University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Men of eminence: science, photography and biography in the self-fashioning of Robert Hunt in 19th-century England

Men of eminence: science, photography and biography in the self-fashioning of Robert Hunt in 19th-century England

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This paper considers the way the one Victorian man of science – Robert Hunt (1807–1887) – employed biography and the photographic portrait in his wider self-fashioning. A chemist, experimental researcher on light and photography, folklorist, geologist and writer, Hunt manoeuvred his way from humble beginnings in Devon and Cornwall to the relative heights of metropolitan science in mid-19th century London. He used his talents in chemistry, photography and writing, together with support from powerful patrons, to enter the world of science and social respectability. He is a good example of men who, through their talents, exertions and institutional networks, forged careers in professional science in this period. Like many such men, Hunt lacked the gentlemanly background that had hitherto dominated the world of science. While Hunt’s experiments in genres of science writing and his romantic geological interests have recently received scholarly attention, notably from historian of science Melanie Keane, the connections between his literary exertions and his experiments in visual culture have been little studied. This paper considers Robert Hunt’s own photographic image and how he used the art of biography to write himself into the history of science. It pays particular attention to Hunt’s work in one particular experimental photographic and biographical publication: photographic portraits of men of eminence in literature, science and art, with biographical memoirs, published in six volumes from 1863 to 1867, with photographs by Ernest Edwards, edited by Lovell Augustus Reeve (1814–1865) and E. Walford. In doing so the paper seeks to open up questions about the significance of the photographic portrait and biography in the cultural framing of scientific, gender and class identities in mid-19th century Britain.

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