In the mid-19th century, Paul Delaroche declared: "From today painting is dead." He made this apocalyptic prophecy in response to the rise of photography. A highly successful artist, Delaroche specialised in such elaborate and dramatic historical reconstructions as the National Gallery's Execution of Lady Jane Grey. But he could see that the growing technical prowess of the camera posed a threat, especially to painters whose reputations were based on mastering an extravagant amount of painstaking detail. The proliferation of photography threatened to make Delaroche's skill seem ordinary, and his gloom knew no bounds.
As it turned out, painting did not die. But Delaroche can hardly be blamed for giving way to hysteria. Speculation about the power of photography had been rife ever since the Gazette de France announced, on 6 January 1839, that an astounding invention had been made. Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a 52-year-old Frenchman, had discovered how to produce a photographic image of extraordinary precision. In a mood of Gallic triumph, the eminent scientist Francois Arago announced the advent of the daguerreotype to the Academie des Sciences. And, in August the same year, the French government boastfully revealed the technical secrets of this revolutionary process. But not before the wily Daguerre had taken out a patent for his discovery in England, where the appetite for photography was growing with spectacular speed.
Within a month of the French government's chauvinistic announcement, London was invaded by a zealous disciple of Daguerre's, A M de Ste Croix, who conducted demonstrations of the miraculous new process. He gave the first one on 13 September, the Catholic feast day of the Holy Cross - known in French as the Fete de Ste Croix. As such, historians have suspected that he was acting under a pseudonym, a possibility strengthened by the mysterious Frenchman's subsequent disappearance from the record books. But he was in London long enough to impress the "select number of scientific men and artists" who gathered to witness his demonstration.
Daguerre's apparatus, according to the one awed newspaper report, was "similar to that employed in the camera obscura. The invention is a great improvement on photogenic drawing, in as much as the representations of existing objects are more perfect, the minute details are accurately preserved, and to a slight degree the tints of colour secured. The shadow is not taken on paper, but on a thin plate of copper, plated with silver."
The result was a sensation. Everyone privileged to watch the daguerreotype process in action, and view the outcome, was enthralled by its ability to represent reality with such a mesmeric amount of detail. "The plate exhibits a perfect representation of the object or objects which have been conveyed into the focus of the camera obscura box," gasped one journalist, declaring with undisguised awe: "The picture produced was a beautiful miniature representation of houses, pathway, sky."
According to the leading photographic historian Mark Haworth-Booth, the curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a fascinating 1839 daguerreotype of Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square may have been produced by the elusive de Ste Croix. Although reversed, it shows the scene with astonishing verisimilitude. The equestrian statue of Charles I is clearly visible on his mount, as if advancing towards the site of his own execution outside the Banqueting House. He is still there today, and so are the iron bollards in the foreground. Even their cast ciphers of William IV can be detected on the print, along with the tea advertisements in the street lamps' globes. The only figures, who became the very first British people to appear in an extant photograph, are hansom cab drivers and a drunken man lolling against the bollards.
Such images introduced the wonders of photography to Britain. But the daguerreotype process was, at this stage, a cumbersome device. Exposure could take between 15 and 30 minutes, and the great pioneering English photographer William Henry Fox Talbot waspishly commented that Lord Brougham had been forced to sit "for his daguerreotype portrait half an hour in the sun and never suffered so much in his life". Such tribulations account for the grim, statuesque stiffness found in so many early photographs of Victorian sitters. But the ordeal did not put them off. Fascinated by the clinical exactitude of the daguerreotype, they proved willing to endure the discomfort of posing in order to show off the results.
After all, the photographic portrait proclaimed its sitter's social status. Once licences to practise the process were made available in London in 1846, a number of photographers opened special studios. Intriguingly, some collaborated with miniature painters who had become worried, like Delaroche, about the threat to their own livelihoods. Painted daguerreotypes proliferated, and William Edward Kilburn proudly advertised his new product in the Athenaeum, claiming that his hand-coloured daguerreotypes were "painted by M Mansion, whose productions on ivory were so celebrated in Paris. They have when finished all the delicacy of an elaborate miniature, with the infallible accuracy of expression only obtainable by the photographic process."
A great accolade was paid to the hand-coloured daguerreotype when three of Kilburn's images were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was a sign that the revolutionary process had become desirable at the highest levels of British society. Victorians had to hand over a substantial sum for the pleasure of owning a daguerreotype. Jean Claudet, who imported his plates from France, charged a hefty £1 3s 6d for a portrait, but clients were happy to pay him, encouraged by the knowledge that the Great Exhibition took photography very seriously indeed. It was even described by the exhibition's distinguished international jury as "the most remarkable discovery of modern times".
Nor was it seen solely in scientific terms, a clever yet fundamentally utilitarian invention, valuable above all as a documentary aid. In a remarkable prophecy, the jury decreed: "Time will show that this beautiful compound of art and science will essentially cast its weight into the balance of art." It was an accurate and enlightened prediction, by experts who realised that photography would introduce "a new era in pictorial representation". Painting certainly did not die, but Daguerre and other pioneers helped to ensure that the camera now plays an unprecedentedly potent role in the new art of the 21st century.
Richard Cork is chief art critic of the Times