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HomeContents > People > Photographers > David Brewster

Other: Sir David Brewster 
Dates:  1781 - 1868
Active:  UK / Scotland
British physicist and developer of early photographic processes. In 1844 he invented the first stereoscope to use a separate eyepiece.

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Approved biography for David Brewster
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Irrepressible in his enthusiasm but irascible in temperament, the Scotsman Sir David Brewster was one of the most visible and respected scientists of the Victorian era. He was groomed for pastoral duties and served as a literary assistant to a clergyman-scholar in his youth. Uncomfortable in the pulpit because of his stammer, he would make his living not through saving souls but rather with his pen. As a scientific journalist, Brewster had access to all the latest ideas as well as a platform from which to project his own reputation. While today he is best known as a historian of science, Brewster was esteemed by his peers as a scientist and inventor, and was credited with the invention of the kaleidoscope and the stereoscope. Introduced to Talbot by Sir John herschel, Brewster became one of the inventor’s few intimate friends. Writing to her mother-in-law, Lady Elisabeth Feilding, Talbot’s wife was “quite amazed . . . that scarcely a momentary pause occurs in their conversation” between the two normally shy men, and that during Brewster’s visits her husband “seems to possess new life.” In 1839 Talbot turned almost immediately to Brewster to share his discovery of photography, and Sir David plunged into the new art with the greatest of enthusiasm. In the early days of photography, when Daguerre seemed to receive all the credit and Talbot at times despaired of the viability of photography on paper, the support of friends like Brewster and Herschel was critical. Brewster made his own calotype negatives and took equal pleasure in printing those made by others. His real significance in the history of photography, however, derives from his position at St. Andrews. He was central to the calotype movement there, inspiring first John Adamson and his younger brother Robert Adamson, who in turn enabled David Octavius Hill to accomplish what he did; it was James Francis Montgomery’s visit to St. Andrews to consult with Brewster on photography that led to the formation of the Edinburgh Calotype Club. Brewster was not a great photographer himself, but his influence in lending credibility to the new art was essential. In 1847 he confessed to Talbot: “I do not believe that a Child ever received a Toy with more pleasure than I do a Sun-Picture. It is a sort of monomania which my dealings with light have inflicted upon me.” 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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John Moffat
Sir David Brewster 
1864 (?)
Family history 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.81 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on David Brewster.] 
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