William Henry Fox Talbot and the Variety of the Photographic Archive: Exploring Oxford’s Photography Collections

By Dr Mirjam Brusius

Last month’s blog post talked about the strong ties between the discipline of art history and the medium of photography. These ties go back to the very beginnings of photography whose 175th anniversary we celebrated this year. In 1839, photography was announced to the public in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787 –1851) and in Britain by the English Victorian scientist William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). While Daguerre’s images, the Daguerreotype, were unique copies on a silver plate, Talbot’s process, the calotype, was reproducible and became the technique that we used until recently, when the birth of digital photography made analogue photographs almost redundant. Talbot is now primarily remembered as the inventor of photography, but he was an antiquarian and gentleman of science. From the beginning, Talbot’s interests ranged across the natural sciences, classical scholarship and, above all, decipherment of cuneiform script. 1839, when most thought him to have focused on his photographic experiments, was also the year when he published, for example, Hermes—Classical and Antiquarian Researches, an exploration of questions about the antiquities and classical traditions of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. It was also the decade when he produced a wide range of mathematical notebooks.

Coinciding with the 175th anniversary of the public announcement of photography, the Bodleian Library acquired new archival sources on Talbot that will further enable researchers to get the broader picture in the puzzle of the birth of photography. Previous research at the British Library Archive has already given insight into Talbot’s scholarly activities beyond photography, which the Oxford archive will now fruitfully supplement by giving new insight into the influences into Talbot’s education exerted by his family, the Victorian interests in botany, languages, art, travel and history that shaped Talbot’s critical eye, and their roles as patrons of art. The archive will also enable us to learn more about Talbot’s photographic and scholarly activities in a broad and more comprehensive context through images, letters, notebooks and specimens (plates 1-3), but also to those as a Member of Parliament.

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Plates 1-3: Manuscripts and a photographic specimen from the Bodleian Library’s Talbot archive

Visitors to the archive can also admire some of the first photographs taken of Oxford. Most excitingly, it contains objects, such as glassware and artworks that Talbot photographed for the ground-breaking publication The Pencil of Nature, (1844-46), the first book illustrated with photographs. Here, Talbot explained in six volumes the different uses and purposes photography could have, including the reproduction of art works, such as drawings and sculptures.

Patroclus_talbotAmongst those, were two pictures of a copy of a bust of Patroclus. This photograph (plate 4) evokes a portrait of a human being. Instead of a human sitter, however, it depicts a bust against a dark background. The plain background forces the viewer to focus entirely on the presented object. The body of the bust is presented diagonally within the picture, while the head is turned almost towards us. Because of this perspective the pronounced features of the man’s face are revealed, his slightly open mouth, his open eyes and the fine swing of his eyebrows, the noble nose and his somewhat rough beard.

Plate 4: Bust of Patroclus, from WHF Talbot, Pencil of Nature, plate V, London, 1844-46

hb_1988.1159Another photograph of the bust (plate 5) reveals the front of the athletic chest, whereas the head, which seems to have suddenly turned to the right, appears in profile; the untamed hair that did not catch our eye in the first picture; the interplay of shadows and light agitate the movement of the wavy tresses. It is hard to tell whether the facial expression of the bust indicates surprise, fear or resolve. One reason for the ambiguity is the fact that there are two different images, which allow different interpretations. The vivid and sitter-like character of the bust is in conflict with the ‘visual possibilities’ of the work of art as sculpture – as a form of representation in stone with an extraordinary material surface; qualities that are also revealed in the photograph.

Plate 5: Bust of Patroclus, from WHF Talbot, Pencil of Nature, plate XVII, London, 1844-46

The two photographs allow the spectator to discover these various characteristics of the Greek hero Patroclus without physically walking around it. Talbot went around the sculpture with his camera in order to bring it to life. Talbot’s inclusion of two views of the bust in The Pencil of Nature thus anticipates the comparative use of slides and the reproduction of art to study art history.

Visiting Professor Larry Schaaf’s work and in particular his Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project has offered enlightening connections that can be made in respect to Talbot’s photography, e.g. the fact that photography made art mobile: in a letter to Talbot’s friend, the scientist and astronomer John Frederick William Herschel, for example, Talbot mentioned that he intended to make several photographs of the bust: “I enclose a little sketch of the interior of one of the rooms in this house, with a bust of ‘Patroclus’ on a table. There is not light enough for interiors at this season of the year, however I intend to try a few more.” By constantly placing the bust as well as the camera in different positions, Talbot explored the possibilities that the two ‘media’ – sculpture and photography – were able to produce together, a topic that Oxford Professor Geraldine Johnson has published extensively on. Talbot’s images thus reveal that at the very beginning of photography there was no such thing as a clinical or objective point of view.

Talbot’s wish to make his invention applicable to the sciences and the study of the past was grounded in his personal interest. He needed, for example, photographic images to decipher clay tablets bearing cuneiform script in the British Museum, an activity that he devoted most of his life to after 1850. In some scholarly contexts photographs were valued as proxies for what they represented. In others they were criticized as an inadequate proxy, an imperfect copy, less informative or evocative than a drawing or its original.

The aftermath of these multiple functions Talbot had in mind is reflected in the material of many photographic collections, and the rich photographic holdings of the University of Oxford are no exception: Across the university are vast collections deriving, for example, from the ethnological field, archaeological expeditions and travel, the medium’s industrial and scientific applications, images for the press, not to mention the many vernacular genres such as amateur snapshot photography. Only a few of these images became part of the art historical canon. The range of the medium seems wider than any other art form. Often these images seem to have no disciplinary and institutional home, physically and metaphorically. Often they are not even known to exist. Many of them might still be hidden in boxes in attics, cellars and storage rooms of Oxford’s departments and colleges (if readers across the university are aware of such hidden archives we welcome them to get in touch).

It is precisely the versatility of these practices, which should invite photography historians to use new interdisciplinary approaches that take into account the variety of “the photographic archive”. Oxford provides excellent resources for this undertaking: taking the recent acquisition of the Talbot papers as a starting point, a new seminar series co-organized between the Bodleian Library and the Department of Art History in Hilary and Trinity Term 2015 (dates to be announced here next year) will invite students and scholars across the university and beyond to engage with the diversity of the Oxford based collections. We will gain insight from curators, archivists and scholars taking us to the storage areas and discuss new approaches to classical topics beyond the museum wall and the auction house.

In fact, until the late 19th century it was by no means self-evident to everyone that photography could be art at all. And as much as photography as a tool has been part of art historical study since its inception, it has only been a few decades since photography became a self-contained medium within the art historical canon, well-represented in the academic curriculum.

Mirjam Brusius is a Mellon Postdoctoral Researcher in History of Photography at the University of Oxford


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