Amelia Elizabeth Guppy née Parkinson
National Portrait Gallery Photographs Collection NPG x200115
By kind permission of the Guppy Family
Amelia Elizabeth Guppy was “a lady of wildly independent mould and adventurous spirit, as well as of considerable talent as an artist”. She turned her talents to photography becoming only the second woman to join the Photographic Society in 1853, and first woman member to exhibit photographs the following year.
Amelia Elizabeth Parkinson was the daughter of Richard Parkinson (1782-1851) and Lucy Lechmere Parkinson (1788-1834), born into a comfortable life at Kinnersley Castle, Herefordshire. Her baptism took place on the first day of 1809, six weeks after her birth on 21st November 1808. Amelia’s brother John Parkinson arrived in 1810, inheriting Kinnersley Castle on their father’s death in 1851.
Lucy Lechmere Parkinson was an accomplished artist, also designing stained glass for the nearby church of St James. Her daughter showed artistic talent at an early age, further cultivated by tuition from the drawing master for Miss Crouchers’ School for Young Ladies in Hereford, David Cox (1783-1859). Also a highly respected watercolour landscape painter, Cox nurtured Amelia’s natural creativity, later adapted to photography.
Self portrait by Amelia Elizabeth Guppy
By kind permission of the Guppy Family
Amelia’s married life started in typically unconventional style. In 1834 she eloped with lawyer Robert Guppy (1808-1894) , marrying at Bitterly Court in Shropshire, home of the Walcot family, on 12th November. Amelia’s new family was one of distinguished heritage and included brother in law Thomas Richard Guppy (1797-1882), business partner of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859). Their collaboration created the Great Western Railway and steamship PSS Great Western. Mother-in-law Sarah Guppy (1770–1852) was an accomplished inventor and brother in law, Samuel Guppy, was known to be an early practitioner of photography. 
Robert and Amelia had four children: Lucy Lechmere (1835-1907), Robert John Lechmere (known as Lechmere) (1836-1916), Henry Francis Jeune (1839-1872) and Margurite Eleamire Clotilda (1840-1873). Lechmere later became a respected Palaeontologist after whom the “Guppy” tropical fish (Poecilia reticulata) was named. Robert Guppy referred to his new wife as having “impulsive enthusiasm with a love of beauty and adventure”. She needed no persuasion to move to Trinidad in 1837, where her husband had been commissioned to assist with the legal challenges resulting from the abolition of slavery. On the western side of Naparima hill, Robert bought two adjoining properties, one described as “elegant”, called Amelia Cottage.
Amelia adapted to her new exotic location, riding a white mule to explore the countryside and sketched underneath a large parasol. In Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs, Amelia’s grand daughter Yseult Bridges describes Mrs Guppy – “There was something remote and exotic in her appearance, yet everything also of the grande dame.” But this move brought significant maternal challenges arising from the enforced separation from her daughter and two sons. Despite the birth of their second daughter, San Fernando evolved into a life far from paradise. 
It is unclear when Amelia adopted photography, progressing seamlessly from painting with a brush on canvas, to painting with light. Some of her earliest calotype photographs date from 1846, just six years after its invention by William Henry Fox Talbot.
Robert John Lechmere Guppy (1836-1916)
Amelia Elizabeth Guppy circa 1847
By kind permission of the Guppy Family
Amelia mastered photography during its infancy, though it has not been established who may have introduced her to the new art. She had links to the inventor of the calotype, William Henry Fox Talbot, also her brother in law, Samuel Guppy, or possibly Calotypist Henry Collen. She showed broad photographic interests from nature landscapes to classic architecture, from ancient relics to portraiture of her son Lechmere.
The establishment of a Photographic Society reflected an enlightened approach to the inclusion of women, welcoming ladies under rule nine of their agreed constitution. Amelia joined Elizabeth Vignoles, becoming the second woman to take up membership. Her election was on 10th March 1853 and, though resident in Trinidad, remained a member until 1859.
During one of her visits to England in 1854, Amelia became the first active member of the Photographic Society by displaying four photographs in the first exhibition of its kind. She chose Stokesay Castle in Shropshire as a striking example of thirteenth century fortification, also the subject of a study by antiquarian Thomas Hudson Turner (1815-1852) published in 1851. “Garden Terrace”, “Druid’s Oak” and “Entrance to Ludlow Castle” completed the selection of calotype prints exhibited by Amelia, in the company of other Photographic Society member Mary Anne Boulton and Catherine Verschoyle.
Stokesay Castle – “Talbotype” probably No. 163 Photographic Society Exhibition 1854
Amelia Elizabeth Guppy
J P Getty Museum
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
“The greatest events of history may now be handed down to posterity…. in facsimile, by this magic of the Sun.” 
