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The Bodleian Libraries : A New Power : Photography in Britain 1800-1850


The Bodleian Libraries present the exhibition A New Power: Photography in Britain 1800-1850 on 1 February 2023, at the Weston Library, home of the Bodleian’s special collections.

A New Power will gather an unprecedented array of objects and photographic materials, providing a fascinating insight into the role of photography in the British Empire. Comprising over 160 items, the exhibition will explore the early history of the medium, starting with its invention and the earliest dissemination of photographic images in Britain, and ending with the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition reveals how photography intersected with all aspects of a nascent modernity and played a crucial role in shaping British society.

Inventing photography

The exhibition is unusual in tracing the invention of photography back to the late eighteenth century, acknowledging the contributions of women to the experiments that led to the announcement of the medium and its subsequent commercialisation. A New Power features a number of the first photographic images to be published, along with an amazing array of early daguerreotypes, photogenic drawings and salt prints from calotype negatives. Examples of work by William Henry Fox Talbot, Anna Atkins, John Hershel, Richard Beard, Antoine Claudet, Edward Kilburn and John Mayall are included, along with plaster busts by Francis Chantrey, a painting by John Constable, and a portion of Charles Babbage’s first computing engine. Particular emphasis is placed on the dissemination of photographic images in the popular press, documenting both celebrities and diverse members of the working class. A number of items reveal the global spread of photography, revealing the way photographic images provided the British Empire with a sense of coherence and power.

A new form of reporting

One of the many revolutions that accompanied the invention of photography involved the transformation of photojournalism. It was now possible to trace over a daguerreotype and copy the image as wood engravings to produce an accurate visual document that could then be incorporated into illustrated newspapers. This process would destroy the original daguerreotype, but would allow virtually unlimited reproduction of its image. The process was expensive, but the caption ‘From a daguerreotype’ printed next to an image became a mark of authenticity in the newspaper industry. Especially important in this regard was the founding of the Illustrated London News in 1842, the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine.

The history of celebrity

Photography also had a central role in the development of the concept of celebrity. The exhibition features a number of early examples of society’s obsession with the images of famous people. Among the most interesting items on display is a series of engravings of actors based on daguerreotypes. The series includes an image of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who performed in plays by Shakespeare and would give anti-slavery speeches after his performances. The exhibition also includes a daguerreotype portrait of Queen Victoria and her children, where the Queen has wiped off her own face, annoyed that she had been captured with her eyes closed.

A New Power is part of the Library’s commitment to give more space to photography research and conservation, led by Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden, and the Curator of Photography, Dr Phillip Roberts. Recently, the Bodleian have been expanding their extensive photographic archive through the acquisition of collections such as the Bern Schwartz archive, the archives of William Henry Fox Talbot, the archives of Helen Muspratt and Daniel Meadows, and material from the Hyman collection of 20th-century British photography.

The exhibition has been curated by Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of History of Art at the University of Oxford and a specialist in the history of photography. He says of the exhibition: ‘By showing how photography intersected with all aspects of a nascent modernity, A New Power reveals photography’s crucial role in making Britain the society it is today. But it also breaks with the usual way the history of photography is conceived by focusing on the advent and proliferation of the photographic image, rather than just of the photograph.’

To accompany the exhibition, Bodleian Library Publishing will be releasing a new book authored by Geoffrey Batchen on 16 March 2023. Inventing Photography: William Henry Fox Talbot in the Bodleian Library will offer a compelling window into the archives and the creative activities of Talbot.

The Bodleian Libraries will also host a series of events and lectures dedicated to photography and to their archival materials. On Friday 17 March, Geoffrey Batchen will hold the lecture Modern Times: Photography in Britain 1800–1850, free for all to access, while on Saturday 18 March the Bodleian will host A New Power: The symposium, during which experts will explore and discuss various aspects of photography’s history between 1800 and 1850.


A New Power: Photography in Britain 1800-1850
1 February – 7 May 2023
The Weston Library
Broad Street, Oxford,OX1 3BG, United Kingdom

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