In 2017, Lacy Scott and Knight, an independent and longstanding firm of auctioneers and property valuers, were tasked with carrying out the valuation of items discovered at Thorne Court, just outside of Bury St Edmunds. During that visit, they unearthed the legacy of Dr Alfred Swaine Taylor, also known as the ‘father of British forensic medicine’.
The items, which were entered into an auction, included a collection of early Victorian daguerreotypes, whose creation is attributed to Taylor. The daguerreotypes comprised images of Taylor and his family, buildings and fauna. Some of these images were said to have the initials of Taylor’s wife, Caroline Taylor, possibly one of the first though relatively unknown women photographers.
Other items included journals, letters and first editions of Taylor’s publications. Journals can be a gateway to a person’s life and thoughts. Here, I have imagined and created a part fiction, part fact entry from the journal – an ode to his wife, Caroline Taylor, who seems to have been missed from the annals of history.
Alfred Swaine Taylor— a toxicologist, medical writer, and jurist by profession; some might even consider me the ‘father of British forensic medicine’. Photography has always been my passion and elsewhere I have been referred to as a pioneer in photography. However, with names like Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre around, I would be wary of attaching such a description to myself. Beyond titles and accolades, I consider myself to be the fortunate husband of a remarkable woman named Caroline Taylor.
History has been unfair to women like Caroline in that their stories are, at best, swiftly glossed over, and at worst, completely erased. Caroline was instrumental in all the success and fame I achieved. I myself am guilty of not promoting her name and talents to the world as much as I should have—Caroline Taylor, photographer, wife, mother, and possessor of a brilliant mind.
Caroline was born on 16th January 1810, the youngest and only daughter of stockbroker John Cancellor and Caroline Hall. She was only two months old when her mother passed away. Her father never remarried.
The men in her life were well placed—her maternal grandfather was a captain in the East India Company and her eldest brother was a barrister who became a Master of the Court of Common Pleas. The other two brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and became stockbrokers while the youngest ran a starch production factory.
What was Caroline like, you might wonder? She was a true Capricorn—ambitious, hardworking and enterprising. She didn’t want adulation but she wanted recognition. I was to discover these traits in her after our marriage.
Caroline lived with her family in London at Upper Gower Street, St Pancras, just a twenty minute walk from my residence in Soho. She was twenty four when we got married in 1834. We only had a four year age gap. I suppose that made it easier for us to communicate with each other and respond to the marriage on an equal footing.
Before the wedding, she had told me about the foolproof will that her father had written, ensuring that her inheritance would not be endangered by the careless or unscrupulous ways of any future husband. I respected the fact that she was aware of her financial security and was not shy of embracing or enforcing it.
This independent streak attracted me to her even more. I knew that because of my chosen field of study, and the name I had created for myself among the medical and judicial circles (I was the witness that coroners referred to), I would be able to financially support us and our family.
A year into our marriage, we had a son whom we named Richard. Sadly, he passed away when he was only five months old. We were blessed with a daughter, Edith, in 1844.
Writing was an important part of my working life. Despite the fact that Caroline had our home and child to take care of, she played a huge role in revising my books before they were ready for publication. This was not an easy task as the books, including Elements of Medical Jurisprudence, A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence, and On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jurisprudence had several editions, comprising my experiments and experiences on actual cases, information on other cases gathered from newspapers and journals, as well as correspondences between me and other scientists.
The content would have been deemed ‘un-ladylike’, what with references to poisonings, wounds, drowning, and sexual crimes. But Caroline was not the squeamish type. Her curious mind – which almost verged on seeking thrill – was matched by her appetite for diligence and hard work, making her the perfect person for such a laborious job. My one regret is that I didn’t push for her name to be included in the titles of the books, as my editor or co-collaborator.
Photography was another shared interest of Caroline and mine. I had published On the Art of Photogenic Drawing in 1840, a year before Henry Fox Talbot patented his calotypes. I had also made the acquaintance of Talbot’s first licensee, Henry Collen, and wrote to him in 1843 that I wanted to send someone to measure his camera so I could get a similar one made and experiment as an amateur.
I coached Caroline in the art of calotypes but because she was practicing without a license, she couldn’t go public with her work. The license, even for amateurs, cost two guineas. I regret not having bought the license, perhaps prevented by my vanity in thinking that Talbot’s model still needed a lot more work before it was perfect. Had I purchased the license, Caroline would have had free reign, her work out in the public domain without any contest.
On her part, Caroline, didn’t insist I purchase the license, happily sharing in our secret. In 1856, after Talbot’s patent had expired, the Norwich Photographic Society exhibited two calotypes by a ‘Mrs. Taylor’. Hopefully, someone in the future will identify whether these calotypes belong to Caroline and give her the credit she deserves.
During her time, Caroline learnt gold chloride restoration technique and silver halide photography. Her photographic prints included the etchings of Rembrandt, a print of Milano cathedral, and copies from works by Pinelli, Bonnington, Calcott, and Landseer. It also included English scenery including Kenilworth, Tintern and Hampstead.
As I reflect on the life I shared with Caroline, I marvel at the intelligence, skill, and curiosity she possessed to get involved in areas, such as science and photography, which were typically the reserve of men. I regret not doing enough to ensure her name and legacy survived.
A Creative Non-Fiction Piece by Shyama Laxman
Suggested further reading:
“Much Remains to be Done” – The Pioneering Work in Photography of Alfred Swaine Taylor by Darran P. M. Green (2018)
‘His heart was with his work’ Alfred Swaine Taylor and Caroline Taylor: a brief biography by Michael Pritchard available on British Photographic History website