The Bodleian Libraries is hosting a special display to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Ada, Countess of Lovelace, the Victorian mathematician who is often referred to as the first computer programmer. It contains two remarkable daguerreotypes, one reproduced here, a pair made by made by Antoine Claudet in the early 1840s. They are the only known photographs of Lovelace.
Claudet learned the art of photography from Louis Daguerre, the inventor of one of the earliest photographic processes. He established his first Daguerreotype studio in London, in the Strand, in 1841, then moved to Regent’s Park and finally Regent’s Street. His output was phenomenal – over 1800 portraits a year – and his customers included many well known figures in fashionable, literary and scientific circles, among them Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace.
He would often take several pictures of his subjects at the same sitting, using elaborate painted backdrops, which recur in several of his images. These allow us to date these pictures of Lovelace to around 1843, at the time when she was writing her famous paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
As well as being customers of the new photographers, Ada Lovelace and her circle were intrigued by the science of photography and the contribution photographic processes might make to science. Apart from her famous paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, her only other known publication is in the form of long footnotes to an article by her husband, William Earl of Lovelace, in the Royal Agricultural Society journal. The article, which he describes as being written for the ‘leather-gaiter-and-top-boot-mind’, reviews a paper by the French economist Gasparin, about possible laws linking climate and the yield of crops, referring to a wide variety of observations of weather and plants collected by both professionals and amateurs. Ada Lovelace observes that photographic devices, such as the actinograph designed by her friend John Herschel, allow the construction of ‘meteorological instruments of the utmost delicacy’, and criticises Gasparin ‘who seems to write unaware of the means which photography has offered’.
In similar vein, she reflected on the potential of photography in providing objective evidence of psychic phenomena. In an unpublished article she writes, ‘If amateurs, of either sex, would amuse their idle hours with experimenting on this subject, & would keep an accurate journal of their daily observations, we should in a few years have a mass of registered facts to compare with the observation of the Scientific’, concluding that ‘we believe that it is as yet quite unsuspected how important a part photography is to play in the advancement of human knowledge’.
A third poignant daguerreotype, by an unknown photographer, is a photograph of a small portrait of Ada Lovelace, frail and thin, painted by Henry Wyndham Phillips in the last months of her life, when she was in great pain from uterine cancer. Her husband recorded progress on the portrait in his diary – on 2 August ‘she managed to remain long enough when he came for him to make some progress’, on 3 August that he was ‘getting on with the portrait’, and on 13 August that though ‘the suffering was so great that she could scarce avoid crying out’, yet ‘she sat at the piano some little time so that the artist could portray her hands’. The Bodleian archives contain a note written in her last days, in which she leaves ‘a daguerreotype from Philips’s portrait of me’ to her mother’s friend, Miss Montgomery.
Professor Ursula Martin CBE, University of Oxford