FOXTALBOT AND FRIENDS
THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Before the 19th century, the only way to preserve images of family, friends and favourite places was through painting and drawing. Official portraiture was expensive and time-consuming, and therefore only an option for Royalty and the nobility. All that began to change in the early 1800s with the invention of the first photographic images. By the end of the century, photographic processes had been refined so that they were speedy and therefore practicable, and the introduction of the first cheap, easy-to-use camera by Kodak opened up photography as a national pastime that most people could afford. Crucially, this enabled people from all walks of life to preserve images of loved ones for the family album.
Lord of the Manor
The man credited with inventing modern photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was Lord of the Manor at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire from 1827 until his death 50 years later.
Fox Talbot was born on 11 February 1800 at Melbury, Dorset, to army officer William Davenport Talbot and Lady Elisabeth FoxStrangeways, daughter of the Earl of Ilchester. His father died when he was six months old, leaving the Lacock estate heavily in debt, so the Abbey had to be leased out while Henry and his mother lived with relatives. In 1804, Lady Elisabeth married Captain Charles Feilding, who helped rebuild Lacock’s fortunes and the family returned to live there in 1827.
Talbot excelled academically as a child and was described by Dr Butler, his tutor at Harrow School, as ‘one of the cleverest and most amiable boys I have ever known’. He developed an interest in chemistry at Harrow, and became known for his many experiments. In 1819, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won several prizes and graduated with firstclass honours in Mathematics. Soon afterwards, he began writing mathematical papers for the Royal Society and continued to do so for the next half century. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1831, became a member of the Society’s Council in 1836, and was awarded the Royal Medal in 1838. But his interests extended beyond mathematics; he was also a keen classicist, antiquarian, archaeologist, botanist, astronomer and geologist. He wrote over 100 articles and eight books, including Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Researches (1838-39) and Illustrations of the Antiquity of the Book of Genesis (1839), as well as being one of the first to decipher the ancient cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia.
Politics occupied him for a short while and he served as the Whig Member of Parliament for Chippenham from 1832 to 1835, as well as holding the office of High Sheriff of Wiltshire in 1840. Meanwhile, in his personal life, he married Constance Mundy of Markeaton Hall, Derbyshire, in 1832, and the couple went on to have four children: Ela, Rosamond, Matilda and Charles.
The start of photography
There was one talent that Talbot, by his own admission, did not possess – and that was an artistic one. During his honeymoon in 1833, while on the shores of Lake Como in Italy, Constance and other family members and friends were sketching and painting the beautiful scenes around them. Talbot’s own efforts ended in failure, but this set him
thinking about whether there was a scientific way of capturing and preserving images.
Back at Lacock, he began experimenting with sheets of paper coated with different solutions of silver nitrate and sodium chloride to test their reaction to sunlight. By placing an object on the paper and leaving it in the sun, a silhouette of the object was formed by the darkening of the uncovered areas. Soon afterwards, Talbot found a way of stabilising the image so that it wouldn’t deteriorate upon further exposure to light. In August 1835, he created the world’s first negative – an incredibly detailed image of a latticed window at Lacock Abbey. Crucially, Talbot realised that a negative could be used to produce multiple copies of an image.
But Talbot wasn’t alone in trying to find ways of capturing and preserving images. In Paris, a young artist and photographer by the name of Louis Daguerre had been carrying out similar experiments since the late 1820s. In January 1839, he announced the launch of his own photography system, the Daguerreotype, and was promptly hailed as the ‘father of photography’ – much to Talbot’s dismay.
He responded by presenting his own findings to the Royal Institution on 31 January 1839. His presentation was later published in several journals, as well as by Talbot himself, in the form of a pamphlet. The following year he developed the calotype, a process that improved upon Daguerre’s system by reducing exposure times and using paper rather than expensive metal plates. He patented the calotype in 1841.
In 1843, Talbot set up the Reading Establishment, the world’s first photographic printing firm. Sadly, its existence was shortlived, but it did allow Talbot to publish The Pencil of Nature, which gave a detailed account
of his research and was the first commercial book to include photographic illustrations. A facsimile of the original can be seen in the Fox Talbot Museum.
