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Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot and the Talbot family

 Collection

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Comprises important photographs by Talbot and photographs received by Talbot, together with family artifacts and personal effects (including objects photographed by Talbot) and family correspondence and papers.

Dates

  • 1799-2000, n.d.

Extent

40.0 Linear metres (337 shelfmarks)

Language of Materials

English, French, Italian, Assyrian, Greek

Conditions Governing Access

Readers are advised to contact the Library two working days in advance when ordering material from the archive.

Many of the photographs, including all of William Henry Fox Talbot's own photographs, have been labelled category 1-3, which relates to their degree of light sensitivity and can only be consulted in a controlled enviornment. Category 1 photographs are the most sensitive to light.

Preferred Citation

Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark, and page reference if available, e.g. MS. WHF Talbot 5].
Please see our help page for further guidance on citing archives and manuscripts.

Full range of shelfmarks:

MSS. WHF Talbot 1-171, MSS. WHF Talbot photogr. 1-52, MSS. WHF Talbot objects 1-113.

Collection ID (for staff)

CMD ID 9097

Overview

The archive of six generations of the Talbot, Feilding and Burnett-Brown family, including photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot and original artifacts photographed by Talbot, as well as correspondence, research notes, drawing and botanical albums, and estate records.

Biographical / Historical

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), pioneer of photography, was the only child of William Davenport Talbot (1764–1800) of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, and Lady Elisabeth Theresa Fox-Strangeways (1773–1846), the eldest child of the second earl of Ilchester. William Davenport died when his son was five months old and in 1804, Lady Elisabeth married Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Charles Feilding (1780–1837) and had two further daughters, Caroline Augusta Feilding, later Lady Mount Edgcumbe (1808–1881) and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding, later Gaisford (1810–1851).

The Lacock estate had been left impoverished by William Davenport but Lady Elisabeth's management restored it. She also passed her interest in languages, travel and botany on to her son. A gifted scholar, Talbot attended Harrow School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, and published six mathematical papers by 1824. In 1831, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

On 20 December 1832 Talbot married Constance Mundy (1811–1880) of Markeaton in Derbyshire, ten days after his election as a Liberal MP for Chippenham. Although he did not seek re-election at the general election of December 1834, he did not retire from public life entirely, serving as High Sherriff of Wiltshire in 1840 and campaigning to protect Kew Gardens from closure in the late 1830s.

An 1833 drawing excursion to Lake Como with Constance and his half-sister Caroline was the impetus for his first experiments in photography, when Talbot found himself frustrated by his lack of skill in sketching the view. He had already tried using a camera obscura and a camera lucida, which reflected a view without fixing it, and he wondered for the first time whether it would be possible to fix a reflection on paper and create a permanent image. He started experimenting in spring 1834, embedding light-sensitive silver chloride in paper and, in the most basic method, covering a portion of the paper with an oqaque object like a flower, and exposing it all to the sun. This darkened the uncovered silver chloride and left a paler, negative image of the flower on the paper. Of course, once the flower was removed, light continued to react with the silver chloride, which would destroy the negative, so he further experimented in how to wash away the silver and fix the image with salt, and also in how to create positive prints from negatives.

Setting photography aside to concentrate on, among other things, scientific work with crystals, Talbot did not return to his photographic experiments until November 1838, and almost immediately the Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre revealed that he had found a means of capturing images. It turned out that Daguerre used a different method to Talbot - exposing silver-plated copper rather than paper which, unlike Talbot's method, did not allow him to create multiple positive prints from a negative - but the competition led to Talbot finally submitting a paper to the Royal Society, in which he named his own technique 'photogenic drawing'. In short order, Talbot also discovered and patented a method for developing a negative chemically after only seconds or minutes exposure to light, which meant that the camera did not have to be left in the sun for up to an hour (or more) as previously. He called the resulting process 'calotype photogenic drawing', also known just as the 'calotype', or as the 'Talbotype'. Thus Talbot invented the three primary processes in photography: fixing, developing, and printing.

