The Father of Modern Photography

Situated in a converted 16th-century stable at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire is a museum dedicated to one of the owners of the building and the nearby village. Whilst the French inventor Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) is usually recorded as the inventor of photography, Lacock owner William Henry Fox Talbot equally deserves that title. The museum demonstrates the history of photography from Talbot’s era up until the present day and explores Talbot’s techniques and processes.

William Henry Fox Talbot was born on 11th February 1800 to a soldier called William Davenport Talbot and the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester, Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways. When he was only five months old, Talbot inherited Lacock Abbey following the sudden death of his father. Unfortunately, the estate came with a £30,000 debt, which was eventually paid off when his mother married the sympathetic Captain Charles Feilding in 1804. Feilding carefully managed the estate on his behalf to allow Talbot to focus on his schooling.

Talbot’s education began with the Scottish governess Agnes Porter (c.1752-1814) before attending a primary school in Rottingdean. Talbot did not live at Lacock during his early years. Instead, he lived with his mother on the south coast of England while the Abbey was let out to various lodgers. For his secondary education, Talbot boarded at Harrow School in Greater London. During his teens, Talbot took a keen interest in chemistry and used his pocket money to buy equipment for experiments. He also excelled at mathematics, which he went on to study at Trinity College, Cambridge.

By the age of 21, Talbot could legally take possession of Lacock, but it was let to a local MP at the time, so Talbot decided to visit Europe with his stepfather until the house became vacant. During his travels, Talbot met the polymath John Herschel (1792-1871), with whom he went on to collaborate, and Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), who influenced Talbot’s research into light and optics. In 1826, Talbot submitted a paper called Some Experiments on Coloured Flame to the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, followed by an essay to the Quarterly Journal of Science about monochromatic light the following year.

In 1832, Talbot married Constance Mundy (1811-80) of Markeaton Hall. Constance was the youngest daughter of Francis Mundy (1771–1837), a Member of Parliament for Derbyshire. In the same year of their marriage, Talbot became the MP for Chippenham, meaning the newlywed couple had to wait a year before they could take their honeymoon. In June 1833, the Talbots finally travelled to Lake Como in Italy for six months, where they attempted to capture the scenery on paper with pen and brush. Constance proved to have a natural artistic talent, but Talbot struggled with his efforts. Determined to think of a solution to his difficulties, Talbot began experimenting with various methods, which eventually led to the negative-positive process of photography.

Talbot initially experimented with a camera obscura, which used natural light to reflect views onto a surface for an artist to trace. Although this made it slightly easier for Talbot to produce drawings, he did not take naturally to using pen and ink. Instead, Talbot thought, “How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed on paper.”

To attempt to capture images, Talbot coated ordinary paper with table salt and silver nitrate, which he placed in the sun with an opaque object, such as a leaf, resting on top. Talbot discovered that the paper became dark in the sunlight, except for the section covered by the object, which left a silhouette of white paper. Talbot called these creations sciagraphs, which is Greek for “shadow drawings”.

Talbot’s early sciagraphs did not survive for long because after he exposed the white silhouette to the light, it too began to darken. Throughout the summer of 1843, Talbot experimented with ways to stabilise the images, eventually developing a wash of potassium iodide that successfully fixed the silhouettes in place. Pleased with his discovery, Talbot set up several modified camera obscurae around his estate at Lacock Abbey. He commissioned the Lacock village carpenter to produce little wooden boxes with microscope lenses to reflect silhouettes of buildings around the Abbey onto the light-sensitive paper. His wife, Constance, nicknamed the boxes “mousetraps” and Talbot named the resulting pictures the work of “Lilliputian artists”.

The first successful image Talbot took with a “mousetrap” camera was an oriel window from inside Lacock Abbey. Talbot set up the camera obscura to point at the window and left it for several hours. The result, whilst tiny, captured the intricate details of the diamond-patterned glass, plus the view beyond the window.

When Talbot showed the silhouettes to his friend Herschel, the polymath pointed out Talbot had created a “negative” image where the light sections become dark and vice versa. Herschel suggested the “negative” could be placed on another sheet of light-sensitive paper to reverse the dark and light tones. Herschel subsequently coined the terms “negative” and “positive” in relation to photography.

Despite Talbot’s progress, his political work as a Member of Parliament took up much of his time, thus preventing him from making his findings public. In January 1839, Louis Daguerre revealed to the world that he had “frozen” the images from a camera obscura. Much to Talbot’s dismay, Daguerre was hailed the “father of photography” and rewarded by the French government. It later became clear that Talbot’s and Daguerre’s techniques differed greatly, but it was still a blow to Talbot. It was also revealed that other inventors, such as Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), had captured shadows on paper much earlier but failed to find a way to prevent the images from darkening over time.

In 1840, Talbot observed that if he coated his light-sensitive paper with silver iodide instead of potassium, the paper reacted to sunlight within seconds. This significantly sped up the exposure time when capturing images. Talbot also discovered that applying gallic acid to the already exposed paper developed the image into a full-strength negative. The chemical also revived faded negatives.

Talbot’s mother suggested he name the new technique the “Talbotype”, but Talbot was not too keen to name it after himself like his rival Daguerre and the Daguerreotype. Talbot was also hesitant to declare his process to the world, so took out a patent before introducing his invention. In spring 1841, Talbot publically named the process the “calotype” after the Greek word kalos, meaning “beautiful”.

Patenting the calotype caused more problems than it solved because anyone wishing to use the process needed to apply for a licence. Although Talbot received the Rumford Medal of the Royal Society for his photographic discoveries in 1842, he received many criticisms about the way he handled the administration of the calotype licences. Some accused Talbot of hindering the development of photography through money-grabbing schemes, although Talbot did not make much money from patenting his work. Meanwhile, the Daguerrotype became well-established as the principal method of photography.

