Frederick H. Evans (1853-1944), Microscopist and Photographer

by Brian Stevenson, Lexington, Kentucky, USA


The two slides shown in Figure 1 contain small, oval labels with the handwritten signature “F H Evans.” The specimen label of the left slide, “Pulex Iritans (sic) – Flea,” is written in the same handwriting, suggesting that this slide was made by Evans. The specimen label of the right slide is in a different hand, and so was probably acquired from someone else by Evans. Brian Bracegirdle’s Microscopical Mounts and Mounters illustrates a slide with an Evans label on plate 15D, with a cover paper indicating that it was made by J. & T. J. (Jones). Bracegirdle interpreted the scrawled handwriting to be “F N Evans.” Confirmation that these slides were signed by Frederick H. Evans can be seen at a surprising source: a signed photograph by Evans, of Aubrey Beardsley, is on display at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France. A copy-protected image can be seen on the museum’s web site. Clicking on the image, then on the magnifying glass symbol, will provide a clear view of Evans’ signature. Other examples of his signature and handwriting can be found on the web by searching databases such as Google Images.

Figure 1. Two microscope slides bearing labels with Frederick Evans’ signature. The left slide, of a flea, also carries a descriptive label in the same hand, and was presumably made by Evans. The right slide, a papered arrangement of sponge spicules, bears a specimen label with a very different style of handwriting. It is not known whether Evans bought the slide through G. Rogers, or if Rogers disposed of it after Evans had owned the slide. Enlargements of Evans’ signature are included to assist readers in comparing the slides’ signatures with those on photographs by Frederick Evans.

Frederick Henry Evans was born June 26, 1853 in Whitechapel, London. He was the fourth of John and Sarah Evans’ five children. His father, John, was a school master, and on the 1881 census was recorded as being a music teacher. Frederick was recorded as working as a clerk on both the 1871 and 1881 censuses, with the ’81 census elaborating his job as being with a “preserved provision merchant”.

Like many other people of his time, Frederick acquired an interested in microscopy. He also developed skills in photographic techniques. He obviously blended both interests very well, as he proved to both the Royal Microscopical Society and the Quekett Microscopical Club in May, 1886. From an account of the RMS presentation: “Mr. F. H. Evans exhibited some photo-micrographs, produced by the Woodbury-type process, from negatives taken by himself, and transferred to glass for the purposes of lantern illustration, and so that in many cases the objects could be seen on the screen more perfectly than under the microscope. To show what an advance had been made in this direction, 60 of the slides were shown upon a portable screen by Mr. George Smith (of the Sciopticon Company), who had printed the slides from the original negatives. The objects illustrated comprised diatoms and desmids, foraminifera, polycistina, star fishes, sections of Echinus spines, insect preparations, animal parasites, and anatomical and vegetable sections, the remarkable clearness of most of the photographs calling forth frequent favourable comments from the Fellows present…The President said that the meeting were very much obliged to Mr. Evans and his colleague for this exhibition, which was certainly the most interesting which he had yet seen. He had been much struck by the beauty of many of the pictures...The photographs were all taken with an A eyepiece, and by the light from an ordinary paraffin microscope lamp. The slides were prepared by what was known as the Woodbury process—that is, they were printed from metal plates; the result being that they got very much greater transparency and better detail, with a uniform colour. When once the proper tone had been obtained, any number of prints could afterwards be produced of exactly the same depth. The process was undoubtedly the finest possible for the purpose…Mr. Smith said that there was nothing unusual about the process in any way; it was simply a question of manipulative skill. Some of the transparent objects were illuminated by the spot lens, and ordinary objectives were used…Mr. Crisp said that for the next number of the Journal he had written a note on the question whether photographs of microscopic objects were better for purposes of class illustration than the objects themselves thrown on the screen, and had expressed himself in favour of the natural objects. What, however, he had seen that evening certainly required him to alter his opinion…Mr. Smith said that in the first instance a photographic negative was taken in the usual way. This negative was upon a glass plate, and was so called because all the lights and shadows were reversed from what they were in the natural picture. From this negative an ordinary photograph was produced by printing from it in the usual way. The Woodbury-type process made use of the property acquired by gelatine when mixed with bichromate of potash, in virtue of which it became insoluble after being exposed to the action of light. A film of gelatine so prepared had the photograph placed upon it, and after being exposed to light was washed in hot water, which dissolved away those parts which the light had not affected. In this way a very delicate film was obtained not exceeding the 1/500in. in thickness, but containing every line of the picture in relief. This film was put upon a steel plate, and a piece of lead having been placed upon it, they were subjected to a pressure of many tons weight, by which means an intaglio mould was formed upon the lead. The plates were practically casts from this mould made in gelatine and darkened with lampblack.”

