Lacock & The Photography Pioneer
One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to faithfully copy from nature. – William Henry Fox Talbot
Who was William Henry Fox Talbot?
William Henry Fox Talbot (11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877) was a British scientist and inventor, who invented the salted paper and calotype processes; techniques that formed the basis of photography around the world and immortalised him as one of the great pioneers in the history of photography. Talbot’s technology, techniques and practices not only revolutionized the science of photography, but the beauty of his images contributed to the development of photography as an artform, and inspired many of his contemporary practitioners, most notably Anna Atkins, the English botanist and photographer, who is often cited as the first female photographer along with Constance Talbot, Fox Talbot’s wife.
Talbot was born at Melbury, Dorset, the only child of William Davenport Talbot of Lacock Abbey and Elisabeth Theresa, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. He was only five months old when his father died and his mother was faced with the prospect of looking after an enormous Estate in ruinous condition. His mother remarried in 1804 to Captain Charles Feilding (1780 – 1837). Talbot’s extensive family connections provided him access to high-ranking circles in science and politics. His mother had a tremendous influence on Talbot, who inherited her love of learning and of subjects such as languages, mathematics, politics, botany, optics and astronomy.
How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durable and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself – WHF Talbot
How did the calotype process work?
Calotype, also called talbotype, involved coating a sheet of paper with silver chloride and exposing it to light in a camera obscura; those areas hit by light became dark in tone, yielding a negative image. The revolutionary aspect of the process lay in Talbot’s discovery of a chemical (gallic acid) that could be used to “develop” the image on the paper—i.e., accelerate the silver chloride’s chemical reaction to the light it had been exposed to. The developing process permitted much shorter exposure times in the camera, down from one hour to one minute. The developed image on the paper was fixed with sodium hyposulphite. The “negative,” as Talbot called it, could yield any number of positive images by simple contact printing upon another piece of sensitized paper.
So...did Talbot actually invent photography?
In short…no. The origin of photography began in ancient times, where camera obscuras formed images on walls in darkened rooms via a pinhole. In 1727, Professor J. Schulze accidentally created the first photo-sensitive compound, and in 1800 Thomas Wedgwood made “sun pictures” by placing opaque objects on leather treated with silver nitrate. In 1826 , Nicéphore Niépce combined the camera obscura with photosensitive paper and 10 years later was credited with creating the world’s first permanent photograph. Louis Daguerre was another important figure in the history of photography, as in 1837 he created the first daguerreotype, a fixed image that did not fade and needed under thirty minutes of light exposure. It was at this time that photography suddenly entered the public consciousness, and Daguerre’s process was soon being used worldwide. This is where Talbot comes in, creating the first negative-positive process, and thus making it possible to produce multiple copies of images. On Talbot’s contribution to the history of photography, Professor Larry Schaaf (a photo historian and the world’s leading expert on Talbot) writes…
In the end it was Talbot’s vision of a photographic negative, that could produce multiple prints on paper, that defined the mainstream of photography right up until the digital age.
What was Talbot's connection with Lacock?
During the 19th century, Lacock Abbey served as the residence for Henry Fox Talbot and the Talbot family. The house and the surrounding village of Lacock were given to the National Trust in 1944.
In 1835, Henry Fox Talbot had described in a letter the negative-positive system. His paper negative of Lacock Abbey’s window, made in August 1835, survives to this day. Talbot contemplated writing a report to the Royal Academy of Sciences, but he did not see any reason to make a premature announcement until he had enough time to perfect the process, and so he set aside his photographic work. However, with Daguerre’s 1839 announcement in the French press of his own method of fixing the image of the camera obscura, Talbot realised that time was of the essence and rushed to publicise his own, incomplete, work. He sent samples of his work to the Royal Institution in London, which were shown to its members on January 25th 1839. These pictures included scenes of Lacock Abbey’s contact prints of lace, of engravings, and pictures made through a microscope.
Between 1844 and 1846, Talbot published the world’s first book containing photographs. He named it “The Pencil of Nature”, and it included 24 pictures, among them botanical contact prints as well as scenes from Lacock Abbey. Talbot set up the Abbey as a production line for the development and duplication of prints.
After persistent illness, he died (aged 77) in his study at Lacock Abbey on 17 September 1877.