Attempting to undo the damage to his reputation, Talbot published the first photographic book, The Pencil of Nature (1844). He wrote about potential uses of photography in the future, including portraiture, landscapes, architecture and documentation. The photographs for the publication were taken by Talbot’s former valet, Nicholas Henneman (1813-98), using the calotype process.

Henneman was not the first photographer to adopt the calotype process. Talbot previously licensed the painter Henry Collen (1797-1879) as the first professional calotypist in 1841. Collen subsequently set up the first calotype studio in London where he took one thousand portraits using Talbot’s process. One of his earliest photographs was of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) with one of her daughters.

Talbot set up the second calotype studio, the Reading Establishment, halfway between London and his home at Lacock. Talbot employed Henneman as a photographic assistant, who printed many of Talbot’s photographs. These include a series titled Sunpictures, which featured places mentioned in poems by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and about 7,000 prints for Talbot’s article in the June 1864 issue of the Art-Union Journal. Henneman also developed negatives for other photographers, totalling over 50,000 prints before the short-lived studio closed in 1847.

Talbot continued to experiment with photographic processes for the rest of his career. He was one of the earliest researchers in the field of spectral analysis and investigated the polarization of light. He pioneered the polarizing microscope, which is still used today to identify minerals and chemical elements in rocks. Talbot also studied the diffraction of light using gratings, which led to the discovery of a phenomenon known today as the Talbot effect.

For development purposes, Talbot made the calotype licences free for scientific uses. Using his scientific knowledge, Talbot experimented with microscope lenses, including those used in telescopes, to take close-up images of flowers and insects. These are known as photomicrographs because they reveal details that are usually difficult to see with the naked human eye.

Whilst the development of photography took up a great deal of Talbot’s time, he still enjoyed his family and political life. His wife, Constance, encouraged his photographic exploits and became the first woman to take a photograph, but she also wanted to focus on raising a family. Talbot began to distance himself from politics during the 1840s, despite being made High Sheriff of Wiltshire by Queen Victoria in 1839, so he could spend time at Lacock with his young children.

Talbot and Constance had four children, Ela Theresa (1835-93), Rosamond Constance (1837-1906), Matilda Caroline (b. 1839) and Charles Henry (1842-1916). Matilda was the only child to marry and provide Talbot with grandchildren, John Henry (b. 1861), Constance (b. 1863) and Matilda Theresa (1871-1958). The youngest granddaughter lived at Lacock, eventually selling the Abbey and village to the National Trust.

Due to Talbot’s passion for photography, Lacock Abbey became the first widely photographed building. Talbot often asked his family and workers to pose, but when no one was available, he took still-life shots of the many statues and ornaments around the estate. As he got older, Talbot began to spend less time at Lacock, preferring to stay in Edinburgh, where his daughter lived with her husband, John Gilchrist-Clark (1830-82) and her children.

In 1863, Talbot received an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh University. As well as a photographer and scientist, Talbot was a geologist, mathematician, botanist, astronomer and classicist. He also helped decipher cuneiform, an ancient Assyrian form of writing, which he wrote about in eight books and over 100 articles.

After a lifetime of achievement, albeit not always recognised, William Henry Fox Talbot passed away in his library at Lacock on 17th September 1877. He is buried in Lacock village cemetery along with several members of his family. Whilst not many people know about his contribution to photography, the National Trust is attempting to change that with a museum dedicated to his work at Lacock Abbey.

Although Louis Daguerre usually takes the credit for the invention of the photograph, Talbot improved the process by developing the negative, which until the introduction of digital cameras, was a vital part of photography. Talbot’s contribution to science helped shape the future, but he also helped preserve the past. Through careful upkeep, much of Lacock appears as it did during Talbot’s time, almost as though he captured it as a photograph for posterity. Lacock is now a place of historical interest and is popular with filmmakers of period dramas. As Talbot’s granddaughter, Matilda, said, “I have a pleasant feeling that Lacock is rather like a tree which will go on growing, even if most of the people that sat under its shade have moved on to another world.”


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Lacock Abbey

Situated in the county of Wiltshire in South West England is a village that time forgot. Used as a backdrop in many period dramas, Lacock has a history that dates back around 800 years. Originally belonging to a nunnery at Lacock Abbey, followed by its subsequent owners, the village is now almost entirely owned by the National Trust.

Lacock Abbey was founded by Ela, Countess of Salisbury (1187-1261), in 1232 during the reign of Henry III (1207-72). The village predates the nunnery by several hundred years and is recorded in the Domesday Book as the property of Edward of Salisbury, Ela’s great-great-grandfather. The name derives from the Saxon word lacuc, meaning “little stream”, which references the nearby Bide Brook.

While under the ownership of the Abbey, the village inhabitants paid their rent by work and goods, such as hay, corn, hides and fleeces, which were collected in the old Tithe Barn. Lacock Abbey soon became known for its wool trade and owned a flock of 2,000 sheep by 1476. Many village tenants were responsible for shearing the sheep and washing the wool ready for trading. In 1539, Lacock was prosperous enough to be called a town by Henry VIII‘s (1491-1547) dissolution commissioners.

Lacock continued to thrive under the various owners of Lacock Abbey throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The London to Bath road helped bring in more trade, which financed improvements to buildings in the village. Despite being made up of four roads, Lacock opened seven alehouses in the 1620s, of which only four public houses remain. The village also owned a “blind house”, where drunkards were left to sober up.

Despite Lacock’s early success, the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century took trade away from manual workers, replacing them with mechanical factories that could produce wool and other products at a quicker pace. The lack of a railway also reduced trade significantly. Without any money, the modernisation of the village ceased, and some inhabitants sought employment elsewhere. The landlord at the time, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), tried to help his tenants and persuaded Parliament to sponsor a few to emigrate to Canada. Many of the remaining inhabitants ended up in the village poorhouse.

