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Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Bt

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Bt

by Julia Margaret Cameron
albumen print, 1867
13 3/8 in. x 10 3/8 in. (340 mm x 264 mm)
Purchased, 1982
Primary Collection
NPG P213

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), Pioneer photographer. Artist or producer associated with 114 portraits, Sitter in 8 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Cameron first met Herschel in South Africa in 1836 where she went to recover from illness and they became close, long-standing friends. An astronomer and physicist, Herschel was also a pioneer in the chemistry of photography. Among his many groundbreaking discoveries, he introduced ‘hypo’ as a fixing agent and coined the terms 'photograph', 'negative' and 'positive'. Herschel introduced Cameron to the new invention of photography in 1839 and shared the results of his early experiments with her. In her autobiographical manuscript Annals of My Glass House (1874, first published 1889), Cameron remarked: 'He was to me as a Teacher and High Priest. From my girlhood I had loved and honoured him, and it was after a friendship of 31 years’ duration that the high task of giving his portrait to the nation was allotted to me'. Four studies were made during this sitting at Herschel’s home Collingwood in Hawkhurst, Kent.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Ford, Colin, Julia Margaret Cameron: 19th Century Photographer of Genius, 2003 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 6 February - 26 May 2003), p. 83,100
  • Hart-Davis, Adam, Chain Reactions, 2000, p. 72
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 83 Read entry

    Sir John Herschel, son of the great astronomer Sir William Herschel, was a man of outstanding scientific and astronomical achievement, and took an interest in photography from its earliest days. He was the friend of Fox Talbot, and an early correspondent of Mrs Cameron, and invented the photographic use of sensitized paper (1839), introduced hyposuiphate of soda (hypo) as a fixing agent, and coined the terms 'photograph', 'negative', 'positive' and 'snapshot'. Mrs Cameron's portrait of him, taken at his home Collingwood at Hawkhurst, Kent, is therefore not only one of the most moving images of a great intellect caught in the process of physical dissolution, but an important document in the history of photography. It is, like all her best work, distinguished by its dramatic lighting, soft focus (often ridiculed by her contemporaries), and feeling for character. But it is the ad vivum feel which she prized above all, and which she obtained by the use of very large glass plates from which she printed directly without enlargement or retouching. It is this quality which led her, as here, to inscribe 'From Life' on the mounts of her prints.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 300

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1867back to top

Current affairs

The Second Reform Act, although effectively a Liberal measure, is expediently passed by the Conservatives, under Disraeli's influence, who believed it would widen Conservative appeal by making the party appear more progressive. The Act extended the vote to 1.5 million working men in British towns, and redistributed 52 seats from towns with populations under 10,000 to the newer urban towns.

Art and science

Karl Marx publishes his hugely influential Das Kapital, whilst living and researching in London. Its proclaimed aim was 'to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society', and it presented mid-Victorian capitalism in terms of a tragic drama.
Henry Irving rises to fame on the London stage, performing alongside Ellen Terry for the first time, beginning their famous theatrical association.


Francis Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, becomes King of Hungary, and thus ruler of the 'dual monarchy' of Austria-Hungary.
The dominion of Canada is formed, as the British North America Act unites four British colonies, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec. The Act defines much of Canada's constitution and operation of government, and Canada's dominion status is the first of its kind.

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