William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) Part One

WILLIAM HENRY FOX TALBOT (1800-1877)

Another “Inventor of Photography,” Same Time, Different Place

Deep in the heart of Wiltshire, England, Lacock Abbey was established first as a refugee and retreat for Augustine nuns by Ela, the Countess of Salisbury, in 1262 (0r 1229, depending upon which source you read). The Abbey consisted of a church and the usual conglomeration of buildings, consistent with Medieval religious institutions, and would have been considered a priory or a medium sized religious house in the thirteenth century. It is not noted if Lacock Abbey was open or closed. If “closed,” or inaccessible to the outside world, the Abbey would likely have been poor, but if it was “open” to the community, it probably cared for the community’s sick and needy and provided spiritual guidance and, in the process, gaining outside income. However, because many local inhabitants worked for these religious houses, these institutions could, over time, become very wealthy, a tempting target for any King in debt and looking for income. When King Henry VIII ended or severed the Catholic Church in England from Rome, he replaced the rule of the Pope with himself as the head of the Church of England. As a consequence of the magisterial Protestantization of the Church, Henry instituted the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1536. The Dissolution, which solved all Henry’s financial problems, was carried out over a number of years through a campaign of inspection, intimidation, and outright closure. It can be assumed that the Abbey was both rich enough to warrant seizure but not powerful enough to defy Henry, because the Abbey was dissolved and sold to Sir William Sharington in 1539. Sharington tore down the church and used its materials to patch together the remaining buildings into one impressive home. At some point in the sixteenth century, the Abbey passed to the distinguished Talbot family. The men who married into the Talbot family changed their names to “Talbot” to ensure that the family name was passed down along with the property of the Abbey itself.

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Lacock Abbey Today

William Henry Fox Talbot was born into privilege, the son of Elizabeth Fox-Strangways, who was the daughter of an Earl, and financially savvy enough to save the Abbey from a dissolution of debt after her first husband died. Apparently the heir hated his long name and wanted to be known only as “Henry Fox Talbot,” dropping the “William” entirely. Educated at Harrow and in the mode of education of the day, which included classical learning and mathematics, and the wide open field of new science, Talbot was elected to the new Royal Astronomical Society in 1831. Although he was also a Member of Parliament, he had many interests and he worked with John Herschel, who would become one of the foremost creators of nomenclature for the new inventions, on his photographic experiments. Thanks to his important connections he had met William Herschel when he was just a boy, and, through the Society, he connected to John Herschel (1792-1871), the son. The two young men became friends. Free of the debt that had dogged the Abbey in his childhood and thanks to his mother’s intelligent management, at this time, Talbot was already regularly publishing papers in mathematics, physics and astronomy, but due to his association with young Herschel, his interests turned to the study of natural light.

Obviously, this was a very serious young man, who took everything seriously, even his own honeymoon pictures. Part of any Italian tour in an age before the “selfie” was the obligatory copying of the scenery with the aid of a camera lucida. Even as the ever-busy Talbot and his new wife Constance were enjoying the beauty of Lake Como in Italy, he was constantly recording the scenery, striving for accuracy. As pointed out in an earlier post on this site, even the aid of a camera lucida cannot help the limner without talent, and it seems that Talbot could not get the results he desired. Later he wrote,

(In) October, 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como in Italy, taking sketches with a camera lucida, or rather, I should say, attempting to make them; but with the smallest possible amount of success … After various fruitless attempts I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing which unfortunately I did not possess. I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. (I) reflected on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the camera obscura throws upon the paper in its focus – fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away … It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me … how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper!

Although his mother was a very talented artist as was his sister, Talbot wanted to compensate for his lack of facility with sketching and returned to the Abbey to experiment with the impact of light on pieces of paper that had been treated with silver salts. The chemistry of photography was well known by then and Talbot was educated enough to carry the knowledge a step further. But in 1833 what Talbot was doing was nothing new: he placed opaque objects on paper treated with silver compounds, resulting in what would be called “photograms” today, but the problem of “fixing” was still unresolved and the resulting images had to be carefully protected and viewed by candlelight, just as reported decades earlier by Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829). However, by 1834, Talbot learned that using salt and potassium iodine could, when the precise strength was determined, could indeed preserve the image. Talbot later recounted the reactions to these contact prints:

Upon one occasion, having made an image of a piece of lace of an elaborate patters, I showed it to some persons at the distance of a few feet when the reply was, “that they were not so easily deceived, for it was evidently no picture, but a piece of lace itself.”

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Of course, Talbot became aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood as his own experiments progressed and he must have realized that he had advanced the work of his predecessor by fixing an image. From the contact prints, he attempted to use a camera obscura. He had already attempted to use the implement as a drawing aid in Italy and tried to use the large camera for photographic purposes at Lacock Abbey. However, the results were disappointing and Talbot concluded that the lens was too open and that the camera was too large–too much light was being diminished instead of concentrating on a specific site. He realized early on, then, that the inflow of light had to be controlled, a level of technology that would not be available for years. The usual method for years after was to insert a lens into a wooden box, remove the lens cap, and expose the support–paper or a silvered plate–to light. In order to control the amount of light, Talbot constructed a collection of very small cameras with very small apertures, which he wife called “little mouse traps” or “mousetrap cameras.”

