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moscow-fire

The shocking pictures of the disastrous fire that destroyed more than a million books and documents in Moscow a few months ago tore into the heart of every archivist, librarian, and historian.  The loss of the priceless and mostly irreplaceable originals to an electrical fire at the university library of the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences can never be offset by any digital wizardry.  However, it served as a stark reminder of one of the less-happy but valuable functions of digital humanities projects such as the Catalogue Raisonné.  Despite our best efforts, some original documents inevitably will be destroyed over time, lost to natural disaster or very often to human folly.  A digital record of these losses can act as placeholders to at least help to fill in the gaps in our record. I don’t know if there was any Talbot material lost in this fire.  Possibly, for archives such as this were in part fed by the scholarly riches of controlled territories; we will probably never have any way of knowing if artifacts had been absorbed from other holdings.

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Talbot calotyped the 6th century BC amphora in his own collection around 1841.  Somehow over the years at Lacock Abbey it was reduced to shards, and these were sold at Christie’s in 2009 .  However, it had been restored by the time of its sale at Sotheby’s New York in 2013 (one wonders if Talbot’s photograph was helpful to the restorer?). Much as an archaeological conservator in-fills the missing pieces to maintain a sense of the overall original structure, a digital record of individual artefacts such as Talbot’s photographs at least helps to secure a more detailed picture of his progress and accomplishments.

On a more positive note, the recent Moscow fire instantly brought back memories of a magical visit to St Petersburg in 1994.  For many years, I had been trying without any joy to examine the archive of the correspondence of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833), the French inventor of photography who had later gone into partnership with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), the Parisian artist whose process rivaled that of Talbot.   These letters were donated by the estate of Dr Joseph Hamel (1787–1851), a German-born roving scientific ambassador for the Imperial Academy of Sciences.  A second reason for the research visit was to examine the trove of Talbot photogenic drawings that I knew had gone there.  The story starts, as so often happens, with a useful lead from Talbot’s mother, Lady Elisabeth:

 

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Writing in her typical manner on 30 April 1839, she admonished her son: “This morning before I was visible arrived Dr Hamel from Hamburgh, perhaps you know him (by name at least) as he is Membre de l’Académie Imperiale de Science de St Petersbourg. He had infinite trouble to find you out, having been sent first to various of Lord Talbots’ Sons, & then to Queen Anne Street. I gave him all mine & some you sent for Matilda, so you must send me some more for her. He wanted them extremely to send to Russia by the Sirius which sails tomorrow. They are for the Emperor’s second son, a very scientific young Man. He wishes to lay some before the Czarowitch who arrives in London on Friday, & I promised you would send me some more for him. He was particularly struck with those done from Nature. The Tower-at-Laycock Abbey, windows & riband which latter preferences rather surprized me, tho’ it did not in the Queen. I gave him likewise many botanicals & the black lace. He is extremely eager….”

 

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Given his interest in developing technologies and sense of adventure, Hamel’s choice of the SS Sirius was not surprising, nor was Lady Elisabeth’s mention of it, for the paddle wheel steamer briefly had the reputation of being the equivalent of the Concorde.  It had beat Brunel’s SS Great Western by a day in the first steamer crossing from Britain to New York.  It sailed for St Petersburg on 1 May 1839, its one and only voyage there.  In addition to trying to please the Czarowitch, Hamel was collecting evidence for a book that he planned to write on the invention of photography, assessing the relative contributions of Niépce, Talbot, and Daguerre.  Sadly, his early death precluded that, for it would have been a fascinating story built on first-hand interviews and evidence.  After his death, his nephew donated his collections to the Imperial Academy. Thus, the Academy possessed not only the Talbots that Hamel had obtained for them, but also what he had collected for himself.

I had been trying since the early 1970s to find out more about the Hamel collection.  Writing first from Austin, Texas, where I was teaching, I then attempted to send letters through contacts in Britain and on the Continent, all to no avail.  I was later to find out that it was official Soviet policy not to respond to such enquiries.  Then came most distressing news.  On 14 February 1988, fire broke out in the Library of the USSR Academy of Sciences (destined soon to recover its earlier name of the Russian Academy of Sciences).  Nearly 400,000 books and documents were destroyed and almost four million more soaked in firefighting foam, largely those housed in the ‘foreign’ section of the library.  A Herculean conservation effort was mounted, but the likely fate of the Talbots seemed dire.

