Photography – Bodleian Seeks Funds to Secure Talbot Archive

One advantage of the discovery of the photographic art will be, that it will enable us to introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to faithfully copy from nature*

Portrait of William Henry fox Talbot, Antoanine Claudet, 1844

The Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford have recently received a 1.2 million pound grant by the National Heritage Memorial Fund towards acquiring the personal archive of the man who has become known as the ‘British founder of photography’, polymath William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877). Along with all those other early pioneers Talbot’s persistence and patience led to the invention of photography as we know it today. He contributed much to our society and its cultural development, revealed in the  images of the last 100 years of world history etched in our memory alongside those of our loved ones, enabling us to recall and rekindle memories we cherish.

Photography is very much in the spotlight already in 2013 with museums and art galleries all over the world presenting a diverse, creative and compelling set of images in exhibition showings that stimulate the senses, influencing both our ideas and emotions. They are showcasing an art form that in terms of history is still in its infancy, with photographs captured either with a fleeting moment to think about, or reflect on their truth or, thought about deliberately, then chosen and constructed carefully to invite and provoke a response.

Fox Talbot was a family man photographed here with his wife Constance on the right, their daughter Rosamond, daughter Ela and son Charles Henry. It was taken by John Blomfield outside Lacock Abbey around 1872.

Alongside this massive outpouring of photographic images worldwide comes the desire and need for historians to gain access to information through well- documented research facilities.  The only significant Talbot collection remaining in private hands, this important archive is being sold for £2.2 million. The Bodleian Libraries have until the end of February to raise the remaining funds.

A series of public events is planned to support access to the Archive, including a major exhibition in 2017. Highlights from the Archive will also feature in the opening exhibition for the Weston Library, and in a number of smaller displays.

Drawing with light is a wonderful definition of the word photography, which comes from the French photographie in its turn derived from the Greek words for light and to drawThe evolution of photography gradually came about through a series of inventions as Europe and England emerged from the medieval period. Together they led ultimately to the development in the 19th century to what we generally know as photography: the ability to capture an image in real time and imprint it onto paper for posterity.

William Talbot's Daughters Matilda, Ela and Rossamund - Calotype Photograph

The idea for capturing the moment permanently had grown out of a quest to render architecture in perspective that came to fruition during the Renaissance era in Italy. William Henry Fox Talbot had an enormous intellectual curiosity, one that was wide-ranging embracing the fields of mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and botany. He also had an interest in philosophy and philology as well as a passion for Egyptology, the classics, and art history. He had been a precocious child, who at the age of eight had a clear idea about his own importance in the grand scheme of things, commanding his stepfather ‘tell Mamma & everybody I write to to keep my letters & not burn them’.

They were protected within a stable family structure that carried on that wish through several generations, which has led to the extensive archive the Bodleian Libraries is working hard to obtain. The value of them is now is almost immeasurable, although $1.1 million would help to secure them.

William Henry Fox Talbot Photographed by John Moffat in 1864

Mastering reflection was the first step toward an image making revolution that began with the development of the mirror in antiquity and climaxed with Talbot and the triumph of the invention of photography.

It would have a profound effect on men of learning all over Europe and in England over the next few centuries and we seldom realize the full extent to which it has influenced our own personal and community growth.

It was in 1727 that the German professor and polymath Johann Heinriche Schulze (1687-1744) discovered photosensitive surfaces when he experimented with silver salts in an experiment in 1724. While he did not preserve an image his work provided a foundation for the future.

In 1802 the son of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805), found that an image could be created on a piece of silver nitrate – soaked paper.  He and chemist and inventor Humphry Davy (1778-1829) were early experimenters in the field of photography.

French inventor Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) did not have a steady enough hand to trace the inverted images created by the camera obscura, as was popular in his day, so he looked for a way to capture an image permanently. By 1826 was using bitumen and lavender oil to fix an image onto a pewter plate.

He and Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851) also brought forth daguerreotype by using a sheet of silver plated copper to fix an image produced through the use of a camera obscura.

Action - William Fox Talbot 1853

It was Talbot’s frustrations, when sketching by the shore of Lake Como in October 1833 on his honeymoon, that would change the course of history.

He was working with two instruments – the camera lucida a simple draftsman’s aid, consisting of an adjustable metal arm fastened at one end to the artist’s sketchbook or drawing board and supporting a glass prism at the other and the camera obscura, quite literally a “dark box” constructed large enough for an artist to get inside of. An image projected on the back wall by opening a small pinhole in the front allowed the artist to draw a scene.

