The South Front of Lacock Abbey was an inspirational and continuing source of subject matter for Talbot’s photographic eye. Normally brilliantly illuminated much of the day and shaded by very few trees, it is famous for its Oriel Window and its panoramic inclusion of Sharington’s Tower. Talbot extensively modified the South Front after he took possession of the Abbey in 1827, aided of course by a constant stream of advice from his mother, Lady Feilding: “I cannot help wishing you had fixed on some model for the 3 Windows of the new room, because then the Stone work could have gone on all the fine part of the Summer.”
What does this photograph tell us? Our eye is tempted by the promise of an open window, teasing us with a slight view of the interior, but one that remains frustratingly vague. High up on a solid wall that offers no footholds, literal or visual, even beyond the reach of the creepers, we can see only the upper part of the room. The glare on the glass shields even that from our view, and the open part of the window reveals more void than substance.
The window sill presents us with some readily identified pen pots but no explanation of why they are there, drying in the sun. More puzzling is the complex and semi-transparent object that dominates the center. Is it a glass bell, covering some scientific instrument or treasured artifact? Possibly it is a chandelier, lowered for cleaning, for there remains today a substantial ceiling hook that must have been intended for a heavy fixture.
The shadowy trace in the masonry of a once-larger or differently-placed window testifies to the alterations that Talbot made. Adding another layer is the defacing graffiti, jarring until we realize this is the imprint of a Whatman 1840 watermark on the paper.
All we know at present about the day that this was taken was that Talbot had a toothache and that he was about to set off for London. Just four days before this he had taken his first known iteration of the Soliloquy of the Broom, the ancestor of his famous Open Door. Ten days after he exposed this negative Henry Talbot made his first public announcement of Calotype Photogenic Drawing, the greatly improved negative process that he had discovered a few months before. It was an extraordinarily fertile period for him and this image seems to be highly personal.
As was characteristic of this period in his work, Talbot carefully inscribed the negative with its date. Written in dark pencil in a corner on the verso, it would show as a white dating, not reversed, in any print made from it. This date had a special resonance, being two years to the day from when he first exhibited his photogenic drawings at the Royal Institution in London. Was he contemplating the dark secrets of his library?
This is the only known print of this image and Talbot mounted it in his album No. 9 – the one which he titled “bad”. Most of its companions in the album cannot be judged as bad photographs, so perhaps this print was included because of the skip mark in the coating on the right side just above centre. Making photogenic drawing paper like this required two steps, first applying a solution of common table salt, drying it and then washing it with silver nitrate solution to make it light sensitive. Both being clear solutions, it was very easy to overlook a slight unevenness in either coating, leading to an insensitive patch, the equivalent of dead pixels on a modern screen. There is also some yellowing across the top, likely caused by uneven washing, but this probably didn’t manifest itself during Talbot’s time. At some point in its life, the negative was slightly trimmed down in width, indicating that perhaps other prints were attempted subsequently.
Visitors to Lacock Abbey today would have little reason to associate this room with Talbot’s scholarship. Earlier in the twentieth century it was converted for use as a music room and that is how it is now promoted. Miss Matilda Talbot remembered the remodeling which took place after the death of Talbot’s son Charles Henry at the end of 1916: “a flight of steps leads from the end of the South Gallery into a charming square room which we call the Blue Parlour. It was panelled throughout the eighteenth century, but during many years the panelling was hidden by a number of bookcases which practically covered all the walls. After my uncle’s death, we were able to move the bookcases and their contents to other rooms, and we examined the panelling…but the original colours could no longer be distinguished. Owing, no doubt, to many years of coal fires and oil lamps, the blue panels had become greenish bronze, and the mouldings were just dull brown. Our village painter took great trouble and mixed many pots of paint for us.”
Miss Talbot then revealed that “three or four years later, I was looking through an album of water-colour sketches, when I found one, dated 1829, painted by a cousin of our grandfather’s, which showed the South Gallery, with the door into the parlour beyond standing open, and we found we had…hit on the original shade of blue.” Four years after this sketch, its author, Henry’s Welsh cousin Emma Thomasina Talbot married John Dillwyn-Llewelyn. Both enthusiastically took up the new art of photography in 1839 and Emma especially became an early practitioner of photoglyphic engraving.
Larry J Schaaf
Questions or Comments? Please feel encouraged to contact Prof Schaaf directly at firstname.lastname@example.org • Elisabeth Feilding to WHFT, 25 July 1828, Talbot Correspondence Document no. 01691. • WHFT, The Window of Talbot’s Library at Lacock Abbey, salt print from a calotype negative, 25 January 1841, Fox Talbot Collection, the British Library, London, LA2114, Schaaf 2551. • Letter to the editor, 5 February 1841. The Literary Gazette, n. 1256, 13 February 1841, p. 108, Doc. no. 04191. WHFT, The Window of Talbot’s Library at Lacock Abbey, calotype negative, 25 January 1841, formerly in the collection of André Jammes, Hans P. Kraus, Jr., Inc., New York, Schaaf 2551. • Matilda Talbot, My Life and Lacock Abbey (London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1956), p. 188. • Emma Thomasina Talbot, Interior of the South Gallery, Laycock Abbey, watercolour, 1829, Fox Talbot Archive, the Bodleian Libraries, FT10348-47.