A (Very) Brief Introduction to the British Tintype

The tintype was an early Victorian photographic process which enjoyed huge popularity in the United States of America after its introduction in the late 1850s but it never achieved the same acceptance in Great Britain. Excited by other new experimental visual practices, the British photographic establishment quickly rejected the process and ignored its commercial applications, with one individual describing it as having “such a bilious tint” and being “unworthy of the present times”.1 Even in the 20th century, these small, dark images made on iron plates were derided as “these hideous, cheap-looking pictures”2 by eminent historians Helmut and Alison Gernsheim and this dismissal within British photographic history has continued to this day.

Agricultural worker with horse-drawn wooden cart
Unidentified photographer
Date unknown
¼ plate tintype
Sheila Masson Collection
The pose and subject matter of this image suggest that this man was particularly proud of his large draught horse and cart. Furthermore, ¼ plate tintypes were relatively uncommon and would have been more expensive than the typical 1/6th plates sold in Britain. Note the crazing of the collodion surface across the plate and the bubbling and rusting around the outside perimeter.

At 160 years since its invention, there are still no major publications written exclusively about the British tintype, although there are numerous titles discussing their American cousins. Even books focussing on historic photography at the British seaside typically ignore them 3 despite their considerable connection. Similarly British tintypes are typically infrequently exhibited except as side notes to other techniques. In contrast, in 2008 the International Center of Photography in New York staged a dedicated exhibition entitled America and the Tintype which featured several hundred examples from both the Permanent Collection of the I.C.P. and from private collections. Further more, the International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, currently includes a prominent display of tintypes in its history of photography gallery, directly adjacent to an American daguerreotype and also a calotype by D.O. Hill and Robert Adamson who formed the first Scottish photographic studio.

There has been a continual denigration of the tintype in the history of British photography which was inherited from the Victorians and which persists today. Despite this, the tintype has social and photographic significance in Britain which deserves greater consideration and acknowledgement. Happily I may now note that the 2015 “Photography: A Victorian Sensation” exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has a large selection of tintypes on display, both from the Bernard Howarth-Loomes collection and on loan from the National Media Museum in Bradford. The exhibition “Victorian Britain and Tintype Photograph” and accompanying book (in the works) are part of an endeavour to establish the British tintype as a legitimate (if small) player in British photographic history.

1 The Photographic News XVIII, no. 789 (October 17, 1873): 501.
2 Helmut Gernsheim and Alison Gernsheim, The History of Photography: From the earliest use of the camera obscura in the eleventh century up to 1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 170.
3 Philippe Garner, A Seaside Album: Photographs and Memory (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003).

21st Century British Tintypists Needed!


“Taro Plant”, © Brittonie Fletcher. http://www.brittoniefletcher.com

I’m looking for any British (or British-domiciled) tintype photographers who would like to be interviewed for a chapter in my book on the history of the British tintype. Ideally I would do a phone interview of about 20-30 minutes in the next few weeks and ask questions about your practice – at a time that is convenient for you. If possible I would also like to include one of your images in the book as well. If you (or any other British tintypists whom you know) are interested, please contact me, Sheila Masson, at britishtintypes@gmail.com and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. Thank you!

Working Stiffs

The Beach Photographer H. Cowham Raphael Tuck & Sons' “Seaside” Series Sent from Frinton on Sea, Essex, 1905 Sheila Masson Collection

The Beach Photographer
H. Cowham
Raphael Tuck & Sons’ “Seaside” Series
Sent from Frinton on Sea, Essex, 1905
Sheila Masson Collection

The operations of working class photographers, and in particular, the itinerant photographer, were largely ignored by the vocal and opinionated Victorian photographic establishment who lamented that they were “destitute of artistic taste”.1 To them, the only socially acceptable form of photography was that undertaken by “gentlemen of refinement and education” who were in search of a higher art form.2 The concept of photography as a means to make money was largely derided by The British Journal of Photography, who in 1867 suggested that it had “done quite as much to lower the status of photography in the public eye, as if they had systematically and knowingly set about degrading it for some sinister purposes of their own.”3

