredefinite proof of the date, the untidy situation regarding Reade’s early work would be entirely resolved.


New evidence

Through the kindness of the owner, Mr Anthony Burnett – Brown, the writer has recently had the opportunity of examining the Fox Talbot Manuscript Collection at Lacock Abbey. A preliminary search of this collection has revealed an unexpected item: a document prepared by Price & Bolton, the solicitors who acted for Talbot in all legal matters concerning his patents and lawsuits. It is marked: ‘Price and Bolton. Copy. Memorandum by Mr. Edward Win. Brayley Junr. of the London lnstitution handed to Messrs. Fry and Loxley 14 June 1854 — and also sent by him to Mr. W. H. F. Talbot 19 June 1854’. Fry & Loxley were the solicitors of Martin Laroche, the London professional photographer who was being proceeded against by Talbot for open infringement of the calotype patent. The case of Talbot v Laroche was delayed for many months and not heard in court until December 1854.

Edward William Brayley (1802–70) was librarian and lecturer at the scientific London Institution in Finsbury Circus, in the City of London. When examined on the second day of the hearing of Talbot v Laroche, on 19 December 1854, Brayley stated that he had received the letter from Reade in April and, at his two lectures, had exhibited Reade’s ‘drawings’ and ‘read all the letter, except the first paragraph and the postscript’.  The first lecture was held at 8 pm on 10 April 1839 at the London Institution and the second, it seems, at a meeting of the Society for Promoting Literary and Philosophical Knowledge held at Walthamstow on 2 May 1839.

The document sent to Talbot in 1854 has two parts: first, a statement by E. W. Brayley and, second, the complete text of J. B. Reade’s letter to Brayley.

“Copy of a memorandum given to Messrs Fry & Loxley, solicitors to the defendant, in reply to certain inquiries made by them”.

[Statement by E. W.  Brayley]

In my Lectures on Photogenic Drawing delivered respectively at the London Institution on the 10th of April and at Walthamstow on the 2nd of May 1839 I stated and explained the use of a strong solution of common salt for fixing the images. (This had been published by Mr. Talbot in his Paper read before the Royal Society on the 11th [sic – should be 21st] of the preceding February and printed in the Society’s Proceedings.)

In these Lectures I formed and exhibited Gallate of Silver by adding tincture of Galls to a solution of nitrate of silver: I also explained the action of light upon the gallate so formed and its consequent use in Photography as devised by The Revd. J. B. Reade and recommended by him in his letter to me of the 9th of April 1839. I did this in illustration of the 2nd Clause “2d. The more important” &c of Mr. Reade’s letter which I read to the Audience.

Edw. Wm. Brayley.

London Institution.

June 17th. 1854.

“Copy of a letter addressed to Mr Brayley by the Rev Joseph Bancroft Reade MA FRS, now Vicar of Stone, near Aylesbury”

[“now” refers to the time of the copy made in 1854, in 1839 Reade was at Peckham]

Peckham. April 9. 1839.

Dear Sir,

My friends in Yorkshire whom I lately visited [29 March–3 April] have laid violent hands on my stock of Photogenic Drawings. I must therefore content myself with describing to you the process by which I produce them, especially as our almost sunless days and the very short notice on which you prepare your lecture, offer but little chance of procuring additional illustrations. It has been my wish to discover if possible some preparation of silver more sensitive and I may also add more manageable than the chloride, for independently of the difficulty of fixing the Drawings when chloride of silver is used it is almost impossible to say what alteration in the color of  the ground the process of fixing will produce.

It would be tedious as well as useless to detail to you the experiments which have terminated in failure.—l will therefore in few words, describe the two modes which have been attended with comparative success.— lst For plants prints &c that the ground may retain the precise tint which is received at first, I use, not common paper, but card board, coated with white lead & highly glazed. This surface is washed with a weak solution of Nitrite [sic – should be Nitrate] of Silver consisting of from 2 to 4 grs in one drachm of distilled water. The card is dried before the fire and the design after being procured in the usual way is fixed by immersing the card for a few minutes in an ounce of distilled water containing from 10 to 20 grs of Hydriodate of Potash.  This paper is not remarkably sensitive but presents a very delicate salmon colored ground & perfect definition of the object. Mr Christie [one of the two Secretaries of the Royal Society] has 2 or 3 examples of this process but I am sorry to say that I have none by me at present.

