The Bodleian is poised for a big leap forward in the study of Victorian photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot, writes Professor Larry Schaaf, at the heart of the dual project.
By Larry J Schaaf
William Henry Fox Talbot was an extraordinary person in an extraordinary age. What is even more exceptional is that Talbot’s family preserved his massive archives for posterity. In contrast to many important figures, for whom perhaps a handful of letters survive, in Talbot’s case we still have access to more than 10,000 letters, 25,000 handmade photographs, hundreds of notebooks and diaries, and a multiplicity of physical objects, ranging from the highly personal to the scientifically revealing.
In many circles, Henry Talbot (1800–1877) is best known for his invention of negative–positive photography, conceived by him in 1833, made into a reality in 1834 and released to the public in 1839. But this is only part of the picture.
His earliest published scholarly work was in mathematics, he was an avid botanist, he contributed significant advances in the understanding of crystals and light, and he was a pioneer in the translation of Assyrian cuneiform. Outside the scholarly world, Talbot skilfully guided the Wiltshire village of Lacock and his home of Lacock Abbey through the turbulent social and economic upheavals of the 1820s and 1830s, which led to him being a member of the first reform Parliament.
Two very different but related undertakings are poised to make Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries significant contributors to the study of Talbot and his period. One exists very firmly in the ‘real’ world, the other as a worldwide web resource. With gratifyingly extensive public and private support, the Libraries recently completed the acquisition of the Personal Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot.
Above: Letter from William Henry Fox Talbot to his son Charles Henry (FT10065, Fox Talbot Archive, the Bodleian Libraries).
Below right: Talbot, High Street, Oxford, salt print from a calotype negative, 1843 (Gilman Paper Company Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Schaaf 1005). Both this print and the negative from which it was made (now in the National Media Museum, Bradford) were handmade by Talbot on Whatman’s paper.
The last significant physical holdings retained by the family, this highly miscellaneous and diverse collection includes thousands of items. On the personal level, there are passports, samples of hair, archaeological finds, and architectural models. At the scientific level there are instruments, drafts of important papers, and journals and significant books. Letters, notebooks, watercolour albums by his family, and botanical specimens are present. In addition to providing items that will enrich the understanding in exhibits, the collection will underpin diverse research into Talbot’s less-understood activities.
The collection also includes very early Talbot photographs and some of the actual objects that Talbot photographed in his experiments. This ties it in directly with the ‘virtual’ companion project. Starting nearly half a century ago, I began collecting the information that would tie together Talbot collections worldwide. In the early 1980s, the advent of personal computers encouraged me to set out as a pioneer in digital humanities.
The first outcome of this was the publication of full transcriptions of more than 10,000 of Talbot’s letters, a project completed at The University of Glasgow in 2003 and now based at De Montfort University in Leicester. [link: foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk] While my databases included both manuscripts and photographs, the limited capacity of the web at the time made the delivery of larger image files impractical. With recent advances in computing power, that limitation is now being lifted.
Above: Discharge wand Talbot used in electrical experiments (FT10503, Fox Talbot Archive, the Bodleian Libraries).
Below left: Talbot or Nevil Story-Maskelyne, Looking out from the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, calotype negative, 1840s (Preus Fotomuseum, Norway, Schaaf 4584). Educated at Wadham College, Oxford, Story-Maskelyne was related to Talbot by marriage. One of the goals of the Catalogue Raisonné is to better understand the role of various parties in Talbot’s work.
Long before the likes of Kodak and Ilford existed, Talbot created his photographs one by one on hand-coated sheets of ordinary paper. That means that each sheet contains his DNA and every negative and every print is a unique artefact with its own technical and aesthetic story to tell. Over the years, I have examined around 25,000 handmade negatives and prints in collections worldwide. Computer databases promote the recording and analysis of this diaspora and allow researchers to relate negatives and variations of prints.
The William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné is a four-year project that will translate my decades of personal research and databases into a freely-available public resource. Inscriptions on a print in a collection in South Africa, for example, might make it possible to further identify a Talbot negative in Poland. This information can then lead the researcher into Talbot’s notebooks and correspondence for further study.
Henry Talbot’s photographs provide a wealth of information on several levels, for he was not only inventing an art, but also becoming an artist himself — all the while exploring the societal implications of his invention. The photographs and their inscriptions provide a wealth of technical information, useful both to writing the history of the invention, as well as informing modern conservation efforts and exhibitions.
While intended as a research resource rather than a picture library, Talbot’s output recorded particular moments in time and place and provide incontrovertible evidence of many locations in Britain and on the Continent. Finally, many of Talbot’s photographs are simply beautiful, demonstrating the increasing confidence of his eye as nature guided a once-hopeless pencil draughtsman into an accomplished photographic artist.
Professor Larry J Schaaf , pictured right in a daguerrotype by Mike Robinson, is the director of the William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné and a consultant on the Bodleian’s Talbot Archive.
Images as credited, reproduced with permission. Portrait of William Henry Fox Talbot from Everett Historical, via Shutterstock.