In the second in our series of republished archive articles by the Sherlock Holmes author and erstwhile BJP writer, Conan Doyle finds that shooting large-format doesn’t always go to plan.
Nostalgia for early photographic techniques might not be as novel as we think if this article by Arthur Conan Doyle, published in BJP in November 1882, is anything to go by.
As in the first article in this series, After cormorants with a camera, Conan Doyle reports back here on a large-format photography jaunt with friends. “The Commodore”, the instigator of the trip this time, is, we’re told, “an ardent supporter of collodion” who “revels in every process which the rest of the fraternity have agreed to abandon.”
No doubt the Commodore would have thoroughly approved of the Intrepid Camera Company’s mission to resurrect large-format photography for today’s photographers with their affordable lightweight 8×10 and 4×5 cameras.
And that’s not all they share. Like the team behind Intrepid, the Commodore loves nothing more than escaping to the wilds, with his large-format camera. When given three days holiday from his dull office job, the Commodore grabs his “fossil apparatus” and heads straight to Conan Doyle to invite him on an expedition to Dartmoor.
So off the pair head, joined by another friend who the author refers to as “The Genius”. By now something of a seasoned photographer, Conan Doyle has packed his trusty 4×5 camera, a lens, three plates, a selection of chemicals and is “ready for every photographic emergency.” Or so he thinks. He hasn’t bargained on the likelihood of air-bubbles in the developer nor of the miserable British weather, even in August. How will he cope? Read on to find out.
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‘Dry Plates on a Wet Moor’ by Arthur Conan Doyle – from British Journal of Photography, November 1882
My esteemed friend, whom I shall call the “Commodore,” as he is known to a small circle under that soubriquet, is a man who is always toiling painfully along some twenty years in the rear of the main body of the human family. I am sure he will not take umbrage at my remark, but rather be the first to acknowledge its truth. Railways and telegraphs have gradually begun to overcome the vis inertice of the Commodore’s mind and to obtrude themselves as undeniable facts, but that is apparently the last concession which he will allow to progress, and he fiercely resents any allusion to telephones, electric lights, and other departures from the ways of our ancestors.
He has the courage of his convictions, too, as is to be seen by the shares in which he eagerly invests, having at last made up his mind that, as a lighting power, coal gas is preferable to oil. This being the character of the man, it is not surprising that as a photographer he is an ardent supporter of collodion, and revels in every process which the rest of the fraternity have agreed to abandon. There is something majestic in his conservative scorn for improvement, and he looks upon a gelatine-bromide plate very much as a chevalier of the old regime might have gazed upon a bonnet rouge of the republic. Still, those who have seen the Commodore’s results will allow that he has something to justify him in his opinions, and that skilful manipulation is independent of any process.
When the Commodore strode into my apartment in the middle of August, and interrupted me in retouching a batch of plates, I knew that something was up. He is not a demonstrative man; on the contrary, his emotions are all deeply seated and seldom show upon the surface, but it was evident that he was in high spirits and bursting with some piece of information. I mischievously left him to simmer for some time upon a chair, while I finished my retouching.
“Well, Commodore,” I said at last, “what is it?”
The murder was soon out. The office were to have a holiday after their ten months servitude at the desk — only for three days, it is true but still a holiday. The Commodore had been brushing up his fossil apparatus, and was bent upon a short campaign among the wilds. He had come up to know if I would accompany him. Dartmoor was to be the destination, and the train started within an hour and a half.
“Awfully short notice,” he said, apologetically, “hut we weren’t sure about it ourselves until this afternoon, and then I had to get my things together and put on my travelling togs.” The Commodore here waved his hand complacently to indicate the togs in question, the principal articles of which consisted of a broad-brimmed lawn-tennis hat and a pair of corduroy knickerbockers — a combination which suggested a cross between Oscar Wilde and a gamekeeper, though the simple-minded wearer evidently regarded it as pregnant with danger to the susceptibilities of the opposite gender.
“He who hesitates is lost.” I made a rush for my apparatus, and began packing it into the smallest available space — an operation which long practice rendered an easy one. Within a quarter of an hour I was standing in full marching order, ready for every photographic emergency.