A correspondent to The Photographic News in 1864 wrote:

Swarms of other men, who have been brought up behind grocers’ and drapers’ counters, go out as operators, and as soon as they have learned the mechanical part of the business, borrow £50 or £100 from their uncle, and start in business for themselves…”

Unfortunately we have few first-hand accounts from these operators, possibly due to a lack of education on their part, and therefore most references to itinerant photographers are made by their monied critics. Hostility was also expressed by studio photographers whose businesses were threatened by these mobile interlopers. Audrey Linkman noted that “these established photographers were significantly opposed to, and indeed threatened by, the activities of the travelling operator, who would roll into town in horse-drawn wagons or pushing handcarts…these itinerants produced unwelcome competition, and could lead to a damaging diminution of profits.”4

Others photographers faced opposition enforced by local government, and London photographers in particular were felt to be a social scourge and so bylaws were introduced which attempted to remove such perceived blights from parks and heaths. There was clearly tension between photographers and the local municipalities that occasionally ended in court proceedings – which the photographic journals reported on with relish. Nevertheless, as the number of photographic studios increased in towns and competition grew fierce, some of these itinerant tintypists may have been forced to lower their prices, establish or join a studio, or to return to their previous occupations.

An up-to-date Gainsborough. “Arriet” The Star Series – GD&D. London Undated Sheila Masson Collection

An up-to-date Gainsborough. “Arriet”
The Star Series – GD&D. London
Sheila Masson Collection

1 British Journal of Photography XIV, no. 352 (February 1, 1867): 47.

2 The Photographic News XVI, no. 724 (July 19, 1872): 347.

3 British Journal of Photography, XIV, no. 352 (February 1, 1867): 47.

4 Audrey Linkman, “The Itinerant Photographer in Britain 1850-1880”, History of Photography 14, no. 1 (January-March 1990): 50.

Seaside Tintypes

The most easily identified and most commonly found British tintype are the seaside portraits where families pose with buckets and spades in the sand or lounge in deck chairs on pebbled beaches with wrought iron piers in the background. Holidaymakers, possibly on their one grand day out per year, were able to have their photograph taken without even leaving their spot on the beach; an itinerant photographer would have pushed his cart along the sand looking for willing customers, without a need to entice sitters into a back street studio. In these seaside towns, photography was rapidly becoming a form of cheap entertainment. It could be consumed on impulse by those who might otherwise be tempted by a donkey ride, fairground attraction or other inexpensive amusement. What we would now consider a humble holiday snapshot was then a significant document of both a long-anticipated experience and possibly the first ever photographic portrait of that particular person. Furthermore it was made outside of the artificial and formulaic photographic studio and allows us, the present day onlooker, a view of a far more normalised and unconstructed environment. The seaside might also be the one place where middle class people could safely and easily have a tintype made – as a fun, spur-of-the-moment amusement in keeping with other beach entertainment. I recently saw a Victorian photo album filled with formal studio carte-de-visite portraits of a middle class individuals, but which also contained tintypes of groups of 5-8 people informally bunched together, as if on a relaxed family outing or community excursion. Apparently in these circumstances having a tintype portrait made was acceptable, as long as it was part of a larger social experience.

Family portrait at the seaside Unknown photographer Date unknown 6th plate tintype Sheila Masson Collection This image illustrates the incongruous outfits worn to the Victorian seaside compared with modern day beach attire: note the father's top hat juxtaposed with the hobnail boots on all of the children.

Family portrait at the seaside
Unknown photographer
Date unknown
6th plate tintype
Sheila Masson Collection
This image illustrates the incongruous outfits worn to the Victorian seaside compared with modern day beach attire: note the father’s top hat juxtaposed with the hobnail boots on all of the children.

Arts Press blog post on Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph

Timothy Cornwell of Arts Press visited the exhibition and wrote a great piece about the show. Here is a small except – click here for the full article.



