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The Early Amateur Photographers - and the beginnings of 'garden photography'

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

'A Summer’s Evening, Penllergare', by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, August 1854. Note the camera on a tripod on the bank and its reflection in the water

Today, garden and plant photography is a serious business with some photographers specialising in the genre – their evocative images appearing in such publications as Gardens Illustrated, Country Life and The English Garden and, of course, countless books. While prestigious competitions such as International Garden Photographer of the Year, run in association with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, featuring garden, plant, flower and botanical photography, receive huge publicity. According to The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (2005) however, garden photography has only emerged relatively recently, specifically to satisfy a "lively market" in such garden-related books and magazines.

William Henry Fox Talbot, photograph by John Moffat, 1864

And yet, it really goes way back to the very beginnings of photography itself some 180 years ago when, in 1839, a garden famously became one of photography’s first subjects when Victorian polymath, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), often referred to as the father of photography, produced numerous images of the gardens at his home at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Early Victorian photographs often look stuffy and staged to us, and portraits in particular usually feature unsmiling people looking decidedly uncomfortable (and Talbot himself doesn't look too happy in this photograph!). This was, however, mostly due to the limitations of the new technology and the long exposures required, as photographing anything that might move was a rather serious business – and it's even said that photographers encouraged their sitters to say 'prunes' rather than 'cheeeeese'! [Although I've also read that the Victorians' bad teeth was another reason for them not to smile for posterity...].

However, many of the early photographers, some also artists, considered photography as yet another art form – rather than just a technical way of creating a picture. They produced vibrant and exciting images such as the beautiful photograph above by amateur photographer, John Dillwyn Llewelyn [more on him later]. Usually men and women of ‘means’, the early photographers were likely to be acquainted with art or engaged in the study of natural history or other branches of science, as well as being members of such institutions as the Royal Society, the Linnaean Society, or the Royal Academy.

‘The Photographer with this Tent’ c.18??. Self-portrait of John Dillwyn Llewelyn

And here, just a note on the word 'amateur’. Today, it tends to imply ineptitude and lack of professionalism but, as used in the 19th century, it merely referred to people pursuing an interest – albeit those usually from the well-to-do and moneyed classes.

For artists, gardens had long been considered desirable subjects and, over the centuries, were incorporated into paintings, woodcuts, engravings and all kinds of illustrations. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that the early photographers took to making objective, yet beautiful records of the things they found significant – including their homes, gardens, and the wider landscape around them.

The beginnings of what we today call photography actually go back much farther than people think: for centuries images had been projected onto surfaces and, as linear perspective became more widely understood by artists, drawing aids to create mathematically precise depictions were required. The main methods used by artists as early as the sixteenth century probably being the camera obscura and the camera lucida. These early 'cameras' [although not what we would recognise as a camera] did not fix an image in time; they only projected what passed through an opening in the wall of a darkened room onto a surface – the phrase camera obscura literally means ‘darkened room’ and the word camera was purloined by the later technology.

Below, a typical outdoor room 'camera obscura'. Front cover from the inaugural issue of the 'Magazine of Science', 1839

By the eighteenth century, the use of mirrors and lenses to scrutinize nature, both for the purposes of science and for the purposes of art, became commonplace. Drawing aids such as the camera lucida became increasingly popular in the early 19th century as artists began to produce more accurate, and therefore more truthful, images.

However, without some advance in the understanding of the physics of light and chemistry, the images created by such ‘pre-photographic imaging devices’ [as they are termed today] were, in Talbot’s famous words, nothing but "fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away" – as they were unable to create a permanent image. Throughout the 18th century, many individuals experimented with the interaction of light and chemicals, but it was not until the early 19th that the idea of a chemical solution to ‘fix’ an image took hold. And the move to what we would today understand as a photograph took a step closer.

Talbot was famously galvanised into pursuing the possibility of capturing images from nature after being dissatisfied with his attempts at drawing the Italian landscape on his honeymoon in 1833. [All genteel folk of the time being expected to at least be able to produce passable sketches.] So, upon returning to England, Talbot began experimenting and, by 1834 had invented a means of producing images on sheets of paper sensitized with silver compounds and exposing them to light. He overcame the problem of ‘fixing' the image by using, initially, table salt and these camera-less prints were dubbed by Talbot photogenic drawings.

'Two Leaves', an example of a photogenic drawing by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1839

By 1835 Talbot had managed to increase the sensitivity to the point where the images could be produced in a camera and although as yet the term did not exist, he had produced the first negatives. However, it was not until 1839 that he published his findings – and this was only due to Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, announcing a rival photographic system based on polished metal plates – or daguerreotypes. Although initially successful, the daguerreotype was to prove a photographic dead-end, and it was Talbot’s system of producing a negative from which multiple copies could be made, that became the basis of modern photography.

‘The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey’ by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1835. Print from probably the oldest photographic negative in existence

To showcase his new photographic process to the world, Talbot published The Pencil of Nature [in six parts between 1844-45] – the first ever commercially published book to be illustrated with photographs. Talbot carefully chose 24 photographs for the book from dozens of potential plates as it was the first opportunity for the general public to see what photographs actually looked like.

[The book is available on-line here: The pencil of nature - NYPL Digital Collections]

Front page of 'Pencil of Nature', the first photographically illustrated book (1844)

For Talbot and the early amateur photographers, gardens were also useful venues for taking pictures from a technical standpoint. Ample sunlight and long exposures were required, usually necessitating the taking of photographs outside on a sunny day and, as can be seen in the photograph of Llewelyn at the top of the page, a tent was often used as a portable darkroom as the photographs had to be processed immediately The amateur photographer also had to carry around a vast amount of equipment so, as the British Journal of Photography noted in 1887, gardens made the perfect photographic studios.

