Early Norfolk Photographs
1840 - 1860
Rev. Joseph Sisson: Photographer
Rev. Joseph Sisson (1816 - 1891)
Rector of Edingthorpe, Norfolk, and photographer

Joseph Lawson Sisson graduated with a BA from Jesus College, Cambridge in 18401 and was Rector of Edingthorpe, north Norfolk, from 1850 until he died in 1891. The 1851 Census shows that he had four children by his wife Jane.

The catalogued photographs he exhibited2 were architectural, landscape and portrait, mostly printed from collodion negatives. Very few of his photographs are known to have survived but two examples are shown in the gallery.

The half-plate, collodion positive3 of the Tithe Barn4, was taken by Sisson from an upper window in the Edingthorpe Rectory. Written in ink, in Sisson’s own hand, on the back board is:

“ Tithe Barn Edingthorpe Norfolk
Photographed by the Rev.d  J Lawson Sisson
Edingthorpe Rectory
Produced by the usual Collodion process
but developed with Sisson’s developing solution.
This picture is untouched.  
J L Sisson”5

Sisson had shown this very photograph (Exhibit 778) at the London Photographic Society Exhibition of Photographs and Daguerreotypes held at the Gallery of the Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, Pall Mall, from 4th January to the end of February 1854. It was a major exhibition with 980 exhibits by photographers, some at the leading edge of their field, including Henry Talbot, Frederick Scott Archer, Edouard Baldus and Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond. The date of the exhibition implies that Sisson made this image sometime in 1853, some two years after Scott Archer announced the collodion process. Sisson exhibited his work, mainly in London, between 1854 and 1861 but curiously, even though his images included those of Edingthorpe Church and the Tithe Barn, he never exhibited in Norwich. Also there seems to be no evidence that he was a member of the Norwich Photographic Society. 

He actively explored a variety of photographic processes and his preferences were communicated both through the Photographic Journal and a small booklet he wrote. In 1858, A. Marion and Co. published his 66 page booklet rejoicing in the title, ‘The Turpentine-Waxed Paper Process described and illustrated by Rev. J. Lawson Sisson’. The booklet was accompanied by two of Sisson’s stereoscopic photographs6 made from paper negatives and selected from Marion’s stock of 20 such images. At the time he was writing from Lausanne, Switzerland and in his introductory remarks he addressed the negative process and said he would be doing a service by telling his fellow amateurs that which was already published in French. He referred to Le Gray’s wax-paper process, the ceroleine process of M. Geoffray and the turpentine process of M. Tillard which he went on to discuss in the main text. Perhaps also he foreshadowed modern product placement with his glowing praise for the products of Marion and Co.. In May 1859, Sisson (still in Lausanne) sent a copy of a print of the Jura mountains made from a negative by the raspberry-syrup process to the editor (Dr. Diamond) of the Photographic Journal saying that it showed the capability of the process. He wondered if the metagelatine or the Fothergill processes might produce better results.

The full-plate, waxed paper negative of Bromholm Priory Arch is signed in ink, lower right, “Sisson Dec 2 1853” and in the upper right margin “RIGHT VIEW ”. The verso has the sky area over-painted in brown. 

The ruins of Bromholm Priory, founded by William de Glanville in 1113 CE, are close to the village now known as Bacton, some 3 miles from Sisson’s home at Edingthorpe. It became a place of pilgrimage after miracles were reported taking place in this Cluniac monastery.  In 1223 CE it acquired “a woodden crosse, … whereupon our Saviour Christ was crucified, … after which the place did shine gloriously with miracles.” John Capgrave7, the 15th century chronicler, relates that St. Helene divided the original cross into nine parts, “one part thereof (which was most besprinkled with Christ's blood), his hands and feete being thereto nailed. She made a little cross… By the virtue of this Holy Crosse, - Co-operante Domino, - God assisting, thirty and nine persons were raised from the dead to life and nineteen which were blinde received their sight, besides many other miracles which it wrought, if you will believe my author.”7 With this miraculous history, it’s not surprising that the Reverend Sisson would choose to photograph the Priory ruins.

It is amusing also to note that the editor of the Journal of the Photographic Society saw fit to publish this letter from a correspondent signing himself Uncle Tom:

SIR- Will you be kind enough to ascertain from some of your numerous correspondents, and inform me through the medium of your Journal, why it is that nine out of ten of the collodion portraits which I have endeavoured to take (positives) the faces have all the appearance of negroes? I use a 30-grain silver solution, and develope [sic] with Sisson’s formula; the dresses are perfect but the faces are black; it is quite possible other novices may have experienced the same results, and information to one may thus serve others.

Although previously published in the Journal of the Photographic Society, Sisson reproduced details and instructions for the use of his ‘New Developing Fluid’ in Notes and Queries published on 7th May 1853 and asked for the opinions of those gentlemen trying it.

Protosulphate of iron – 12 grs.
Nitrate of lead – 8 grs.
Water – 10 drs.
Acetic acid - ½ dr.

Following letters to the editor over the coming weeks his revised his formula was stated to be:

Protosulphate of iron - 1½ drachms
Water – 5 ounces
Nitrate of lead – 1 drachm
Acetic acid – 2 drachms.

Some of Sisson’s contribution to the history of photography can be seen from the illustrations and the praise given to his work within the photographic community of the day. 

Sources and Notes

  1. Information from my kind friend Geoffrey Kelly.
  2. Taylor, Roger. Photographs Exhibited in Britain 1839 - 1865. A Compendium of Photographers and their Works. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2002.
  3. Often known as an ambrotype.
  4. In medieval times, tithe barns, often close to a church or rectory, were used for storing a tenth of parish farms’ produce which had to be given to the church. Sisson’s initials remain carved on a beam in the tithe barn, now a residence. [Private discussion.]
  5. When calling for entries for this exhibition, the Photographic Society required that every picture sent in must be accompanied by the name and address of the photographer, a description of the subject and a statement of the method by which it has been produced.
  6. Whilst in Lausanne he took stereoscopic photographs and those of the Chateau and the Cathedral were published by Lovell Reeve in The Stereoscopic Magazine, 1859.

    These examples may be seen on the George Eastman House website.

    Lausanne Cathedral Cahteau de Lausanne
  7. Extracts of a transcription by Jay Glanville [www.glanville.info] of a publication: Glanville-Richards, William. Records of the Anglo-Norman House of Glanville from A.D. 1050 to 1880. London : 1882
Wiliam Boswell Jnr.
Tithe Barn, Edingthorpe
Collodion positive, 1853
[Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service]
reverse of portrait
Bromholm Priory Arch
Waxed paper negative, 1853
[Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service]