Talbot did his best to support his remaining tenants and established a new school in 1824, which still thrives today. Many people continued to work in the fields, and children occasionally left school early to help their fathers during haymaking season.

As time passed, the villagers set up local businesses in their cottages. These included four grocers, four bakers, two blacksmiths, a draper, a tailor, and a luxury goods store. Several men also worked as carpenters, masons, undertakers and plumbers. Between 1927 and 1966, Lacock had a postman named Harry Potter, who worked six days a week. Coincidentally, parts of Lacock and the Abbey became film locations for the famous film franchise Harry Potter (2001-2011).

Lacock has had a church since the Norman occupation of the 12th century. Although it was rebuilt around 1450, the church retains its Norman dedication to Saint Cyriac. According to legend, Cyriac was a three-year-old child killed by the governor of Tarsus in AD 303. His mother, Julitta, attempted to flee with her son from Christian persecutors but did not make it far. While his mother was being tortured, Cyriac scratched at the face of the governor holding him captive, who subsequently threw Cyriac down the stairs. Julitta refused to weep for her son; instead, she rejoiced that he had earned the title of a martyr. Angry with this reaction, the governor put Julitta to death.

Until 1962, St Cyriac’s Church was the home of the Lacock Cup, “one of the most significant pieces of secular English medieval silver” from the 15th century. Although it was intended for feasting, its purpose changed after the English Reformation in the 16th century. The church used it as a goblet to hold enough communion wine for the congregation. Previously, churches used cups decorated with religious imagery, but these were deemed too Catholic by Henry VIII.

Due to the Lacock Cup’s age and rarity, St Cyriac’s Church lent it to the British Museum for safe keeping in 1962, where it remains on display today. In 2013, the church needed significant money to maintain and restore the building, so they officially sold the cup to the British Museum and Wiltshire Museum for £1.3 million. The Wiltshire Museum agreed the Lacock Cup could remain at the British Museum in London but had a replica made for themselves and another for the church.

Visitors to Lacock may recognise some buildings and streets from period dramas, including Pride and Prejudice (2005). Whilst Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s Rosings was filmed at Belton House, parts of Mr Darcy’s Pemberley were filmed at Lacock Abbey, and the Bennets shopped in Lacock, which was renamed Meryton for the duration of the show. For the 2007 show Cranford, Lacock became an 1840s village with earth spread over the tarmac and a false facade erected in front of the Red Lion inn.

Other television shows and films recorded at Lacock include Downton Abbey (2015 and 2018), Mariah Mundi and the Midas Box (2012), Wolf Hall (2015), Beauty and the Beast (2017), and two Harry Potter films. One quaint building in the village appeared in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) during a flashback scene about the death of the titular character’s parents. More iconic scenes were filmed at Lacock Abbey, which was also used as a setting for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018).

The Abbey Cloisters became corridors of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on several occasions. Several rooms also became the Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts classrooms. The Cloister originally ran around an 80-foot open square, but the west corridor later became part of the servants’ quarters. The medieval plaster still contains traces of wall paintings, such as the head of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child, which is visible in the Chaplain’s room off the South Cloister. There is also evidence of 15th-century graffiti signed Johan fecit hoc (John did this).

Restoration work in the 1980s uncovered other faded paintings, including a kneeling nun receiving the blessing of a bishop. The mural dates back to the early 15th century when Agnes Frary (1429-45) was the Abbess. Only the silhouettes of the two figures remain, but people assume the bishop is Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), the founder of the Augustinian Order.

The first Harry Potter film used the Chapter House as the location of the Mirror of Erised, in which Harry saw his parents reflected back at him. The nuns met in the Chapter House to read a passage from the Rule of St Augustine. Written around 400 AD, these rules served as an outline for religious life in a community and emphasised chastity, obedience and charity.

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Lacock Abbey came into the possession of William Sharington (c.1495-1553), an ambitious Tudor courtier who converted the building into a large house. Despite having three wives, Sharington had no children, so Lacock Abbey was passed on to Sharington’s brother, Henry (1518-1581). Henry entertained Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) at the house during her visit to Lacock in 1574, earning him a knighthood.

Following Sir Henry Sharington’s death in 1581, Lacock Abbey became the possession of his daughter Olive (d.1646), the wife of John Talbot of Salwarpe (d. 1581). Their eldest son, Sherrington, predeceased his mother by four years, so Olive’s grandson, Sherrington Talbot the Younger (d.1677), inherited the Abbey instead. Sherrington Talbot was a Royalist and was forced to give up Lacock Abbey to the Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. Fortunately, his younger brother Gilbert, a founding member of the Royal Society, managed to claim back the Abbey after the restoration of the monarchy. Gilbert died unmarried, so Lacock Abbey was passed on to the eldest son of Sherrington Talbot, John (1630-1714).

John Talbot only had daughters, so on his death, the Abbey became the home of his eldest grandson, John Ivory, who added the name Talbot to his name. During the 58 years he lived at the Abbey, Ivory Talbot made many changes to the building before passing it on to his son, John. Unfortunately, John died six years after inheriting Lacock, so it was passed on to his sister Martha, the wife of Reverend William Davenport (not to be confused with the fictional vicar in the television series Granchester).

When Martha died in 1790, her son, William Davenport Talbot (1764-1800), inherited the estate. As a soldier, Davenport Talbot racked up many debts and left his wife and young son penniless after his death in 1800. His widow, Lady Elisabeth Fox-Strangways, moved out of the Abbey and let it out until she remarried to Captain Charles Feilding in 1827. The Captain, later an Admiral, helped bring the estate out of debt and made it into a comfortable home for his stepson, William Henry Fox Talbot, the Victorian pioneer of photography and the inventor of the negative.

Lacock Abbey subsequently passed on to Fox Talbot’s son Charles in 1877, who left it to his niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871-1958), who gave it to the National Trust. The house remained inhabited by Matilda’s great-nephew and niece until they died in 2002 and 2011. Since then, the house has become a museum of Lacock Abbey’s rich and varied history.

