How the Daguerreotype Started a Victorian Black Market for Pornography in London

How the Daguerreotype Started a Victorian Black Market for Pornography in London

Louis Daguerre is one of the founding fathers of photography, but little did he know, his invention opened a secret door down a street in Victorian-era London. Needless to say, this article is NSFW.

When one thinks of Victorian England, it might be conjured as images of large, layered garments, coal-blackened men, and portly royals. It seems so far back into the past that it's too far removed from modern society to draw many parallels. That said, my great grandparents were born in that era, which puts it in generational spitting distance. In fact, in a small trove of my own family pictures, hidden away in my loft, are a few prints from the late 1800s.

The invention and increasing accessibility of photography made the 19th century an exciting time, and we have one man who deserves more thanks than most for it.

Louis Daguerre

Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre was a photographer and inventor who introduced the world to a publicly available photographic process known as the Daguerreotype, which was the first of its kind. Daguerreotype photography used a process where silver-plated copper was polished, treated with fumes to make it light sensitive, and then exposed in a camera (you can read more about the process by clicking here). There have been recent and successful attempts to recreate this technique. This moment for photography was so profound primarily due to Daguerre's method having unparalleled detail and image quality and because it reportedly did not fade over time like its rival techniques.

This premiere of public photography reached all ends of the globe after its announcement in Paris, 1839. One such place to receive the process via the purchase of a patent by Richard Beard was Britain. From this, the meandering path to a small street in London begins. However, the daguerreotype was not the father of depictions of nudity; it just took them one large step forward and in a direction Victorian morality was not remotely on board with.

Depictions of Nudity and the Camera

Depictions of nudity and eroticism (not to be conflated) date back as far as the Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. In fact, at the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, England, a cave at Creswell Crags has been found to contain a 12,000-year-old stylized interpretation of the female genitalia. From then on, in just about every single civilization that has ever lived, there have been explicit paintings, sculptures, engravings, drawings, and even graffiti. From Peruvian erotic pottery to paintings of Priapus in Pompeii and his prodigious phallus, depictions of nudity and eroticism have been prevalent. So, it is no surprise that once photography become more readily available to the public, that particular brand of art came with it.

Erotic Roman wall painting by an unknown author. Image in the public domain.

With cameras now a viable tool for the creation of art, many artists began to dabble in portraiture, with artists outside of England, like Bruno Braquehais and Félix-Jacques Moulin, having great success. In England, however, that sort of material was to be tightly guarded. English illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne (whom I am writing my next article about) worked for the famous Punch magazine and began a long-standing obsession with capturing working class women. That interest soon turned to creating what we would now call "artistic nudes" of these working class women, but prints of which in the Victorian era were regarded as obscene and pornographic. As a result, photographic nudes and erotic imagery created with cameras were thrust underground to evade the judging eye of the Victorian public and later, lengthy custodial sentences and prosecution.

One such host for nude photography was a small, seemingly innocuous street in central London. In fact, it soon became famous as the hub in London for acquiring everything from artistic, high-end nudes, through to... more blunt creations. That little dilapidated road in Victorian era London, was Holywell Street.

Holywell Street and the Black Market for Pornography

Holywell Street was a thoroughfare road that once run parallel with the Strand, before being destroyed when the Strand was widened in 1900. It was known as "Booksellers' Row" by the Victorians, but its otherwise forgettable history has instead been immortalized by its eminence in the trade of early photographic pornography.

Sketches of Holywell Street, London, by Frank Lewis Emanuel, published in The Architectural Review in 1898. Images in the public domain.

Holywell Street looked almost like a kind of remnant of Tudor London. It didn't look Victorian and modern; it was full of lurching timber frame houses, creaking shop signs, and the whole thing was dark. It was dominated by the Spire of Mary le Strand, which loomed over it. You would have had carts piled high with books rumbling down [the street] outside thirty or so book shops. — Dr. Matthew Green (Stephen Fry's Victorian Secrets)

Inside some of these book stores were vaguely secret collections of pornography. The advent of printing had resulted in a wealth of erotic material, starting back in the fifteenth century. These were popular and depicted everything from nudity to extremely graphic works of intercourse, with no detail spared. However, with the introduction of the daguerreotype method of photography, and then William Fox Talbot's calotype process in 1841, pornographers and photographers ushered in a new age for porn.

An early (and extremely expensive) hand colored daguerreotype portrait, by Félix-Jacques Antoine Moulin, around 1851. Image in the public domain.

The earliest daguerreotype pornography was not only startlingly high quality for the time and initially rare, but was colored by hand and sold for a high price. However the wealthy presented their interest (usually as fine art collectors), the demand for pornography spanned all classes, and as a result, photographers began to create cheaper alternatives. The subjects of early photographic pornography had invariably been the lower classes, and now, they were also the target audience for the sales of the results.

In 1857, the British government moved to ban the sale of obscene material, and the courts had the power to search for illegal pornography, seize it, and then destroy it. Many of the photographers, the shop owners, and even those involved in printing the images were imprisoned and forced into hard labor, where a large portion of them died.

