Albumen carte-de-visite showing St Andrew's Waterside Church Mission at Gravesend during the 1870s
After five years of working at the NMM, I have fully succumbed to the allure of nineteenth-century photography. My current cataloguing task, as Curator, Historic Photographs and Ship Plans, is a collection of glass plate negatives by F.C. Gould & Son of Gravesend. This commercial firm had its origins in the craze for album portraits that developed during the 1850s and was first known as Gibson's Photographic Portrait Establishment. It was taken over by Frederick Charles Gould in 1866 and continued to be active under the Gould name until the 1940s, acquiring a particular renown for photographs of shipping on the River Thames.
The Highflyer (1861) off Gravesend shortly before departing for Melbourne in August 1873 (from wet collodion negative G2243)
The earliest negatives in the collection were made during the 1870s using the wet collodion process. These plates were not available in manufactured form and had to be carefully prepared by the photographer. It was necessary to perform the whole coating, exposing and developing process before the emulsion dried, so a portable darkroom had to be employed when out in the field. One can imagine the difficulties Gould encountered using the cumbersome equipment on a blustery waterfront at Gravesend. Inspection of the negatives reveals ghostly blurs and traces of handiwork (including thumb prints set in the emulsion) which speak of the limitations of the medium and the dexterity it required. They also have a magical quality in that they reflect a positive image when seen against a dark background.
The Grantully Castle (1879) off Gravesend circa 1880 (from wet collodion negative G1673)
Specific features of the locality combined to create a marketplace for ship portraits fulfilled by the Gould business and its rivals. Gravesend was a regular stopping-place for traffic on the River Thames and a point of embarkation for emigrants and military personnel. Its community included many watermen, Trinity House pilots, Customs officers, tug crews and others actively involved with the arrivals and departures. In Victorian times it was also a resort with pleasure gardens popular with excursionists from the capital. These cosmopolitan aspects make the early photographic history of the town a colourful subject for me to research.