Most of the rooms at Lacock Abbey are open to the public, although access may depend on the number of volunteers available on the day. One notable room to see is the Blue Parlour, which William Henry Fox Talbot used as a library. The walls were painted blue by his grandaughter Matilda when she inherited the Abbey in 1916, which she believed to be very similar to its original colour at the beginning of the 19th century.

The desk in the Blue Parlour is known as a Carlton House desk. It was first made for the home of the Prince Regent in around 1825. Allegedly, the desk was given to Lacock Abbey by Queen Victoria (1819-1901), who wished to pay off the gambling debts incurred by her father. Also in the room are several items and books that allude to Fox Talbot’s studies. Lacock has a collection of almost 4,000 books that span from the late 13th century to the 20th century.

The South Gallery, which served as a corridor between the nun’s dormitory and the chapel, became a family sitting room during Fox Talbot’s time at Lacock Abbey. Guests frequently filled the long room for evenings of entertainment, which included poetry, singing and piano music. Situated next to the piano is an Angel harp made by the French instrument maker, Sébastien Érard (1752-1831). A photograph, presumably taken by Fox Talbot, shows his half-sister Horatia Feilding (c.1809-51) playing the harp. 

Fox Talbot enlarged the South Gallery by adding three oriel windows, which let in plenty of light and provided views across the land. One of these windows played a significant part in the development of photography.

Although Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) both lay claim to the invention of photography, Fox Talbot is credited for the development of the camera negative. In August 1835, Fox Talbot set up his camera in the South Gallery, pointing at one of the oriel windows. Although it took much longer to produce than a simple click of a button, the result was the first negative photographic image. Whilst the negative reversed the light and dark tones of the image, it captured the 200 diamond-shaped panes of glass in the window.

At one end of the South Gallery is the Dining Room, which John Ivory Talbot decorated in the Palladian style. The doors are set in cases with curved brackets and triangular pediments. The fireplace also features Palladian characteristics. Family meals were usually eaten here until Matilda converted it into a ballroom. The National Trust has since returned the dining table to the room to make it resemble the space where previous owners ate in relative privacy.

When John Ivory Talbot moved into Lacock Abbey, he immediately hired the architect Sanderson Miller (1716-80) to rebuild the “horrid” Tudor hall. At Ivory Talbot’s request, the barrel-vaulted ceiling was painted with 45 heraldic shields. Miller salvaged glass from the nunnery to use in the windows and designed the Gothick cornice and canopied niches. Austrian modeller, Victor Alexander Sederbach, produced several terracotta sculptures for the niches.

Many of the terracotta sculptures pay homage to the nunnery. Above the chimneypiece, a statue of Abbess Ela stands with her two granddaughters, who also served as nuns. Another statue is William Longespée (1156-1226), Ela’s husband. When Longespée died, Ela decided not to remarry and devoted herself to God instead. Longespée’s father was King Henry II (1113-89), who also stands in one of the niches, as do two of his grandsons, Ela’s children. The statue that stands out to most visitors is a man and goat, upon whose nose rests a sugar lump. A student staying at the Abbey in 1919 positioned the sugar lump as a prank, but Matilda found it so amusing that she insisted it remain there, replacing it with a fresh lump when necessary.

Outside the Abbey is an extensive parkland, with several gardens and beds of flowers that bloom at various times of the year. For the nuns, the land provided food and a peaceful sanctuary. For the subsequent inhabitants, it became a space to enjoy and escape the hustle and bustle of towns and cities. The gardens are still carefully maintained for visitors to explore.

Lacock Abbey is open daily for paying visitors and National Trust members. In addition to the Abbey, there is a museum about William Henry Fox Talbot, which documents his life and experiments with photography. Lacock Village is open from dawn to dusk, with several shops selling local products. Visitors need to be mindful that people live in the village and must not trespass on private properties.

For more information about visiting Lacock Abbey, go to the National Trust website.


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The Painting Demon

Kawanabe Kyōsai may not be as famous as other Japanese artists, but the Royal Academy claims he was one of the most exciting painters from Japan in the 19th century. From 19th March until 19th June 2022, the RA exhibited a large number of Kyōsai’s works belonging to the London-based art collector Israel Goldman (b.1958). Goldman has amassed an impressive collection of over 1,000 pieces of art by Kyōsai, including prints, paintings and sketches, which reveal Kyōsai’s witty imagination and exceptional skill.

Kyōsai was born in Koga in 1831 during the Edo Period. As a child, he studied with the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), who specialised in woodblock printing. Later, he studied at the Kanō school of art, where he gained the nickname “The Painting Demon”. Rather than sticking to the traditional ukiyo-e art, Kyōsai broke away after the Meiji Restoration in 1867 to focus on political caricature, for which he was arrested on three occasions.

Kyōsai demonstrated a lighter, more fluid style of art than most of his contemporary Japanese artists. The traditional painting techniques were reserved for serious subjects, such as literature and religion, whereas Kyōsai’s skill with the paintbrush was more suited to comic pictures. Kyōsai often incorporated serious themes into his work, such as politics, but always managed to introduce humour into the scene. He also adopted Western techniques, including perspective and shading.

In 1881, Kyōsai became famous in Japan after winning a prize for his painting Winter Crow on a Withered Branch at the Domestic Industrial Exposition. Three years later, another painting, Crows on a Withered Branch, won him more prizes. From then on, crows symbolised success for Kyōsai and frequently appeared in his artwork.

A collector purchased Crows on a Withered Branch for 100 yen. To put this into perspective, this was enough money to buy 400 bottles of saké, an alcoholic beverage made of fermented rice. Several of Kyōsai’s crow paintings were sent to Europe, leading to commissions from people all over the world. His crows quickly took on new meaning and symbolised Kyōsai flying across the planet and spreading his reputation.

