THE MYSTERIOUS PHOTOGENIC DRAWING
On May 31, 1839, The Colonial Pearl published an article including excerpts of Dr. Bird’s letter to the editor and his detailed instructions for making a sun drawing. When writing another follow-up to the article in the issue of June 7, 1839, it is most unlikely the editor of The Colonial Pearl could have been aware of the historical significance: “We are glad to find that our notice of the new art of sun painting in our last, has excited considerable interest among our readers. One of our friends who read the article has since formed several photogenic pictures with ease and success.”12
In his 1977 thesis, Jim Burant stated, “While no conclusive statement can be made, it is possible that the ‘friend’ to whom the writer referred was the well-known Halifax portraitist William Valentine.”13 The photogenic drawing has never been found. Talbot’s recipe for “fixing” or “washing out” the unexposed silver as noted by Dr. Bird was ineffective. The photogenic drawings would have turned black with continued exposure to light, making the images not worth keeping. Additionally, if the photogenic drawing was indeed made by Valentine, it most likely would have been lost in his studio fire.
Despite the mystery around what happened to these “several photogenic pictures” made “with ease and success,” what is clear is that The Colonial Pearl has the earliest known recorded reference to a photographic image having been made in British North America—and it was over two and a half months before the daguerreotype process was announced to the public in Paris on August 19, 1839.
WHAT ABOUT VALENTINE?
While it remains unclear who made those first photogenic drawings mentioned in The Colonial Pearl, we do know that in the autumn of 1841, while travelling from Boston to Halifax, Valentine stopped over in Saint John, New Brunswick. In
The Saint John Morning News issue of November
15, 1841, Valentine took out an advertisement to introduce the daguerreotype and announce that he would be “taking Photographic Miniature Portraits” in town.14 By January 1842, Valentine had returned to his home-based studio at 4 Marchington Lane in Halifax. He quickly began advertising in several newspapers and continued to make daguerreotypes in his studio until the fire in 1848. Valentine’s Halifax studio has the honour of having been the first permanent photo studio in British North America. On December 26,1849, Valentine died, leaving behind a trail of unattributed daguerreotypes.
Upon evaluation of the presented hypothesis and some independent research, you, dear reader, may have a question or two about certain dates and assertions that could appear contradictory. You see, it is quite elementary: we have the grand gift of research tools hitherto unbeknownst to the great historians and scribes of New Scotland. Surely we must give the quills of Harry Piers and Thomas Raddall their due respect, despite the errors contained in their prose.
It is quite apparent that when writing of William Valentine in his 1948 seminal tome Halifax: Warden of the North, Mr. Raddall would have little reason to doubt the works of the eminent historian Harry Piers. We can deduce that Mr. Raddall gleaned his information from the writings of Mr. Piers, as the latter first included the same inaccurate date of Valentine’s foray into making daguerreotypes in Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, Volume XVIII (1914).
On page 131 of that volume, Mr. Piers wrote, “Having first, it is said, received instruction from Daguerre himself in Paris, Valentine sometime about 1844 introduced the new daguerreotype process into Halifax….” Yet, in a footnote on the same page, Mr. Piers recognizes the uncertainty of that date, adding, “I have not the exact date when Valentine introduced photography here, but a careful search of his advertisements in local newspapers will bring it to light.”
Upon review of newspaper advertisements that have since been duplicated and made available through the wonderful technology of bits and bytes, we are easily able to detect this error that slipped into Mr. Piers’ otherwise stellar prose. Indeed, Mr. Valentine placed an advertisement for his daguerreotype services in The Saint John Morning News issue of November 15, 1841, thus refuting the 1844 date mentioned by Misters Piers and Raddall.
In the same footnote, Mr. Piers also said, “The late Horatio Sellon, architect, who was connected with Valentine, assured me that the latter had told him that he had received instruction...” However, we know Mr. Valentine died in 1849, and Horatio Sellon was born in 1838. So we may deduce that if indeed this conversation occurred, Mr. Sellon would have only attained the grand age of eleven, at most. In the footnote, Mr. Piers placed the phrase “fountain-head in Paris” in quotation marks, thus suggesting that he was quoting Mr. Sellon. Would you not agree, my dear reader, that this would suggest that Mr. Sellon had a wonderful command of language at a surprisingly young age?
In addition, should you be so inclined to investigate a little further, it is quite unlikely that Valentine received instruction from Daguerre. It is more probable that he learned the daguerreotype technique in Boston where he acquired his apparatus, as seen in Mr. Valentine’s advertisement in the Novascotian issue of January 13, 1842. This advertisement also highlights the erroneous nature of the dates suggested by Mr. Piers and
So, you see, my dear reader, much like a detective sifts through and analyzes evidence, the student of photographic history must endeavour to correlate and collate the scribbles on parchment of an earlier era.