Capturing shadows: audio excerpts

Using dramatised readings of contemporary voices, discover the excitement and impact of photography from those who encountered its beginnings.

These audio excerpts accompany the exhibition A New Power: Photography in Britain 1800–1850.

A1: Princess Victoria, 1832

A young Princess, later Queen, Victoria describes a journey through industrialised Britain.

A2: Thomas Young, 1804

The scientist Thomas Young addresses the Royal Society with his discoveries around fixing an image on paper.

A3: Laura Mundy, 1834

Laura Mundy describes William Henry Fox Talbot's – her brother-in-law's – shadowy experiment.

A4: Parisian newspaper report, 1839

Listen to the early excitement surrounding the daguerreotype in Paris.

A5: William Henry Fox Talbot, 1839

Fox Talbot’s speech to the Royal Society of his discovery – read in his absence by the scientist Michael Faraday.

A6: Reports back to India, 1841

News of the photographic invention spreads to India via a report by two naval architects from Bombay.

A7: Maria Edgeworth, 1841

Maria Edgeworth describes the mysterious operation of having your likeness taken.

A8: Photographic Phenomena, 1842

The photographic invention boomed, inspiring literary comment like this poem by S L Blanchard. It conjures up the excitement of taking – and disappointment in seeing – your likeness!

A9: Ira Aldridge, 1832

The actor Ira Aldridge represented the new power of celebrity driven by the taking and printing of photography. Listen to this dramatised excerpt of an anti-slavery poem we know he performed in Dublin in 1832.

A10: Queen Victoria, 1852

Queen Victoria was not always happy with the outcome of having her daguerreotype taken.

A11: Blind boot-lace seller, as quoted by Henry Mayhew, London Poor (1851)

This boot-lace seller from Northumberland describes his experience of London.

A12: Coffee-stall keeper, as quoted by Henry Mayhew, London Poor (1851)

This coffee-stall keeper explains how difficult it was to make a living in London in the nineteenth century.

A13: Tract-seller described by Henry Mayhew, London Poor (1851)

Henry Mayhew describes his encounter with a tract-seller on the streets of London.

A14: An Irish street seller of fruit, as quoted by Henry Mayhew, London Poor (1851)

This street seller describes how she came to be working in London.

Audio transcripts


From the book Mamma gave me, that I might write about my journey.

Thursday 2nd August 1832

We have just changed horses at Birmingham. It rains very hard here. We just passed through a town where all the coal mines are. You can see the fire glimmer at a distance in the engines in many places.

The men, women, children, country and houses here are all covered in black. The country is very desolate everywhere. It continues black, engines flaming, coals in abundance, smoking and burning coal heaps, intermingled with wretched huts and carts and little ragged children.

I cannot by any description give an idea of its strange and extraordinary appearance.

– Taken from Princess Victoria's journal entry about a trip to Birmingham, 1832


My fellows of the Royal Society…

Drawing on the work of esteemed members of this society… I formed an image of the rings using a solar microscope and I threw this image on paper dipped in a solution of silver nitrate, placed at the distance of about nine inches from the microscope.

In the course of an hour, three dark rings were very distinctly visible, coinciding – very nearly – with the rings of violet light that appeared upon the interposition of violet glass. The experiment is sufficient to complete the analogy of the invisible with the visible rays.

In this experiment and others, I have found so demonstrative a proof of the general law of the interference of two portions of light, that I think it right to lay them before you here in this Paper.

– Thomas Young, ‘The Bakerian Lecture: Experiments and Calculations Relative to Physical Optics,’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Royal Society, 1 January 1804)


To Henry Fox Talbot Esqr MP.
Lacock Abbey
Chippenham Wilts

Dear Mr Talbot,

Thank you very much for sending me such beautiful shadows, the little drawing I think quite lovely. I had no idea the art could be carried to such perfection—I had grieved over the gradual disappearance of those you gave me in the summer & am delighted to have these to supply their place in my book—

You will be quite tired by so long an epistle but believe me ever yours affectionately

Laura Mundy

– Laura Mundy, in a letter to her brother-in-law William Henry Fox Talbot (13 December 1834)


Readers! See the truth of the image of nature made by the camera obscura. Add to it the action of solar rays which fixes this image fast, and you will have an idea of the beautiful designs with which M. Daguerre has gratified our curiosity.

M. Daguerre cannot act on paper; he requires a plate of polished metal. On this plate we saw several points of the Boulevards, Pont Marie, and many other spots, given with a truth which Nature alone can give to her works.

