De-Composing Composites

Research visit to the Galton Collection London July 2014

This time easily find my way to Wolfson House in a side street of London’s Euston Station.  At the door I am greeted by the porter who was also present last year. I am early, so I go up and sit down in the staff kitchen in the fifth floor where I meet Subhadra Das some minutes later. We chat for some time and it feels like coming home.  The archive has returned to its old location after the refurbishment, this allows me to view the collection of artefacts and instruments that was packed away last time. I am here to explore the sources of the composite portraits and to trace connections to other archives and institutions.

Addressing Artefacts

Later in the morning a group of visitors from an American University arrives and Subhadra gives a tour through the collection. She skillfully uses individual artifacts and objects to guide through Galton’s career and his major achievements. A serviette ring with pyramids hints at the young explorer’s travels to Cairo and up the Nile, the source of the Nile being a recurrent subject in Galton’s later work in the National Geographic Society. A quite similar shaped, but entirely different object, a South-West-African wristband shows his travels as the first European into the interior of what is today known as Namibia. Prove of his gift as a developer are specifically designed apparatuses for morse communication by use of a mirror, a portable finger printing machine, as well as calipers and measuring devices for anthropometrical purposes. It is hard not to collapse in the hot and tiny rooms, but this approach to Galton’s through the objects in the collection really makes sense and could be a great contribution to the publication on composite photography I am planning as part of my project. Subhadra closes her tour with an observation of analogies in the character structure between Galton an the notoriously self-centered nerd character Sheldon in the US TV series “The Big Band Theory” and involves the psychology students in a discussion about the characters oscillating between genius and madness.

Instruments & Measurements

The most interesting part of the collection of objects are the various measuring instruments. Unlike many of his contemporaries Galton developed and designed many of the instruments himself. Apart from early inventions such as a mirror-morse machine for communication in the uncharted African landscape, to secret counting devices that could be used inside the pockets, there are a number of instruments aimed as measuring the human body and face. The scientific endeavours of measuring the human culminated in the “Anthropometric Laboratory” Galton was constructing for the International Health exhibition of 1884 in South Kensington whose announcement poster and some of the record cards are preserved in the collection. It was developed with the help of his friend and University College philosophy professor George Croom Robertson[1]. While some instruments could be used and adapted from anthropometric and phrenological measurements, many of the instruments for “testing and measuring the efficiency of the various mental and bodily powers”[2] had to be designed by Galton himself. The tests included tests of sight and hearing, colour sense, breathing power, reaction time, strength, as well as biometric measurements such as height, span of arms, length of arm and middle finger. The results were noted on registry cards along with (anonymized) personal information (date of birth, sex, marital status) and a registry number. At the first appearance of the Anthropometric Laboratory measurements of the head were not included, but in later versions length and width of head and fingerprints were added. The laboratory collected well over 10000 sets of data in its 4 year existence – data that laid the basis for Galton’s theoretical work on heredity, his work on statistics, and his influential book “Natural Inheritance” that continued to be a central reference throughout his later career and eugenic endeavours. Interestingly around the same time Alphonse Bertillon in the Police Prefecture of Paris was developing ways of measuring the human frame, albeit for different reasons, his aim was the infallible identification of individuals along their biometric characteristics.

De-Composing Composites

Later I get back to the collection of glass negatives and composite portraits I was exploring during my first visit. Going back the original negatives I will try to find out about the sources and the origins of the individual portraits. The source images of the composites on mental illness reveal that the portraits were taken in the Asylums of Bethlehem and Hanwell. The male inmates wear asylum uniforms, plates bearing numbers and the letters BTHLM are attached to their coats. They are depicted in seated in full face, their hands folded in the lap. Apparently they were told to look straight ahead with a neutral expression.  This mode of depiction shows close resemblance to the way prisoners were depicted during that time. On the margins of the glass negatives the names of the individuals are inscribed. The portraits from Hanwell Asylum are taken in a similar manner, but in this case there are no signs, a number and the names, are directly inscribed on the glass negatives.  Consulting the Archive of Bethlem Hospital, I am told that there is almost no material on Galton’s involvement with their institution and the curators only became aware of the presence of the portraits in the Galton Collection some years ago. Unfortunately the archive cannot receive me on short notice so I will have to explore the collection at a later visit. The quest for the portraits used for the composites of “criminal types”, Galton’s first experiment with composite photography, on the other hand take me to the collection of early prison photography in Bedford, north of London and to the National Archives in Kew Gardens, London. In this respect I can establish connections from the pioneers of judiciary photography in Great Britain in the Bedford collection to the photographs taken in Pentonville Prison that were later used by Galton as source for his early composite portraits.

[1] Gillham, Nicholas Wright: A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001, 211.

[2] Pearson, Karl: The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton II. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1924. Quoted in: Gillham, Nicholas Wright: A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001, 211.