PhotoLexicon, Volume 4, nr. 6 (March 1987) (en)

Peter Wotke

Ingeborg Th. Leijerzapf

Marjan Maandag


‘Doctor’ Peter Wotke was one of many foreigners who settled in the Netherlands as daguerreotypists in the first decades following the invention of photography. On behalf of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (‘Society for the Promotion of Tonal Art’), he produced daguerreotypes of prominent musicians. No less important are the panorama photos that Wotke took from the tower of the Groote Kerk (also known as the St. Lawrence Church) in Rotterdam, which make him a pioneer of bird’s-eye view photography in the Netherlands.




Peter Wotke is born on 22 July in Karlstein (Austria).


On 24 November, Wotke marries Susarma Maria Bischoff, born on 3 May 1812 in Helmers (Saxe-Weimar, Germany). Living in Oldenburg (Germany), the couple has three daughters and a son, born in the years 1847 to 1853. Wotke already has a son from a previous relationship or marriage.


In late 1853 or early 1854, the Wotke family moves to Rotterdam, at Maasstraat (called ‘Westerstraat’ from ca. 1862), Wijk 15, No. 771. In February 1854, Doctor P. Wotke is charged a personal tax for the first time, amounting to Dfl. 56 (recorded in tax records for the year 1854 preserved at the Rotterdam City Archive). Starting in 1854, Wotke is also listed in the Rotterdam city address books, first as a ‘daguerréotypeur’, later as a ‘photograaf’ (‘photographer’)


On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (‘Society for the Promotion of Tonal Art’) in 1854, a special edition of the Kunstkronijk (‘Art Chronicle’) appears, devoted entirely to this organisation and its anniversary. This publication features lithographs of Wotke’s daguerreotypes, produced by Adrianus Johannes Ehnle (1819-1963). Wotke is likely to have been commissioned to make these daguerreotypes by the society itself. There is no way to verify his involvement, however, as the society’s documents were destroyed by fire in May 1940.

On 23 April, the ‘Tentoonstelling van Photographie en Héliographie’ (‘Exhibition of Photography and Heliography’) opens in Amsterdam, organised by the Vereeniging voor Volksvlijt (‘Association of Industry’). Wotke submits several daguerreotype portraits to the exhibition, for which he is awarded a bronze medal.


From 19 May to 31 July, the ‘Tentoonstelling van Photographie en Héliographie’ is organised once again by the Vereeniging van Volksvlijt. Wotke’s submission of ‘photographs on silver’ (daguerreotypes) is again awarded a bronze medal.


On 23 February, Wotke requests written permission from the city council of Rotterdam to ‘use the tower of the Groote Kerk [‘Great Church’] for a period of time, in order to carry out a plan he has conceived to photograph Rotterdam in bird’s-eye view.’ Wotke receives permission to photograph in March, valid through August. He is also given the sole rights to do so for the period in question. Wotke takes a number of shots in large format (ca. 38×45 cm).


Besides the address on the Westerstraat (previously Maasstraat) in Rotterdam, the name of ‘Dr. P. Wotke and Son, Photographers’ is also listed at the address Hang, Wijk 2, No. 421, and later the adress Gelderschekade, Wijk 2, No. 44. Wotke now apparently has access to a studio outside his home. His son Carl (born in 1848) also works for the business.


On 30 October, Peter Wotke dies in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, at his eldest son’s home. Carl Wotke continues the business under the name of Wotke & Son.


In addition to being an exceptionally skilled photographer, Dr. Peter Wotke was also inventive. He approached photography in a way that no other photographer in Rotterdam had ever thought of: to shoot photos from the tower of the ‘Groote Kerk’ (otherwise known as the St. Lawrence Church). This special fact in itself justifies an examination of Wotke’s small photographic legacy.

By the time he moved to Rotterdam, Wotke had already passed the age of fifty. Undoubtedly, his training in photography had been acquired many years prior to this time. It is not known why he was able to call himself a ‘doctor’.