Alas – unlike the camera obscura – motion cannot be represented. In one of the views of the Boulevards all that was walking or moving does not appear in the design; of the two horses in a hackney coach on the stand, one unluckily moved its head during the short operation; and the animal is now without a head in the design…

Inanimate nature, architecture, are the triumph of the apparatus which M. Daguerre means to call after his own name—Daguerreotype.

– Hippolyte Gaucheraud in newspaper report published in Paris in 1839.


My dear members, I read this on behalf of my esteemed friend Mr William Henry Fox Talbot, who has implored me to announce to you tonight his discovery of photogenic drawing.

As Talbot writes:

I will endeavour to give a brief account of this new process, which I offer to you, the lovers of Science & Nature.

In the spring of 1834 I began to put in practice a method which I had devised earlier - employing that very curious property of silver nitrate: namely its discolouration when exposed to the violet rays of light.

I proposed to spread a sufficient quantity of the silver nitrate on a sheet of paper; & then to set the paper in the sunshine next to some object casting a well-defined shadow.

The light, acting on the rest of the paper would naturally blacken it, while the parts in shadow would retain their whiteness. Thus, I expected that a kind of image or picture would be produced, resembling to a certain degree the object from which it was derived.

Such was my leading idea.

– William Henry Fox Talbot, ‘Some account of the art of photogenic drawing, or the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist’s pencil’, read before the Royal Society (31 January 1839)


At the Adelaide gallery in London we also saw the Daguerreotype, which is the most extraordinary production of modern times!

We know not how better to describe it than to say, that it is embodying a shadow; It permanently fixes upon a plate the reflection of houses, trees, &c., and the picture is more perfect than any painter can make it!

In a room fitted up as a Theatre, with shutters to exclude the light M. Dele Croix, a French gentleman, explained the whole process to us.

The appearance of these drawings is very peculiar. The shadows are a dull grey, varying until they become almost blacky and though the pictures they delineate are accurate in the extreme, they are not pleasing.

They appear unnatural and look somewhat like a moonlight scene.

In Bombay, where the; sun is always powerful, pictures of beautiful scenery could be produced daily!

We cannot take leave of the Adelaide Gallery without expressing our admiration for the usefulness of such an institution.

– Jehangeer Nowrojee and Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee, of Bombay, naval architects, Journal of residence of two years and a half in Great Britain, 1841


Dear and dearest,

After breakfast Lestock took Honora and Captain Beaufort and me to the Polytechnic and we all had our likenesses taken.

It is a wonderful mys­terious operation. You are taken from one room into another upstairs and down and you see various people whispering and hear them in neighbouring passages and rooms unseen and the whole apparatus and stool on high platform under a glass dome casting a snap-dragon blue light making all look like spectres and the men in black gliding about like.

Though I fear you will not like any of my daguerreotype faces—I am sure I do not—the truer, the worse!

– Maria Edgeworth in letters to half-sister Fanny Wilson, 1841


Now sit, if ye have courage, cousins all!
Sit, all ye grandmamas, wives, aunts, and mothers;
Daughters and sisters, widows, brides, and nieces;
In bonnets, braids, caps, tippets, or pelisses,
The muff, mantilla, boa, scarf, or shawl!
Sit all ye uncles, godpapas, and brothers,
Fathers and nephews, sons, and next of kin,
Husbands, half-brother's cousin's sires, and others;
Be you as Science young, or old as Sin:
Turn, Persian-like, your faces to the sun!
And have each one
His portrait done,
Finish'd, one may say, before it's begun.

Apollo's agent on earth, when your attitude's right,
Your collar adjusted, your locks in their place,
Just seizes one moment of favouring light,
And utters three sentences—"Now it's begun,"—
"It's going on now, sir,"—and "Now it is done;"
And lo! as I live, there's the cut of your face
On a silvery plate,
Unerring as fate,
Worked off in celestial and strange mezzotint,
A little resembling an elderly print.
"Well, I never!" all cry; "it is cruelly like you!"
But Truth is unpleasant
To prince and to peasant.

The face you have worn fifty years doesn't strike you!

– S L Blanchard, ‘Photographic Phenomena’ (1842)


“Othello’s occupation’s gone,”—‘tis o’er,
The mask has fallen, I’m actor here no more,
But still your pupil, protegé, whate’er
Your kindness made me, and your fostering care.
“This mournful suit”, perchance offends your sight,
But nature triumphs, and asserts her right,
Expands my heart, and bids my tongue explain,
The pride, the gratitude, that swells each vein,
That floods unseen my dusky cheek, and dwells
Enshrin’d within my bosom’s deepest cells.

