Early Norfolk Photographs
1840 - 1860
Camera Lucida
Camera LucidaA camera lucida in use, mid 19th century
camera lucida telescopic mountCamera lucinda, telescopic mount
camera lucida prism
Camera lucinda, prism

William Hyde Woolaston FRCP, FRS,(1766-1828) was motivated to invent the camera lucida by his lamentable ability to draw1. William was the son of the Reverend Francis Wollaston, FRS, who married Althea Hyde. In the late 1750s they moved from London to East Dereham, Norfolk as Francis planned a large family that he felt would flourish best in a country setting. William was the third of seventeen children. He was educated at Charterhouse and Caius College, Cambridge, awarded his MB in 1788 and practised in Huntingdon and Bury St. Edmunds. Although acknowledged as talented in medicine, his interest turned to chemistry and he wrote a paper on optics. In 1806 he was granted a Patent for ‘An instrument whereby any person may draw in perspective, or may copy or reduce any print or drawing.’ His prototype instrument was a half-silvered prism fixed to a wire with sealing wax and this optical device enables a virtual image of an object or scene to appear to be projected onto paper where its outline can be traced. Instrument makers soon exploited the opportunity to sell improved practical devices, essentially a four-sided glass prism mounted on a brass telescopic tube which could be screwed to a table or an easel.

John Herschel KH, FRS, (1792–1871), was not only a scientific genius but also a talented artist as demonstrated by his drawings2 made with the aid of a camera lucida. His friend Henry Talbot was so embarrassed by his own inability to use either the camera obscura or the camera lucida to good effect, that he himself was motivated to discover a way for natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper! Talbot called his own process sciagraphy or photogenic drawing, later to be called ‘photography’ by Herschel.

A leading artist of what has come to be known as the Norwich School of Artists, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), sometimes used a camera lucida as an aid when drawing. Just before visiting Normandy in 1817 he wrote to Dawson Turner3 saying Sir Harry Englefield had given him a Camera Lucida like yours, - they are used by all y artists I find! Chantrey does everything by it, even to the splitting of a Hair. Later, when in Caen, he wrote again to Dawson Turner saying of a Monsieur LamourouxI find him a warm hearted man, full of activity and life; he was charmed with the camera lucida, and I believe he will get one.

Sources and Notes  
  1. Hammond, John H. & Austin, J.. The Camera Lucida in Art and
    Science. (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1987.)
    Kemp, Martin, The Science of Art. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990.)
  2. Schaaf, Larry J.. Tracings of Light. Sir John Herschel & the Camera Lucida. (San Francisco: The Friends of Photography, 1989.)
  3. The Walpole Society, Vol. XIV, 1925-1926. (Oxford: Printed by John Johnson at the University Press, 1926.) Letters from John Sell Cotman to Dawson Turner and to his Wife. I. June 12th to August 11th, 1817, p94, p105. Dawson Turner, FRS, was Cotman’s patron, a banker, botanist and antiquarian who lived in Great Yarmouth.
  4. Rajnai, Miklos; assisted by Allthorpe-Guyton, Marjorie. John Sell Cotman, Drawings of Normandy in Norwich Castle Museum. (Norwich: Norfolk Museum Service, 1975.)

Professors Pablo Garcia & Golan Levin have designed a 21st century camera lucida ‘as a
provocation’ to stimulate interest in media archaeology…  Their website <neolucinda.com> is
beautifully designed and fascinating.

Jon Sell CotmanJohn Sell Cotman, Castle of Arques4, Pencil on paper, 1817 [Norwich Castle Museum]