About seven years ago, photographer Sheila Masson took a curious vintage photograph that she’d bought home to show her father, who’d worked for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York, for 35 years.  “I said ‘I don’t know what it is, it’s really weird’, and he said ‘that’s a tintype’. I had never heard of them.”

The British-born Masson has since moved back to the UK, broadening her work from photography to research, taking a master’s degree in photographic history from the University of St Andrews.   She has also built up a collection of about 300 tintype photographs, mainly bought in Britain.

Tintypes emerged in the late 1850s as a cheaper and quicker successor to the daguerrotype.   Also known as ferrotypes, they are single prints on a thin varnished iron plate covered with liquid collodion. They could be quickly exposed, developed, and fixed with a large plate camera and a mobile studio.

Hardy and inexpensive, tintypes were hugely popular in the US, carried by soldiers in the Civil War.    Typically, in Victorian Britain, itinerant tintype photographers went town to town, particularly to beach resorts, wheeling a trolley which could carry a light-safe tent.   But in a period rife with social prejudice, they were long disregarded; both photographers, and their subjects, were overwhelmingly of working class.

That is still reflected today.   While both the Museum of Modern Art and the International Centre of Photography in New York have hosted major tintype exhibitions, Masson’s recent showing of her collection in Edinburgh was billed as the first of its kind in the UK.

In an international market where vintage photographs are swapped around in internet auctions, shots of families and children in Sunday best for a beach outing, pictured with buckets and spades or on a donkey ride, are the trade marks of a particularly British tintype.   These early snapshots have an inimitable charm.

Masson, whose own photographs have been used in Vanity Fair and national newspapers here, comes decisively at tintype history from the class angle.   “In the UK,” she said, “most people have absolutely no idea what a tintype is, although they were made here. For various different reasons they have been ignored by the photographic establishment, by the British history of photography in general.”

She hopes to change that.  Her Edinburgh show, Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph, now closed, but part of the Actinic festival, will with luck travel on to very appropriate setting of the seaside resort of Scarborough. Next year she plans to take a show to London, when her book, the first history of British tintypes, is due to come out.

To read the full article, click here.

Press for Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph

The Scotsman newspaper featured a plate from the exhibition as part of their coverage of the Actinic Festival and the Retina Scottish International Photography Festival (both of whose umbrellas we are under) on Sunday July 11th. (Click image for a larger view.)

SCotsman WeekendLIfe 2015-07-11 p


Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph: An Exhibition of Victorian Tintypes Curated by Sheila Masson


This exhibition (possibly the first dedicated British tintype exhibition ever) aims to reveal the Victorian tintype as a fascinating and invaluable visual document of the working class, and to help reposition tintypes as a significant and worthy subject within photographic history. Curated from her private collection by photo historian Sheila Masson (MLitt History of Photography, University of St Andrews) over 100 original Victorian tintypes will be on display in Edinburgh from June 27th to July 18th, 2015.

Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph
An exhibition of Victorian tintypes curated by Sheila Masson

English Speaking Union Scotland Gallery,
23 Atholl Crescent, Edinburgh, EH3 8HQ

Saturday 27th June – 18th July 2015

Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: 9am-5pm
Saturday: 11am-6pm
Closed Tuesdays and Sundays

Exhibition talk: Thursday July 9, 7-9pm

A Look Back at the Exhibition in Pictures

AnneleenLindsay1Photo copyright Anneleen Lindsay

Now that Victorian Britain and the Tintype Photograph has ended its June-July 2015 run at the English Speaking Union Scotland Gallery in Edinburgh, here is a brief look back at the exhibition.

The start of the exhibition.







General view of the ESU Scotland gallery.








A visitor to the exhibition using one of the magnifying glasses provided.









Visitors examining the tintypes (those who are very shortsighted found they didn’t need the magnifying glasses!).









A selection of mounted and unmounted gem tintypes, some of which included studio/photographers’ branding and pricing.









A visitor to the exhibition.