Nurs’d in the land where rolls the giant tide
Of sluggish Senegal, through deserts wide,
Where every tainted breeze comes winged with death,
And nature sickens in the poison breath;
Amid such scenes the negro strays alone,
In happy innocence, untaught, unknown;
Happy, because that desert’s pathless sand,
He claims his own, his long loved native land.
But soon the white man comes, allured by gain,
O’er his free limbs flings slavery’s galling chain,
Robs him of Heaven’s best gift, and casts him then,
Forth from his equal rank with fellow men,
Transforms him to a brute, or worse—a slave,
Who loathes to bear the life that nature gave.
Oh! justice! Heav’n! but hist, the time is nigh,
Freedom approaches from the western sky,
Sheds her bright glory tow’rd the Indian seas,
And shakes her banner o’er the Carribees:
The tortured black man hears her thrilling voice,
And checks his groans one moment to rejoice.

– A poem declaimed by Ira Aldridge at the Theatre Royal in Dublin in December 1832, at the end of a performance. “Written by a Gentleman of this City expressly for the occasion”


Saturday 17th January 1852  

Mr Kilburn took a daguerreotype of me and five of the dear children today at Windsor.

Daguerreotypes are now much improved to what they were originally.

The day was splendid for it. The children’s images were pretty. Mine was horrid! An entire failure.  

Monday 19th January 1852  

Had our daguerreotypes taken by Mr Kilburn again today in one of the hot houses. Wore a bonnet and sat not facing Kilburn’s apparatus. A much more successful likeness this time!

– Taken from two of Queen Victoria's journal entries

Henry Mayhew and the London Poor audio transcripts

This transcript contains language which may offend.


The sellers of religious tracts are now, I am informed, at the least, about 50, but they were at one time, far more numerous. 

A great many tract sellers, from 25 to 35 years ago, were, or pretended to be, maimed old soldiers or sailors. The trade is now in the hands of what may be called an anomalous body of men.

More than one half of the tract sellers are foreigners, such as Malays, Hindoos, and Negros. Of them, some cannot speak English!

The man whose portrait supplies the daguerreotyped illustration of this number is unable to speak a word of English, and the absence of an interpreter, through some accident, prevented his statement being taken at the time appointed.

I was born in Northumberland, … about five-and-fifty years ago.

My father was a grocer and the principal shop in our small town.

I was very comfortably brought up, never wanted for nothing, and had my mother lived I should have had an independent fortune.

At five years old, I caught the small pox. I had four sisters and one brother, and we all six had it at once; that was before the vaccination was properly established.

I’ve heard said that father did not want to have us inoculated, because of the people coming backwards and forwards to the shop. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now, and I shouldn’t have lost my eyes. God bless the man who brought it up, I say; people doesn’t know what they’ve got to thank him for.

Well, all my sisters and brothers had not a mark upon them. It laid hold of only me. As soon as ever the pock began to decay it took away my eyes altogether. I didn’t lose both my eyeballs till about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylight and any high colours

I was, indeed, a labouring man, but I could not get employment.

I had no way to support my wife and child. I

saw no other means of getting a living but out of the streets. I was almost starving before I took to it—that I certainly was.

I’m not ashamed of telling anybody that, because it’s true, and I sought for a livelihood wherever I could. Many said they wouldn’t do such a thing as keep a coffee-stall, but I said I’d do anything to get a bit of bread honestly.

Well; I went on, and knocked about, and couldn’t get a pitch anywhere; but at last I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing for many years at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill; so, what did I do, but I goes and pops into his pitch, and there I’ve done better than ever I did afore….

The struggle to get a living is so great, that, what with one and another in the coffee-trade, it’s only those as can get good ‘pitches’ that can get a crust at it.

Aye, I’ve seen the world—the town world and the country. I don’t know where I was born. I don’t know nothing about my father and mother; but I know that afore I was eleven I went through the country with my missis.

She was a smuggler. I didn’t know then what smuggling was—bless you, sir, I didn’t; I didn’t know the taste of the stuff we smuggled for two years—didn’t know it from small beer; I’ve known it well enough since, God knows.

My missis made a deal of money that time at Deptford Dockyard.

The men wasn’t paid and let out till twelve of a night—and they was our customers till one, two, or three in the morning.

After that I was a hopping, and made my 15s. regular at it, and a haymaking; but I’ve had a pitch at my corner for thirty-eight year—aye! turned thirty-eight. It’s no use asking me what I made at first—I can’t tell; but I’m sure I made more than twice as much as my daughter and me makes now, the two of us.

I wish people that thinks we’re idle now were with me for a day. I’d teach them.

Excerpts are performed by students and staff from the University of Oxford.