Early Norfolk Photographs
1840 - 1860
Thomas Eaton Photographer

Tom Eaton photographer

Thomas Eaton
Attributed self-portrait
Salted paper print, circa 1845
[Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service]

arrow gallery linkThomas Eaton (1800-1871)

Music critic, flautist, artist, photographer and first
President of the Norwich Photographic Society

Thomas Damant Eaton was born in Norwich in 1800. His father, Thomas Eaton, was a silk mercer, Tory and Freemason who married Mary Damant. She died in 1804 a few days after giving birth to Thomas Damant’s sister, Mary Margaretta. Thomas Eaton [Snr.] had important roles in city life, being a member of the City Common Council, a churchwarden at St. Peter Mancroft and owner of a shop at 3, Gentleman’s Walk on the Market Place.

Thomas Damant Eaton was educated at Norwich School, one of the finest schools in the county of Norfolk. Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond1, nine years younger than Eaton, was also educated there.    

Thomas Damant Eaton married Lydia Ray, of Suffolk, and they lived in Chapel Field, Norwich, in a house (that no longer exists) located at the corner of what is now Chantry Road. In 1832 he became a churchwarden at St. Peter Mancroft. He took over his father’s business in Gentleman’s Walk but, in 1846, retired from it to pursue his cultural interests in the city where he was active in the upper levels of society. He was especially interested in art, archaeology, literature, music and photography and was actively involved on the committees of the Public Library and the Museum. He was a flautist, President of the Norwich Choral Society, a music critic for the Norfolk Chronicle, the first President (elected 1854) of the Norwich Photographic Society and a member (elected 1846) of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society.

He was instructed in art and photography by his friend William Howes Hunt (see Photographers), a former linen draper, who lived in Great Yarmouth. Eaton’s photographic legacy is deposited with Norfolk County Council Library and Information Service and Norfolk Record Office. Photographs dated 1845 by him and some of his friends are to be found in two albums, titled Camera Sketches and Calotypes. His enthusiasm for photography is manifest in the records of many photographic processes he laboriously copied into a notebook, together with details concerning the making of selected negatives within the period 1848-1855 and where exposure times varied from 2 ½ to 15 minutes.

It was Eaton’s initiative that brought about the establishment of the Norwich Photographic Society following a meeting of interested parties at the home of the Freeman family in London Street, Norwich on 23rd June 1854. The objects of the society were the reading of original papers, the discussion of different photographic processes, the collection of pictures and the formation of a photographic library. It was decided that prospective members be charged a fee of five shillings and the membership quickly rose to fifty.  These ‘gentlemen amateurs’ soon obtained the use of the Council Chamber in the Guildhall for their monthly meetings. The original minutes of the meetings have not yet emerged and we can refer only to those occasionally published in the Journal of the Photographic Society and the Journal of the Liverpool Photographic Society.  The Society flourished until, in 1861, Eaton wrote to the editor of the Journal of the Photographic Society ‘ Sir, I have to acquaint you that the Norwich Photographic Society, over which I had some time the honour of presiding, has unfortunately become extinct…’

As President of the Norwich Photographic Society he initiated its 1856 exhibition of photographs. A small number of photographs had been exhibited in previous years by the Norwich Polytechnic in 1840 and the Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in 1855. In 1856, Eaton and his committee exhibited more than 500 photographs as part of the Association’s fine art promotion at the Exhibition Rooms, Broad Street, St. Andrews, Norwich. Photographers from France, Germany and Italy as well Britain entered works. Some of the famous names included Bisson Frères, Hanfstaengel, Luigi Bardi, Bedford, Delamotte, Diamond, Fenton, Scott Archer and Turner. It was serendipity that a very late entry from France was quickly recognised to be ‘the finest in the room’ 2. Gustav Le Gray showed ‘The Brig’ for the first time3.  When exhibited in London, a reviewer4 used the word ‘astonishment’ to describe his reaction to it. Eaton contributed just three photographs to the exhibition; ‘Erpingham Gate’, ‘Venus’ (see Gallery) and ‘Rocks at Babacombe’.  The exhibition ran from 17th November 1856 to 14th February 1857 and the attendance of 3900 visitors was a measure of its success.

In an obituary by an anonymous writer (now revealed to be George Fitt, a friend and member of the Norwich Photographic Society), published in the Norfolk News on April 15th 1871 we read:

‘All his works were marked by great artistic feeling, one of the last being a view of St Peter’s Mancroft tower in brilliant light, with a trying foreground of brick and ivy, and a wagon introduced with true artistic skill to make a pleasing break in the front of the view.’

‘…Mr Eaton was regarded as the father of the arts in the Eastern Counties. He possessed a lens of excellent quality, made by Chevalier of Paris, a similar one to that now in the possession of Mr James Howes, of Red Lion Street, and these two instruments are almost unique specimens as far as England is concerned.’

‘ …the beautiful view of the noted Erpingham Gateway in this city, by the Calotype or Talbotype process, he permitted the then new process of waxing this negative to be applied by the writer of this note to obtain a more rapid and perfect printing of all the details of the original.’

One wonders, therefore, how many other negatives by him were subject to later manipulation.

