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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Charles Piazzi Smyth

Names:
Other: C. Piazzi Smyth 
Other: Piazzi Smyth 
Other: Professor C. Piazzi Smyth 
Dates:  1819, 3 January - 1900, 21 February
Born:  Italy, Naples
Died:  UK, Yorkshire, Ripon
Active:  Russia / Egypt / Canary Islands
 
  
British astronomer and photographer. He became the Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1845 and during a trip to South Africa he had the distinction of being the first calotypist in the country. In 1856 he made a voyage to Tenerife to assess its possibilities as an observatory. He traveled widely and wrote ‘Three Cities in Russia‘ (1862) and during his visit he took some of the earliest street photographs. In 1865 he traveled to Egypt to measure the Great Pyramid and he took photographs inside the monument and these are the earliest known - some of these were reproduced in his book ‘Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid‘.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Charles Piazzi Smyth
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

 
  
Piazzi Smyth, as he was universally known, would probably have rebelled at the thought of a being a laboratory experiment, but he is an ideal case study in the early history of the calotype. Born in Naples to Admiral William Henry Smyth, a close friend of Sir John Herschel, Smyth was able to balance this scientific heritage with the artistic sensibilities he got from his mother, Arabella, a fine painter. He was a clever sketch artist, devastating in his observations of his fellow man; a talented inventor of scientific instruments; and a tireless and careful researcher. His sister’s scandalous marriage to the very much older scientist Baden Powell produced Robert Baden Powell, perhaps best remembered for founding the Boy Scouts. Smyth was a brilliant young man but a shy one with a stutter. Posted to South Africa as an astronomer’s assistant, he was given the opportunity to be in close communication with Herschel during the late 1830s. Sir John returned to England on the eve of the public introduction of photography. As the events of 1839 unfolded, he sent examples and instructions to Smyth in the Cape, carefully compensating for what he knew would be the absence of certain materials in the colony. Herschel also opened up direct lines of communication between Talbot and other pioneers with Smyth. Thus, Smyth worked with the most complete instructions, both published and directly from the inventors, although isolated by three months and thousands of miles from other practitioners. He experimented on his own, following these directions, but without the interactions that influenced the course of photography in Europe. His calotypes produced around Cape Town are certainly the earliest ones made in Africa and also in many ways preserve the purest intent of the original inventors in Europe. In 1845 the young man was appointed to the prestigious but frustrating position of astronomer royal for Scotland, posted on Calton Hill immediately above Robert Adamson’s calotype studio. In 1856, on the eve of his departure for Tenerife in the Canary Islands on an expedition designed to carry an astronomical telescope “above the clouds,” Herschel recommended Smyth as “an excellent photographer” and suggested he document his trip. Smyth quickly learned wet-collodion photography from Joseph James Forrester and accomplished his goal. Although his scientific reputation will always be shadowed by his research in Egypt, which bore fruit in many publications on the Great Pyramid, Smyth was an innovative photographer through-out his life, constantly assisted by his wife, Jessie. Together they made metal cameras, designed high-speed shutters, enlarged miniature negatives, published photographically illustrated works, and ended life photographing clouds, much in a manner later popularized by Alfred Stieglitz. Although Smyth exhibited his scientific instruments, he never participated in photographic exhibitions. 
  
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
  
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We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
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Thumbnail
Charles Piazzi Smyth
Self portrait of Charles Piazzi Smyth 
1847
 
  
Family history 
  
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alan@luminous-lint.com
 
  
 
  

Visual indexes

 
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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Perez, Nissan N. 1988 Focus East: Early Photography in the Near East 1839-1885 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) p.222-225 [Short biography on Charles Piazzi Smyth possibly with example plates.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Charles Piazzi Smyth are included in this classic history.] 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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