Ireland's First Commercial Photographer
by Michael McCaughan
Although the essential principles of photography have been know for more than two hundred years, it was not until the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century that optics and chemistry were successfully combined to achieve permanently fixed images. In France, about 1826, Nicephore Niepce succeeded in recording a view from his work room window by means of a camera obscura and a light sensitized plate. The direct positive picture, which required an exposure of about eight hours, was improved on by Louis Daguerre in 1837 (Niepce's partner 1829-33). After exposure, which could take up to thirty minutes, the plate was held over warmed mercury to intensify the image, which was one of great detail and accuracy on a mirror like surface.
In England, working independently from Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot had invented a process for forming a negative image on light sensitised paper and then a permanent positive image on another sensitised sheet of paper printed by sunlight. Although of cruder quality than daguerreotypes, the process had the advantage that any number of positives could be printed from the original negative.
Daguerre's and Fox Talbot's activities were reported in both the Belfast and Ulster provincial press in February 1839. Seven months later on 20 September 1839 the Belfast News Letter published a letter on 'the Daguerreotype' from Francis S. Beatty, a well known engraver and linen ornament manufacturer of 2 Donegall Street.
The subject matter of Beatty's first daguerreotype is unknown, although the News Letter described the effect as 'extremely singular'. His experiments continued throughout 1839 and 1840 when daguerreotypes were made of Belfast buildings and of the old Long Bridge which spanned the River Lagan. Undoubtedly these are the earliest Irish documentary photographs, but alas they have not survived.
On 4 August 1840, The Newsletter reported that, "Mr. F. S. Beatty has produced another photogenic drawing of the now fast fading Long Bridge of Belfast, taken from the western bank of the river. It is a beautiful specimen of the art which Mr. Beatty is pursuing so successfully and shows a progress towards perfection, which talent, taste and close application alone could not achieve". By this time Beatty had decided to turn his skills to commercial advantage and the same issue of the paper carried an advertisement for the sale of his daguerreotypes and apparatus.
Despite the implications of this advertisement Beatty did not abandon his work with the daguerreotype, but continued to improve the process while maintaining his business as a general engraver. To help reduce exposure times he ground and polished 'a concave mirror of short focus in speculum metal', which enabled him to produce his first portrait in 1841. This resulted in Beatty being invited to London by Richard Beard who held the patent rights of the daguerreotype process in England and had opened the country's first commercial photographic portrait studio in March 1841. In October Beatty became a temporary operative in Beards Regent Street studio at the Royal Polytechnic Institution. Subsequently and after examining Beatty's daguerreotypes, Beard suggested that he should become the operative manager of a Daguerreotype Portrait Gallery he was proposing to establish in Dublin. Beard offered to pay Beatty a percentage of the work done, but the terms were unacceptable, Beatty realising that Beard's control of patent did not extend to Ireland and that he was free to set up a portrait studio on his account.
In August 1842 Francis Beatty sold his engraving business and two months later, together with a partner, opened a daguerreotype portrait gallery in Belfast. However the undertaking was unprofitable and later abandoned, as at that time the expense of a daguerreotype portrait was above the means of the Belfast public. Beatty nevertheless continued his photographic business ventures, opening for example a studio in Dublin in the 1860's and experimenting with photo-lithography. However he was doomed to commercial failure and died in 1891 as a pauper in Dublin.