Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Farnham Maxwell-Lyte

Farnham Maxwell-Lyte was an English chemist and the pioneer of a number of techniques in photographic processing. He was born on 10 January 1828 in Brixham, Devon and first came across photography at the age of sixteen after hearing the news of William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the calotype.

In 1846, he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a BA in chemical engineering in 1851 and MA in 1863. On leaving Cambridge he became a mining engineer and was an Associate of the Society of Civil Engineers and a Fellow of the Chemical Society.

In 1853, he travelled to Luz-Saint-Sauveur in the Pyrenees on account of his bad health and in 1856 his family joined him. He settled in Pau, and frequented an English circle where he met a group of photographers including John Stewart, Jean-Jacques Heilmann, Pierre Langlumé and Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard, who were known as the “Group of Pau”. He lived in France from 1853 until 1880.

In 1854, he was one of the founders of the Société française de photographie and he was also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

As both a chemist and a photographer, Maxwell-Lyte made many improvements to the technique of photographic processing, working with collodion and wax paper, and introducing a process of his own invention which he called métagélatine; this process was adopted by several photographers and is described, as the “Metagelatine Dry Process”, in Wilson’s Cyclopedic Photography. In 1854 he wrote up the results of his investigations into what became known as the “honey” process. This was “a method of improving the wet-collodion process by extending the longevity of the sensitized plate” As its name suggests, in this process honey was used both as the preservative solution and in the dusting-in.

Maxwell-Lyte’s letter appeared a fortnight after George Shadbolt, former editor of the British Photographic Journal, had independently contacted the Photographic Society (now the Royal Photographic Society), giving his description of an identical experiment with honey.

He was one of the pioneers of inserting an imported sky into a landscape photograph to mitigate the problems of sensitivity of the collodion plates, a process that he justified in a letter of 6 November 1861 to the journal Moniteur de la photographie. In the April 1862 issue of the British Journal of Photography he published his findings on the presence of “anti-chlors” in photographic paper, a substance that jeopardised the stability of silver prints. He introduced borax and phosphate toning baths that are still used today, as well as pioneering the use of iodide.

Il Foro Romano, British, 1862
Il Foro Romano, British, 1862. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte
[River running through mountain valley], British, 1857 - 1865
[River running through mountain valley], British, 1857 – 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte

As a photographer he is known for his views of the French Pyrenees. He took scenic photographs in the period just before commercial photographers started to take and market mass-produced views in the 1860s.

[Eaux-Chaudes], British, about 1855 - 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte
[Eaux-Chaudes], British, about 1855 – 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte

Maxwell-Lyte  photographed the mountains, villages, waterfalls and bridges of the Pyrenees, often exhibiting his photographs under the auspices of the Société française de photographie. He showed them almost every year from 1855 to 1865 in cities such as London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Paris, and received several international prizes. He won the silver medal at 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and his Pyrenean landscapes gained him a gold medal in Bordeaux in 1859.

He also regularly submitted photographs to the Photographic Society of Scotland’s annual exhibition in Edinburgh, sending his entries from his home in Pau and winning silver medals at the 5th exhibition (for Pierrefith) and 7th exhibition (for Lac d’Oo).

[Vallee du Gave de Pau], British, about 1855 - 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte
[Vallee du Gave de Pau], British, about 1855 – 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte
[Village at foot of mountains], British, about 1855 - 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte
[Village at foot of mountains], British, about 1855 – 1865. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte

Several of his photographs were included in an 1858 volume of Pyrenean views entitled Vues, costumes et monuments des Pyrénées, copies de grands maîtres.

Maxwell-Lyte gave up photography when he moved with his family to Dax. Returning to his original profession as a mining engineer, he bought the sulphur springs of Moudang and a salt mine in Dax, but these were failures.

He died suddenly in 1906 at his residence at 60 Finborough Road, South Kensington, London, and was buried at St Mary The Boltons, Kensington.

[Chateau de Pau], British, 1854. Photo by Farnham Maxwell-Lyte

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