An edition of the Kunstkronijk (‘Art Chronicle’) of 1855 was specifically devoted to the anniversary of the founding of the Maatschappij tot Bevordering der Toonkunst (‘Society for the Promotion of Tonal Art’). For this publication, the lithographer A.J. Ehnle produced highly detailed lithographs from original daguerreotypes produced by Peter Wotke. Because Wotke’s originals have never been ascertained or identified as such, it is thanks to these lithographs that we have some idea regarding his daguerreotypes.

While Wotke’s portraits of the musicians have indeed been preserved through Ehnle’s lithographs, they reveal nothing about the technical aspects of his daguerreotype: these lithographic renderings are simply too far removed from their original source. Nevertheless, one observation can be made when examining these works: Wotke managed to produce a successful daguerreotype shot, photographed inside a concert hall with artificial light—no small achievement! The caption accompanying Ehnle’s lithograph of this daguerreotype depicting the concert hall on the occasion of the association’s anniversary celebration on 15 July 1854 reads as follows: ‘The Daguerreotype of Dr. P. Wotke accurately followed.’ This remark is likely to have applied to the architectural space and not to the large audience shown in the lithograph.

When the daguerreotype fell out of fashion in the late 1850s, Wotke made a switch—like many others—to carte-de-visite portraits produced with the albumen technique. In this genre, his work was not markedly different than that of other skilled photographers in his day. Where one does observe a difference in quality is between the carte-de-visite portraits taken by Wotke himself during the first half of the 1860s, and those taken in his later years, which bear both his own name and that of his son Carl (and after 1870, shot by ‘Carl Wotke’ alone). When compared to Wotke’s early work in this genre, the poses and entourage in the latter group are less engaging, while the exposure is more monotone.

In 1861, Wotke devised a plan to produce cityscapes of Rotterdam shot in bird’s-eye view, taken from the tower of the city’s St. Lawrence Church, otherwise known as the ‘Groote Kerk’. In his written request for the city council’s permission, Wotke wrote that no such plans existed. To keep competitors from learning of his intentions—perhaps in an attempt to surpass him in this endeavour—he asked that ‘the desired permit be exclusively granted to him during this year’. The director of the Gemeentewerken (‘Municipal Public Works’) responded affirmatively to Wotke’s request: he was to receive all possible compliance and assistance and was the only individual permitted to use the tower of the St. Lawrence Church for such purposes through August of the same year. In order to carry out his plans, Wotke had to climb to the top of the church tower each day of shooting, hoisting a large, heavy camera, glass plates in the format ca. 38×45 cm, and all other equipment required for the wet collodion process, which he was applying at this time.

Six shots that Wotke took from the tower are today preserved in the Rotterdam City Archive. Notably, four of the six images are directly adjoined, together forming a continuous panorama depicting the eastern part of the city, approximately from the Oostplein to Feyenoord. Each successive photo slightly overlaps the next.

Based on the observation that ships and market stands appear on one photo, but not on the next, one may conclude these photos were taken on different days. Shadows fall in the same direction, however, indicating that Wotke’s shots were taken consistently at the same time each day.

The remaining two photos depict portions of Rotterdam to the west, with the Coolsingel and the Binnenweg, as well as a small part of the city to the north, including the Delftsevaart and the Schie. It seems quite plausible that Wotke’s idea was based on photographing the entire city as a continuous panorama. Such an undertaking would have entailed approximately sixteen shots in total. In doing so, Wotke was generally following the concept of the painted panorama, which had emerged in the late eighteenth century. In 1787, the inventor of the panorama, Robert Barker, a painter and drawing artist, described his discovery as follows: ‘The painter must, standing at a fixed vantage point, show the subjects that he sees, while turning around, in their proper correlation, and end his painting where he started.’ The comparison goes no further than this description, however, as the main aspect of Barker’s panorama is nowhere to be found in Wotke’s photos, specifically, the optical illusion that one is actually standing in the landscape, at eye-level with the surroundings, and in correct proportion. One of the few places in Europe where one can still experience this illusion is the Mesdag Panorama in The Hague.