He reflected on “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.”

“And why should it not be possible?” he asked himself as he traced the features of the village buildings, recorded the beauty of the lake and its distant mountains with his pencil.

Calotype negative and salted paper print of an Oak Tree by William Henry Fox Talbot 1842

However he soon realized that it was much harder than he would have thought possible “for when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.”

He would take up the challenge of finding a new way of making pictures and perfecting the optical and chemical aspects of image making. He was following in the footsteps of giant men in history, who had also pondered the question of imprinting images permanently.

Nicolaas Henneman Asleep caught by William Henry Fox Talbot 1844-45

It was 1834 when William Henry Fox Talbot started working towards success. 1839 was the year when he first discovered that sensitized paper coated with an emulsion would accept a photographic image, later developing from this discovery a contact print.

Talbot understood that an exposure of mere seconds left a latent image that could be brought out with the application of an “exciting liquid” (essentially a solution of Gallic acid).

He patented his discovery in February 1841 as the “calotype” process (from the Greek kalos, meaning beautiful) and from then on it opened up a whole new world of possible subjects for photography.

Talbot’s early photogenic drawings are exceptionally beautiful but can never really be exhibited or exposed to light without risk of change.

Even his far more stable calotypes fixed with hypo were inconsistent in their permanence, many deteriorating in quick order. He improved his process in 1840 to enable shorter exposures and more stable results.

The Open Door 1843 Salted Paper Print from Calotype negative (Plate VI The Pencil of Nature)

The calotype in his hands developed from an experimental process into an expressive artistic tool. He was able to produce a paper negative from which any number of prints could be taken and this process remained in use – largely among amateurs – throughout the 1840s.

In 1842 Talbot received a medal from the British Royal Society for his experiments with the calotype.   His book The Pencil of Nature (1844–46) was published in six installments and the first with photographic illustrations.  Its 24 plates document the beginnings of photography primarily through studies of art objects and architecture.

In 1851 Talbot discovered a way of taking instantaneous photographs, and his “photolyphic engraving” (patented in 1852 and 1858), a method of using printable steel plates and muslin screens to achieve quality middle tones of photographs on printing plates.

A reviewer of the 1862 International Exhibition described some of the photographs as “fading before the eyes of the nations assembled.”

Talbot’s search for a photographic process using a permanent printer’s ink was the final step in the refinement of his earlier, still imperfect, invention.

Adding to support for The Bodleian Libraries campaign Hiroshi Sugimoto, currently one of the world’s greatest living photographers, said:

‘The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford is seeking to acquire the archive of William Henry Fox Talbot in order to ensure that scholars, artists, photographers and the general public can have access to the mass of papers, sketchbooks, photographs and artifacts that it contains.

They want to promote our understanding and appreciation of this great innovator, stimulate new art and other forms of creativity and broaden our understanding of the founder of a field of communication that has changed our world.  I would like to add my support to their campaign to secure the Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot.’

The Ladder 1845 by William Henry Fox Talbot - photography was now well on the way towards becoming an art form

The Fox Talbot archive includes: original manuscripts by Talbot, family diaries, family drawing and watercolour albums and sketchbooks, including images made by Talbot’s mother, his wife and by his sister, correspondence, early photographic images made by Talbot, an image made by Talbot’s wife, c. 1839, which may be the earliest image made by a woman, several hundred photographs received by Talbot – by other photographers from Britain and across the continent.

There is documentation about contemporaries of Fox Talbot who shared their images and attempts at early photography, portraits of Talbot and his family, materials and artifacts related to the Lacock estate including estate plans, bills etc.

There are also books from Talbot’s personal library, musical scores from Talbot and his immediate family, scientific instruments from Talbot’s own collection and botanical specimen albums made by Talbot and members of his immediate family.

If the Bodleian Libraries manage to achieve their goal the William Henry Fox Talbot collection will join a diverse range of over 1,200 iconic objects and places, which have been already safeguarded by the NHMF to the tune of over £300 million.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

*William Henry Fox Talbot

The Arthur Talbot Wedding to Rose Pearce Also present William Talbot. Emma Talbot. Carrie Talbot. James Talbot. Miriam Talbot and Rachel Talbot, At the beginning of all our wedding photographs


Sir Paul Nurse, President, The Royal Society

‘The great innovator of the 19th century, William Henry Fox Talbot, left an impact on science, art, and culture as profound as any of the great polymathic minds of the 19th century.  He brought together scientific theory, technical application, with aesthetics and business acumen in a combination that resulted in the camera, the negative image, the photographic print, mass reproduction of images, scientific imaging techniques and ultimately the use of digital images in the all-pervasive manner that we experience today.