The Obscene Publications Act was a somewhat failed attempt to stop the freedom of photography that had emerged, with fast-growing industries dedicated to the production and distribution of pornography, albeit through clandestine methods down creaky, old roads. The demand for knowledge, experience, and images of sex was high and universal across all walks of life. The courts wanted to stem that moral bleeding as they saw it and avoid the corruption of young minds.

Conclusion and the Sequel

The movement the daguerreotype process started was deep, dark, and dramatic. However, more interesting than the trade were some of the characters creating these sought-after portraits. One of the more interesting of these, whose images have been featured twice in this article, was Edward Linley Sambourne, and my next article will be about this artist and how he was arguably the first street style photographer in history, along his less public art. When that article is published, a link will appear here.

Lead image a composite using "Lily Pettigrew" by Edward Linley Sambourne (1889). Image in the Public Domain and used under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

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17 Comments

EL PIC's picture

Very Interesting ..
I wonder if the art world obsession of naked woman will ever stop ??
Hope not !!

https://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/us_563cc295e4b0411d3070a855/amp

The above link is more on his erotic work with links to many other early artistic erotic photographers.

William Howell's picture

My research is that the earliest nude photograph of a female is 1849, just twenty years after photography was innovated. It was a Daguerreotype and it was pretty high resolution. I have read that the Daguerreotype is still among some of the sharpest photographs.

Rod Kestel's picture

I've written the biography of a woman who managed a sex shop among other things, and she told me the customers were split pretty much 50-50 men-women.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Really? That's fascinating. The Victorian mindset was that women had no sexual desires and they didn't even consider that homosexuality in women was possible. I tried to find daguerreotype pornographic images of men from the time to even up the score a little, but it was for all intents and purposes, impossible. There were a few images that photographers took of black slaves in the U.S under the guise of "science" but I wasn't comfortable including it in this article. It's a complicated area.

Keith Mullin's picture

Just pop on over to the "Nude Art" community on this page and you STILL wont find many pictures of men, and none that I've seen where any genitalia is visible, which it being "art" would almost make sense if female genitalia weren't readily visible a large part of the time.

Rod Kestel's picture

A friend visited the Vatican and was struck by the great disparity in the numbers of male and female nudes.

Jon Winkleman's picture

I remember talk shows in the 1980’s such as Donahue having topics such as “Are All Women Capable of Having Orgasm” with (male) medical doctors saying not all women have orgasms. If you read the horribly misogynist and homophobic “Everything you wanted to know about sex but were afraid to ask” By Dr Paul Rueben, the book which was considered so cutting edge during the sexual revolution makes similar claims about female sexuality and labels women who have a healthy sexual appetite as suffering from the pathology of nymphomania and at risk for prostitution and lesbianism. I only with those attitudes ended with the end of the Victorian Age.

Regarding lesbianism in Ruben’s1969 book, he doesn’t even give woman sexuality enough credit to merit a chapter on female homosexuality. Lesbianism is merely a few paragraphs in the chapter on prostitution and this medical doctor explains that lesbianism is an unfortunate consequence of prostituion and other tragic circumstance that damage a woman’s ability to have healthy relationships with men.

Sue G's picture

Speaking as a woman .. nude modeling is both art and fun.
Its better with my clothes off.

Terry Waggoner's picture

I have a curious question...........why is a photo of a nude considered pornographic when it does not include a sexual act?

Probably for the same reason that you can't pay another person for sex. Unless you have someone film it. Or why an 18 year old can be paid for unprotected sex with a dozen partners but is too young to go out for a beer afterwards.

Sex and sexuality have a long, complicated history.

Terry Waggoner's picture

Your opinion is sound.......I'm just not sure that it answers, or is directly related to, the question.

Robert K Baggs's picture

It was seen as pornographic then, less so now. Also, there are far "bluer" photographs than the ones I shared, but I had to draw the line somewhere!

Terry Waggoner's picture

and yet there nude statues and paintings from that period..........

Robert K Baggs's picture

Interestingly, it was basically all above board while the rich were paying the working class women to pose for the early photographs, but once it became accessible to the working class, it became an issue. The more people who could afford to purchase the prints, the more moral outrage and then inevitably legislation. You can bet the wealthy were still buying it as fine art though.

Jon Winkleman's picture

Great article, very interesting. Historically let’s remember that every artistic medium was instantly utilized to depict erotica. That goes from prehistoric artifacts to Egypt, Mesopotamia, ancient Asia along with Western Art canon artists such as Michaelangelo, Raphael, Picasso, Brancusi and even the artists who created Superman. The first generation of moving images included porn. Sex is a important part of human existence. Though we should restrict access to young children, whether or not it is to our personal taste, we can acknowledge that human sexuality is just as much a part of legitimate art and art history as still lives of flowers.

FYI: the largest collection of Renaissance erotic art is owned by the Vatican though they do not display it.

Mike Dochterman's picture

whelp...as someone told me long ago - Q: what is the difference between a Photographer and a Pornographer???

A: THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE!

Adam T's picture

This article is much better if you read it in the voice of Nigel Thornberry in you head.