Photographs of gardens, even those appearing only as background settings for studies of family and friends, are useful records for us today: providing details of the opulent gardens of the aristocracy, the suburban villa gardens of the middle-classes or, later in the century as photography became more popular and affordable, the small back-gardens of the working classes.

Over the next few decades, different photographic processes came and went, until a process based on Talbot's 'paper negative-positive' invention, which enabled multiple copies to be produced from one negative prevailed [as the image below], and remained in place until the digital age.

‘An Oak Tree in Winter’ c.1842-43 by William Henry Fox Talbot. Salted paper print from a calotype negative. The negative is shown below

Talbot’s circle of friends and family, mostly in London and at Penllergare, near Swansea, are good examples of the early amateur photographers, being amongst the best-informed and most active in the use of the new technology. This circle of amateurs, among them the Llewellyns at Penllergare, Nicolaas Henneman, Sir John Herschel, George Bridges and Calvert Jones played a crucial role in the development of photography on paper. In particular, Talbot wrote at length to John Dillwyn Llewelyn (1810-1882), his cousin by marriage, about his photographic experiments. While Llewelyn himself, a keen amateur botanist, his daughter, Thereza May (1834-1926), and his sister, Mary (1816-1906), quickly became enthusiastic and skilled photographers. Their family estate of Penllergare near Swansea being the perfect photographic subject – located in a secluded, sheltered valley, surrounded by boating lakes, orchid houses, an observatory, an artificial waterfall, and landscaped gardens – described as having been "planted with a true botanist's eye". All were captured in photographs by the family.

'Pots of Spring Flowers', c.1850s, the Conservatory at Penllergare (Attributed to the Llewelyns)

Such amateurs as the Llewelyns’ dominated the early world of photography: they knew how to manipulate the composition of the picture, the light, the photographic process, and even the chemicals involved, to produce an artistic image, as can be seen in Llewelyn’s beautifully atmospheric A Summer’s Evening, Penllergare (top of the page). Llewelyn has even included a camera on a tripod in the photograph – standing on the left-hand bank and also reflected in the water below. He also captured the more mundane with studies of plants and ferns, as well as pots of spring flowers in his conservatory – as above.

'The Orchid House, Penllergare' 1853-54 by John Dillwyn Llewelyn. Private Collection

Today, as we rush around taking photographs on our smart-phones and millions of images are shared on social media, it’s difficult to appreciate just what an impact photography had during its early days. When Talbot first published The Pencil of Nature showcasing the new technology, The Athenaeum Magazine were moved to describe his work as “modern necromancy”. By 1850, photography was still regarded as “a curiosity and a marvel” and amateur photographers such as Llewelyn continued to experiment with photographic processes, held exhibitions, published journals, and formed photographic organisations modelled on the other learned societies to which they belonged "with the express intention of advancing understanding and appreciation of the medium".

'The Rev. Glossop with his camera', Isleworth 1865 – a typical well-to-do amateur photographer. Time Life Pictures

However, as improvements in the photographic process made it less difficult to take pictures, the number of photographers grew and, by the time of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, interest in the new medium had rocketed. Millions of people from all social classes visited the Exhibition, many coming into contact with photography for the first time through the photographs and photographic equipment on show. And it was also the first time that photographs from around the world were exhibited together, some 772 of them, many from some of the most important names in early photographic history.

During this decade, photography rapidly entered the spheres of illustration, art, education, science, entertainment – and the Illustrated London News began using photographs, albeit as the basis for wood-engraved illustrations, as printing technology was not yet capable of using photographs themselves. Even Charles Dickens, the great social commentator of the age, in his own magazine Household Words, commented on the coming of photography. In April 1854, wrote about photography being used as art, commenting that "Mechanical exactness the photograph can realise, beyond the power of the eye or the pencil to imitate". [Dickens, 'Busy with the Photograph, Household Words, April 29, 1854.]

Queen Victoria and Prince Alberts’ own enthusiasm for photography further boosted its appeal, so that just ten years later it was widely known and accepted as a means of recording information and making pictures. And so, just twenty years after photography’s beginnings, a more commercial view of the new media emerged which became less connected to the ideals of the early amateurs.

In 1858, the first exhibition of photographs to take place in any museum was held – at the South Kensington Museum [later renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum]. The exhibition consisted of 1,009 photographs and the photograph below was taken by Charles Thurston Thompson, the South Kensington Museum's official photographer. The V&A's own website ( describes the view as "a densely-packed display of a wide range of subject matter, including portraits, landscapes, architectural views and reproductions of works of art...".

Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London and the Société française de photographie at the South Kensington Museum, 1858. Albumen print by Charles Thurston Thompson (1816-68)

By the same year this exhibition was held – 1858, a more professional class of photographer had emerged and photography’s audience widened still further. Photography became a mass market past-time and, as photographers’ studios appeared in every high street across Britain, the artistic quality of photographs often plummeted. Many of the early amateurs became disillusioned with the new media, and some ceased their photographic endeavours altogether.

The Llewelyns’, however, continued taking pictures and, over the years, assembled several albums. These are now held at the National Library of Wales which describes them as probably some of the world’s earliest family photographic albums, revealing “the warmth and delight of life within the walls of a great landed estate”.

This is intended as an introduction to the subject of 'early garden photography', and more posts will follow. However, I'll finish with the thought that perhaps it's ironic that today’s digital technology, which superseded Talbot’s photographic process, allows archives to display the wealth of early photographs they hold on-line for all to enjoy.



Grace Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography and the mid-Victorian Imagination

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Nov 22, 2021

Lovely, thorough and entertaining as ever, Paula! Thank you!

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