Penn Library Exhibitions

Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist

Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird's Photographic Experiments:
The Library Company of Philadelphia's Report on Their Discovery

"This community has lost in Dr. Bird a man of high and exalted intelligence," reads the January 1854 obituary of Robert Montgomery Bird. Nearly 140 years later, we may have regained a portion of what was gone.

It all started one day last year with a telephone call. The family of the 19th-century photographer-experimenter wanted to place the collection in a proper institutional home. For nearly 140 years the collection sat in the dry, safe, caring lap of the family. It is largely intact--191 paper prints, paper negatives, and manuscripts, all from the early 1850s. We counted 100 paper negatives and 76 paper positives including 15 negative-positive pairs. An 1864 account by daguerreotypist Marcus Aurelius Root tells that Dr. Bird was "probably the ablest writer on sun-painting in the United States." But neither Root nor any historian of photography ever made mention of Bird's experiments. They remained inaccessible to scholars until 1992.

We asked for help from our friends to buy the collection, and our friends responded.

Bird had long been well known for his many novels (Nick of the Woods and The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow) and plays (The Gladiator and The Broker of Bogota), many of which we have. With our new acquisition, Bird reemerges as the secret translator of Gustave Le Gray's 1851 publication, Nouveau Traité théorique et pratique de photographie sur papier et sur verre, a treatise on the paper negative process invented by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot. Birds's many notations on his prints (22 mention Le Grey) and the timing of the publication (the spring of 1853) lead us to believe that he is the translator. We think that Plain Directions for Obtaining Photographic Pictures (Philadelphia, 1853) appeared as the product of these intense experiments. They are views made mostly at Bird's Filbert Street home, from January 1852 to August 1853--up the street, down the street, across the street and the back roof. Inside the house, perhaps during bad weather, perhaps using artificial light, Dr. Bird copied oil paintings, engravings, daguerreotypes, even paper money. Twice he tried to make live portraits. On everything he wrote notes detailing the chemistry.

The summer after the book was published, Dr. Bird and his wife, Elizabeth Mayer Bird, visited the Delaware Water Gap. He photographed it on 3 August 1853. This time, Dr. Bird was not an experimenter. He was a practitioner. But his photographic practice soon stopped. Within five months Bird had died and his photographic work entered its 140-year-long dormancy that is now over.

--Kenneth Finkel, writing in The Annual Report of the Library Company of Philadelphia for the Year 1992 (Philadelphia, 1993), pp. 54-57

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