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  John Werge, photographer

John Werge was born into the tiny Newcastle, England enclave of Bentham on December 8, 1824 (although some sources list the year as 1825). As a teenager, he worked as an apprentice to a local engraving company, which is where he first became introduced to the newly developed photographic process known as daguerreotype. Finding the necessary equipment to implement the technique proved quite challenging, but a friend came to the rescue by selling him daguerreotype tools he picked up while traveling in Edinburgh, which consisted of, among others, a wooden camera, tripod, a Slater 1/4 plate lens, chemicals, coating and mercury boxes, and a portable darkroom. Unfortunately, Mr. Werge's family did not share his enthusiasm for the new process, and his father promptly enrolled him in London's Government School of Design (now the Royal College of Art), where he studied painting and music. However, by age 25, Mr. Werge defied his family by becoming a daguerreotype apprentice for photographer George Brown.

By 1850, the young photographer opened a gallery in the market district of Hexham, specializing in small (2-1/2 x 2") "parlor portraits." Dismal business necessitated subsequent moves to Seaham Harbour, Middlesborough, and London, where he was introduced to American daguerreotypes of Niagara Falls at the 1851 Great Exhibition of All Nations. After briefly returning to his hometown to hone his seascape skills, he left for America, and after an arduous journey arrived in New York in June 1853. Impressed by the operators' studios but not their coloring, Mr. Werge instructed them on his effective color techniques, which landed him a job at the prestigious Meade Brothers gallery. The following year, he was on the move again, traveling to Niagara Falls, where he met daguerreotypist Platt D. Babbitt. He colored Mr. Babbitt's plates while making several photographs of the Falls.

Upon his return to England, Mr. Werge discovered that Cornelius Jabez Hughes needed a colorist for his Glasgow studio. Shortly thereafter, Hughes moved to London, and sold interest in his business to his young employee. He transitioned into the collodion process, and produced ambrotypes, color prints, and his trademark parlor portraits. Tragedy struck in January 1860, when Mr. Werge lost his home and business in a fire. He packed up and returned to America, where he bought half interest in the Meade Brothers gallery, and shortly thereafter assumed full ownership. He quickly developed a successful business selling cartes de visite, but then the Civil War intervened. Mr. Werge returned to London, where he accepted a job to manage Cornelius Jabez Hughes' Oxford Street studio. He also became a popular lecturer or photographic processes and a contributor to The Photographic News. He married Emily Anna Piper in 1862, with whom he would have six children. In 1866, he became a member of the Royal Photographic Society and founded the Solar Club. He continued lecturing and experimenting with dry plate techniques. His voluminous text, The Evolution of Photography, was published in 1890 and remains in print. John Werge retired in 1892, and settled with his family in Hampstead, where he died on May 15, 1911 at the age of 86.

1890 The Evolution of Photography by John Werge (London: Piper and Carter; New York: Amo Press reprinted 1973), pp. 36-37, 40-41, 44, 45-47, 51, 53, 55, 70, 73, 83, 85, 87, 96, 103-104, 114, 118, 319.

2016 Lot 2: Platt D. Babbitt (1823-1879) Pair of Whole-Plate Ambrotypes of a Thundering and Misty Niagara Falls (URL:

1904 Northlight, No. VII (Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University), pp. 69-74.

1998 The Silver Canvas (Los Angeles, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum), p. 65.

2016 Werge, John (URL:

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2017-06-24 07:56:16

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