British photographic history

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Biography: ‘His heart was with his work’ Alfred Swaine Taylor and Caroline Taylor: a brief biography

BPH reported on the auction of early photographs and other material from, and relating to, Alfred Swain Taylor. Helen Barrell, Taylor's biographer has provided the following biography of Taylor and his wife, Caroline. 

Alfred Swaine Taylor was born in Northfleet, on the banks of the Thames in Kent, on 11 December 1806. His father, Thomas Taylor, was a captain in the East India Company, and by at least 1818 had become a merchant. Taylor’s mother, Susannah Badger, was the daughter of a flint knapper. The couple had only one other child, Silas Badger Taylor, who followed their father into business as a merchant; Alfred Swaine Taylor studied medicine.

In 1822, not yet 16, Taylor was apprenticed as a surgeon for a year to a doctor who lived in Lenham, Kent. Once that year was up, Taylor headed to the United Hospitals of Guy’s and St Thomas’ in London. As a pupil, he was able to visit wards, see operations and dissections, as well as take lectures in science subjects. It was here that he discovered his love of chemistry; combined with medicine, this would put him on the path to becoming a toxicologist, studying the effects of poisons on the body.

Taylor’s life was changed in 1826 when he stumbled across Elements of Medical Jurisprudence by American physician Theodric Romeyn Beck. On reading this book, he chose medical jurisprudence (what we might loosely call forensic medicine today) as his ‘special object for study and practice.’

In 1828, he headed off on a tour of the medical schools of Europe, presumably because subjects for dissection were readily available there. His journey was fraught with danger; his ship from France to Naples was racked by storm, and he was chased off Elba by pirates. He was arrested twice: once for having dangerous books, and secondly for espionage after he sketched some fortifications in northern Italy. He later claimed that he was only freed when most of his artwork was destroyed, though some have survived.

While in Naples, he wrote two ophthalmological articles in Italian, ‘On inverting objects at the back of the eye’ and ‘On adapting the eye to the distance of objects.’ Along with his fondness for sketching and his eventual interest in photography, these articles demonstrate Taylor’s fascination with the visual. He was also interested in geology, and was consulted on matters of public health; it was Taylor who warned the public about the dangers of arsenical wallpaper dyes.

After changes in the teaching of medical jurisprudence led to the introduction of lectures in the subject at medical schools, Taylor became the first professor of medical jurisprudence at Guy’s in 1831 – one of the first, and youngest in the whole of England (medical schools in Scotland had been lecturing on the subject since the late eighteenth century). In 1832, Taylor took over as the lecturer in chemistry at Guy’s, after his predecessor was killed during a dangerous experiment. 

From 1830 to 1832, Taylor had a general practice in Great Marlborough Street, Soho, and resumed writing journal articles. He became such a regular writer on the subject of medical jurisprudence that rival Henry Letheby would later haughtily refer to Taylor’s ‘cacoethes scribendi’ – an insatiable desire to write. But these articles, along with his many books, helped to elevate Taylor’s status in the emerging field of medical jurisprudence. He was the expert witness that coroners in the east of England would most often refer to, and once the 1840s dawned, Taylor appeared so often in newspaper reports of inquests and trials that he became a household name.

In 1834, Taylor married 24-year-old Caroline Cancellor, the youngest child of stockbroker John Cancellor. Her father had left her well-provided for financially when he died in 1831, as had her brother Richard, who had died a few months before the Taylors’ marriage. Richard left Caroline the lease and most of the contents of his house, 3 Cambridge Place (now Chester Gate) on Regent’s Park, which would be the Taylors’ home for almost twenty years. It was later said of Taylor that he was ‘a man of quiet and domestic tastes’, who was ‘little seen either in the medical societies or in social medical intercourse.’

After Taylor died in 1880, the British Medical Journal’s obituary was the only one to mention that Caroline had helped him to revise his books for publication. This was no easy task, as Taylor’s books Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence, On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jurisprudence and Medicine and The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence ran into several editions and consisted of both Taylor’s experiments and experiences on actual cases, as well as information garnered from other cases in newspapers and journals from across the world. They also contained correspondence on cases and experiments between Taylor and other scientists. The subject matter would hardly have been deemed ladylike, with poisonings, wounds, drownings and sexual crimes filling the pages, yet Caroline diligently worked beside her husband, her name never to appear on the title page with his, nor in any list of acknowledgments.

Whilst Taylor’s love of medicine and chemistry led to his work in toxicology, his fondness for sketching combined with chemistry led to his lifelong fascination with photography. He began his experiments with photogenic drawings as soon as Faraday showed some of Fox Talbot’s work at a meeting of the Royal Society in January 1839, and published a pamphlet the following year describing the processes he had come up. Unsurprisingly, when finding Fox Talbot’s method of using silver nitrate didn’t work, Taylor had success with ammoniacal silver nitrate – a compound he used in the laboratory as a reagent when testing for arsenic.

In his pamphlet Taylor wrote about the different objects that created the best photogenic drawings; black lace, he found, worked better than white and would create an image in only a couple of minutes. A surviving photogenic drawing of lace made by Ellen Shaw, a family friend of the Taylors’, has a note saying ‘A piece of old lace of Mrs Taylor’s, I put it on for Dr Taylor to put on the top of his house in the sun.’ (The image appears in Stephen White’s 1987 article on Taylor in History of Photography: an International Quarterly, vol 11, 1987, July-Sept, pp.229-35) It would appear that Ellen had made the photogenic drawing under Taylor’s direction, a man who included women in photography and chemistry.

It should therefore be no surprise that amongst a collection of photogenic drawings from Thorne Court, eventual home of Taylor’s daughter Edith, images initialled ‘CT’ were found – presumably they were made by Caroline Taylor. As she worked on Taylor’s books with him, she had scientific knowledge; there would be no reason for him to separate her from his photographic experiments, where she worked with chemicals to create her salt prints. On occasion, Taylor had to perform toxicological analyses at home, and one wonders if Caroline assisted him.

Several photographs in the collection from Thorne Court are of family members of the Taylors’. We see the Taylors’ daughter Edith posing with her cousin, Emily Taylor (a daughter of Silas and his wife Mary Ann Swinley, who had been a close friend of Caroline’s). We also see Edith posing with another cousin, Emily Cancellor. An aunt of Taylor appears, as do members of the Perry family, who were extended family of Caroline’s. A later photograph, from the early 1870s, shows two of Edith’s children in the garden with their nurse. A somewhat informal image, it may have been taken by Taylor or his wife, or indeed Edith herself, rather than a professional, studio-based photographer.

In 1842, Taylor borrowed the camera belonging Henry Collen, Talbot’s first licensed photographer, so that he could have one made himself. Taylor was not impressed by Fox Talbot’s patenting of his process. He told Collen in a letter, ‘I certainly shall take care to keep it out of the patent clutches of Mr Fox Talbot.’ In his pamphlet on photogenic drawings, Taylor included a sarcastic aside about Daguerre and his patenting; writing about using ivory, Taylor wrote, ‘Supposing the light of an English sun not to be included in the patent of M. Daguerre, there seems to be no objection to the use of these ivory plates in the camera.’ It wasn’t only in the sphere of photography that patents enraged him. When ether began to be used for pain relief in surgery, an attempt was made to patent it which Taylor believed would price it beyond the purse of ordinary people. In an editorial for the London Medical Gazette, he disparaged Daguerre’s patent on ‘the use of solar light, rare as it is, in England!’ and sarcastically remarked that anyone trying to patent the use of ether ‘can look for a satisfactory return only to legs and arms of the wealthy part of the community.’

Taylor’s expertise were called upon to deal with the worst that one human being can do to another and his career is filled with one grisly case after another. He is most well-known for the William Palmer and Thomas Smethurst trials, possibly because they were difficult cases and the only ones he worked on which would appear in the Notable British Trials series. Taylor’s celebrity was such that Charles Dickens, fascinated by crime and its detection, visited Taylor’s laboratory at Guy’s Hospital, and Sensation novelist Wilkie Collins owned not one but two copies of Taylor’s On Poisons. When Taylor gave evidence at the trial of the murderer of “Sweet Fanny Adams” (a case so notorious it gave the expression “sweet FA” to the English language), a newspaper put a picture of him on their front page – a drawing ‘from a photograph’. Known as a toxicologist, Taylor branched into other areas of forensic medicine, and was examining blood stains as early as the 1850s.

In 1860, the son of one of Caroline’s brothers was beaten to death by his schoolmaster; this case came to be known as the Eastbourne Manslaughter trial. Taylor’s name did not appear in any newspaper reports relating to the trial and he was not called on as an expert witness, but he could not leave mention of so well-known a case from his books. His tone borders on anger when he wrote about his nephew’s death.

By the late 1870s, Taylor’s books on medical jurisprudence had been published across Europe and from the USA to Japan. There had been two editions of his co-authored word Chemistry, with chemist William Brande, which included sections on photography. Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence went into several editions, the last – featuring very little of the original Taylor, although still carrying his name – went into print in 1984, over one hundred years after his death. Dorothy L Sayers, Golden Age crime author, used Taylor’s books in her research, and fictional forensic detective Dr Thorndyke was based on him. He may well be one of the medical jurists that Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind when he created Sherlock Holmes – certainly Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence is mentioned in Conan Doyle’s semi-autobiographical novel The Stark Munro Letters.

Taylor’s home was his haven from the necessarily gruesome and brutal world of his day job, and he filled it with art. John Werge, in his book The Evolution of Photography, met Taylor late in his life. (Werge, 1890, p106) On visiting his home, Werge noticed that ‘On his walls were numerous beautiful drawings, and his windows were filled with charmingly illusive transparencies, all the work of his own hands.’ Werge asked Taylor where he found the time to do all this, and Taylor replied that ‘a man could always find time to do anything he wished if his heart was with his work.’


The first full-length biography of Alfred Swaine Taylor, Fatal Evidence: Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor and the Dawn of Forensic Science, was written by Helen Barrell and published in September 2017 by Pen & Sword.

BPH would also like to thank Darran Green for making accessible his researches on Taylor. 

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