In deference to your anticipated beach reading plans, starting this week we the blogs will switch over to the ‘Summer Pleasures’ format that we follow each year. These will be brief little musings generally on a single Talbot image. Please feel free to suggest one of your favourites for inclusion and if you would like to be considered as a guest author for one of these just drop me a note.
guest post by Brian Liddy
While much work remains to be done on the Talbot Catalogue Raisonné, we are already seeing images emerging that will surely force many people to reassess their idea of Talbot and his work.
So many of the publications and articles that are illustrated with Talbot’s photographs use the same well-known images, usually examples in the very best condition. Geoff Batchen made the point well in a recent project blog post.
But the Catalogue Raisonné is like no other Talbot publication as it makes no distinction between prints and negatives, regardless of subject or condition. Since every negative and print was made by hand, the word duplicate is not part of our vocabulary. The result is a cornucopia of images that would otherwise never be selected for display in a museum or gallery and would almost certainly never make it onto the cover of a handsome book. And yet many of these faint and lesser-known images are incredibly beautiful. Our perception of their beauty may even be heightened by the fact that many are chemically unstable and would be irreparably damaged if they were ever exhibited in normal display conditions.
Consider The Bust of Venus. Undated, this negative immediately strikes one as experimental and early. A pencil line down one edge presumably denotes the sensitive side of the paper. The circular daub implies the haste in which the experiment was carried out. Its diminutive size (5.8 x 2.2 cm) tempts one into thinking that it was done with a ‘mousetrap’ camera. Yet some very similar images were clearly done much later so there is much yet to discover.
Venus may not have the same elevated celebrity status within Talbot’s oeuvre as The Bust of Patroclus but both were photographed frequently. She is a plaster statuette – just the right size to sit patiently on a mantelpiece or table top while she had her photograph taken. An inscription on an album page below another photograph of Venus identifies her as a plaster copy of the Venus d’Arles.
The original marble of the Venus d’Arles is in the Louvre, and yes, the likeness between it and Talbot’s more modest Venus in plaster is striking, but to my eye they are not the same. The pose is similar, as is the demure mood, but close inspection shows that the bridge of the nose is not the same and she has changed her hairstyle. If Talbot’s plaster Venus is a copy of the Venus from Arles, perhaps it’s just not very faithful, but I suspect it may be a modern Neoclassical Venus by an as yet unidentified artist; in the 1840s, when Talbot took this photograph, it was fashionable to collect plaster statuettes and they varied in quality. If you can offer any clues, I’d be grateful.
In Greek mythology Venus is the goddess of love. Astronomically, Venus is also the second planet from the sun and was the first to have its motions plotted. When Henry was seventeen he wrote to his mother, “that my little spy-glass shews Venus’s disc, which proves it to be a very good one of its size.” Interestingly, photography would later play a role in unravelling the planet’s mysteries when in 1874 the transit of Venus was tracked and photographically recorded by Captain William de Wiveleslie Abney (1843-1920). Talbot followed that transit closely, so there is a photographic thread that runs between the Roman goddess, the planet and the sculptural work of art.
The beauty of many of Talbot’s images of the bust of Venus derives from the different chemical coatings he used to capture these photographic images (at least two, possibly three). Their overlapping uneven edges may be due to the rush in which the papers were prepared, but they add charm and compliment the hard edges and gradations of tone of the sculpture.
The ability to finally peruse these photographs online, I would suggest,is itself a ‘summer pleasure’.
• Questions or Comments? Brian Liddy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org • Please feel free to contact Prof Schaaf directly at email@example.com • WHFT, Bust of Venus, undated paper negative, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-1488; Schaaf 208. This is one of many experimental negatives that Talbot made of the same subject from different angles, but with the same uneven layering of photochemical layers. • WHFT to Lady Elisabeth Feilding, 16 Feb 1817, Talbot Correspondence Document no 751. • WHFT to Constance Talbot, 11 December 1874, Correspondence Doc no 4192.