2nd [Extract in The North British Review begins here] The more important process & one probably different from any hitherto employed consists in washing good writing paper with a strong solution of Nitrate of Silver containing not less than 8 grs to every drachm of Distilled water. the paper thus prepared is placed in the dark and allowed to dry gradually. When perfectly dry and just before it is used, I wash it with an infusion of galls prepared according to the Pharmacopaia and immediately even while it is yet wet, throw upon it the image of microscopic objects by means of the solar microscope. It will be unnecessary for me to describe the effect, as I am able to illustrate it by Drawings thus produced. I will only add with respect to the time that the drawing of the flea was perfected in less than 5 minutes and the section of cane and the spiral vessels of the stalk of Common Rhubarb in about 8 or 10 minutes. These Drawings were fixed by hyposulphite of soda. They may also be fixed by immersing them for a few minutes in weak salt and water and then for the same time in a weak solution of Hydriodate of Potash. The Drawing of the Trientalis Europa [Trientalis Europaea L, a wild flower of the primula family found in the north of Britain] was fixed by the latter method. it was procured in 1/2 a minute and the difference in the color of the ground is due to this rapid and more powerful action of the solar rays— This paper may be successfully used in the Camera Obscura.

Farther experiments must determine the nature of this very sensitive argentine preparation. I presume that it is a Gallate or Tannate of Silver & if so it will be interesting to you to know that what has hitherto been looked upon as a common chemical compound is produced or suspended at pleasure by our command over the rays of light. [Extract in The North British Review ends here]

I have much pleasure in communicating these few particulars
and remain
My dear Sir very truly yours
J. B. Reade

P.S. The larger Sketch of the flea tho’ not in a fit state for general inspection will convince you that considerable amplification may be used without injuring the definition of the most delicate objects. J.B.R.

[To] E. W. Brayley Esqre.

At the end of this copy of Reade’s letter, a statement is made by the recipient: ‘Examined with the Original. E. W. Brayley Jun. London Institution. June 17, 1854’. The correction of a few words of the letter was made with a different pen and ink, and the indecipherable initials of the same hand, presumably a solicitor’s clerk, also appear at the foot of the page. The corrections have been incorporated into the foregoing transcript.


Significance of the new evidence

The suspected date of the letter to Brayley is thus confirmed:  it is indeed, not 9 March, but 9 April 1839. Reade’s reference to the use of hypo in the letter therefore followed the reading of Sir John Herschel’s paper at the Royal Society on 14 March 1839, a meeting at which Reade was surely present.[6]

It has been obvious before now that only an extract of this letter to Brayley had been published in 1847, and in fact the judge during the hearing of the case of Talbot v Laroche did disjointedly quote [7] from an unpublished part. With the complete text now available, we can see that less than half had been published.

How was it that the wrong date had been given in The North British Review in 1847? It is possible only to speculate about this, but a reasonable explanation might be that it was published, not from the actual letter sent to Brayley, but from a copy of it held by Reade. Conceivably, Reade could have endorsed his copy of the letter simply as the 9th without adding the month. The only other published reference to the date of the letter, other than when it was printed in The North British Review, was in fact by Reade, this being in a letter of Reade’s published in the Philosophical Magazine of May 1854, in which he referred to his letter to Brayley ‘of March 9, 1839’. The writer has previously discussed this question of the source of the published letter, and, although both Brayley and Reade were in a position to supply it to Brewster, most likely it was through Reade, for, shortly before The North British Review article was published, Brewster visited Dr. John Lee at Hartwell on 1 July 1847, and Reade could so easily have met him then.[8]

Uncertainty about the true date of Reade’s letter to Brayley is now ended. Perhaps, discovery of the actual manuscript letter could have given greater satisfaction, but the present document leaves little room for unhappiness. The remaining ghost of the legend of the Rev J. B. Reade as an independent ‘inventor of photography’ before 1839 is now firmly laid.



There are two distinct aspects to the story of J. B. Reade’s early photographic experiments. Unfortunately, in the past, the facts relating to one of these aspects have often been confused with the facts (or lack of them!) relating to the other.

To clarify Reade’s early work, it has been necessary to discover, first, if he independently carried out photographic experiments before 1839; second, it has been essential clearly to establish the facts available about his photography in 1839 and especially to discover evidence of his experiments with nut–gall infusion and to consider if this could have contributed to the discovery by W. H. F. Talbot of the calotype process.

The first feature ought never to have assumed any significance; the unsubstantiated story of Reade’s uncommunicated experiments had no place in the history of photography. The legend of his pre–1839 work is a historiographic problem which we can now leave firmly behind us: J. B. Reade began his trials of photography immediately after the disclosure of W. H. F. Talbot’s photogenic drawing technique in January and February 1839.

We therefore come to what was the second — and now is the sole — aspect of his work. This has always been the more worthy of attention. At the end of March 1839, he used an infusion of nut galls on paper treated with silver nitrate in an attempt to obtain a more sensitive preparation. It was possible for this use of nut galls by Reade to have influenced the work of Talbot – work which later led to the most important discovery of the use of gallic acid as a developer of the latent image. Reade spoke about his experiments to Andrew Ross, the London optician and instrument maker, and Ross later mentioned the conversation to Talbot. This is the classic story, although the extent of such a conversational influence is by no means clear. But it is this, together with the appearance of Reade in the case of Talbot v Laroche, that ensures his name will not disappear from histories of photography.