After locking up my rooms, and bidding an affecting farewell to my landlady, who was too much overcome to make any remark beyond a request for five shillings for the milkman, we sallied forth upon our expedition. The “Genius” — so called on account of some undeveloped opinions supposed to savour of the divine afflatus, and a very much over-developed propensity for concocting chemical curiosities with a weird smell and objectionable properties — readily consented to form one of the party. His kit took rather longer to arrange, but, by judicious driving and a reckless disregard for all bye-laws and regulations, we managed to spring into a second-class carriage of the evening train for Plymouth just a second or two before she rolled out of the station.
My list of necessaries was not a cumbersome one. A Meagher’s 5 x 4 camera, a Dallymeyer’s rapid rectilinear, and three double dark slides were the more important items. My plates I had prepared myself by the boiling method of Mr. W.B. Bolton, and these, with two ferrotype dishes, half-a-pound of hypo., and a couple of two-ounce bottles — the one containing glycerine and pyrogallic acid, and the other ammonia and bromide — completed my equipment. The Genius was found, upon comparison, to be furnished in a very similar manner, save that his lens was a Ross’s rapid symmetrical, and his plates Edwards’s XI_,s. I shall refrain from describing the preparations of the conservative Commodore. The camera might have helped Noah to wile away his forty monotonous days had the patriarch been of a scientific turn and the light a little more favourable, while the remainder of his belongings impressed the mind with an awesome feeling of the strides of civilisation and the comparative barbarity of our ancestors.
The Genius is as good a little fellow as ever breathed, but there is no standing his scientific speculations. Three is an awkward number in a railway carriage, as only two can stretch themselves upon the seats, and the third is pinned up uncomfortably in a corner. Our little friend found himself in this position, and, after eyeing us malevolently as we settled our rugs under our heads, he cleared his throat in a menacing manner, and proceeded to detail to us his reason for refusing to believe that chlorine was an element. He paused, however, on remarking the ghastly expression which had come over the Commodore’s countenance, and then complained that some one had given him a severe kick in the ribs — an idea which haunted him for the remainder of the journey, and which no amount of argument was sufficient to dispel from his mind.
In the first grey light of morning we found ourselves in the great Devonshire seaport, and were conveyed with our “belongings” to the Royal Hotel, where we turned in just as the other inmates were thinking of rising. A few hours’ sleep proved a wonderful restorative, and when after a hearty breakfast, we sallied out to show ourselves upon the Hoe, we were hardly recognisable as the tired travellers of the morning. The Commodore stalked proudly along in that heart-breaking hat and the knickerbockers suggestive of blighted affections, while the Genius trotted by his side, pulling frantically at his incipient moustache, as if under the impression that it might be elongated by pure muscular exertion. I was the only one true to the objects of our journey, and lugged my camera along with me, to the undisguised disgust of my companions.
I was amply rewarded, however, for my disregard of public opinion. The lovely scene may still be imprinted upon the recollection of my companions — the deep blue of the harbour, the wooded slopes of Mount Edgecumbe, the rough outline of Drake’s Island, and away beyond the breakwater the great stretch of ocean reaching to the horizon, where two dark pinnacles indicated the position of the Eddystone light. But the retina is a poor and fleeting receiver of impressions, while the scene which I carried off in my carrier will be before me for many a year to come.
But another and more expected photographic treat was in store for me. As we sauntered down in the direction of the dockyard we came across an excited crowd eagerly “craning” their necks along the water’s edge. Every fort and bastion and possible coigne of vantage was lined by spectators, and the crews of the “Cambridge” and other old-fashioned line-of-battle ships clustered upon the yards. Before we could inquire the reason of this excitement a great prow came looming round the corner of the winding channel, and a glorious troopship, radiant in white and blue and gold, steamed slowly down the stream, with a knot of willing little tugs crowding and pushing in front of her, the tops of their funnels hardly level with the deck of their gigantic charge. The “red-coats” clustered like bees upon the shrouds and their cheers were echoed back from the men of war and the crowds upon the shore. My humble little tribute to the general uproar consisted in the click of a spring shutter, and I glanced round triumphantly at my companions as one who is conscious of having reaped the reward of his virtue. Alas! in matters photographic man proposes, but there are several agents which do the other thing. In this case the agent consisted of a too-officious guardian of the peace, who at the critical moment had passed his hand over a portion of the field in a menacing gesture to some mischievous urchin. In spite of the fogging produced I was able ultimately to recover enough to serve at least as some slight reminiscence of the campaign of 1882.
