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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