Ever since his first sketch as a child, Kyōsai’s favourite animal to paint was a frog. The creatures had plenty of comic potential, which Kyōsai used to produce satirical pictures of society. He used frogs to represent the lives of ordinary people, whether they be street performers, postal workers or children. Frog School, painted in the early 1870s, depicts frog students interacting with a frog teacher, who points at a lotus-leaf wallchart. Around the time Kyōsai produced this artwork, a national education system was established in Japan, resulting in the opening of the first public elementary school in 1872.

Kyōsai’s work documented the changes occurring in Japan during the 1860s and 70s. Political turmoil and economic instability led to the collapse of the shogunate and the rise of the Meiji government. Kyōsai depicted the events in his artwork as frog battles, monsters and semi-human characters called tengu. Under the new government, 260 years of isolation ended with the introduction of Western culture into Japan. Kyōsai’s excitement about the new era, which included modern technologies such as trains and the telegraph, is evident in his artwork.

The Meiji government introduced a policy of hiring European and American teachers and specialists to work in the new schools in Japan. Josiah Conder (1852-1920), a British architect, travelled to Japan to become a professor of architecture for the Imperial College of Engineering. Known today as the “father of Japanese modern architecture”, Conder taught many young architects and built several notable buildings, including the Rokumeikan (Banqueting House) and the Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Tokyo.

Conder met Kyōsai in 1881 when he was accepted as Kyōsai’s pupil. Kyōsai gave him the name Conder Kyōei (ei meaning Britain) and taught him the art of Japanese painting. Whilst he did not excel at painting, Conder remained Kyōsai’s friend and patron. Kyōsai’s initial fame in Europe is largely thanks to Conder sending examples of art home to Britain.

An example of the Western influence on Kyōsai’s work is evident in Skeleton Shamisen Player in Top-Hat with Dancing Monster (1878). Western costumes were becoming all the rage in Japan, and Kyōsai wanted to emphasise that no matter how much people changed their appearance, they remained the same underneath. The skeleton in the painting wears a top hat and black jacket and plays the guitar, which was a relatively new instrument in Japan. Not only does the artwork poke fun at the people adopting the fads and fashions, but it also emphasises that the way people dress does not affect the transience of life. The samurai sword sticking out from behind the skeleton shows that it is impossible to completely escape native cultures.

With Western culture came Western religion, particularly Christianity. Kyōsai painted a picture called Five Holy Men to illustrate the influence the new religions had on traditional Japanese beliefs. Kyōsai included a verse written by the Confucian scholar Tachibana Kirō from the point of view of a Japanese deity, which reads: “While I protect myself, Christ seizes the moment to dance, Shakyamuni and Laozi tune in, and Confucius beats the drum in attack. The world is one great theatre.” At the time of painting, Confucianism was being challenged by modern thinking, and Buddhism was struggling to stop so-called Christian men from exploiting their country.

Despite the influx from the west, Kyōsai continued to satirise the traditions and government in Japan. During the summer, processions of decorated floats filled the city of Edo (now Tokyo). Kyōsai represented this in Cats Pulling a Catfish Float, in which the catfish with its moustache represented the government officials. The cats symbolised geishas and courtesans, who used stringed instruments made from catskin.

Kyōsai’s satirical paintings frequently got him into trouble with the government, as he recorded in his four-volume semi-autobiography Kyōsai gadan (Kyōsai’s Account of Painting). Transcribed by Uryū Masayasu and illustrated by Kyōsai, the book features an account of Kyōsai’s arrest in 1870 after being accused of painting insulting images of high-ranking people. The incident occurred at a shogakai, a commercially organised calligraphy and painting party. 

Shogakai attendees paid a fee to enter the party, after which they could ask any artist to produce work for them at no extra charge. At the gatherings, painters often worked with a calligrapher, who would inscribe a poem on the edge of the artwork. The parties usually involved a lot of alcohol, which in Kyōsai’s case, made him playful and more likely to produce insulting images of the commissioners. When writing about the shogakai, Joseph Conder noted, “Under the influence of Bacchus some of his (Kyōsai) strangest fancies, freshest conceptions and boldest touches were inspired.”

Between 1876 and 1878, Kyōsai collaborated with 54 artists to produce a painting of a shogakai. Kyōsai painted all the figures but left blank scroll papers for other artists to fill in with their artwork or calligraphy. Collaboration was an important component of Japanese art, particularly between teachers and pupils, yet until the 19th century, this was usually a private affair. During Kyōsai’s lifetime, the creative process became public, almost like a performance. Kyōsai became known for his speedy, skilful performances, which became more dramatic the more he drank.

Several of Kyōsai’s satirical artworks contained what is classed as “toilet humour” today. Fart Battle (1881) depicts men passing wind at each other and blowing people and objects away. Whilst Kyōsai painted scenes of this nature because they amused him, the tradition dates back much further. Dating back as far as the 12th century, art historians suspect these “fart battles” illustrated Japan’s xenophobia. For centuries, Japan remained isolated from the world and did not welcome foreigners. Artists satirised the government’s wish to oust Western cultures from the country through the strength of their resources, or in this instance, their bodies.

Kyōsai also included stories in his artwork. Some depicted real events, such as wars, although fought by frogs instead of humans. Others satirised scandals, often painting the government in a negative light. A handful of Kyōsai’s artworks illustrate stories and parables, for instance the ancient Indian story about three blind men describing an elephant. Having never come across an elephant before, the men attempt to describe it by feeling a different part of the animal’s body. Each man only touches one section, such as the side or the tusk, and attempts to describe the elephant’s physical appearance. Kyōsai likened this tale to a group of Blind Connoisseurs commenting on a painting. This theme also mocks critics and judges at official art competitions and exhibitions, whose comments suggest they did not pay much attention to the art they were judging.

