|Dates: ||1798 - 1875|
A well-established miniature painter in London, Collen enjoyed social connections that helped him overcome his modest artistic achievements, becoming a miniature painter to Queen Victoria. Always possessed of an experimental bent, in 1841 he published his experiments on electrotyping a daguerreotype plate. But on seeing one of Talbot’s calotype portraits in February 1841, Collen was hooked. Working with the inventor, he sought to perfect his photographs on paper and by the spring was laying plans for a photographic studio. In August of that year Collen acquired the first commercial license issued by Talbot. He also commissioned the eminent London optician Andrew Ross to make the first photographic lens designed in Britain. A reporter for the Morning Post who went to Collen to get his portrait taken in 1842 had obviously already been daguerreotyped, since he observed that for the sitter the experience was the same. He found the calotype results “very satisfactory . . . there is a rough air of truth about them, which reminds one of the first, and sometimes the best, sketches of an artist — a sort of free sepia, or rather lithotint drawing, full of broad effects and vigour. One of the advantages of the art is, that, from the original portrait, any number of facsimile copies may be taken.” A writer for the Chemist was also attracted to Collen’s work: “Nothing can be more admirable than the extreme accuracy of the likenesses: they are free from the defect which constitutes the common objection to this kind of portraiture, namely, the ghastly corpse-like hue given to the complexion.” As an artist, Collen was free in his retouching, something praised by his contemporaries, among them Sir David Brewster. However, this has undermined his modern reputation, since the photographic images have faded while the retouching ink has not, leading to what look like grotesque caricatures. Collen produced stereo portraits for Charles Wheatstone, but perhaps his most unusual commission was one he carried out for the Foreign Office on Christmas Day 1842. The Treaty of Nanking, ceding Hong Kong to British control, had just arrived in London, but there were no scribes who could copy the unfamiliar characters. Both as a record of the original and as a way to impress the Chinese with Western technological skills, Collen made photographic copies of the scroll. One was given to the queen and another sent back to China.
The daguerreotype captured the public’s imagination in a way that calotype copies on paper could not, and Collen began to lose both money and Talbot’s confidence. The relationship between the two men temporarily came under strain and Collen finally abandoned his calotype portrait business in 1844, but he and Talbot stayed in touch and possibly photographed together afterward. Collen never lost his interest in photography, assisting the Kew Observatory with daguerreotyping in 1846. In 1865 he proposed a color system, one which the American inventor and pioneer of color printing Frederic Eugene Ives acknowledged in his own work more than twenty years later. In common with many other photographers of the time, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Collen became more and more engaged in spiritualism later in life, convinced, in his case, that “odic” light - spiritual emanations - could be recorded on photographic plates.
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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