I should like to have spent the whole day in the old historical sea town, taking its curiosities and those numberless “bits” in which it is richer than any town in the south of England. It was strange to see the very alehouses still standing upon the Barbican, in which the bearded and bejewelled filibusters of Drake and Hawkins had squandered the doubloons which they risked their lives for upon the Spanish Main. The Commodore, however, had no appreciation of the romance of history, and the Genius made dark innuendoes as to my real motives in lingering lovingly about the old “pubs.;” so, finding myself in a minority, I was compelled to withdraw my motion for prolonging our stay. We had luncheon at the hotel, and then, having strapped our impedimenta upon our shoulders, we struck out into the country with the air of men who were attempting to beat the six days’ pedestrian record.
The pace was killing while it lasted, but, unfortunately, it only lasted for a mile and a-half, at the end of which time we all sat down simultaneously upon the slope of one of the outlying forts. My companions stared gloomily back at the city behind us; but a return would be too ignominious, so we proceeded to justify our halt by taking the view. It was a glorious seascape, with just a few bunches of gorse and heather upon the shoulder of the hill to serve as a foreground, while the coast line from the Eddystone to the Start lay like a map before us, framing in the broad stretch of ocean, clotted with sails. None of our results did justice to the exquisite original, though all were fairly good in their way. I see mine hanging upon the wall before me as I write. Clear enough it is, and accurate in detail; but, oh! the dismal greys and whites! Are we never to have the yellow of the sand and the green of the grass and the blue of the ocean transferred to our plates? It seems to me that a standing fund should be put by as a reward, to attract the researches of chemists and physicists in that direction, just as one awaits the fortunate discoverer of the Pole.
Stifling the unworthy temptation to return to our luxurious hotel, we strode sturdily northwards in the direction of the Moor. As we advanced the character of the scenery began to change. Rugged “tors” and tangled masses of half-withered vegetation shut us in, and the narrow road wound through a wilderness in which the only living creatures seem to be a few half-starved Devonshire sheep, who eyed us curiously, as if speculating upon our motives for intruding upon their domains. Wild and stern as was the scene there was a certain rough beauty in it all, and several charming little nooks and corners were secured by our ever-watchful cameras. The enormous number of white sign posts fixed at the angle where every sheep-path departed from the main track told a grim story of the byegone dangers of the Moor—where men had wandered in circles until they had dropped dead of hunger and fatigue. Indeed, with all these precautions, during the last twelve months there have been at least three cases of individuals having met with a similar fate.
The long summer evening was drawing to a close before we trudged into the pretty little village of Roborough, where we had determined to put up for the night. The old English inn — with its signpost of Admiral Vernon and a kitchen door left artfully open to waft a savoury odour into the street — was so irresistible that I was fortunate we had pre-arranged to make it our head-quarters. There with cameras stacked in the corner, and discarded plate-carriers and knapsacks, we indulged in all the luxury of a lounge and well-earned smoke while a substantial tea-dinner was in process of preparation. There was something in the old-world flavour of the whole place which was so congenial to the tastes of the conservative Commodore that I quite expected to hear him propose that our expedition should terminate there and then, and the remainder of the holiday be spent in this luxurious little wayside tavern. However, he rose superior to the temptation, and sketched out our programme for the morrow with the air of a man suffering for conscience sake.
In an ivy-clad, little red-brick cottage, close to the inn, dwells an eccentric villager who dabbles in photography, and ekes out his scanty income by executing villainous prints of rustic beauties and their beaux. We called upon him after our meal, and struck up an intimacy with him on the strength of our common pursuit. He was a grave, white-haired, nature’s gentleman, and did the honours of his primitive dark room with an old-fashioned courtesy which delighted the Commodore and myself, the Genius having suddenly vanished — possibly with the ulterior object of making the closer acquaintance of one of those same belles upon whom our venerable entertainer was wont to practice. Even the Commodore seemed progressive to this old rustic enthusiast, who still adhered to every rule and process which existed when the art was in its infancy. Swan’s “thirty-time” plates and Dallmeyer’s cameras and lenses were a sealed book to him, and he met all my attempts at explanation with a smile of ineffable complacency blended with amusement, as if to intimate that he was too old a bird to be caught by such chaff. As the Commodore rather aided and abetted him in his heresies, I am afraid that the patriarch did not derive much benefit from my lecture upon the relative value of the processes.