Also in 1886, Evans developed a screen to aid in focusing a microscope for use with a camera. The Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society described it as follows: “Evans's Focusing Screen for Photomicrography.—Mr. F. H. Evans refers to the difficulty which exists in focusing, by means of an ordinary focusing lens, the microscopic image projected on a screen of patent plate glass. This is due to the power of accommodation of the eye, in consequence of which the focal plane of the image is frequently assumed to be on the outer instead of the inner surface of the screen. He suggests that this difficulty may be readily overcome by ruling on the inner surface of the glass screen (i.e. the surface towards the Microscope) a series of fine lines similar to those shown in fig. 83 (reproduced here as Fig. 2); the eye has then before it a definite object in the focal plane upon which the focusing lens is adjusted, so that the almost involuntary movement of accommodation is practically arrested thereon, and the focusing of the microscopic image on that plane is thus greatly facilitated.”

Figure 2. Evans’ Focusing Screen for Photomicrography, as illustrated in the Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, 1887.

The Royal Photographic Society awarded Evans a medal in 1887 for his photomicrographs of shells. The 1890 book, Practical photo-micrography: by the latest methods, described Evans as having produced “useful photographs of physiological preparations.”

On Dec. 18, 1891, Frederick Evans was elected to be a member of the Quekett Microscopical Club. At the time he lived at 77 Queen St., London. He resigned his membership by 1897.

By the late 1880s, Evans and a partner had opened a book shop, Jones and Evans, near Cheapside. Among the clientele were George Bernard Shaw, Aubrey Beardsley and J.M. Dent. Evans introduced Beardsley to Dent, who then hired Beardsley to produce his famous illustrations for Le Morte d’Arthur in 1893. In 1894, Evans joined “The Linked Ring”, a group who promoted the artistic values of photography over its technical matters. Evans gave up the book shop and turned full time to photography in 1898. He photographed his friends, including Beardsley, as noted above. Evans also made celebrated photographs of buildings, including English and French cathedrals. Alfred Stieglitz published several of Evans’ interior views of cathedrals in a 1903 issue of Camera Work. Evans used the platinotype technique to produce his stunning photographs. However, the escalating cost of the platinum required for that technique led to him abandon photography by 1915. He died June 24, 1943.

Comments will be welcomed by the author.


Brian Bracegirdle, 1998, Microscopical Mount and Mounters, Seacourt Press, Oxford

English mechanic and world of science, 1888, Scientific Societies - Royal Microscopical Society, vol 43, page 275.

John Hannavy, 2008 , Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Photography, vol. 1, page 504, CRC Press.

Journal of the Royal Microscopical Society, 1887, Evans’s Focusing Screen for Photomicrography, page 320.

The Lancet, 1886, Medical Diary for the Ensuing week, vol. 1, page 907.

Luminous Lint,

Nature, 1886, Diary of Societies, vol 34, page xiii.

Andrew Pringle, 1890, Practical photo-micrography: by the latest methods, Scovill and Adams, New York.

Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 1892, Second series, vol. 5, pages 92 and 287.

Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 1892, Second series, vol. 6, page vi.

Lynne Warren, 2006, Encyclopedia of twentieth-century photography, vol 1, page 461, CRC Press.


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