Bookshelves in Hallway of Lacock Abbey, 26 November 1839
Talbot made this view near the end of 1839, the first public year of photography, and I wonder if Henry took a chance on an interior because it was bucketing outside? After an unsettling and often frustrating year, he could finally retreat into the solace of his familiar world of books, surrounded by objects comfortable to him, isolated from forced contact with the outside world. The negative created for this image was extraordinary, for it was accomplished on photogenic drawing paper in a relatively large camera. The lack of sharpness resulted not from poor focus nor camera shaking, but rather it betrayed the softening effect of the shadows changing during what was certainly a long exposure. Had Talbot stopped photographing at this point, in many ways his quest would have been complete. Talbot had held hands with Nature in 1834 to produce his sun pictures and now, five years later, he could visually express an important distillation of his life.
Early in the Spring of 1840 a remarkable thing happened. As bad as 1839 was, 1840 turned out to be the opposite, with the sun gaining strength even during the waning days of winter. Today I have chosen a small group of photographs taken that spring. Look beyond their flaws at the strengthening vision of the artist. In order to encourage this I have gently fortified these reproductions or have made digital prints for them. The negatives from this period were often fixed with potassium iodide, which over time leads to a lightening of the image. The silver is still there, just in a form that our eyes cannot perceive, and I hope that some day our Conservation Corps will figure out a clever non-destructive method of making the marvelous machines see them for us. These early Talbots usually exist in only one or a handful of prints. They were loved too much, exposed to room light for long periods of time in admiration.
This was the gallery that Talbot built in response to his Uncle William’s ambition to turn his nephew towards art collecting (sadly a lost cause). We have seen this corridor before in an 1829 watercolour made by his cousin Emma Llewelyn. This ambitious attempt is the only image that I am going to allow myself in this blod that is not positively dated. For a variety of reasons, I think it belongs to this Spring 1840 group. It was clearly an experimental negative. Talbot inscribed it “1 + 2 water much Iod.”. He also noted a ten minute exposure – the afternoon light streaming through the windows was copious and clear but it still was a brave attempt.
Talbot’s main public audience during this period was the Graphic Society in London. Founded in 1833 by William Brockedon, its initial membership was made up of forty painters, twelve watercolourists, twenty architects and twenty engravers. It was completely anti-commercial and non-members, especially scientists, were encouraged to attend. In their 13 March 1839 meeting, “the most curious things we saw, were the specimens of the newly-discovered ‘Light Painting,’ produced by its inventor, M. Niepce.”
It was within this group that we start to see Talbot’s scientific and social network coming into play. His collaborator Charles Wheatstone had borrowed the Niepce from Franz Bauer and had passed it along to William Brockedon for the meeting. On 20 February 1839 the “largest assembly of members and visitors took place since its foundation … it is probable that the very numerous meeting arose from the expectation that some drawings, produced by the action of light by Mr. Talbot, would be shewn, but they were not sent. Two small specimens, produced by Sir John Herschel, were exhibited.” I don’t know why Talbot did not attend – perhaps he was totally caught in preparation for becoming Sheriff of Wiltshire (leading to his Footman photograph). However, the Graphic’s members fit into his tight circle of acquaintances. He wrote to Charles Babbage on 30 January 1840: “As I think you have a party on Saturday evg I can bring you, if you like a few improved specimens of Photogenic Drawing – These are, or I hope will be by that time, framed & glazed, and I shall want them back, to show to the Graphic Society &c. but if you like I can make you some as good or better next month, to add to the little collection which I sent last Summer.” We have seen Babbage’s keen interest in photography already. On 2 February he proudly reported to Constance, “my pictures had great success at Mr Babbage’s last night, Sir David Wilkie and Sir Francis Chantrey happened to be there & admired them. Mr Wheatstone is going to exhibit them at the next meeting of the Graphic Society”
Talbot’s largest exhibition at the Graphic Society was later in the Spring of 1840 for their 13 May meeting: “Many photographs by Mr Talbot, far superior to any before shewn by him … produced during his spring residence in the country; and certainly are they not only beautiful in themselves, but highly interesting in regard to art. Various views of Lacock … of trees; of old walls and buildings, with implements of husbandry; of carriages … in short, every matter from a botanical specimen to a fine landscape.” .
The following are representative of what the varied members of the Graphic Society would have examined in the Spring of 1840. They are arranged in chronological order and each was positively dated through Talbot’s own inscriptions. Try to look at them with the sense of wonder those various artists must have felt at seeing their first artistic photographs on paper.
“Wheel &c” – 24 February 1840
When titles are in quotation marks they are quoted from Talbot’s manuscript negative lists.
Talbot also titled this a “Scene at Lacock”
On 7 May 1832, Lady Elisabeth wrote to Henry, “I never saw this dear old Abbey look so cheerful & pretty as to day …the Urn is up in my garden! Oh! how pretty! Persian lilacs in blow! Horse chesnuts coming in flower!” Lady Elisabeth’s garden suffered great indignities in the 20th century, but happily her son’s photograph was able to “bring back the sunshine of yesterday” – it has now been restored to its former glory.
When you recall Talbot’s pathetic attempts at drawing with the camera lucida less than eight years prior, these beautiful photographs are all the more stunning. His new art of photography was training him how to see. His world – and ours – would never be the same.
Larry J Schaaf
• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at email@example.com • WHFT, Bookshelves in Hallway of Lacock Abbey, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, 26 November 1839, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005.100.629, Schaaf 2319. • WHFT, Interior of the South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, ten minute exposure, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, Spring 1840?, Fox Talbot Collection, the British Library, London, LA2287; Schaaf 1040. • First page of communication from the Graphic Society to WHFT, laying out the 1848-1849 season, Fox Talbot Collection, The British Library, London, LA48-49. • The Art-Union, v. 1 no. 2, March 1839, p. 20 • Literary Gazette, no. 1153, 25 February 1839, p. 124. • WHFT to Babbage, 30 January 1840, Talbot Correspondence Project Document no. 04050. • WHFT to Constance Talbot, 2 February 1840, Document no. 04015. • Literary Gazette, no. 1204, 15 February 1840. • Literary Gazette, no. 1217, 16 May 1840, pp. 315-316. • WHFT, “Wheel &c”, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, 24 February 1840, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-366/94; Schaaf 2347. • WHFT, Coaches in the North courtyard of Lacock Abbey, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, 28 April 1840, NMeM, 1937-366/73, Schaaf 2402. • WHFT, “Apple Tree”, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, 1 May 1840, NMeM, 1937-366/74; Schaaf 2413. • WHFT, “Melon Ground”, digital print from a photogenic drawing negative, negative 2 May 1840, J Paul Getty Museum, 84.XM.260.6; Schaaf 2416. • WHFT, “Larch”, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, 3 May 1840, British Library, London, LA2288, Schaaf 3839 • WHFT, “Window Seat”, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, 30 May 1840, NMeM, 1937-366/64, Schaaf 2426. • WHFT, “Trellis Ly E’s Garden” , digital print from a photogenic drawing negative, negative 1 June 1840, courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr, Inc, NY; Schaaf 2442. • Elisabeth Feilding to WHFT, 7 May 1832, Document no. 02349. •