Robert Hunt and early photography

James Ryan, ‘Placing early photography: The work of Robert Hunt in mid-nineteenth century Britain’, History of Photography 41 (2017), 343-361.

The author of this article is Associate Professor of Geography at Tremough, although currently based at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But his sojourn in Cornwall alerted him to the work of Robert Hunt and provides us with a useful window into the world of this Victorian polymath.

Most of us may be familiar with Hunt because of his work collecting folklore or mining statistics. But he was also at the forefront of early experiments in photography. The conceptual framework of this article rests on the importance of spatial networks at various scales in the development of Victorian science. For those interested in Cornish Studies the article reinforces the central place of Cornwall, and particularly Falmouth, to those early scientific networks, as well as expanding our awareness of the incredibly prolific and constantly inquisitive Robert Hunt.

James Ryan describes how Robert Hunt’s location in three key places and the networks he could then tap into from those places allowed him to become a key figure in the birth of photography. Indeed, he was the author of the first English language manual and history of photography in 1841, as well as inventing his own (commercially unsuccessful) photographic process.

Of relatively humble origins, Hunt was born in Devonport in 1807, but went to school in Penzance. After an apprenticeship to a surgeon in London, Hunt and his wife returned to Penzance, where they opened a chemists’ business in 1831. In 1836 they moved again, back to Devonport, operating a similar business there. It was at Devonport that, as part of his interest in the study of light, Hunt began to experiment with photography. At the same time, he started to correspond with Sir John Herschel, another experimental photographer, although now better known for his work in astronomy. Herschel provided the first of a useful collection of patrons, oiling the wheels of Hunt’s career.

A photograph of houses at Berkeley Vale, Falmouth, taken by Hunt in 1844

In 1840 Hunt was offered the post of secretary to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society at Falmouth. This brought him an introduction to ‘wider circles of influence in regional and national science’. There, he developed his organisational abilities and gained more patrons, while conducting his experiments and publishing widely.

According to James Ryan, Cornwall’s dynamic culture of science ‘borrowed from and reinforced its distinctive regional identity as a “Celtic” county [sic], although he doesn’t explain how Celticity exactly informed its scientific culture. Be that as it may, Falmouth was far from being a remote outpost. It was ‘centrally placed’ in Britain’s global networks of communication and trade. Moreover, the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society was ‘the first of its kind in Britain’. Hunt benefited from this dynamic environment, helping ‘to make Falmouth more finely tuned and directly connected to developments in early photography than almost any other British town’. This stimulated the growth of a ‘vibrant regional culture of photography’ from the 1840s to 1870, with the Polytechnic’s photographic exhibitions attracting some of the best known professional photographers from across Britain.

By then however, Hunt had decamped again. Contacts made with mine owners had prompted investigations into mining and geology while at Falmouth. These gave him the connections that resulted in his obtaining the post of Keeper of Mineral Statistics, based in London. He moved to this third key location in1845. When in London Hunt enjoyed the double advantage of direct access to metropolitan networks of science and arts while retaining his connections with Cornwall through his collection of folklore and his links to the mining industry.

James Ryan concludes his article by pointing out that Hunt’s varied interests – the study of light, geology and mining, folklore, poetry and fiction – were pursued in parallel with a need to make a living from science. This marked him off from the gentlemanly amateur with leisure and finances to spare. Significantly, despite his intellectual achievements, Hunt could not overcome the class barriers of Victorian society. For instance, while resident at Falmouth, he was never invited to nearby Carclew, the home of his patron Sir Charles Lemon.

Later, in London, he pursued an acerbic patent battle with another of his landed benefactors, William Henry Fox Talbot. This signalled a less deferential attitude once he had established his own credentials. Hunt’s view, that photography should be a useful art and science accessible to everyone won out over Talbot’s argument that it was a pursuit fit only for the gentlemanly amateur. Looking back from a vantage point saturated by photographic imagery, we can see who had the more percipient view of the future.

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