Amelia’s photographic portfolio extended further than many of her contemporaries, into active preservation of antiquities belonging to her distant relative Sir Thomas Phillips. Showing great skill, precision and attention to detail, she used photography to document some of his enormous collection of books, urns, seals and maps. In 1853, sixty six salted paper prints were bound into a volume entitled Mrs. Guppy’s photographs at Middle Hill, comprising Latin manuscripts and documents; cuneiform tablets; wax seals (“Utrecht seals”); a reproduction of an oil painting of Phillipps’ daughter, Maria Walcot; and reproductions of drawings of architectural details of Postlip, a house in County Clare, and the Bell Inn, Waltham St. Lawrence, Berkshire.
As a trained artist Amelia would recognise the strong, directional lighting required to clearly display the raised relief of a wax seal, in contrast to the opaque even light required for the reproduction of a painting. These unique images combine past, present and future in an innovative use of new technology to preserve historic artefacts, one described as “Dust”.
Babylonian Urn and Utrecht Seals from Mrs. Guppy’s photographs at Middle Hill, Houghton Library, Harvard University
It’s not known if she carried on with photography but her independent spirit was irrepressible and in 1871 at the age of 63, she took herself off to Venezuela to explore the plant life along the uncharted Orinoco river on her own. She was gone for over a year, tackling rapids, dense jungle and tropical fever and returned with a collection of rare orchids and a series of spectacular watercolours.
But Amelia’s photographs remain as a self portrait of an extraordinary life, a free spirit opening a unique window into the early history of photography.
My sincere thanks to the Guppy family for sharing information, images and memories of Amelia
Hans P. Kraus, Larry Schaaf, Six Exposures: Essays in Celebration of the Opening of the Harrison D. Horblit Collection of Early Photography, Cambridge MA: (Houghton Library, 1999)
Yseult Bridges, Nicholas Guppy (Ed), Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs, London: (Collins & Harvill Press,1980)
Michael Anthony, Anaparima The History of San Fernando and its environs Volume One, Laventille [Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago] : (Zenith Services, for City Council of San Fernando, 2001)
 Yseult Bridges, ed. Nicholas Guppy, Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs (London:Collins and Harvill Press, 1980) p.71.
 Oxford University and City Herald – Saturday 26 November 1808. “On Monday last the lady of Richard Parkinson Esq. of Steeple Aston, was safely delivered of a daughter.”
 Yseult Bridges, ed. Nicholas Guppy, Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs (London:Collins and Harvill Press, 1980) Guppy family tree.
 Larry J. Schaaf, Six Exposures, Harvard University, 1999, p.32, “Lucy Lechmere Parkinson, was an accomplished artist who erected a kiln on their property in order to fire the windows she painted for the nearby Church of Saint James.”
 Yseult Bridges, ed. Nicholas Guppy, Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs (London:Collins and Harvill Press, 1980) p.71
 Morning Post – Wednesday 19 November 1834, p.4 col.5.
 Larry J. Schaaf, Six Exposures, (Harvard University, 1999) Page 36, Note.40 “J. Traill Taylor, The British Journal Photographic Almanac I876, 22. Samuel Guppy was born on November 25, 1795 and died on January 18, 1875.”
 Yseult Bridges, ed. Nicholas Guppy, Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs (London:Collins and Harvill Press, 1980) Family tree, https://www.ancestry.co.uk/ and https://wc.rootsweb.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=willperf&id=I086895 Accessed 07/12/2018
 Albert Carl Ludwig Gotthilf Günther, Catalogue of the Fishes in the British Museum. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1866) p. 353.
 Michael Anthony, Anaparima The History of San Fernando and its environs Volume One, Laventille [Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago] : (Zenith Services, for City Council of San Fernando, 2001) p.27-28
 Yseult Bridges, ed. Nicholas Guppy, Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs (London:Collins and Harvill Press, 1980) p.75 “ At San Fernando … apart from her painting, there was little to capture her mind or imagination. She missed the intellectual and artistic stimulus of the circles in which she had moved in England, and found her society restricted to that of people whose interests and outlook were severely limited. Their narrow preoccupations were as wearisome to her as the scope of her intelligence was intimidating to them. She found them boring and tedious, and they found her incomprehensible and alarming.”
 Larry J. Schaaf, Six Exposures, Harvard University, 1999,
 Journal of the Photographic Society, March 3rd 1853, Vol. One p. 4, “Rules of the Photographic Society”, 9.That Ladies shall be eligible as Members of the Society.
 http://rpsmembers.dmu.ac.uk/rps_results.php?mid=137 Accessed 06/12/2018
 Thomas Hudson Turner, Some account of domestic architecture in England, from the conquest to the end of the thirteenth century, (London: J. H. Parker, 1851)
 In The Athenaeum, 7th October 1854,
 http://id.lib.harvard.edu/alma/990079927550203941/catalog Accessed 06/12/2018
 Details quoted in probate granted on 17th June 1887
 Yseult Bridges, ed. Nicholas Guppy, Child of the Tropics: Victorian Memoirs (London:Collins and Harvill Press, 1980)