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Within these small cameras, light could be captured and concentrated. Since the size of these “mousetraps” were extremely small, the first extant negative made in 1835 by Talbot was one square inch. The first extant negative was taken in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey. The camera was placed on a shelf of a fireplace mantel opposite the window so that it was pointing towards to the Oriel Window, a latticed window that was flooded with light streaming in from the outside. The tiny piece of paper, saturated with silver chemicals, was exposed for a long period of time, producing a blurred but definite negative. The Metropolitan Museum owns this negative, which is a ghostly image of a window with many segments, each segment composed of tiny diamond panes.

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Indeed, as photo historian Geoffrey Batchen pointed out in Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (2001), Talbot’s handwritten note displayed with the negative in 1839 assured the viewer that with a magnifying glass, all the panes could be counted. Batchen also added that the grounds of the Abbey can be seen through the window. Talbot photographed the window five more times and this motif, which is a complex one, might have served as a measurement of his own advances in the technology of paper photography.

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Today the now famous Oriel Window is barricaded by a desk and it is impossible to capture a complete image of what the mousetrap camera saw in 1835. The window is situated in a liminal space between the interior and exterior, bathed in light from two directions, and perhaps at this early stage in his experimentations, Talbot felt that working from inside to outside was an ideal way of controlling light. It is important to understand the nature of Talbot’s photographic project, which Joel Snyder in his 2002 article, “Enabling Confusion,” called “incoherent.” Snyder made an excellent point that once should not confuse what Talbot was doing with an overall societal mindset inspired by the industrial revolution. As a member of the landed gentry and a respected scientist, Talbot’s experiments started out merely as the labors a man returned from his honeymoon where he tried to draw a souvenir image of Italy. For him, photography was photographic drawing or sun drawing–a process where nature took control of the “pencil,” as it were, and copied itself. If we follow his actions as an experimenter, it seem clear that for Talbot the camera was a drawing aid and that he had not yet grasped the modern idea of “photography” or that idea that a photograph could be an image in its own right. When Talbot was experimenting, “photography” did not exist, but ironically, he was inventing it.

Although Talbot kept notebooks of his experiments and his scientific work, nothing of the next four years on the topic of photography exists today. After making a series of photograms and his famous negative, Talbot fell silent on the subject of photography and he does not seem to continued his experiments after 1835. Something happened to distract him, and there is a four year gap in the biography of Talbot as a photographer. It seems that Talbot returned to what would be his main preoccupation, mathematics, but he had stumbled upon what would be the future of photography, the negative from which one could obtain a positive. It is possible that his discoveries fell into a gap between drawing and science: on one hand the camera did not produce the kind of drawings he expected, on the other hand, most of the science was well known and his “fixing” of the images was a solution to a problem rather than a means to a new kind of artistic practice. Keep in mind, that Talbot, unlike Daguerre, was not, at that time, an artist. It is interesting to note that he stressed the ability of the object to draw a picture of itself using the camera and chemical soaked paper as an intermediary. Indeed his first defense of his road to discovery stressed the passivity of the operator/photographer, a state of inaction stressed by the title, Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or, the Process by which Natural Objects May Be Made to Delineate Themselves Without Aid of the Artist’s Pencil.

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Antoine Francois-Jean Claudet. William Henry Fox Talbot (1844)

Moreover it is important to understand Talbot’s position in the British scientific community–he was a scientist and, for him, photography was a drawing aid that had diverted him for a couple of years from his more “important” pursuits. It is likely he never took his photographic work seriously until the beginning of the year 1839 when word of an announcement that a Frenchman named Louis Jacques Mandé Daugerre (1787-1851) claimed to have invented “photography.” The news apparently pricked Talbot’s pride and he rushed to stake his own priority over Daguerre. Most important, it seems that Daguerre’s announcement allowed or forced Talbot to focus his mind on the idea of “inventing” a new process, i.e. photography, as opposed to upgrading a drawing aid. For the next decade, Talbot would expend considerable time and effort to defend his position in a field he had once abandoned so causally. In his book, The Making of English Photography: Allegories, Steve Edwards remarked upon the culture of the “gentleman” that surrounded Talbot. Gisèle Freund (1908-2000) made the same point that possessions later photographed by Talbot were his, belonged to him, and these possessions were elegant and precious. A gentleman owned and controlled through possession, a social attitude that explains the way in which Talbot, the upper class inventor claimed his invention as his own, demanding royalties, while Daguerre, a middle class business man, gave his discoveries to the public.

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For many photographers, his home Lacock Abbey has become a place of Pilgrimage, all of whom what to view and photograph the Oriel Window, probably the most photographed window in the world. The beautiful Abbey is used today for films, such as Wolfman, Pride and Prejudice, Cranford Chronicles, Emma and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009).

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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