Following Thomas Damant’s death, William Howes Hunt wrote a letter of condolence to his son George Eaton,

‘… I look back & will remember some very pleasant enjoyments in the pursuit of art when photography was in its infancy & numerous letters passed between us concerning it which probably contributed to our mutual improvement. Allow me to say I always held his opinions in the highest esteem & have to regret the loss of one more of my numerous friends…’  

In the Norfolk Record Office there is a hand-written, undated, twenty-six page manuscript by Eaton entitled ‘An Examination in Photography, By an Old Coach. (MS.)’ Written as a parody of an 18th century educational text it admirably demonstrates his sense of humour with a delightful exploration of an exchange between master and pupil. The closing section deals lightly with the poisonous nature of chemicals used in photography.

Q. Is there no remedy?
A. By treating the parts affected with cyanide of potassium, you convert the stains to an invisible argento-cyanide of that metal, and then they disappear. But I do not advise it.
Q. Please tell me why.
A. It is so active a poison, that if you have abraded the surface of the skin in shaving, or otherwise, the remedy would be worse than the disease.
Q. What would you do?
A. For stains on the upper lip, I should wear false moustaches. I should mark the spot on the chin with an Imperial* – or on the cheeks with whiskers, till time wrought a cure.
Q. But ladies now practise the art, and they could not carry this out with propriety.
A. Ladies should be taught to avoid touching their faces while operating, or they might have to act the part of Lady Macbeth – sleepwalking, make- believe-washing, & out-damned-spotting, for a week or more.
Q. Are these stains ever to be turned to good use?
A. Upon the fingers & hands they are not without value. Photographers are proud of them, just as soldiers are proud of honourable scars. Besides they afford means of telegraphic communication between perfect strangers. Like the Free-masons sign; they enable the photographer to detect a brother amongst a thousand men. Gloves are suspicious. If you see a man gloved in the house, offer to shake hands; if he gives you his gloved hand be sure he is one of our fraternity; if he take his glove off, fix your eye upon his fingers & judge for yourself. Operative chemists – over loud in its praise - & reason good. Meanwhile the public applaud, and pay.’

* A tuft of hair on the chin; all the rest being clean-shaven; so called from the fashion set by the Emperor Napoleon III.

For his records Eaton laboriously copied the details of many photographic processes: viz.,

Talbot’s first Patent (1841) [Calotype]
Mr. Thomas’s Process (1852) [Calotype variant]
Bromized Collodion (1853), a letter from Mr.Berry of Liverpool to Mr Blowers
Mr. Fitt’s Bath for Fixing & Colouring Positives (1855)
Dr. Diamond’s original Gun Cotton
Mr. Long’s process [Calotype variant]
Mr Rippingham’s Iodizer
Dr. Diamond’s Iodising Calotype
Washing Postives & Wax Paper Negatives
Eaton’s own Calotype Modification
Mr. Fitt’s developer for negatives [Collodion] & positives
Mr. Fitt ‘On Positive Printing’
Mr. F. M. Lyte’s varnish for paper Positives
Sedgfield’s Wax paper process
Dr. Diamond’s Sensitizer
Mr Roope’s [Norwich chemist] developer
Sisson’s Plan
Pulley’s Developer

In May 1854, Dr. Mansell wrote to the editor of Notes and Queries acclaiming the Talbotype process, saying it had not been improved in a dozen years and asking for some 20 or 30 photographers, ‘our scientific photographic friends’, to supply information enabling him to test some of the points in which photographers differ, so as to establish the best. He suggested a table listing: 

  1. The time of exposure in the camera, in a bright May sun
  2. The locality
  3. The iodizement
  4. The maker of the paper
  5. The diameter of the diaphragm
  6. Its distance from the lens, and
  7. The diameter, focal length, and maker of the lens.

At some time Eaton devised his own tabular record, one page of which survives and shows him to be one of ‘our scientific photographic friends’:

Object or sitter
Time of action
Time of day
Silver drops
Acetic drops
Gallic drops
Water drops
Total time the paper was in the camera
Prevailing colour of objects, or other accident

There are but nine entries covering the period November 1847 to April 1855 with exposures from 2½ to 15 minutes [the latter in 1855].

In October 1857 Thomas and Lydia Eaton stayed in Great Yarmouth with friends who lived on Ocean Terrace. Thomas wrote to his son George,

‘…It was awfully wet the afternoon we got to Yarmouth & I was wet through going into the town upon my lawful occasions. Ever since the weather has been delightful & we have made the most of it, spending about 5 hours a day upon the beach.

… There is a Scotch vessel ashore abt  a mile to the north & your mother has fraternised with one of the crew who sleeps under a sail upon the beach.
Hunt has done some capital water colour drawing, & says he sells them as fast as he can do them. He was pleased to hear of your success & says you must stick to the Royal Academy. He says the only thing against Bright’s worldly prosperity is his not belonging to the R.A..
Have only time to add

Yours very truly
Thos. D. Eaton

Sources and Notes

  1. Dr. H. W. Diamond, RCS, FSA, member of the Calotype Society, was superintendent at the Surrey County Asylum where, in the 1850s, he photographed female patients not only for record purposes but also because he proposed the images illustrated mental disease. He was sometime secretary of the Photographic Society and editor of the Photographic Journal. His major contribution to photography was acknowledged when his peers testified to this and, by subscription, awarded him £300.
  2. Norfolk News, 1857.
  3. Jacobson, Ken. ‘The Lovely Sea-View… Which all London is now Wondering at’ A Study of the Marine Photographs Published by Gustave Le Gray, 1856-1858. Petches Bridge: Ken & Jenny Jacobson, 2001, p9
  4. Journal of the Photographic Society, 21 February, 1857, p214.