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Last month, our own Brian Liddy was honoured by The Royal Photographic Society in their Awards ceremony held at The Royal Society in London.  He was presented with the Fenton Medal by the Society’s President Walter Benzie , HonFRPS.  Dr Michael Pritchard FRPS, Chief Executive of The RPS, has pointed out that this medal was named after Roger Fenton, a fine and influential photographer and one of the founders of the Society in the 1850s, and is intended to recognise those who have made exceptional contributions to Society. Before coming to us, Brian was on the curatorial staff of the National Media Museum in Bradford. In 2002, he prepared the RPS’s Collection for its move from Bath. Over the years, Brian provided access to the RPS Collection for visiting researchers and curated a number of exhibitions featuring items from the Collection.  Most recently he advised on its transfer to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

An award richly deserved.

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The latter part of 1846 was a rough time for Henry Talbot.  His beloved mother, Lady Elisabeth Theresa Feilding had died on the 12th of March; she has been his intellectual and societal soulmate throughout his life and the void left by her was palpable.  That summer Talbot abandoned his great visionary dream of The Pencil of Nature, only half way through its projected run, devastated by production difficulties and finally brought down by the catastrophic early fading of its prints.  I have long thought his splendid portrait of the Rev Calvert Jones, “The Ancient Vestry”, made in September 1845 as among the last of Talbot’s most significant photographs.

The record shows that however terrible 1846 had been for him, Henry Talbot was not about to give up on his art.  Withdrawing from the public eye, he continued to seek ways to make his silver prints more permanent.  Eventually, he would settle on photogravure as the only way to make this practical, but however the print was produced, the image had to start with a negative.  Talbot recognized that one of the main markets for photographs was architecture and urban and landscape scenes.  He didn’t anticipate fashioning a new career for himself in taking such photographs, but he sought to encourage photographers such as Calvert Jones to make more use of Nicolaas Henneman’s operation.

October 1846 was a time when Talbot was actively exploring ways to make these field negatives more practical.  One of the problems he detected was that his calotype process was best used in the camera whilst damp paper and encouraged relatively prompt development afterwards (that being said, the difficulty was nowhere near as demanding as wet collodion would be in five years time).  If he could perfect a system where paper could be sensitized long before use and then development deferred until convenient it would greatly expedite field work. Those of our older readers who were used to buying Kodak or Ilford film and paper, using it some months later, and then developing when the opportunity came up will readily understand the appeal of this.

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In common with Sir John Herschel, Talbot generally made research notes on scraps of paper with the intention of transferring them later to organised notebooks on a rainy day – unlike his friend, Henry often never got around to the transfer but as consolation hundreds of loose sheets of such notes survive. As we can see from this example, Talbot was at Malines on 19 October 1846 (the year addition is in his hand), developing negatives that he took on two-day old calotype paper in Frankfurt on 11 October. He experimented with different formula and finally found success in delaying the development but not so much in delaying the original exposure.  Talbot also observed that overexposure led to solarisation but that this also produced a highly printable negative after development.  Modern calotypists will recognize the characteristic red tint of the sky areas that results from this.

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The negative on the left is inscribed in Talbot’s hand “Frankfurt, 11 Octr./46”
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Talbot did print this negative and in fact a hand-coloured print from it carries the Reading ‘Patent Talbotype’ stamp, indicating that it was destined for sale.  Since the known surviving prints have suffered a tough life, I’ve chosen to make a digital one here to show the potential of this evolution of the calotype process.  It is sharp and detailed and possesses a pretty wide tonal range.

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Now, I am going to go out on a rather thin limb here and I want to invite you to join me.  The above view of St Marys looming over Oxford’s High Street is interesting but unremarkable.  The Tester fishmongery at 27 High Street commands our attention, along with the neighboring shops extending their awnings against sun or rain.  This picture really could have been taken on virtually any of Talbot’s frequent photographic ventures into the city, less likely in 1841 but certainly easily accomplished by 1843.

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However, there is a unique inscription on this negative that I think reveals a great deal.  I’m sorry that the above is not the best of reproductions, but perhaps you can make out the ‘LA3223’ that Eugene Ostroff so helpfully added in ink on the lower right, making this particular artifact easy to identify.  You might see traces of pencil rules where Talbot  meant to square up the negative.  There is another inscription on the lower left, however, done in pencil and presumably by Talbot: “g29”.  I know of no other inscription like this and wonder what it means.  I believe that the answer lies on the verso of the above note, where another day’s work was recorded.