As the President of the Royal Society, the heritage of brilliant scientists and innovators like Talbot (who was a Fellow of the Royal Society) is of great importance, not just for the sake of the national heritage itself, but also for providing inspiration for new generations of experimenters and innovators.

I am surprised that the archive was allowed the leave these shores, and would like to add my wholehearted support to the Bodleian’s efforts to bring it back to the UK.’


Sir Michael Berry, FRS, Melville Wills Professor of Physics (Emeritus), University of Bristol

‘Having the collection in the UK would be especially valuable because it covers much more than the invention of photography for which he is best known. The collection covers a vast scope, including photographs (not only by Talbot), correspondence, artefacts, personal effects, and music. To my knowledge this is largely unexplored material. Having it available for research in the UK would surely lead to deeper understanding of the vast web of Victorian scientific, industrial, cultural and political activities in which Talbot was intimately involved for many years.

My connection with Talbot goes back to the 1990s when as part of my work as a theoretical physicist I studied and developed one of his discoveries in physics, now at the forefront of current research in optics. Visiting Lacock searching for relevant documents led to my appreciating the vast range of Talbot’s accomplishments. I do hope that the Bodleian can get this new material.’


Colin Ford, CBE, Founding Head, National Media Museum

‘There can be no doubt about the importance of the Lacock Abbey Talbot Archive. Talbot was not only the British inventor of photography but a true polymath. He made significant contributions to many Victorian developments, knew and corresponded with most of the important inventors and scientists of the day, and kept detailed records of his activities. There is still much research to be done on all this – perhaps particularly in the non-photographic areas – and this will be made much more difficult if the archive is allowed to remain abroad. After studying the catalogue of the archive at some length, I believe that a library such as the Bodleian would be the ideal home. It would then be possible for scholars in England to study Fox Talbot in the round at just three major British institutions – the British Library, the National Media Museum and the Bodleian Library. I cannot too strongly urge the need to make this possible.’


Martin Parr, photographer

‘As we all know it was Fox Talbot who invented the concept of the photographic negative, and alongside Daguerre, invented the craft of photography. I was amazed to hear that this very important collection was given an export licence, but delighted to learn that the Bodleian now has a last minute chance to acquire this collection and thus retain it in the UK. The very notion of this collection leaving the UK, just defies belief, and the only possible explanation is that the under appreciation of photography in the UK, is still here in a very disturbing way. The Bodleian are the ideal custodians of this collection. Their appreciation and collecting of many aspects of photography is most encouraging, especially given their close associations with Talbot.’


Prof. Larry J. Schaaf, independent photohistorian and consultant. Shaaf taught photography and photographic history at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founder and Editor of the Online Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot which includes 10,000+ letters

‘Talbot had discovered the latent image, where an invisible seed was planted in a short period of time, a seed that would later grow into a fully developed image. This concept is applicable to the remarkable Talbot Archive under consideration by the Bodleian Library. Its potential is latent. Preliminary study has already confirmed the rich scholarly and personal material in this collection. Further research, especially that which will relate it to other Talbot holdings, is certain to bring out a fuller image of an extraordinary Victorian scientist and humanist.

This Archive is the only significant Talbot collection remaining in private hands. It gets its strength, not from the significance of individual items, but rather from its totality. The Bodleian Library is an ideal repository to keep this collection together and to bring out its latent potential. I strongly support the acquisition of this collection as a whole.’


Prof Martin Kemp, FBA former Prof of Art History, University of Oxford.

‘For some years (not least having worked on some of the original material previously held at Lacock) I have been anxiously watching the tortuous fate of the Talbot Archive. It is astonishing that it has not passed into public hands already. The importance of the invention of photography does not need stressing, nor Talbot’s key role and his notable activities in public and scientific life. What is apparent from the list of materials in the archive is that it goes far beyond standard kinds of documentation, embracing, as is does through its objects and instruments, the whole material and intellectual history of Talbot’s invention.’

As a former Trustee of a number of national museums I am familiar with the claims of directors and curators that this or that potential acquisition is of unique importance. I can say in this case that the description is fully deserved. I should be thrilled if the Bodleian becomes its home, knowing that it will be properly conserved, curated, made available and exhibited (as appropriate).

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