Kyōsai also likened art critics and judges to tengu, semi-human supernatural beings with long noses. According to Japanese folklore, tengu were the reincarnated spirits of arrogant people. They had long noses that stuck up in the air. The expression “being a tengu” is the equivalent of being conceited or “sticking your nose up in the air”. Some interpret Kyōsai’s painting Tengu Viewing Art as critics at art competitions looking disdainfully down at the paintings they are supposed to be judging. An alternative interpretation is the tengu are connoisseurs who are proud of their art collection and believe they are more culturally sophisticated than others.

After looking at Kyōsai’s work, it is evident that the majority of his paintings had more than one meaning. Ink Battle, for instance, references a traditional New Year’s party given by the Sōma samurai clan during the Meiji period. Hosts applied ink to the faces of their guests to wish them a happy and healthy year. Rather than depicting the event as a joyous occasion, Kyōsai painted two groups dressed as medieval courtiers and warriors fighting with giant paint brushes and ink. This may allude to the battles between the supporters of the Edo empire and the Meiji government during the 1860s.

Despite satirising the Western world in some of his artworks, Kyōsai embraced European cultures and had many foreign friends. As well as Conder, Kyōsai taught the Anglo-Irish journalist, Francis Brinkley (1841-1912), who wrote several books about Japan, including an English-Japanese Dictionary. Kyōsai also befriended Mortimer Menpes (1855-1938), an Australian-born British painter, who enjoyed watching Kyōsai paint. Speaking of his time in Japan, Menpes recalled, “I never saw such facility in my life … in about seven minutes he had completed a picture, superbly drawn and full of character.”

In 1888, the Japanese art critic Okakura Kakuzō (1863-1913) and American art historian Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) asked Kyōsai to consider teaching at the Tokyo School of Arts. This prestigious offer indicated the school acknowledged Kyōsai as a legitimate successor of the Kanō tradition. Unfortunately, Kyōsai developed stomach cancer the same year and was unable to take up the offer.

Despite treatment from the German physician Erwin Bälz (1849-1913), Kyōsai passed away on 24th April 1889 at the age of 59. He died at home with Josiah Conder holding his hand. Little is known about his private life, but it is believed he was also surrounded by family and friends. Eighty-eight years after his death, Kyōsai’s granddaughter, Dr Kawanabe Kusumi, opened the Kawanabe Kyōsai Memorial Museum in Saitama, Tokyo, in 1977.

Kyōsai’s reputation quickly dwindled following his death. His artwork did not conform to traditional Japanese standards, nor was it westernised enough to appeal to art collectors in Europe and America. Kyōsai’s drinking habits and prison sentences also diminished his status now that he was no longer around to defend himself. Thanks to Israel Goldman, Kyōsai’s work is gaining recognition and popularity. Contemporary generations look at the paintings from a new perspective and appear amused rather than shocked at their satirical nature. Kyōsai’s style of art also appeals to manga and tattoo artists, who incorporate Japanese and Asian aspects into their designs.

Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection takes place in The Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts until 19th June 2022. Tickets are £15 but concessions are available.


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Raphael

After delaying its opening due to Covid-19, the National Gallery in London finally opened its doors to The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael on 9th April 2022. Originally intended to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, the exhibition is the first outside of Italy to encompass the entire length of Raphael’s artistic career. Whilst Raphael’s life was short, he was a prolific painter, producing as much work as other painters who lived twice as long. Working across a wide range of media, Raphael produced oil and fresco paintings and designed prints, tapestries, mosaics and sculptures. The extensive exhibition, with loans from the Louvre, Uffizi and Vatican, proves that whilst Raphael passed away at the age of 37, his legacy is immortal.

Although known mononymously as Raphael, the artist’s birth name was Raffaello Santi or Sanzio. He was born in 1483 to Giovanni Santi (1440-94), the court painter of the Duke of Urbino, and Màgia di Battista Ciarla. Unfortunately, Raphael’s mother died when he was only eight years old, and his father followed three years later. For the remainder of Raphael’s childhood, his paternal uncle, a priest called Bartolomeo, served as his formal guardian.

Raphael showed a talent for drawing at a young age and continued his father’s workshop following his death in 1494. Some sources claim Raphael received training from Pietro Perugino (1446-1523), but others maintain Raphael only worked as Perugino’s assistant, from whom he picked up similar artistic traits.

Raphael had a talent for seamlessly combining observation and imagination, which attracted several religious establishments in the Umbrian cities of Città di Castello and Perugia. His first documented commission was for the church of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in 1500, after which Raphael worked in numerous churches. In 1503, he painted the Mond Crucifixion, an altarpiece for the church of San Domenico. The main panel depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus against a luminous Umbrian sky. Two angels hover in the sky, collecting Christ’s blood in chalices, while on the ground kneel Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome. The church had a chapel dedicated to the saint, which is likely why he was included in this composition. Also depicted in the painting are John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, who stand slightly behind the kneelers.

From 1504 to 1508, Raphael spent a lot of time in Florence. A letter from the mother of the Duke of Urbino, for whom Raphael’s father once worked, suggests he travelled to the city in search of patrons and customers. The letter reads, “The bearer of this will be found to be Raphael, painter of Urbino, who, being greatly gifted in his profession has determined to spend some time in Florence to study. And because his father was most worthy and I was very attached to him, and the son is a sensible and well-mannered young man, on both accounts, I bear him great love…”

On arrival in Florence, Raphael’s style of art was very much like Perugino’s, but he soon started adopting the manners of other artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Donatello (1386-1466). (Incidentally, Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello are the names of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) One of Raphael’s drawings, potentially a study for a painting that is either lost or never produced, looks remarkably similar to Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Raphael’s painting of Saint Catherine of Alexandria also bears similarities to Da Vinci’s work.

