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In deference to your obligations to the world of commerce and more importantly to give you more time to enjoy the festive activities, each year around this time we switch over to the more compact ‘Holiday Treats’ format for the blog.  With the very best wishes to you for the holiday season

Larry

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guest post by Brian Liddy

 

 

On this day in 1841, Henry Talbot received a letter from his wife Constance, writing from Weymouth to her husband in London. Sadly, many of Talbot’s letters have been divorced from their envelopes, but it would have carried a Penny Red stamp (the Penny Post had started up at the beginning of 1840, but a year later the pioneering Penny Black had to be replaced because it obscured the black cancellation ink).  While the letter itself has survived, it is unlikely to ever enter any history of early photography.  It is a domestic missive mainly dedicated to the perennial question many of us are asking now: What are we doing for Christmas?

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Constance had just been persuaded by her husband to return to Lacock Abbey and reminded him to commission a new grate for the fireplace: “the very thought of this new grate fills my mind with ideas of comfort.”  I know that Larry can personally testify to the fact that the stone walls of the Abbey can be quite chilly in the winter, even with the central heating enabled by the bequest of Amélina Petit some years after Constance’s letter.

The Talbots had put off a decision to spend Christmas at Melbury, the Strangways home in Dorset where Henry had been born.  Constance felt “so near Christmas it may perhaps be inconvenient, but it would be very pleasant I think to be included in the Christmas party – Lady Mary & Lady Elisabeth being there.”  The chance to catch up with Henry’s favourite aunt, Lady Mary Lucy Cole, and his mother in the festive atmosphere was too hard to resist.

Not everything was going smoothly that holiday season.  Constance recalled Henry’s service as the Sherriff of Wiltshire the year before when seeing that his successor had just faced a stormy meeting.  A week before in Devizes, 200 people debated the urgent distress triggered by the Corn Laws – the new Sheriff had to attempt to control the “loud cheers and a few hisses” in the raucous meeting.  In the nearby manufacturing town of Bradford on Avon, nearly half the population of 10,000 had become unemployed since the last census and almost nobody had full employment, a dire situation sure to displace the holiday cheer.

Even with more than 10,000 letters traced, there are gaps and we might never know if the Talbot family’s last-minute plans got them to Melbury.  But there are other sources for information on Talbot’s movements.  As it happens, Lady Elisabeth dutifully recorded their visit in her diary, but that is rather anticlimactic, and we have even more dramatic evidence.

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With a bit of time on his hands, and reasonably bright weather, Henry took a photograph of the house where he was born, inscribing it with the date of 24 December 1841.  What of the brutal pin holes in the upper left and the clumsy paper label upper right?  This negative survived a 1934 exhibition at Lacock Abbey, made long before archival concerns were well understood.

Although three prints from this are known to exist, for this season I prefer the negative where the house is white set against a dark background – from this I can imagine that there has been a snow fall.  That may not have been the case , but  I like to think the negative conveys the warmth of the family gathering that Christmas more effectively than any print from it ever could.

Brian Liddy

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• Questions or Comments? Brian Liddy can be reached at brian.liddy@bodleian.ox.ac.uk • Please feel free to contact Prof Schaaf directly at larry.schaaf@bodleian.ox.ac.uk   • WHFT, Melbury House, calotype negative, 24 December 1841, National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-1592: Schaaf 2628.  Talbot took at least one other negative of Melbury during this visit, on Christmas Day; Schaaf 3638.