William Henry Fox Talbot images includes portraits of his children as wells as the first photograph taken by a woman, his wife, Constance. Photograph: William Henry Fox Talbot Archive
This article titled “Bodleian Library launches £2.2m bid to stop Fox Talbot archive going overseas” was written by Maev Kennedy, for The Guardian on Sunday 9th December 2012 16.42 UTC
In 1839, a country gentleman stood up to address the Royal Society about some experiments he’d been conducting at home in Wiltshire – and ended up capturing the world. William Henry Fox Talbot, an amateur scientist who had been pottering about with lenses, wooden boxes made by his carpenter, and chemicals had found a way to capture and fix photographic images on paper.
“So much that we now take for granted in the 21st-century world came from that night,” said Richard Ovenden, the deputy director of Oxford’s Bodleian Library which launches a £2.25m bid this week to acquire an archive of Fox Talbot’s life and work – including some of the first photographs ever taken, and the first taken by a woman.
The bid, which the Bodleian hopes will attract a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant for just under half the cost, is supported by photographers, including Martin Parr, and historians.
“We are now bombarded with images, we carry whole libraries of images around in mobile phones, but all of that, the internet, Flickr, YouTube, goes back to Fox Talbot,” said Ovenden, a passionate amateur photographer, whose hands as a teenager were always stained with developing chemicals from his darkroom in the garden shed.
The archive tracks how within a few years of that talk at the Royal Society, the craze for photography spread across the world, and Punch was full of cartoons of people being held still in clamps for long enough to have their portraits taken. Fox Talbot published the first book illustrated with photographs, The Pencil of Nature, including many taken in Oxford, just five years later.
Recently bought from the family by a New York-based dealer, the archive holds Fox Talbot’s earliest notes and records, as well as family papers such as a touching letter he wrote to his mother when he was six in which he asked for green plums and wrote sadly “come to me, you have been away three weeks and six days”. There are estate records from Lacock Abbey, his Wiltshire home, now owned by the National Trust, records of his time as an MP, his own photographs, and hundreds of images which he acquired from other pioneers.
There is also a rather dull image of four hazy lines of verse by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, a family friend. It was made by shining sunlight through the original manuscript, on to a piece of treated paper. Ovenden believes it was made by Fox Talbot’s wife, Constance, the first photograph by a woman.
“The archive shows that she was caught up in the excitement of the discovery as early as 1839, and was virtually elbowing him away from the developing table, making her own experiments,” he said.
Parr was shocked to hear there was any question of the archive leaving Britain permanently. “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,” said the award-winning photographer. “The very notion of this 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.”.
Colin Ford, the first director of the National Media Museum in Bradford, said there could be no doubt about the archive’s importance. “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.”
The art historian Martin Kemp said he was astonished that the archive – for which he said the frequently invoked term “unique” was full deserved – was not already in a public institution. “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.”
Fox Talbot spent the rest of his life defending his claim to be the father of modern photography. The problem wasn’t capturing an image, which had been done for more than 1,000 years with sunlight and pin hole cameras, but fixing it and making it permanent.
Fox Talbot’s images, fixed as negatives on chemically treated paper, and capable of multiple reproduction as positives on paper, vied with a rival process perfected by Louis Daguerre, the French artist and physicist who had announced his own unique images fixed on silvered plates only a few weeks earlier.
“The arguments are as old as photography itself,” Ovenden said, “but undoubtedly Fox Talbot was the inventor of the negative, and it was his process which won out and led to the development of all modern photography on film. It is hard to overestimate his importance.”
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