LA46-141_Add MS 88942-1-350-1When he dated this note, was Henry daring to compare his results to those of Michael, the greatest of all the Archangels who defeated Satan in the war in heaven?  Probably not, for Michaelmas is commonly used in British calendars, not only marking the start of school terms and contract due dates, but also as an acknowledgement that harvesting time was over and a new season was looming. Harold White kindly clarified the exact date in blue Biro.  I believe that the ’29’ records the Michaelmas date of this view of Oxford and the ‘g’ his various attempts at applying the magic elixer, gallic acid.  By the time of the top memorandum, Talbot had discovered that he could delay the development long after exposure, but that he was less successful in delaying the exposure after the paper had been sensitised.  His paper was eight days old by the time he put it in his camera.

If we accept this dating, a number of other clues can be brought to bear. As is so often the case, it is his correspondence that adds depth to the story.  Henry Talbot’s layover in Oxford on the way to the Continent was the start of a carefully planned photographic journey.  On 20 September, Calvert Jones outlined his plans to start making negatives in Worcestershire and Yorkshire (the latter of which he considered to be potentially rich in subjects).  He obviously knew of Talbot’s plans and said that “I hope your projected tour will be successful.” It seems likely that the two men had been hoping to travel and photograph together (as they had done before) for on 8 September 1846, Calvert Jones apologised to Talbot that “my contemplated trip is put out of the question.”  Although he was actively negotiating with Talbot to produce negatives on commission, the recent death of his father was demanding his attention, and the unexpected inheritance that came from his was eventually to lead to Jones severing commercial ties with Talbot and Henneman.

Talbot’s time in Oxford was short and perhaps 29 September was his only photographic day there on this trip – we learn from a letter from Constance that he left Dover on 2 October 1846.  An 18 October letter from Constance reveals that Henry had visited Ghent and Coblentz and also reported that  “Henneman has resumed his duties at Reading – but his wife still remains at Oswestry for the recovery of her strength.

On 26 September, Henneman wrote to Talbot in his characteristically phonetic English [hint: if you read the text aloud it should make good sense]. “I am Sory to inform you that my wife is very ill With an atack of Englis Cohlera so violent that her life was disspared of.”  Sarah Henneman was to recover, but in the circumstances Henneman could not join Talbot in Oxford:  “I riceved yours thiss morning and will go to Oxford etc, as soon as I get home of course owing to thiss Melancholy sircumstances I have not been able to do any work and altho there are several interesting Objects in the vicenity I think with you that good Oxford views are moore disirable as wee have very few good ones of it.”

A 23 October 1846 note from the Parisian optician Charles Chevalier to Talbot curiously provides a clue.  It cites a note from Benjamin Cowderoy, in his last days of managing Henneman’s establishment at Reading, mentioning that “Henneman has taken some good views at Oxford having spent the whole of last week there.”  These must have been in October, not long after Talbot quit Oxford for the Continent.

I think that on the whole Talbot’s experiments with the advance production of calotype negative paper that could be developed long after exposure were promising.  They clearly show that he was still interested in the production of negatives, even after the setbacks of 1846.  However, not everything went according to plan. On 11 October Henry wrote from Heidelberg to his wife Constance: “I have made no pictures until today, when I made one (having the paper ready in the paper holder) out of my inn window, with what result remains to be seen since when I intended to bring it out this evening, all the glass stoppers in my bottles were found to be immoveable fixtures, so that the operations were necessarily abandoned until tomorrow.”

And a little “g29” can prove to be quite a significant clue.

 Larry J Schaaf

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• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk  •  Special thanks to Laura Walker of The British Library. • The portrait of Brian is by Paul Thompson, courtesy of the Royal Photographic Society.   •  WHFT, Research notes from October 1846, Manuscripts Collection, The British Library, London, Add MS 88942-1-350-1.    WHFT, Square at Frankfurt, calotype negatives, 11 October 1846;  National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-2431 and 1937-2432, Schaaf 3717 and Schaaf 3718.  • WHFT, Oxford High Street, salted paper print from a calotype negative, 29 September 1846, Royal Photographic Society Collection, the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, RPS025256; calotype negative, Fox Talbot Collection, The British Library, London, LA3223; Schaaf 2830.