jeudi 30 décembre 2010

Henry Seth Taylor, photographer

This man is widely known as the inventor of the first self-propelled car in Canada. His famous "steam buggy", a horseless carriage developed in his home town of Stanstead around 1865, is recognized as an important landmark of Canadian technology, and is now preserved at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa. Displayed two years ago at the "Art and the Automobile" exhibition in Ogden, it was the subject of a stamp issued by Canada Post a few years back.

Henry Seth Taylor’s adventures with steam engines extended later on with the "Gracie", a steamboat he operated on Lake Memphremagog in the 1870’s. Both his steam buggy and the steamer Gracie were immortalized in tintype photographs of the period – which themselves were very likely the handiwork of the inventor, whose ventures into photography are not quite as known as his automotive invention.

Henry Seth Taylor's "steam buggy", ca 1865-1875.
Tintype, possibly by H. S. Taylor, ca 1865. Stanstead Historical Society Archives.

Born on April 9th, 1831 in Stanstead Plain, son of Silas Taylor and his wife Sarah, Henry Seth Taylor was apprenticed at the age of 11 to a Boston clockmaker. He apparently returned to Stanstead only years later in 1856, aged 25, at which time he was initiated as a Freemason into the Golden Rule Lodge. Though little is known about his professional activities, Taylor made a living from various sources. He operated a jewellery shop in Derby Line, right upon the border, which he advertized repeatedly in the years 1869 to 1871, when he sold the business to a Mr. Parsons, himself a jeweller and clocksmith. But he seems to have generated most of his life income through profits on his properties and other investments, leaving confortable means to his wife and family upon his death, on January 9th, 1887.

Stanstead Journal
, February 17, 1859

In his early years in Stanstead, following his return from Boston, Henry Seth Taylor operated a saloon in Stanstead Plain – although he was reputed a good Christian citizen, and a man who did not drink. We don’t know much about this saloon, apart from an advertisement in the Stanstead Journal (starting September 1858), as being the place to visit "if you want the best Ambrotype, Photograph, or Melaineotype, Ever made in this country". This ad ran for some months well into 1859, and possibly later. However, by the end of January 1863, the saloon business appears to be over for Taylor, as another photographic "artist" by the name of O. C. Bolton advertises in the Stanstead Journal for ambrotypes and photographs, stating that he will be available for a short stay "at the Saloon formerly occupied by H.S. Taylor" at Stanstead Plain.

Stanstead Journal, January 29, 1863

Apart from hosting travelling photographers such as this Bolton, there is solid evidence that Henry Seth Taylor himself actually practised as an "ambrotypist" – that is, a photographer using the technique of the ambrotype, a method initiated in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and developed afterwards into a variety of improvements and applications, up to the "tintype" which dominated the market until late in the 19th century. (We will discuss the ambrotype and tintype in a later blog posting). Some ambrotypes by Henry Seth Taylor have been preserved, including an ambrotype portrait of William Benton Colby (brother of Charles Carroll Colby), bearing the signature "H. S. Taylor / Stanstead C. E.". 

William Benton Colby (1833-1884), ambrotype portrait by Henry Seth Taylor.
Signed H. S. Taylor lower left, marked Stanstead C. E. lower right.
Stanstead Historical Society Archives.

Dye-stamped on the brass frame that holds the ambrotype within its case, the inscription is likely to be found on other pictures of this type in the area; and according to our evidence, this photograph would have been processed between 1856 and 1863, which is consistent with the ambrotype’s period of utmost popularity.

There is no telling if Taylor experimented at all with the earlier daguerreotype technique (see our blog posting of December 5, 2010), which appears to have been practised in Stanstead from 1846 until 1860, but it remains likely that he was familiar with it. However, Taylor was among the very first to advertise the ambrotype technique in Stanstead and possibly, the one who actually introduced the new photographic process in the area by making it available at his saloon. Henry Seth Taylor also clearly moved early on to the so-called tintype – or "melaineotype" as it was first called (from the Greek word "melainos" for metal), and as Taylor named it in his 1858 advertisenent. The fact that tintypes have been preserved, of both his steam buggy (ca 1865) and his steamboat (ca 1876), suggests the possibility that Taylor himself may have made those photographs.

Further evidence points to Taylor as the author of the tintype taken of his steam buggy. A paper based photograph of the same machine, likely taken around the same time as the tintype – and bearing the printed inscription "H. S. Taylor, Photographer, Stanstead C. E." on its reverse side – indicates that Taylor advertised himself as a photographer circa 1865; or at the very least, produced this photograph in several copies, possibly to advertise his machine.

Henry Seth Taylor's "steam buggy", circa 1865.
Calotype on salted paper, mounted on card. Inscribed on the reverse side with Taylor's imprint.
Stanstead Historical Society Archives.

In this case, the technique used to process this paper photograph (which portrays Taylor himself behind his invention), belongs to yet another early photographic technique – that of the "calotype", or "talbotype" following the name of its inventor, Henry Fox Talbot, who perfected the process around 1840, at about the same time that Daguerre brought out the daguerreotype. The calotype process involves making a first negative (reversed) image with a camera onto a sensitized sheet of thin paper, and using that negative by contact to expose another sheet of sensitized paper to obtain a positive image : this method obviously allowed making as many copies of the positive as you wished. The image of Henry Seth Taylor with his steam buggy belongs clearly to this technique, showing the typical grain of the paper-processed calotype, which retains the texture of the initial paper negative.

Henry Seth Taylor's "steam buggy", circa 1865.
Enhanced copy of the above calotype, showing the graininess of the initial paper negative.

This negative-positive process led the way to many improvements, and would eventually become the norm in photography for more than a century. One of these improvements was precisely the invention of the ambrotype (as practised by Taylor), which is in fact a negative on glass based on a "collodion" (cotton cellulose) emulsion : shortly after its invention, the collodion glass negative was perfected to allow printing more detailed positives on paper from the original.

Henry Seth Taylor (1831-1887), aged 52 in 1882, by an unknown Boston photographer.
Stanstead Historical Society Archives.

In short, it appears that Henry Seth Taylor experimented as a photographer with a wide variety of techniques, keeping abreast of recent developments and inventions in the new-born field of photography. As a self-made inventor who has experimented with steam engines – not to speak of other things such  as "talking machines", music boxes, "hide-a-beds" and sophisticated clockworks –, Henry Seth Taylor embodied the innovative spirit of his era : as such, it comes as no surprise that he should have dwelved in one of the foremost technological breakthroughs of the 19th century – photography.

4 commentaires:

  1. c'est bien mais ce serait encore mieux avec un texte en Français!
    Daniel Rieu

  2. Désolé, mais c'est presque impossible de tout traduire. Va pour un texte plus court, mais pour les plus longs, je dois alterner... Viendra un jour où je reprendrai les textes unilingues dans l'autre langue. Du reste, il y a aussi des textes uniquement en Français (tel celui sur le daguerréotype)... au grand dam des Anglophones ! Cela dit, il faut aussi tenir compte de l'illustration, qu'il faut intégrer en double s'il y a deux versions du texte. L'idéal, ce serait d'avoir deux blogs en parallèle, d'autant que l'interface Blogger n'est pas conçu pour être bilingue. Merci de ton commentaire, Daniel: ça contribue à ma réflexion sur ce problème qui m'agace aussi.

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