Benjamin Brecknell Turner: Working Methods

Benjamin Brecknell Turner, 'Three Fishermen', about 1849. Anonymous Loan.

Benjamin Brecknell Turner, 'Three Fishermen', about 1849. Anonymous Loan.

Turner took up paper negative ('Calotype' or 'Talbotype') photography in 1849 with a license from its inventor William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77). Talbot had invented the Calotype process in 1840 and patented it in 1841. A licence from him cost one guinea 'for amusement only' (as opposed to professional purposes).

The negatives were made of fine paper prepared by hand by brushing with a solution of potassium iodide and silver nitrate solutions. They could be used damp for extra sensitivity in the camera. After exposure, the negative was then waxed to make it translucent. A positive image was made by placing another piece of sensitised paper beneath the negative and leaving it to print in the sun. The prints were the same size as the negatives.

Turner's first photographs measure around 14 x 17 cm (5 x 7 inches). Sometime around 1851 he acquired a new, larger camera, capable of making larger negatives, and hence more impressive prints,  measuring about 29.5 x 39.5 cm (11 x 16 inches). Paper 'Calotype' negatives were most usually printed using the 'salted-paper' process. This resulted in a matt surface in which the image appears to be part of the fibres of the paper. However, from the time Turner started to use his larger paper negatives, he used predominantly the newly introduced 'albumen' paper to make his prints. Albumen was the first semi-glossy coated photographic print paper. Thin paper was first coated with a mixture of whisked egg white and salt, then sensitised with silver nitrate. Like salted paper images, they were usually printed out in sunlight under direct contact with the negative in a printing frame.

'Agnes Chamberlain at the Window, Bredicot Court', photograph, Benjamin Brecknell Turner, about 1854. Museum no. E.6-2009

'Agnes Chamberlain at the Window, Bredicot Court', photograph, Benjamin Brecknell Turner, about 1854. Museum no. E.6-2009

Turner's works appeared on many exhibition walls in the first ten years of photographic exhibitions (1852-62). They were on sale at many of these exhibitions. Records of the sales of photographic prints at this period are almost non-existent, but papers relating to one exhibition in which he showed have fortunately survived. This was the third annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland, which opened in December 1858. It was held in the purpose-built, top-lit Edinburgh art gallery of David Ramsay Hay. The photographs were hung in gilt frames on claret coloured walls. The exhibition records show that Turner received orders from visitors to the exhibition for twelve photographs. At this time his photographs were priced at 7 pounds and 6 pence each. Turner wrote to the organizers 'that they take a long time to print'. He added: 'I am not a Professional Phot.r - only an Amateur - and do not find it convenient to print my own pictures, especially this time of year - I have written to the printer (Mr Spencer) who did those in your exhibition for me to get those ordered ready as soon as possible and directly I receive them from him I will forward them to you'.

The Turner photographs in his own album Photographic Views from Nature are different in many ways from some of the surviving prints mounted on card. The album prints are warmer in colour and relatively matte in surface. The card-mounted prints are cooler, greyer and more glossy. The former seem hand-made, the latter almost mechanical. However, although we may conjecture that Turner printed his album photographs himself , we cannot be sure: he may never have printed his own photographs. We can at least be certain that there was sufficient demand for his photographs for him to place print-orders in the hands of a professional. It is likely that Turner's photographs were also sold through the leading London photographic suppliers, Murray and Heath. However, production numbers are likley to have been very small. Surviving copies are often unique, or are known in only a handful of versions. The rich sepia tones of the images are not the results of yellowing or fading over time. This is how they were intended to appear and is a result of the chemical processes involved. Turner's prints in the V&A collection have survived overall in remarkably fine condition.

Turner also used glass plate, or wet collodion on glass, negatives. In this process, a sheet of glass was hand-coated with a thin film of collodion (gun cotton dissolved in ether) containing potassium iodide and sensitised on location with silver nitrate. The plate had to be exposed while still wet and developed immediately. The process, introduced in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, gave a higher resolution of detail than the Calotype and dramatically cut exposure times. Turner preferred to use the older Calotype process for his landscape and architectural images and glass plates for portraiture. Calotypes were lighter to carry than glass when travelling and also produced a slightly grainy texture in the image which some preferred as it suited rural subjects.

Turner used predominantly the Calotype negative and albumen print processes throughout the 1860s, even though the majority of his peers had switched to using glass plates. By the 1880s he was experimenting with the carbon print processes - in which gelatine is mixed with carbon pigment rather than the silver compound found in most photographic printing processes - but only a few examples of his work produced by this method are known.

Exposure times for Turner's Calotypes are documented to have lasted up to thirty minutes. For this reason, many of the photographs do not show figures, animals or foliage because they could not remain still enough to register on the negative. This often lends Turner's images a quiet, haunting and timeless quality. Turner preferred to photograph on bright winter days when the intricate pattern of branches and the rooflines of dramatic ruins stood sharply outlined against the sky. He manoeuvred his heavy photographic equipment along country roads to secluded places in a horse-drawn cart. Yet he was also spurred to travel the country, perhaps most of the longer distances on the growing rail network, making pictures in locations as far afield from his native London and family home in Worcestershire as Lynmouth to the west in Devon and Whitby to the north in Yorkshire.

Turner exhibited a sense of ease with different compositional structures and consistently found satisfying visual solutions to the pictorial challenges of diverse subject matter. He was able to make powerfully arranged sequences of pictures, as evidenced by the original sequence of images in his album, Photographic Views from Nature. He worked with the peculiarities of the medium - such as its monochrome palette, its ability to record detail and to appear to crop in and flatten out perspective - and turned them to his advantage. Many of his best images stand up to deeper analysis in terms of their symbolic content.

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