With her arm resting on the wheel upon which she was tortured, Saint Catherine’s slightly corkscrewed body is an echo of Da Vinci’s lost painting Leda and the Swan. Unlike Leda, Catherine is fully clothed and looks up to the sky in ecstasy. The religious nature of the scene is still reminiscent of Perugino’s work, but the inclusion of other influences shows Raphael was experimenting and developing as an artist.

Raphael’s painting of The Madonna of the Pinks also pays homage to Da Vinci. With similarities to the Benois Madonna, a youthful Virgin Mary sits playing with the Christ child, handing him carnations (pinks). Carnations belong to the dianthus genus, Greek for “flower of God”. In art, these flowers are symbolic of Christ’s Passion, from His entry into Jerusalem to His death and resurrection. Due to the similarities with other artists, scholars only officially identified The Madonna of the Pinks as a genuine Raphael in 1991.

During his years in Florence until his first year in Rome in 1508, Raphael painted many Madonnas (depictions of the Virgin and Child). Several were commissioned as large-scale altarpieces for churches, although some were designed for private prayer and devotion. As well as showing great attention to detail, Raphael filled his religious paintings with symbolism and dynamism, which emphasised the importance of the characters.

The Tempi Madonna, so named because Raphael painted it for the Tempi family, depicts Mary’s maternal love for her child. Unlike other Madonnas, which usually hint at Christ’s future through his dramatic poses and behaviour, this painting is more natural. Raphael reveals the emotion, tenderness and absorption of a mother, who holds her son close with her cheek pressed against his. Yet, the baby, Christ, stares into the distance as though contemplating his destiny. Raphael may have taken inspiration for the emotionally charged scene from sculptural reliefs made by Donatello.

A more typical pose of the Christ child is the scene in Raphael’s Alba Madonna, which belonged to the Dukes of Alba in Spain until 1836. As well as Jesus and Mary, the infant John the Baptist joins the scene, holding purple anemones, symbolising Christ’s fate. Other flowers in the painting hold significant meaning, including cyclamen for love and sorrow, and violets for humility. Some scholars surmise the tondo-style artwork was inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he immediately gained two new patrons, Pope Julius II (1443-1513) and the Pope’s principal financial backer, Agostino Chigi (1466-1520). The Sienese banker was allegedly the richest man in Italy and required Raphael to produce frescoes for his villa in the Via della Lungara, now a museum called Villa Farnesina. Chigi also commissioned Raphael to design chapels in two churches, Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo.

While working for Chigi, Raphael also completed many works for Julius II, starting with a fresco in the Pope’s private library at the Vatican Palace. The Stanza della segnatura (Room of the Signatura), or Stanze for short, and other rooms in the palace are frequently referred to as the “Raphael Rooms” because of the numerous paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings. The majority of the paintings depict religious scenes, such as Cardinal and Theological Virtues, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, Deliverance of Saint Peter and The Vision of the Cross. Other scenes captured legendary events, including The Coronation of Charlemagne and The Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

One of the most famous of Raphael’s paintings for the Stanze is The School of Athens, painted between 1509 and 1511. The masterpiece reflects the growing interest in Ancient Greek Philosophy in Rome at the time. Several of the figures in the scene have been identified by art historians, including a self-portrait of Raphael posing as Apelles of Kos, a 4th century BC painter.

In the centre of The School of Athens, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato are seen in conversation. Plato points his hand towards the sky, signalling his idealism and abstract thinking, while Aristotle gestures at the ground, referencing his study of the natural world and human behaviour. In his other hand, Plato holds a copy of Timaeus, a dialogue that responds to the opinions of other scholars. Similarly, Aristotle holds a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics, which had a profound influence on Europeans during the Middle Ages. Around Plato and Aristotle, other philosophers are engaged in debates about their ideas and theories.

In the centre foreground of The School of Athens sits a man resting his head upon his hand while writing on a sheet of paper. This is possibly a representation of the philosopher Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC. Some believe Raphael modelled the figure on Michaelangelo, who was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the time. Similarly, Plato may be modelled on Da Vinci. Heraclitus, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher”, was prone to depression, which explains his physical demeanour and isolation from the other figures in the painting. Heraclitus believed the world was made of fire and stressed the importance of the unity of opposites and harmony.

Other philosophers Raphael included in his painting are Pythagoras and his pupil Anaximander sitting with Archimedes, who holds a diagram of his method for determining the volume of an object with an irregular shape. Averroes, an Islamic scholar, peers over Pythagoras’ shoulder while Socrates is seen conversing with the Attic orator Aeschines. Names suggested for some of the remaining philosophers include Diogenes, Zeno of Citium, Parmenides, Carneades, Epicurus, Xenophon, and Alexander the Great.

Although much of Raphael’s time was spent working on the frescos in the Vatican Palace, he still found time to complete other paintings, such as a portrait of the elderly Julius II. Seated in a chair rather than on a papal throne, the Pope looks frail and humble; a stark contrast to his powerful and influential position. Julius was responsible for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica and the establishment of the Swiss Guards. When Julius died in 1513, less than two years after the completion of the portrait, he was replaced by Leon X (1475-1521), who continued to oversee Raphael’s progress in the Stanze and Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel.

As Raphael grew in popularity, he started training other artists and employed them as assistants in his workshop. One of his assistants was Giulio Romano (1492-1546), a young artist from Rome who helped Raphael complete the paintings in the Stanze. By teaching his students to replicate his style, Raphael doled out sections of artworks to his assistants to complete, thus saving time and energy.

In some cases, Raphael only provided the drawing, for which his students provided the paint. One example is The Vision of Ezekiel (1516-17), which while designed by Raphael, was executed by Romano. The painting depicts a scene in the Old Testament involving the prophet Ezekiel, who rarely appeared in Italian Renaissance art. In the Book of Ezekiel, the prophet described an encounter with God and four living creatures. According to the Christian priest Jerome (347–420), the creatures symbolised the authors of the New Testament gospels. Matthew is the man or angel because his book begins with the genealogy of Jesus, whilst Luke is the Ox because his book starts with temple sacrifice. Mark is represented by the lion, “roaring in the desert with prophetic power”, and John is the eagle, “flying heavenwards like the divine Word”. Alternative interpretations of this tetramorph (a symbolic arrangement of four differing elements) include Babylonian symbols of the zodiac: Taurus (ox), Leo (lion), Scorpio (eagle), and Aquarius (man); and the four elements of Western astrology: Earth, Fire, Water and Air.

