Lost in the NAL: A Hunt for Early Photographic Literature – Part 1

Word & Image
August 23, 2017

This post is by guest blogger Alice Straker. Alice is on a student placement in the National Art Library from the Royal Holloway MA in Victorian Literature, Art and Culture.

During my time volunteering at the V&A I have been investigating the extent of the NAL’s collection of early photographically illustrated books. Along the way I have been updating the online catalogue in the hope of making photographic literature easier to locate for those who may be interested. As a student of Victorian studies, I focused mainly on books from the 1850s to 1870s, a time of photographic development and therefore an interesting period on which to focus. Due to a significant number of the NAL’s collection of photographic literature not being catalogued as books containing photographs, differentiating them from ordinary books was going to prove difficult. I began by searching the catalogue for books listed in Helmut Gernsheim’s Incunabula of British Photographic Literature 1839-1875  in the hope that the collection may include a few of those books featured. Gernsheim states in the Incunabula that ‘Britain was the first country to publish books with mounted photographs and she also placed by far the largest number of titles on the market.’¹ It is therefore unsurprising that I found a large number of Gernsheim’s listed titles hidden away in the NAL collection. In total I found approximately 355 photographic books, 225 of which featured in Gernsheim’s Incunabula, ranging from bound photograph collections to novels including a carte de visite style portrait of the author. The collection also produced a range of photographic techniques which I will attempt to briefly outline for you, along with my process, below.

Albumen print from E. Goodwyn Lewis, Shakespearean Creations (London: Charles Griffin and Co., [1864]) Museum number: 38041800998254.
To begin my investigation it was first necessary to learn a bit about Victorian photographic processes, to allow me to identify the types of photographs I may come across; a task, I discovered, easier said than done. With some help from the V&A’s photography curators I was briefed on the more common photographs of the period along with some more unusual techniques that I may find one or two examples of. I was also asked to keep an eye out for numbered photographs which had once been part of the photography collection before it was separated from the NAL and were now lost amongst the books. I was then set to work armed with my copy of the Incunabula as well as Goldschmidt’s The Truthful Lens, another book of photographic literature. After scouring the online catalogue I then went looking for the books I had found within the library, hoping they were the correct photographically illustrated editions I was after. The first book on my list included, to my dismay, not a single photo; however, it didn’t take long before my desk was piled high with stacks of examples of photographic literature.

Albumen print from W.D. Howard, Photographs among the Dolomite Mountains (n.p., 1865) Museum number: 38041800998551.

The vast majority of my discoveries, as predicted by the photography department, were albumen prints. In common use throughout the period of my investigation, albumen prints are usually easy to recognise as they are often faded yellow from exposure, at least around the edges, and have an egg wash gloss coating. You can see some examples of albumen prints above, in particular an image from a beautifully illustrated book on Shakespeare characters, a personal favourite of mine. I have included two further examples below, both of which have been annotated with photograph collection numbers. In total I was able to find 4860 of the lost numbered photographs within over 100 different books. Although this barely made a dent in the 80000+ images still to be found, it did add an extra element of excitement to my search as I became obsessed with laying my eyes on those beautifully handwritten five digit codes.

Albumen prints from J. Forbes Watson, The People of India Vol. 1 (London: India Museum, 1868-1875) Museum number: 38041800999013.
Below both these images you can see examples of the handwritten five digit photography collection numbers I was asked to look out for.


Due to the nature of the NAL’s collection, a large number of the photographs I came across were of paintings and other art objects. This made the process of identifying the type of image quite difficult, as in many cases the photographs didn’t look like photographs at all. An albumen print of a landscape appears far more detailed than an albumen print of a painting, as that is of course dependant on the depth of detail in the painting itself. It is also difficult to focus on the texture of the physical photograph when the painting itself has varying textures. Likewise the lack of daylight, which is present in a landscape photograph for example, again effects the look of the image. Nevertheless, I was usually able to identify albumen prints easily by one method or another. It was when I discovered photographs which weren’t albumen prints that my task became a little more difficult. To find out about some of the more interesting images I found during my project, look out for the second part of my blog.

¹ Gernsheim, Helmut, Incunabula of British Photographic Literature (London: Scolar Press, 1984), p. 7.

2 comments so far, view or add yours


Very interesting Alice and very well written. I am now 88 and have been a photojournalist for over 50 years, starting with glass plates and giving up when everything went digital.

Alice, many thanks for writing and posting. It also resonates quite a bit as I’ve been following a similar path (more specifically aimed at photographically illustrated poetry books in the 19th C – there’s a great online resource for this at St. Andrews). When you updated the catalog did you include a keyword that I can readily search on to see what you identified? I hope the project is continuing.

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