The Cased Photographs Collection

Following the public announcement of the invention of photography in the late 1830s, it became popular both as an amateur pastime and a commercial enterprise. For the first time it was possible to document all aspects of life through the lens of a camera, giving true portrayals, as opposed to an artist’s impression. The National Library of Wales’ collection of cased photographs is a group of various types of early photographs, most of which are still presented in their original leather, brass and velvet cases.

Daguerreotypes

The earliest types of cased photographs were Daguerreotypes. The process was unveiled in August 1839 and rapidly gripped the public imagination. These photographic images were produced on a silver base by the effect of light on silver iodide, and no negative was involved in the process. The resulting images were very fragile, so Daguerreotypes were usually presented in leather and velvet cases, behind a sheet of protective glass. Daguerreotype portraits were luxury purchases and became the must-have item of the era for the upper and middle classes; they were, after all, the only ones who could afford them. Two of the sitters in our collection of Daguerreotypes are Hugh Price Esq, Castle Madoc, and Thomas Jones, brother of John Jones Talhaiarn.

Ambrotypes

As technology developed, less expensive processes became available. Ambrotype photographs (also known as wet collodion positives) became popular in the early 1850s. The Ambrotype process involved capturing positive photographic images on glass plates covered with a thin layer of collodion, while the plate was still wet. Ambrotypes were usually kept in protective cases and mounted in a metal frame. By the late 1850s, Ambrotypes became more popular than Daguerreotypes. Less exposure time was needed so they were quicker to produce, and also cheaper, as no printing was required. The portraits of Richard and Elen Richards and Hugh Williams Kyffin are examples of Ambrotype photographs in our collection.

Tintypes

The production of Tintype photographs, originally known as Melainotypes, (and also known as Ferrotypes), was an even cheaper variation of the Ambrotype process, whereby images were produced on metal sheets instead of glass. This process was introduced in 1853 and brought with it an increase in street photography. It was possible to set up a Tintype photography business without much capital, and the images themselves were cheap to produce. Many unskilled photographers began to trade in Tintype photography, hence the quality of such images was variable. However, the low prices of Tintypes meant that photography became affordable even for working class people. We hold Tintype photographs of Mrs Jane Parry, William Meredith and others.

Class and affordability

The greater affordability of photographs as the century progressed can be clearly seen by contrasting the social status of sitters in Daguerreotype portraits with those in later processes. The Daguerreotypes and early Ambrotypes in this collection are of some of Wales’ richest families - industrialists such as the Crawshays of Cyfarthfa, and landowners such as the Campbells of Cawdor. In contrast, sitters in the Tintype portraits are of much humbler origin and include Corporal John Griffiths Jones who died fighting for the Union cause during the American civil war. Other sitters for Ambrotypes and Tintypes closer to home are tenant farmers, and shopkeepers such as Humphreys, ironmongers of Llanfair Caereinion.

Sadly, many of the portraits are now anonymous. Others, such as an Ambrotype portrait supposedly of astrologer and physician Dr John Harries of Cwrtycadno, are incorrectly labelled. Since Dr Harries (ca.1785-1839) died before the Ambrotype was invented, the portrait is most probably of his son, Henry. However, whether the sitter is identified or not, the cased photographs in the Library’s collection provide a valuable record of the Welsh relationship with photography - during its early years in the mid 19th century and beyond.

Further Reading

  • Helmut Gernsheim, The Origins of Photography (London, 1983)
  • Helmut Gernsheim, The Rise of Photography 1850-1880 (London, 1988)
  • Audrey Linkman, The Victorians: Photographic Portraits (London, 1993)
  • Beaumont Newhall, The Daguerreotype in America (New York, 1976)
  • Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography (New York, 1989)