Immediately following its invention, photography had mastered the phenomenon of the panorama. People in Western Europe had been enjoying an ever-expanding notion of the world since the late eighteenth century. They wanted to know everything, as well as to understand and document what was going on in the world. That people went to see painted panoramas of faraway countries and cities is to be interpreted in this context. Very soon, however, seeing such representations of these places was simply not enough: people wished possess them. Photography was there to meet this need. In the Netherlands, Peter Wotke was the first to recognise this desire, laying the basis of a tradition today still very much alive.

Outside the Netherlands, there were those who had preceded Wotke in his endeavour: the Frenchman Nadar, viewed as the initiator of aerial photography, took his first successful photos from the air as early as 1856. Antoine Claudet, a photographer living in London, is likely to have been one of the first to produce photographs in bird’s-eye view, when taking panorama daguerreotypes of London in around 1842. Engraved ‘reproductions’ of these daguerreotypes were published in the Illustrated London News in that same year.

Because of its unique character, Dr. Peter Wotke’s oeuvre—of which very little has been preserved—deserves a place in the history of Dutch photography. With his portraits of ‘musical artists’, Wotke contributed to preserving the Dutch cultural heritage. His city panoramas of Rotterdam in bird’s-eye view can be seen as pioneering work in the Netherlands.


Primary bibliography

images in:

Kees Nieuwenhuijzen, Rotterdam gefotografeerd in de 19e eeuw, Amsterdam (Van Gennep) 1974, afb. 1, 2, 216, 217.

J. Coppens en A. Alberts, Een camera vol stilte, Amsterdam (Meulenhoff) 1976, afb. 300, 311.

Een brug teveel. De Willemsbrug 1878-1981, in Zero 3 (mei 1981), p. 74-79.

Secondary bibliography

Auteur onbekend, Een blik op de Tentoonstelling van Photographie en Héliographie, geopend in de zalen der maatschappij Arti et Amicitiae, I en II, in Amsterdamsche Courant 31 mei en 5 juni 1855.

Algemeene Konst- en Letterbode 67 (1855) 25 (23 juni), p. 198.

Kunstkronijk 16 (1855) (geheel gewijd aan het jubileum van de Maatschappij tot bevordering der Toonkunst in 1854).

Auteur onbekend, Tentoonstelling van Photographie in het Lokaal der Vereeniging voor Volksvlijt te Amsterdam, in Amsterdamsche Courant 27 juli 1858.

Auteur onbekend, Tentoonstellingen Photographie en Héliographie, in De Volksvlijt 1858, p. 402-403.

NRC 25 november 1870 (overlijdensadvertentie).

G.A. Evers, Hoe de fotografie in Nederland kwam. V. De invoering der fotografie (1850) en de eerste vakfotografen, in Lux 26(1915), p. 252.

G.A. Evers, Hoe de fotografie in Nederland kwam. VI. De eerste tentoonstellingen (1855 en 1858), in Lux 26 (1915), p. 336-338.


1855 (g) Amsterdam, Arti et Amicitiae, Tentoonstelling van Photographie en Héliographie.

1855 (g) Den Haag, Teekenakademie aan den Boschkant, Tentoonstelling van Photographie en Héliographie.

1858 (g) Amsterdam, Lokaal Vereeniging voor Volksvlijt, Tentoonstelling van Photographie en Héliographie.


Den Haag, Algemeen Rijksarchief (huwelijksakte dochter Wotke).

Leiden, Prentenkabinet, bibliotheek en documentatiebestand.

Rotterdam, Gemeentearchief.


Leiden, Prentenkabinet van de Rijksuniversiteit.

Rotterdam, Gemeentearchief.