The facts available about Reade’s experiments early in 1839 still leave much to be desired. The writer has already given considerable attention to this problem in ‘Gallic Acid and TaIbot’s Calotype Patent’ [9], but the situation can now be reappraised — and a forthcoming article will do this — for the position has been significantly clarified by the discovery of the full text and true date of J. B. Reade’s letter to E. W. Brayley: 9 April 1839.



[1]  R. D. Wood: Ann Sci, Vol 27 (March 1971), p 57. (Although it would seem that more than 100 applications for licences were made throughout England between 1852 and 1855, few were obtained. This is supported by a statement by Ta!bot at the hearing of Talbot v Laroche in 1854 that he ‘had granted about a dozen licences altogether’ (Phot. J., Vol 2 (1854–56), p 88).)

[2]  For more information on the legal actions and dispute over the calotype patent, see R. D. Wood: ‘Gallic Acid and Talbot’s Calotype Patent’ (Part II of J. B. Reade, F.R.S., and the Early History of Photography), Ann Sci., Vol 27, No 1 (March 1971), pp 47–83; ‘The Involvement of Sir John Herschel in the Photographic Patent Case. Talbot v. Henderson, 1854’, Ann Sci, Vol 27, No 3 (September 1971), pp 239–64;  Mr. Grove, Counsel for the Plaintiff in the Calotype Patent Lawsuit of Talbot v. Laroche, 1854 (in press) [in the event this appeared as The Calotype Patent Lawsuit of Talbot v Laroche, 1854].

[3]  R. D. Wood: ‘A Re–assessment on the Discovery of Contemporary Evidence’ (Part I of J B. Reade, F.R.S., and the Early History of Photography). Ann Sci, Vol 27, No 1 (March 1971), pp 13–45.

[4]  A. T. Gill : A Letter by Joseph Bancroft Reade, 1 April 1839, Phot J., Vol 101, No 1 (January 1961), pp 10–13.

[5]   J. F. W. Herschel : ‘Note on the Art of Photography’, Proc Roy Soc London, Vol 4 (1839), No 37. pp 131–33; also published in The Athenaeum, 23 March 1839, p 223. (Herschel’s use of hypo had, in fact, been reported earlier in France: with Herschel’s permission. Talbot had written to J. B. Biot at the Academy of Sciences in Paris and described Herschel’s use of sodium hyposulphite. The letter was read at the Academy of Sciences on 4 March 1839 and published in Comptes Rendus Acad. Sci. Paris, Vol 8 (1839). p 341.)

[6]  R. D. Wood: Ann Sci, Vol 27 (1971), p 37.

[7]  Ibid. pp 35–36 and footnote 68.

[8]  ibid. pp 18, 78 and 79n.

[9]  ibid. pp 47–83.


I am most grateful to Mr Anthony Burnett–Brown for kindly allowing me to examine the Fox Talbot Manuscript Collection at Lacock Abbey and giving permission to publish the copy of J. B. Reade’s letter, dated 9 April 1839, to Brayley (Lacock Abbey MS No. LA54.34).

[Note added in 2014. The Talbot Collection, previously at Lacock, in 2005 was transferred as a gift to the British Library, to be its permanent home. The manuscript of Brayley's Memorandum transcribed and discussed in this article is now in that Talbot Archive at the British Library - Western Manuscripts Ref. Add MS 88942. It is in a file Add MS 88942/4/1/15, being ‘Talbot Material concerning the legal protection of photographic patents (1851-1854)’: “Copy - Memorandum by Mr Edward Brayley Junr of the London Institutn. handed to Messes Fry and Loxley 14 June 1854 - and also sent by him to Mr W. H. F. Talbot 19 June 1854. (19 June, 1854). Includes a transcript of a letter to Mr Brayley from Reverend Joseph Bancroft Reade. National Trust Accession: 33034.”]

[BJP 1972 editorial introduction]

In our issue of 7 July, under the title The Rev J. B. Reade and the Discovery of Photography, we published a digest [anon review probably by the editor G. Crawley] of an article by R. D. Wood which appeared last year in a specialist scientific journal. Our own article concluded with the words: ‘there have been two hitherto–unknown documents in Reade’s own handwriting discovered during the past decade. and one cannot therefore entirely eliminate the possibility of a further discovery of contemporary evidence...’. By sheer coincidence, its publication nearly coincided with the original author’s uncovering of another letter relating to the Reade saga, and here Mr Wood explains its relevance.

   [Straightening record on Reade]    [Talbot v Laroche]

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