With his assistants working on paintings, Raphael was able to prove his versatility with other mediums. Inspired by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Raphael designed prints, which were subsequently engraved by the printmaker Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480-c.1534). An example of Raphael’s print compositions is The Massacre of the Innocents (c.1510), which not only shows Raphael’s mastery of the classical male nude but also reveals his talent for depicting movement and violent action. The scene comes from the nativity narrative of the Gospel of Matthew (2:16–18), in which King Herod learns of Jesus’ birth and orders the execution of all children under the age of two. Etching allows the artist to include expressive lines and shading, which often gets lost in coloured paintings. Every detail of the violent soldiers’ actions is carefully recorded, as is the despair and horror on the faces of the mothers.

Alongside prints, Raphael designed mosaics, sculptures, metalwork and decorative art, such as vases. Several drawings and plans for these objects still exist, as do many letters and notes proving that Raphael also had an interest in archaeology. Raphael wrote to Pope Leo X, begging him to prevent the destruction of archaeological interests, such as Roman ruins. He provided the Pope with a survey of all the buildings in Rome that he believed should be preserved for the future, along with detailed drawings. Plans to tear down ancient structures, presumably to build new houses, horrified Raphael and many of his contemporaries. It is thanks to them the world is still in possession of many historically important places.

Some historical buildings appear in Raphael’s work, as do reimagined structures from Classical Greece, such as in the tapestry Saint Paul Preaching at Athens. Between 1514 and 1515, Leo X commissioned Raphael to design a series of tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Each design depicted a scene from the Acts of the Apostles, which included the life of the first pope, Saint Peter, and Saint Paul. Saint Paul Preaching at Athens reimagines the biblical city and the Areopagus, upon which Paul preached to the judicial council of Athens about God and Jesus. Standing behind Paul in a red cap is a depiction of Leo X.

With so many commissions, Raphael rarely had time to produce portraits, which may be why he included his patrons and himself in some of his large scenes. Towards the end of his short career, while his assistants completed other work, Raphael found a moment to paint a handful of portraits, including a self-portrait with Giulio Romano. Sometimes known as Self-Portrait with a Friend or Raphael and His Fencing Master due to the presence of a sword hilt, the identity of the younger man remained unknown for many years. Today, most art historians agree that it is probably Romano. The hierarchical design of the double portrait, in which Raphael stands behind Romano with his hand on his shoulder, suggests Raphael is the teacher, whilst Romano, who looks over his shoulder for reassurance, is the student. The way Raphael painted the clothing of both himself and Romano makes it look as though the right arm belongs to both of them, hinting that as the master, Raphael aids or manipulates his student.

On promotional material for the Raphael exhibition, the National Gallery used Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1491-1557), a banker and friend of Raphael. The painting echoes Leonardo da Vinci’s Venetian style of posing the sitter as if interrupted by the viewer, at whom he turns to gaze. Altoviti’s father was the papal Master of the Mint, and his mother was the niece of Pope Innocent VIII (1432-92), which made Altoviti a man of wealth and influence. He was also known for his good looks. Altoviti was in charge of collecting taxes to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. He also liaised with the likes of Emperor Charles V (1500-58) and the Medici family.

The final painting in the exhibition was a portrait of a woman known as La fornarina or The Baker’s Daughter. The suggestive semi-nude portrait has led many to believe she was Raphael’s lover. Traditionally, the sitter is identified as Margherita Luti, who refused to marry Raphael despite his obvious devotion. Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-74) claimed Luti was Raphael’s muse and model. He also wrote that Raphael was a “very amorous man and affectionate towards the ladies”.

There are numerous interpretations of La fornarina, with some claiming she represents idealistic beauty and others claiming she was a malevolent goddess. On the one hand, many believe Luti was Raphael’s lover, but another theory is she was a sex worker. An in-depth analysis of the portrait has led some art historians to diagnose Luti with breast cancer. The right breast appears fully formed and proportional, but the left upon which her hand rests is large and deformed. Her left arm also seems swollen, suggesting an enlarged lymph node in her armpit. Since Margarita Luti’s dates of birth and death are unknown, it is impossible to tell whether she died from breast cancer.

On Good Friday, 6th April 1520, Raphael passed away after developing a sudden fever. Vasari poetically recorded that his death was the result of an overindulgence in “amorous pleasures” with Luti, but other sources claim Raphael was engaged to Maria, the daughter of his patron Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi (1470-1520). Raphael’s illness lasted approximately 15 days, during which time he realised he would die and received last rites, confessed his sins and put his affairs in order. As per his request, Raphael was buried in the Pantheon in Rome, where his fiancée was also buried some years later.

Due to his fame and importance in the art world, Raphael received a grand funeral, attended by large crowds. Four cardinals carried Raphael’s body, and the pope kissed his hand before they lowered him into a marble sarcophagus inscribed with a quote from the poet Pietro Bembo (1470-1547): “Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.”

Following his death, Raphael became the prototype for high art across Europe. Due to his versatility, Raphael influenced many areas of art and remains one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. Raphael produced as much work in his 37 years of life as those who lived twice his age. He was a prodigy of the likes that has not been seen since. Today, artists have barely established themselves by the age of 37, let alone produced even half the number of paintings. The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael demonstrates Raphael’s importance in the art world and proves that his work will last for time immemorial.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is open until 31st July 2022. Tickets cost between £24 and £26 and must be purchased in advance. Concessions are available.


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