Walter L. Colls: Copperplate Engraver & Amateur Photographer
Exact dates for the English copperplate engraver, amateur photographer and Linked Ring Brotherhood member Walter L. Colls are unclear, but details of his life emerge through his record of works executed. Colls is believed to have been the son of English fine art dealer Lebbeus Colls, 1818-1897 (1) and he developed an interest in amateur photography sometime before 1885. His early efforts were exhibited at the London Exhibition of Amateur Photography that year, where the London correspondent E.R.P. writing on April 30th for the Boston-based cycling magazine Outing described his entries- A Few Instantaneous Bits as: “Among other good work deserving of special mention are…a capital group of swans on the water; several really very fine”. 2.
Colls soon began exhibiting his work in the Royal Photographic Society exhibitions beginning in 1887 and later showed examples of his engraved commission work with them into the early 1900’s. Known by his professional Linked Ring pseudonym Aquafortist when first inducted in 1892, he later served as part of the Photographic Salon’s General Committee responsible for picture selection. Beginning in 1895, Colls received The Linked Ring’s commission to produce an annual portfolio of photogravures for the Salon exhibits from 1895-1897.
Initially trained as an artist, (3) Colls had come from a family immersed in photography since the calotype era, as his father as well as his uncle Richard Colls had exhibited “Sun pictures” before (presumably) he was born as early as 1851. (4) At some point, most likely in the early 1870’s, Colls learned the trade and art of copperplate engraving and became a specialist in the area of reproducing photographs by this method, probably after joining Alfred Dawson’s London firm The Typographic Etching Company. Before leaving in late 1888 or early 1889, he had rose up their ranks to become chief photo-etcher. 5.
At around this time or earlier, Colls had become good friends with English photographer (born Cuba) Peter Henry Emerson. They both are named vice-presidents in the newly formed (1888) West London Photographic Society beginning in 1889. 6.
Before leaving The Typographic Etching company, Colls had partnered along with Alfred Dawson to produce the photogravures for Emerson’s book Wild Life on a Tidal Water (published 1890). 7.
Emerson may have been directly responsible for Colls leaving this firm, or at least giving him the opportunity to do so after singing his praises and quoting him directly on his Methods of Reproducing Negatives from Nature for the Copper-Plate Press in his groundbreaking book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art. (1889) An excerpt:
“Mr. Colls is a careful worker and perhaps therein lies the secret of his success. It is perhaps invidious to select a firm for special mention, but as the results of Mr. Colls are in every way so superior when artistically considered, we feel it our duty to record the fact here for the benefit of the student.” 8.
In 1889, Colls would also produce the large-plate photogravure Breezy Marshland (22 x15”) for Emerson (9) and went on to personally teach him the process of photogravure after Emerson purchased his own copperplate press.
Colls commission work focused mainly on the production of copper plates for the reproduction of artwork, but occasionally he would combine his talents as a photographer. One interesting collaboration involved working with his brother Harry Colls, himself an illustrator. Harry Colls provided the majority of the artwork (done in 1896-97) and Walter the photographs for the first volume of the 1901 book The Tower of London. 10.
As late as 1929, Colls continued to work from his Barnes studio, printing the copper plates executed by illustrator David Jones for a limited edition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 11.
A further examination of Colls professional life and relationship with The Linked Ring can be found here.
1. Colls biography: PhotoLondon website: 2011
2. Outing-An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation: Vol. VI: 1885: The Wheelman Company: Boston: p. 484
3. Photo-Mechanical Processes: in: Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art: P. H. Emerson: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington: Second Edition Revised: London: 1890: p. 209
4. Reports by the Juries-on The Subjects in the Thirty Classes into which the Exhibition was Divided: William Clowes & Sons: London: 1852: p. 278
5. Excerpt reprint: in: The Photographic Times: 1898: p. 448: from: Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art: P. H. Emerson: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington: London: 1889
6. Photographic Societies of the British Isles and British Colonies: in: The International Annual of Anthonys Photographic Bulletin: Iliffe & Son: London: Volume II: 1889: p. 478
7. P.H. Emerson-The Fight for Photography as a Fine Art: Nancy Newhall: An Aperture Monograph: New York: 1975: p.83
8. Excerpt reprint: in: The Photographic Times: 1898: p. 448: from: Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art: P. H. Emerson: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington: London: 1889
9. English Notes: Talbot Archer: in: Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin: E.& H.T. Anthony & Co.: New York: May 24, 1890: p. 299
10. Introduction: in: The Tower of London: Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, F.S.A.: George Bell & Sons: London: Vol. 1,1901: xi
11. colophon: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Published by Douglas Cleverdon: Fanfare Press: Bristol: 1929