In 1844 he began selling a serial, The Pencil of Nature which was illustrated with original photographic prints, and in 1845 Sun Pictures in Scotland, although this was marred by production problems resulting in rapidly fading images. His photographic patents also proved unpopular and were highly contested. In 1854 a court acknowledged Talbot as the inventor of photography, but ruled that his patent did not cover newer techniques like the wet collodion process, despite their evolution from the calotype. The wet collodion process, which printed on glass, produced crisper images than the calotype but like the calotype it allowed for multiple prints from a negative. As a result, it quickly overtook both calotypes and dageurreotypes in commercial use.

Partly as a result of ill health, and partly as a result of the patent strife, Talbot stopped making original photographs, but as his health improved he began to experiment again. Despite the fixing process, his silver-based images would always be subject to fading, and as his own experience with publishing photographs had shown, were extremely difficult to mass produce. In 1852 Talbot patented a ‘photographic engraving’ process. This created an intaglio plate that could be inked up like any other printing plate, and it allowed photographs to be printed and published using long-lasting and stable printer's ink. By 1858 Talbot patented an improved process which he called ‘photoglyphic engraving’. These techniques were never commercially successful in his own lifetime, but they were the origin of the modern photogravure process. Talbot kept working on photomechanical printing until he died.

Aside from photography, Talbot also did important work in translating Assyrian cuneiform and published seven books and nearly sixty scientific and mathematical articles.

He and Constance had four children, Ela Theresa (1835-1893), Rosamond Constance (1837-1906), Matilda Caroline (1839-1927) and Charles Henry (1842-1916). Only one, Matilda, ever married (to John Gilchrist-Clark, 1836-1881). The children were taught by Amélina Petit de Billier (1798-1876), a Parisian who came to Lacock originally to teach the Feildings (WHF Talbot's half sisters). Apart from a brief stint with the Hopwoods of Hopwood Hall near Manchester and a return to Paris, Petit was closely associated with the Talbot family until her death, latterly as governess and companion to Talbot's daughters, companion to Constance Talbot, and as a business agent for WHF Talbot in France. She is buried in the Lacock churchyard with the rest of the family.

Charles Henry Talbot, a historian, antiquarian and archaeologist, inherited the estate, and on his death, gave the abbey and its contents to his unmarried niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871–1958), who changed her surname to Talbot in response. In addition to managing the estate, Matilda was, among other things, an accomplished cookery instructor who published an autobiography, My Life and Lacock Abbey, in 1956. She ensured that William Henry Fox Talbot's photographic legacy would be preserved, including distributing his photographs internationally. In 1944 she signed Lacock Abbey over to the National Trust. The archive survived in the hands of Katharine Burnett-Brown (d. 1971), the daughter of Matilda's brother, William Gilchrist-Clark, and Katharine's children Anthony and Janet Burnett-Brown, who took over as National Trust tenants of Lacock Abbey and founded the Fox Talbot Museum in 1975.

Talbot's papers and photographs have been widely distributed over the years, mainly to public institutions, including the collection formerly on deposit at the Fox Talbot Museum, which was donated to the British Museum in 2005. This collection comprises a reserved, core archive which was retained at Lacock Abbey, with attendant artworks and artifacts.

Adapted mainly from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on William Henry Fox Talbot.

Other Finding Aids

The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project is an online edition of all of Talbot's correspondence, including all of the Talbot letters contained in this archive. The doc numbers (e.g. Doc no 10047) are provided in this catalogue as a cross reference to the online edition.

William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné is a detailed inventory of Talbot photographs located around the world. Many of the Talbot photographs contained in this archive are also described in the Catalogue Raisonné. These photographs are identified in this catalogue by Schaaf numbers (e.g. Schaaf 1234). Some photographs also have LA numbers, which was a reference system created by Eugene Ostroff in the mid twentieth century.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Purchased October 2014 from Petronella Burnett-Brown.

Separated Materials

Talbot's books have been separated from the archive and can be found in the Library's printed collection.
Title
Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot and the Talbot family
Status
Completed
Author
Finding aid prepared by Matthew Neely and Charlotte McKillop-Mash
Date
2016
Language of description
English

Repository Details

Part of the Bodleian Libraries Repository

Contact:
Weston Library
Broad Street
Oxford OX1 3BG United Kingdom