16th October 2018.
Lacock Abbey has beauty everywhere you look, if not beauty then a piece of history that reminds you of the long past of not just the main house, but of the Abbey, dating back to the Medieval and Tudor times.
The buildings feel steeped in history, from the preserved rooms to even the tea rooms, you can feel that something happened here.
We visited on a day that was grey and raining and I was very ill. In all honesty I don’t remember a lot of this trip – both my mental and physical health were limited and again, very honestly, I probably shouldn’t have gone. But nonetheless I tried to engage myself, trying to revel in the fact that Fox Talbot walked the halls, and created what the world deems the ‘first photograph’.
It might have been the illness, but I walked around in a bit of a daze, not quite comprehending what I was seeing; the gravity of the place I was in, somewhere where something so iconic happened, it seemed almost too humble to be the ‘birthplace of photography’.
I say humble, but I think I mean ‘still’, the surrounding village was quiet, the Abbey has a certain ‘hum’ about it but nothing in comparison to times that Fox Talbot was living there, the feel of the place would be dramatically different, with servants, and family living their daily lives.
I noticed that the information and feel of the structure of the Abbey had a very distinct ‘us vs. them’ feel, the servant’s quarters and the families strikingly different. I wondered how much this divide would impact the family, and if things would still happen the way they did then, today.
The Abbey house is filled with art and beauty; lavish decorations, just with any stately home. Fox Talbot was surrounded by artists; his family painting watercolours and intricate studies of the world around them, which was of course, the leading way of recording the world at this time. Fox Talbot lacked the skills to create these studies and grew frustrated with this. This prompted him to start experimenting within the world of recording in other ways. With a starting point of a portable Camera Lucida that artists used to project the world on to their paper, he started thinking of ways in which he could not only create images with the glass lens, but also fix them to paper with no need for pencils or paintbrushes.
Fox Talbot was a polymath; his interests and studies did not just end with art, instead he thrived within the scientific, mathematical, botanical and chemistry worlds, this leading him to easily start pushing the boundaries of chemistry and his understanding of recording the world through alternative means.
Although Fox Talbot was not the only one starting to reflect on how this process could work, previous scholars had secured chemical process of capturing the image, for example Johann Hamish Schulze had found the method of creating images, but they would just darken constantly once exposed to light. Similarly, Niepce (1759-1833) had concreted the photographic engraving process, but once again, it had problems when light and exposure came into play.
I found this part of the exhibition interesting as all these photographers; chemists; scientists, whatever you want to call them, were all striving to do what both Fox Talbot and Daguerre basically found at the same time.
Over in France, Daguerre had been experimenting from 1826, 8 years before Talbot in 1834. However, whilst both were working at similar times, they were not aware of a ‘race’ to announce their processes.
While Daguerre had been perfecting the ‘Daguerreotype’ a positive image on a metal plate, his artistic and developmental block was the fact that he could only print one image from each positive image. But his plates were sharp images, each intricate in their detail.
The reason, I think we call Lacock Abbey the ‘birthplace of photography’ is Fox Talbot’s discovery; the ability to both print multiple images from one negative, but also combining the chemicals that were needed to actually ‘fix’ the print to the page without it fading away.
Fox Talbot’s first image is of course, the latticed window. Seeing the window in person I was underwhelmed, but then taken over with the real sense of history that was right in front of me. I had not imaged the space to be the way it was, had not thought about the space around it or where even the vantage point was. The copy of the negative surprised me – no bigger than a postage stamp, but it does have stunning detail for an image taken with the technology at the time.
The ‘mousetrap’ camera, a wooden box with a microscopic lens were ‘left around the abbey to collect light’, each exposure onto the photographic paper taking hours. I stand in awe of the photographers of the past, the patience and dedication to the art is enough to make some people give up, but I suppose this is why the invention of photography and the art now is so important; it wasn’t invented in a day, it took decades of hard work and dedication to a craft that seemingly could give you nothing. I suppose this is what the visit gave me the most appreciation for; the dedication of the practitioners working with early film, and Fox Talbot’s obvious want to succeed within the process of getting it right.
I found a piece of information in the Abbey that said he called his first proper print of the latticed windows a ‘photogenic drawing’ and I find this mildly humorous, we can see even the slightest bit of frustration still there at his inability to create skilled artworks – he called it a ‘drawing’. He called the end process the ‘calotype’ translating from the Greek word ‘Kalos’ meaning ‘beautiful’. I find this in itself beautiful actually, as the work and perseverance and drive to continue experimenting and working not just with early processes, but actually with more modern-day film processes as well, can be beautiful to create and generate that resolution of ideas.
However, the rest of Fox Talbot’s life after he had patented his calotype process in 1841 was not easy. He found himself in a legal challenge with the patent, leading to not just money loss but also the loss of good reputation, his troubles left him diminished. Before this though, he opened his own printing facility, in which he was able to produce and print images for his book, Pencil of Nature. Within the first six volumes, he was able to illustrate with his own prints, creating ‘the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published”. This book was displayed the images that Fox Talbot called ‘photogenic drawings’ and boasted of being completely free from an artist’s paintbrush or pen. His criteria for choosing the images lay in the knowledge that he was displaying photographic images to an audience very new to the medium, and so they had to be accessible, but also, he wanted to convey the deep realism and detail within his prints, wanting to impress his audience.
I find this fascinating, already at this point, a photographer was creating an ‘artists book’ in order to show their work – something that still happens today. He was making decisions, editing based on the accessibility of the images; he was curating his own work. It puts into perspective how much these artist books have taken hold in our arts-based society – we enjoy looking at images and having a book with an ‘aura’, a certain gravitas, makes viewing these images just slightly more ‘real’ and special.
Now, after conducting more research and collecting my thoughts in a slightly more coherent way than I was thinking during the actual visit, yes, there is a great respect for the man and the space in which he created the processes and first image. While it was a long day, and I could sense myself not giving it the attention it needed, now I find myself with knowledge that I didn’t have before, more specifically around the time and influences of Fox Talbot.
Maley, S. Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department. Book of the month. (2007). William Henry Fox Talbot. The Pencil of Nature, Available at: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/Feb2007.html Retrieved 27th October 2018
Wikipedia contributors: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (2018) The Pencil of Nature, Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Pencil_of_Nature&oldid=824444278 (Accessed: 27th October 2018).
Visit to Lacock Abbey and Fox Talbot Museum Exhibition (Fox Talbot Museum. (2018) [Exhibition] Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire. Ongoing.)