As it turned out, some of Talbot’s calotypes that had been acquired later were stored in this section of the library and were reported to be destroyed.  However, the earlier Talbot’s that were part of the Hamel collection were housed in an older, separate building and thus unaffected.  Two good British friends, David Alison and Terry Binns were visiting St Petersburg at the time, and after a number of attempts they persuaded the archivist to allow them to take some snapshots.  I finally had proof that at least some of the Talbots survived.  The National Endowment for the Humanities acted very quickly on a Special Opportunity for Archival Research grant.  After further delays, in the exhilarating cold of January 1994 I finally got to work on the Niépce collection and the Talbots.  There was no normal research structure yet set up in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the USSR.  Under Soviet policy, the Academy’s archives had been prohibited from having a copy machine and they possessed no photographic equipment.  Shortages were rampant as the Ruble was crashing, so I took along a photocopier, ten reams of paper, tools, photographic equipment, and a homemade copy stand with lights that fit into a briefcase (being in possession of all this, In previous years I am sure that I would have been shot as a spy, albeit, a dumb one).Russia-copystand

 

It had been worth the wait.  There, beautifully preserved (in part through decades of denied access) was the group of Talbot photogenic drawings given to Hamel by Lady Elisabeth in April 1839.

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I am sure that all of Talbot’s works animated the academicians, especially the contact negatives (photograms) that would have shown so much promise for botanists. But amongst the group was one print that particularly excited me, for it was the best-preserved print that I have ever seen of an unusually important image.  It is of the middle window of the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey, the famous ‘Oriel Window’, taken from inside. Full of light, and indeed of life, it is an arresting image of a typical domestic scene.

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Aside from its inherent beauty, this is a peculiarly important print to me for at least a couple of reasons. Compared to the more famous August 1835 negative (shown here in relative size) it demonstrates just how far Talbot had come technically and visually in less than four years.  The marvelous  1835 negative is about the size of a postage stamp and just scaling his technique up to a more conventional print size was an impressive accomplishment in itself.  There is also the aesthetic advancement as Talbot is accepting the teaching of his own art of photography and learning to master space and perspective.  In 1835, he pointed his camera squarely at the window and recorded its light.  By the spring of 1839, he had mastered perspective, selecting a viewpoint that created a three-dimensional space realistically portraying what he would have seen had he looked up from his book while seated in a comfortable chair.  There is another significance to this image that may not be immediately apparent.  Even at the time of the 1835 negative, Talbot understood that he could make a print by essentially making a negative of a negative – by placing his first image over a sheet of sensitised paper, he could reverse the tones and the mirror image.  However, while this was a personal art, he saw no reason to do so, for nothing could be more perfect than the sheet of paper that had actually faced the subject.  When photography became public in 1839, the situation changed radically.  As Lady Elisabeth pointed out in her letter above, photographs were in short supply and giving away the negatives was essentially the same as giving away your seed corn.  She also upbraided Henry in no uncertain terms that although he was comfortable looking at negatives, most people found them confusing at best.  They wanted positive prints.  Incredibly, this appears to be the first camera negative that Talbot ever printed – I have found no evidence thus far of an earlier one.

Another value of collections such as that in St Petersburg is that they can preserve examples of early photographic work directly stimulated by Talbot’s invention.

 

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This photogenic drawing negative was made in May 1839 within days after Talbot’s examples arrived at the Academy. The German-born chemist and botanist Carl Julius Fritzsche (1808-1871), seeking to verify and further analyse Talbot’s work, cut this photogenic drawing into thirds in order to test the effects of different chemical treatments.

 

How much of Talbot’s photographic survives?  We know that approximately 25,000 negatives and prints from his hand and that of his close circle survive throughout the world, a remarkable output even if there were no more.  There are others to be found and I would very much appreciate hearing from anyone who knows of original Talbot’s in any collection, public or private, that might not yet have been consulted.  For example, we know that his granddaughter Matilda Talbot (1871-1958) distributed many original examples throughout the world, some of which have yet to be traced.  It is perhaps understandable that an institution such as St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown, South Africa, might no longer retain these.  In cases like that of the Royal Ontario Museum, one has more hope that they have simply been filed away someplace very clever and will be re-discovered someday by a curious staff member.

Larry J Schaaf

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• Questions or Comments? Please contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk  • WHFT, Amphora, salt print from a calotype negative, ca 1841; LA2293, Fox Talbot Collection, The British Library, London; Schaaf 2082.  • Shards illustration from Christies catalogue, lot 187, 27 October 2009, re-assembled amphora from the Sotheby’s New York catalogue, lot 30, 5 June 2013. Letter, Elisabeth Feilding to WHFT, 30 April 1839, LA40-21, Fox Talbot Collection, The British Library, Talbot Correspondence Document no. 03873. • Samuel Waters, Sirius, oil on canvas, 1842, National Maritime Museum, ZBA0734. • The author photographing in the Archive of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St Petersburg, January 1994.  • WHFT, Botanical Specimens, photogenic drawing negative, before April 1839, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1/2-1839-322, Schaaf 2216.  • WHFT, Latticed Window (with the Camera Obscura), photogenic drawing negative, August 1835, Talbot Collection, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-361, Schaaf 2242.  • WHFT, Middle Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, April 1839, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1/2-1839-322, Schaaf 3694. • Carl Julius Fritzsche, Experiments in Photography, photogenic drawing negative (cut in thirds and mounted), May 1839, Russian Academy of Sciences.