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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