Letters:  ‘The Rev J. B. Reade [and Dr. H. Diamond]’

Letter to the editor published in British Journal of Photography,
21 July 1972, Vol. 119, No. 5844, p. 611


Dear Sir

Thank you for the very fair and generous [anon * ] review, in your issue of 7 July [1972], of my paper in Annals of Science last year about the legend that J. B. Reade allegedly carried out experiments in photography before 1839.

I am afraid that in recounting the story of the supposed existence of a photogenic drawing of a flea on the day the William IV died, your reviewer has fallen into a trap, so often encountered where Reade is concerned, of making a more definite and seemingly dependable statement than is warranted from the historical source material.

Your account is that, while the bells marking the death of William IV were sounding, ‘so Dr. H. Diamond was to assert many years later, that the Rev Joseph Bancroft Reade handed to his friend Mr. J. Y. Akerman an enlarged photographic drawing of the head of a flea’. But if the original item in the Photographic News of 13 October 1865 is consulted, it can be seen that no such clear statement is made regarding Diamond: it is obviously an equivocal conversational titbit hurriedly prepared by the editor of the Photographic News. It reports a conversational remark by Reade about an early ‘photograph’ prepared with silver ‘chloride’ and gallic acid that he had given to Mr. Akerman and ‘Mentioning this circumstance to Dr. Diamond, he stated that the same photograph was given by Mr. Akerman to him the Sunday on which King William IV died, the circumstance being impressed on his mind by hearing shortly after receiving the picture, the bell of St. Paul’s toll, and the exclamation being made that some member of the royal family must be dead.  This it will be remembered, was in June, 1837.’

Is your reviewer really sure who is meant by ‘he’ and ‘him’ in the passage quoted?  I certainly find this equivocal. It is possible that ‘him’ could mean Dr. Diamond, but from this and other sources it is difficult to establish when and  to whom the picture went, but I do think it is most likely that ‘he stated’ means Reade stated it. There is no other evidence to suggest that Diamond ever gave any support to the idea that Reade began photography before 1839; indeed, in 1890, John Werge reports Diamond as saying ‘that Mr. Reade was given to hallucinations’.  If Dr Diamond had really seen a gallic acid–developed photograph in 1837, would it not be surprising that the later very keen photographer should have delayed his first attempt until a few months after Talbot described the primitive photogenic drawing technique in 1839; for Dr Diamond purchased some commercially prepared photogenic drawing paper on 8 April 1839 and, he says, first tried to obtain a picture (a contact print of lace) on the following day of 9 April 1839 (Science Museum Photograph No. 3826).

The whole legend of Reade as a pre–1839 photographer has depended upon equivocal misreporting. I could go laboriously, sentence be sentence, through the original source materials demonstrating this fact, but I fear that your readers would, quite rightly, not stay the course.  It is worth mentioning in passing that, in 1865, Reade incorrectly recalled that he had used a chloride in his early experiments — and your reviewer makes the same mistake. But let us try simply, as a test, to note the one statement in the Photographic News of 1865 which is capable of verification: ‘the same photograph was given by Mr. Akerman to him the Sunday on which King William IV died’ (or rather ‘some member of the royal family’!). Now William IV did indeed die in June 1837, but in fact on 20 June 1837, which was a Tuesday !

Ultimately, of course, analysis of Reade’s later reminiscences becomes an absurd pursuit. Reade was never slow to publish slight work.  Can anyone believe that he would not have published (with ample opportunity) any such supposed revolutionary work with gallic acid and hypo in 1837 or that he (or, say, Dr Diamond for him) would not quickly, during the public excitement of early 1839, have claimed to have done earlier work?

We have substantial contemporary evidence for Reade’s work during 1839 that completely outbalances the rather pathetically muddled reminiscences. And, as can be seen from a recently discovered document, the probability that Reade’s letter to Brayley was wrongly dated is now also secure.

Bromley [Kent]

The recent discovery of Mr. Wood’s, referred to at the end of his letter, is the subject of an article to be published in the near future — Ed. [comment by editor of British Journal of Photography]
[The article on Reade’s letter to E. W. Brayley was published the following week in the BJP]

  [*]  [ The review in the BJP of 7 July 1971 (Vol 119, nr 5872, pp. 574-5, 585) was anonymous. Shortly before it appeared, R. D. Wood was telephoned by a member of staff of the BJP, both as a courtesy to say that a review digest of his Annals of Science paper was planned to appear in the BJP, and to ask permission (which was given) for an illustration (Head of Flea) to be reprinted. The name of the BJP reviewer/digester was never revealed to R. D. Wood who had assumed it could be the work of the editor of the BJP, Adrian Crawley. However, when later a librarian happened to mention his own first assumption that the anonymous digest-review was by the original author himself (!), R. D Wood in 1979 wrote to the BJP asking if any record of the name of the reviewer was available. The answer was not revealing, only that the writer of the digest article "was indeed one of our contributors whose other employment obliged him to remain anonymous in print. ... no longer contributes to the Journal owing to his other commitments".]

[Straightening record on Reade]    [JB Reade part 1 ]     [JB Reade part 2 ]

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