Mary Fairfax Mrs William Somerville 1780 1872 Writ

Mary Somerville: Refocusing the Queen of Science

Event info

Photo Oxford Festival, in partnership with the RPS, presents Mary Somerville: Refocusing the Queen of Science.

This talk from Rose Teanby ARPS revisits Mary Somerville’s chemical ray experiments, conducted four years before the announcement of photography in 1839, positioning them within the context of photographic chemistry. Her experiments, involving the transmission of light through coloured glass onto paper coated with silver chloride, were documented in contemporary publications including editions of her pioneering account of scientific advancements, On the Connexions of the Physical Sciences. Yet she remains largely absent from photographic history.

It highlights her documentation of these experiments, from 1840 to the revised 1858 edition, published in her 78th year. Somerville’s correspondence with Sir John Herschel and Michael Faraday is also discussed.

Somerville introduced the nineteenth century reader to photographic principles as its evolution ran parallel with her publications. Photography was a perfect fit for her unique combination of scientific curiosity, practical experimentation into the properties of light and desire to communicate to a wide readership.

Somerville deserves greater recognition for her contribution to pre-photographic chemistry and promotion of photography through her highly successful scientific publications.

Rose Teanby is a PhD candidate at the Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University, researching early women photographers 1839-1861. She is also an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society. Rose has spoken on various aspects of photographic history at the National Portrait Gallery, De Montfort University, Birmingham University, Newcastle upon Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society and New York Public Library.

At last year’s Photo Oxford Festival, with the RPS, she presented an online talk 'The First Women of Photography' and contributed a blog 'Searching for Hidden Early Women Photographers'.

The talk will be followed by a public Q+A. Questions will be taken by Zoom chat. Your Zoom link will be sent in PDF with your booking confirmation. 

This talk is free but space is limited and requires booking.  It is not being recorded. 

The Photo Oxford Festival 2021 is themed around Women & Photography. Ways of seeing and being seen. It runs from 15 October to 15 November 2021. 

Image: Thomas Phillips. Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780-1872. National Galleries Scotland / Creative Commons CC by NC.

Event Organiser

Michael Pritchard


Cancellation policy

This is an online event. The RPS will do its best to ensure that it keeps to the published timings and runs as planned. In the unlikely event that the event has to be cancelled all participants will be advised by email at the earliest opportunity.  No responsibility will be accepted for any consequential losses.



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