an occasional series of tasty morsels that cross my desk

The Three Percent Solution

A fortnight ago, our birthday present to Henry in the form of the launch of our beta website brought the gratifying outpouring of suggestions (and corrections) that had been hoped for. Thanks to the efforts of Suzanne de la Rosa and Elaine Bible, press coverage was excellent, ranging from an extensive spread in the Daily Mail to the BBC and many other outlets, some of which were delightfully new to me, such as Hypoallergic. The identifications of unknown buildings and urban scenes are pouring in and will be entered just as soon as possible. The same with corrections, some of which deal with subtle but important details and some of which point out real screamers that somehow leaked through to the outside world. Although tweaking the basic structure of the website might at times seem akin to the process of turning a supertanker around in a swimming pool, please continue to make these structural and visual suggestions. Brian and I pester the excellent technical crew at Oxford constantly – some of these suggestions can be implemented easily but others might involve a complexity of code changes tantamount to Ronnie’s Star Wars Project.

We especially appreciate your suggestions about functionality. What works well for you? What puzzles you? What is frustrating? What is missing? What seems superfluous?

A few of you put on an e-frown upon not finding your favourite Talbot image. We are in beta! Right now we have only about three percent of our 25,000 item level records published, but with very limited staff we are adding records as fast as possible, usually daily. If you have priorities, let them be known – I can’t promise anything for this a complicated process of obtaining permissions, securing suitable digital files, incorporating these into the Bodleian’s master system and updating the Paradox data. However, when there are multiple votes for certain images or image sectors we will try to prioritise them.

We are exploring the feasibility of publishing a skeletal form of all 25,000 records at one time in the near future. Most would start out with no illustration and only limited fields filled but this approach would allow certain types of searching to be carried out much sooner in the project. Stay tuned.

I would like to thank the many institutions and private owners who have been so supportive of these efforts and have often streamlined the permission process. And I would like to thank all those readers who have already submitted suggestions. You can use the convenient links present in all the image records or drop me a note directly. Please keep up the good work – it is your resource so please feel encouraged to help shape it.

Last September I posted some ruminations about Talbot’s House Building on Sussex Gardens, an image that has always fascinated me. Having stayed in the Paddington Station area many times over the years, in spare moments I had looked around the neighborhood for identifiable windows and other features. In that post I finally went way out on a limb in suggesting a possible modern location for this image. It turns out that I was spectacularly wrong.

A London architect and architectural historian, John Bowmer, wrote to me with most persuasive arguments. It turns out, as is so often the case, that the bomb damage of WWII was not the culprit, but rather the urban planners and architects in the 1960s who caused the near-total destruction of the evidence. But Mr Bowmer’s keen eye picked up some clues from Talbot’s detailed negative and assembled his case.

I had somehow persuaded myself that Talbot had faced the West end of Sussex Gardens but in fact he had looked towards the South, facing nearby Hyde Park. Mr Bowmer traced a planning application that confirmed his suspicions.

On a cold and rather dark day in January that reminded me of what Talbot had to work with in January of the critical year of 1839, John met me at the site. After ringing numerous doorbells without response, we went around the back to the mews (where the above portrait was taken). The familiar aroma of horses reminded us that the stables there were still in active use, just as they would have been in Talbot’s day, ready to supply the riders eager to take advantage of the open space of Hyde Park. Returning to the front, my American forwardness overcame the lack of an introduction and I hailed a gentleman about to enter an adjacent building. Happily, Simon Whittle, the building’s owner not only stopped to listen to our story but also kindly invited us in to get a better view of the mews houses.

Now, as a photographer (albeit lapsed) I should have paid more attention to detail. I suspect that my reptilian memory immediately recalled Talbot’s numerous views of the Boulevards of Paris. The Comte de Rambuteau’s newly installed Vespasiennes figure prominently in these views and I think that my mind drifted into thinking that the London columns, while erected for a very different purpose, also rose from street level. But John recognised these instead as chimney pots and that is where the proof came in. He knew that the majority of mews houses were only one room deep and that the two pots front to back (the foreground one is partially obscured by a chemical defect) indicated rare double room houses. From there, he narrowed down the only possible location in the area.

On climbing to Mr Whittle’s first floor landing we were presented with this view, now looking over the houses facing the mews in which we enjoyed the horses earlier (please forgive the visual intrusion of the quite unlovely and grossly out of scale 1960s block in the rear). John Bowmer had proved his case. In the summer of 1844, when Henry Talbot photographed the substantial house that was being constructed, he had placed his camera on a mews house roof just outside where we now stood. He needed the elevation to get the view over the mews houses.

This is precisely the sort of contribution that I hope the users of this website will continue to make. Not every identification will require the extensive research that John Bowmer had to do – perhaps you will immediately recognise your village church in a Talbot photograph. When you find that you do have thoughts on a particular photograph, please push the button and let us know. And if you have the time and resources to develop those thoughts further, they could lead to most interesting ends.

Larry J Schaaf


• Questions or Comments? Please contact digitalsupport@bodleian.ox.ac.uk • My thanks to John Bowmer for his insightful research and to Simon Whittle for his open generosity. • WHFT, A House Building in Sussex Gardens, calotype negative, summer 1844, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-3952; Schaaf 1198. • WHFT, Boulevard de Cappucines, salt print from a calotype negative (detail), June 1843, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-2387/3; Schaaf 126.