Talbot continued to focus on improving photographic procedures, and when he died on 17 September 1877 – leaving a body of around 4500 images – his place in the history books as an important innovator of the 19th century was assured.
How photography changed the world
The advent of photography opened up portraiture to a greater number of people. It was no longer the preserve of the wealthy, but something that almost everybody could afford to do. The idea of creating a family album became increasingly popular, and people were keen to fill their albums with portraits taken of family members at different stages of their lives.
When Talbot and Daguerre first announced their photography processes, exposure times were still too slow for portraits. By the 1840s, further improvements had brought exposure times down to less than a minute, making portrait photography much more appealing and practicable. Photography studios began to appear in London in 1841, and within a few
years were present in almost every city and small town in the UK. Itinerant photographers also began to appear, travelling between villages to photograph those unable to make it into their nearest town.
Soon people were having portraits taken to mark key events in their lives, such as births, christenings, weddings and deaths. It was not unusual, in the Victorian era, for photographers to be invited to take portraits of family members who had passed away. At a time when the infant mortality rate was still high, taking a picture of a deceased baby in its mother’s arms, looking as though it was merely asleep, could be of huge comfort to bereaved parents. Often the child would be photographed as part of a family group, providing a treasured memorial for the family album.
Wedding portraits were usually taken in a photographer’s studio, rather than at a church or registry office, and it was not until the 20th century that it became customary for the bride to wear a white dress and the groom to be in a dinner suit. This means it isn’t always obvious that a picture is a wedding portrait, although brides did sometimes wear veils.
Portraits with family members dressed in their Sunday best were also popular, and it was conventional for everyone to be directly facing the camera. Children were usually photographed in the morning when the sun was at its brightest, as this meant exposure times were shortest and they could take the portrait before the children started to get restless. People were also sometimes photographed in uniforms or clothes that indicated their occupation, often with appropriate objects - a carving knife for a butcher or a skull for a doctor.
Photography had another important function - it expanded people’s knowledge of the world. As its popularity grew, those who could afford to do so would travel abroad, taking pictures of famous landmarks and buildings. This in turn inspired more people to travel, either in the UK or overseas, helped by the expansion of the railways and the publication of travel guides such as the Bradshaw’s handbooks. Thus, photography became part of the great travel revolution of the 19th century, when more people than ever before were able to afford to get out and about.
Another major revolution for the late Victorians was the introduction of the first Kodak camera in 1888 (see YFH 186, p96 for a history of the Kodak Brownie). Marketed with the slogan ‘you press the button, we do the rest’, this cheap, easy-to-use camera carried a roll of film that could take 100 pictures. The camera was then sent to Kodak for developing and printing. This marked the beginning of amateur photography. By the turn of the century most people could afford a Kodak camera, and soon family albums were being filled with personal snapshots of holidays, days out, weddings and so on. People still went to studios for official portraits, but informal pictures became increasingly popular. The style of pictures noticeably changed; the old convention of putting on a serious face for the camera gradually disappeared in favour of fun, relaxed shots that were much more reflective of people’s real moods, personalities and interests.
Ongoing developments in the style and sophistication of cameras and processing techniques throughout the 20th century brought about the digital revolution, which has opened up even greater opportunities for selfportraiture and the building of a very personal library of treasured memories.
By the 1840s, improvements had brought exposure times down to less than a minute
Fox Talbot, photographed by Richard Beard in 1841
An image of Constance Talbot, the photographer's wife
This image of a latticed window at Lacock Abbey taken in 1835 was made from what is believed to be the oldest photographic negative in existence
Fox Talbot pictured in 1864
Fox Talbot (far right) at the Reading Establishment in 1846
Above: Daguerre’s ‘Boulevard du Temple’, a scene he photographed in Paris in 1838 Eight: Louis Daguerre in 1844
A photographic studio in the 1880s – here aided by electric light
A Victorian photographic studio