1843 - Is this Ireland’s first selfie?

Self-portrait of Henry Craigie Brewster (1816 – 1905)

Henry Craigie Brewster was the youngest son of Sir David Brewster, the Scottish scientist, polymath, inventor of the kaleidoscope, and friend and regular correspondent of Henry Fox Talbot. Henry Craigie was therefore part of the lively photographic circle associated with his father and St Andrews University, which was one of the main centres for activity and experimentation in the calotype process.

Henry Craigie Brewster was a Captain with the 76th Regiment of Foot, which was stationed in Ireland in the early 1840s. While on leave in St Andrews he obtained a camera from the Edinburgh optician Thomas Davidson in order to photograph his regiment while assigned to Cork in Ireland.

His salt prints from calotype negatives – extremely faded – are the oldest extant photographs made in Ireland. They were taken between winter 1842 and May 1843, when the regiment transferred out of Cork.

The self-portrait, extremely faded, shows the photographer with his eyes closed. This was often the practise in the very early years of calotype portraiture on account of the long exposures required.

Brewster was later posted to Plymouth, Corfu and Cephalonia, from where he sent home pen and ink sketches rather than further photographic works. This would further support the contention that this self-portrait is indeed Ireland’s earliest surviving selfie.

The Brewster Album
These and other calotypes were collated into an album by Sir David Brewster and his wife Julia. Now known as ‘the Brewster Album’, this thick, leather-bound volume contains almost two hundred photographs ranging in date from 1839 to the 1850s, with the majority from the 1840s. There is an extensive series of photographs taken by Henry Fox Talbot, and Dr John Adamson, as well as smaller groups of photographs and single images by a wide variety of early practitioners including Sir John Herschel, Henry Collen, Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, and Brewster’s son, Henry Craigie Brewster. It would appear that the images were gifts from their makers. Some have hand-written annotations by Sir David as to who the photographer was and what or who is depicted. The complete Album is now in the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Image courtesy J. Paul Getty Museum

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *