A MIRACLE ON SILVER! How great can a half plate daguerreotype be? I think that this sensational presentation with a tremendous amount of pertinent information carefully etched into the original cover glass is certainly a candidate for "first prize". Written across the top is: “Taken at Pittsburg, December 1st, 1847”. Above each of the four young adults are their names, beginning with the smiling guitarist: “C.H. Pugh, Ann Shaw, S.I. Robinson and Martha Shaw”. Each of the four subjects is exquisitely posed and when the sum of their positions is added together the whole pyramidal composition is an artistic triumph! Ms. Pugh was actually playing her instrument during the brief exposure of several seconds and calmly smiling as the melodious chords floated through the large room. Her companion, who is also seated on the very ornate sofa, with a shimmering wooden rail on top, has assumed a casual repose with one hand resting on the back of her neck and the other hand ready to turn the page of a large book of mezzotints. Miss Shaw is placidly gazing in the direction of the large wooden camera with a long, shiny, brass lens that has been placed upon a sturdy, three-legged wooden tripod. Her younger sister, Ann, is standing behind the musician and as placed her hand on Ms. Pugh's shoulder. Ann has cast her eyes down wards and is concentrating on Martha's book while certainly being fully aware of the close proximity of handsome Mr. Robinson. He has one arm around her waist and is resting his large, left hand on Martha's shoulder. I have concluded that the daguerreian etched the glass and wasn't from the area originally since he spelled Pittsburgh incorrectly (without the final h). This stunning example is one of the finest daguerreotypes that I have ever owned. The heavy plate has no hallmark and the corners have been clipped at a medium width. The sides are flat, the reverse is silvered and a very wide perimeter band holder was used to secure the plate while it was being exposed. There are random pliers marks scattered around the outer extremities of the plate. The man’s buffing technique was excellent and consequently the reflected depth of the subjects is amazing. The contrast and tonality can’t be more perfect. This operator’s sense of balance and composition is fully revealed in their supreme likeness. Interesting enough, he chose to softly focus the entire tableau. His use of illumination is splendid and each character's features are emphasized in the "best light". The creation of the contrasting fabric backdrop, with a highlight on the left and fading darkness on the right is exceptional. Both the sofa and the Shaw sister's dresses were originally colored a medium brown, but due to very excessive moisture under the glass, much of the tinting has disappeared. Part of the beauty in this masterpiece is its condition. The surface is vibrant and without any obvious flaws. Very old if not original paper seals were intact but quite brittle. Because the plate was tightly wedged in a rare, whole leather case, very little air reached the surface and consequently, there is almost no patina inside the octagonal, brass mat, which has many corrosion spots due to the moisture I mentioned above. The plate was carefully archivally resealed with the original glass, which is actually in excellent shape and not a liability to the image at this time. The pattern on the case is a swirl of geometrics with two birds flanking a small, center oval. A bright, red silk pad is opposite the foursome. On the reverse of the case, at the top, a paper label has been pasted and inside two parallel line lines is written in ink; Mrs. R.P. Walsh. This might be the name of one of the woman's husbands, with his initials or it might be a complete red herring. The label was probably attached about the turn of the century. I believe William Southgate Porter (possibly assisted by Samuel Hoge, who was announced as an assistant 4 days later) made this masterpiece, before he journeyed to Cincinnati and established himself as one of the most respected makers in the United States. Porter had begun his career in Baltimore, traveling to Pittsburgh in May 1847, where he established his gallery in that city in Philo Hall at Third St. Later, after Hoge was hired, he moved his studio to the Post Office Building on Third St. Porter’s last advertisement in the DAILY MORNING POST
in Pittsburgh ran April 26, 1848. Hoge took over the studio when Porter left to join his Baltimore partner Charles Fontayne who was already established in Cincinnati. (My endless thanks once again, to John Craig, who has done yeoman’s work cataloguing daguerreotypists. Please visit John’s site at: www.daguerreotype.com
The following article appeared in the Pittsburgh Gazette on December 11, 1847: “DAGUERRIAN.—We visited the Rooms of Mr. Porter, on Third street over the Post office, on Friday, and were pleased to see the correctness with which the portraits of numbers of our acquaintances were deliniated (sic). We have seen many daguerrian (sic) portraits, and some of striking individuality, but none more so than those recently taken by Mr. Hoge, the artist now operating at the rooms of Mr. Porter. This art is becoming more acurate (sic) and certain, under the hands of the skillful and scientific.” Carol Johnson, former curator of Photographs at the Library of Congress, found this additional information about the Shaw sisters. In the 1850 US census for Allegheny County in Lawrenceville PA, situated about 2.5 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh against the Allegheny River, William and Anne Shaw resided there and had two adult daughters, Martha 22 and Anne 20. They would have been about 19 and 17 years old respectfully when they posed for their likeness. Surprisingly, papa Shaw was listed both as a farmer in the census and a laborer in an entry from Fahnestock’s Pittsburgh directory for 1850. The family’s home at that time was on Covington St. Carol and I both wonder why the Shaw girls were part of the brilliant daguerreotype and were the guitarist or the dashing Mr. Robinson responsible for paying Porter? We both doubt that Mr. Shaw had the financial means. Neither Ms. Pugh nor Robinson have accurately been identified.
Dennis A. Waters at