guest post by Brian Liddy
Not all advertising slogans are popular, but Guinness’s ‘Good things come to those who wait’ is a favourite. I never thought I’d ever say this out loud, never mind bring it up in a blog, but when I think about the Talbot Catalogue Raisonné it reminds me of pint of Guinness. I guess I had better explain that.
This happy association derives not because many of the brown tones found in the majority of Talbot’s salted paper prints echo the browns when the rare beam of sunlight in a pub filters through the pint (although that in itself is an appealing thought). It has more to do with the complexity of how the Talbot website is organised. I trust that by now you have started to find your own way around the site and I hope that you have found this to be worth your time. Navigating the site is meant to be easy and intuitive but even then it has a lot to offer that may not be obvious from first glance. I suppose in that respect the website is also like Guinness, where repeated visits will be rewarded with new insights
The website was transformed by the recent decision to publish at least a skeleton record of the 25,000+ entries, whether or not their image was ready for attachment. Prior to this, only about 5% of the records had their associated image files processed and were publicly available. The incredible wealth of data available as a result is a boon to curators, academics and scholars of early British photography. But what of those of you who enjoyed the site’s early days when every visible record had an image attached? Well, nothing has been deleted and those heady days have not gone away and can easily be revisited at the flick of a filter switch. From the Main Page, go to ‘Browse the Catalogue’ and note the filters in the lefthand column. Select the ‘Fully Published’ option and the image-rich version of the website is restored! Of course you will only see a fraction of the records but this portion is growing larger by the week.
Once I have done the above I like the way the ‘Master’ records float to the top of the catalogue. They are comforting, like the head on the pint of Guinness, and provide a gallery that can be scrolled through until something catches your eye. When you click on the Master Record of your choice the multiple objects within it materialise. In that way the Master Records are like the head of the Guinness because you have to go through them to get to the multiple Object Records below. They are what you’re really after, like the rich and complex depths of the pint which lies beneath the head.
These Master Records save you from having to scroll through multiple variant prints from a particular negative before you get to the next Talbot image. Not all of those records have images attached at this stage, but the number of images is increasing all the time, which is why repeated visits are worthwhile.
It may seem like a simple task to add an image but I can assure you it is not. Image files have come to us in all sorts of formats, file sizes, colour balance, sometimes with irrelevant backgrounds. A serious challenge is how the file is named – sometimes it is the number arbitrarily assigned by the camera or scanner, sometimes it is a filename customized to the owner’s use, and sometimes it contains the owner’s inventory number (in all sorts of formats). After the image file is processed it is then assigned a standardised format name within our system that designates the owner, the Schaaf number, sometimes a sub-collection, and the owner’s number (if any). But that is not the end of it, for after all, this is Oxford and things are complicated. I then pass this processed and re-named file along to a colleague who pulls it into the Bodleian’s unique system and kicks back to me an internal reference number. Only then can I publish the image.
So you can imagine that it pleases me when an image is attached for the first time to a skeletal record. It means one more Master Record will join the ranks of the ‘Fully Published’. But I think I get even more pleasure when images are added to the ones already existing within a record. Perhaps a print in better condition will be added, perhaps one that is cropped differently or is annotated, adding to the richness of that existing record. There’s more than a hint of subjectivity to the selection of an image to represent all the known prints from one of Talbot’s negatives. The print with the strongest image may be torn and missing a corner, while a corresponding print may be intact but slightly faded. So, which is the best print destined to become the master record?
A good example is Plate XV in The Pencil of Nature, Talbot’s view of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire. Looking over the River Avon, it centres the southeast corner with Sharington’s Tower. Perhaps because it was so popular and viewed so often, curiously there seem to be no really good prints. However, recently we were able to add six more prints to join the one already there. All seven prints are now settled beneath their Master Record. If you go and see for yourself, you’ll see that the status of the current master record image is at risk as more than one of the new arrivals are stronger. It’s at times like this that I find my old friend, the Image Comparison Tool invaluable.
In 1994, Larry was commissioned to head the team that catalogued the Science Museum Talbot Collection, by then at Bradford (it had been donated by Matilda Talbot in 1934, accessioned in 1937, but never catalogued). When there were multiple prints of an image, what was judged at the time to be the ‘best one’ was given the ‘/1’ designation. This parallels our situation today, for we must select a ‘best one’ to represent each Master Record. Larry formed the opinion then that one print at Bradford was the strongest example overall, in spite of the reservations that it had some fading and more importantly a major imperfection in the form of a palm print in the lower right corner.
I think the palm print is intriguing and am tempted to surmise that it may have been left behind by Talbot or Henneman. But some trade-off will have to be made. I’m going to leave the situation unresolved for the time being so that you can take a look for yourself, but in the very near future a decision will be made and the finalist representing Schaaf no. 74 in the Master Record will change – it might even change to a print from another collection that emerges as superior. Feel free to drop me a line if you have a preference, and please do continue to make those repeat visits to the site. As the advertising slogan goes, good things come to those who wait.
• 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 • John Gilroy, oil for a proposed poster, from David Hughes’s Gilroy was good for Guinness (Dublin: Liberties Press, 2014). • WHFT, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, salted paper print from a calotype negative, prior to September 1844, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-1255/1; Schaaf no 74.