There are disadvantages even in old-fashioned inns and antiquated four-post beds, as we found to our cost during the watches of the night. As the Genius expressed it “We felt a bit crowded’ at first, but there was more room when we had given the sheets a shaking.” However, the healthy exercise which we had taken triumphed eventually over every obstacle, and we strode forth in the morning like giants refreshed, bearing away in our knapsacks a goodly bottle of milk and a plentiful store of bread for our luncheon on the Moor.
Leaving Roborough behind us, we pushed steadily northward through a waste even more delicate than that which we traversed the day before. For ten miles neither house nor inhabitant met our eyes — nothing but a long, undulating plain covered with scanty vegetation; and intersected by innumerable peaty brooks, which meandered down to help to form the Plymouth “leat,” constructed by the great Sir Francis Drake, and still used as the only means of water supply. The scene, monotonous as it was, had an interest in my eye as being the seat of several of the incidents in Kingsley’s Westward Ho! It was along one of these winding, uncertain tracts that Amyas Leigh rode across with his shipmates from Plymouth to Bideford, and the spot where Salvation Yeo slew the King of the Gubbins must have lain a very little to the northward. Now and again, as we reached the summit of some eminence, we had a magnificent view of the country we had passed through, stretching away down to the sea, while on the left the silver Tamar curled along between its thickly-wooded banks. The weather was perfect from a photographic point of view, with just brightness enough to answer every purpose without running a danger of a chalky effect from the whitewashed farm-houses in the distance. We each expended more than one plate upon the glorious landscape, but my very best negative was afterwards ruined by air-bubbles in the developer. Owing to the poverty of the light and a red bull’s-eye lantern (and a very poor one at that), I was unable to notice these until they had pitted the plate in a way which was far more suggestive of eruptive fevers than of the glories of nature. Since then I have never used the glycerine pyro developer, as the viscosity produced by the glycerine seems to me to be the sole cause of this defect. I have also learned partially to restrain that photographic impetuosity which prompts me to develop without waiting for the conveniences of my own little workshop.
Had we been told that those were to be the last efforts of our trip we should have laughed the idea to scorn; but alas! a change came over the spirit of our dream. A dusky cloud, which had lain low and threatening along the whole eastern horizon, began gradually to throw out long, ragged tentacles in our direction, which coalesced until they covered the whole heaven, and then with a swish down came a mighty torrent of rain, which soaked us through before we had time to remove our knapsacks and take shelter in our mackintoshes. It had evidently set in wet, so, with heads bowed to the blast and collars buttoned about our necks we staggered along in the direction in which we knew that Tavistock lay. I don’t think any of us are ever likely to forget that eight-mile trudge. The thought of the “I told you so’s” of certain good friends who had seen us off at the station, and had warned us of the vicissitudes of the “wet moor,” added gall and wormwood to our sufferings. When we found ourselves at last in the streets of the picturesque town our plates were the only dry things in our possession, and three sorrier figures could not have been picked out in the length and breadth of England. The sight of the Commodore, with the water streaming down his rakish hat, and with the glory departed from the mud-bespattered knicker-bockers, was almost enough to console the Genius and myself for all our misfortunes.
However, “all’s well that ends well.” A good dinner and a stiff glass of whisky and water — whisky without the water was suggested by the Genius, as our systems were already permeated by the milder liquid—soon set us on our legs again, and we retired to rest with great resolutions for the morrow. One glance at the streaming window panes in the morning dissipated every hope of being able to finish our third day. The rain was still pouring down in the way we knew so well. With heavy hearts we were forced to acknowledge that the game was up, and a hermetically-sealed four-wheeler bore us off with our effects to catch the midday train for home.
There was nothing remarkable in a photographic sense in this little tour. As I have already mentioned, several of the plates from which I had expected most met with mishaps and disappointed me. I think, however, that this sketch of the doings of the Commodore, the Genius, and myself may, at least, have the effect of showing what an amount of experience and what varied photographic opportunities may be compressed into a very short space of time. Even a three days’ holiday may remain a pleasant reminiscence for ever if the time be well utilised. I think, further, that the readers of THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY might choose some better hunting ground than the “wet moor” — a concession which, however, none of us would admit to the commiserating friends who welcomed us on our return.
NB: Unfortunately, while Conan Doyle’s essays and writings remain, his photographs from this excursion seem to have been lost over time and are not included in this article.
Sponsored by Intrepid Camera Co.: This feature was made possible with the support of Intrepid Camera Co. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.