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.

The man who captured light

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.

The man who captured lightAbove: 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 man who captured light

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:] 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.

The man who captured lightAbove: 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.

The man who captured light

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.

The man who captured light

There is a substantial amount of behind-the-scenes work going on right now that will ensure that this resource is available and useful to the widest possible audience. The intention is to publish on a rolling basis, releasing the first public access by the end of 2015 and then regularly adding to this core, completing the project by mid-2018. In the meantime, the progress of the project and thoughts about Talbot and his work can be followed on the project’s blog.

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.


By Roger Hawkins

I believe Fox Talbot wrote a book or article on etymology c. 1848.

By Johnk638

Its like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A fantastic read. I will definitely be back. aefdegdbdebe

By Jeremy Stone

The beautiful print of the High in 1843 has a mysterious, puzzling, quality. This is only in part because of the over-reaching trees, which presumably are no longer there, or have been cut back. The haunting unfamiliarity is mainly due to the left-right inversion of the scene, where we look past Univ (on the left) and unexpectedly see Queen's in the distance, roughly where the spire of the old City Church would be. The mirror image is less haunting, but suddenly clicks into the right place in spatial memory.