JTF (just the facts): A total of 32 works by William Henry Fox Talbot (1 made in conjunction with Calvert Richard Jones), variously framed and matted, and hung against grey walls or displayed on shelves against light green walls in the two room gallery space and the entry area. The following works are on view:
- 5 calotype negatives, some waxed, 1841-1844, 1842, 1843
- 20 salt prints from calotype negatives, some waxed, 1839, 1840, early 1840s, 1841, 1841-1844, 1842, 1842-1843, 1844, 1845, mid 1840s
- 4 photogenic drawing negatives, some waxed, 1839, 1840
- 3 salt prints from photogenic drawing negatives, 1840, early 1840s
The show also includes works by:
- John Dugdale: 1 cyanotype, 1994
- Nicholas Henneman: 1 photogenic drawing negative, 1839
- Abelardo Morell: 2 archival pigment prints, 2003/2018
- Mike Robinson: 3 half plate daguerreotypes, 2017, 2018
- Hiroshi Sugimoto: 1 toned gelatin silver print, 2010
(Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: If the religion we call photography has one single site of pilgrimage, it is likely Lacock Abbey. Located in the village of Lacock, in Wiltshire, in England, it is the former country home of William Henry Fox Talbot, and is resultantly a reasonable contender for the birthplace of photography, at least in Britain (it’s now owned by the National Trust and houses a museum among other things). And while Niépce and Daguerre both have their own rightful claims on the origins of the medium, Lacock Abbey is where paper prints made from negatives got their start, so countless photo enthusiasts wander its grounds each year, looking up at the towers and windows that Talbot used as his first subject matter and marveling at the passage of time.
For those who won’t be making the trip to Lacock any time soon, this small gallery show provides both a satisfying virtual visit and a well-edited sampler of imagery made there. The show primarily features a selection of Talbot’s work from the early 1840s, which is then matched by a handful of recent works made by other more contemporary photographers that either feature the abbey or more generally respond to Talbot’s imagery or process.
One reason that architectural views of Lacock Abbey were such a common subject for Talbot was that they fit the technical demands of his new (but still somewhat finicky) process in two important ways: since he was shooting outside, there was always plenty of bright light, and since he was making long exposures, the fact that the buildings stood still eliminated the blur created by movement (except for the wind rustling the nearby trees). The salt prints (and corresponding calotype negatives) in this show effectively circle the property, offering views from various sides and capturing the buildings and courtyards from prime positions. The octagonal Sharington’s Tower is perhaps the most recognizable feature of the structure, and several variant images, taken over time, document its nuances of light and the steady growth of the nearby greenery. Other pictures get in closer to the famous oriel windows, or step back to observe roof lines and dormers. A Gothic stone gateway leads to the garden, and views of the cloisters and stables show us other architectural features around the main house. A pair of portraits of a stately elm tree round out Talbot’s wanderings, its towering form silhouetted against the bright sky.
The light problem was a real impediment to Talbot’s ability to make photographs indoors. One interior view, of the library with a chintz chair and music stand, has been included in the show, but its contrasts are muddy. So when Talbot decided to make still lifes, he dragged all the stuff outside and set the objects up on tables. Arrangements of china and busts of Patroclus and Venus are set against dark backdrops, making their contrasting whiteness, and thereby their formal qualities, more prominent. He also made early photograms of flowers from the meadow and edges of lace, their delicate patterns captured crisply. He even photographed a round table set up for tea, each cup and dish placed just so. And when people were included in Talbot’s views, they had to be carefully staged, so men in top hats lounge seriously on the grass, woodcutters get to work, and a lively group of men and women become the classic Fruit Sellers.
Interleaved among these images are a few more modern responses to Lacock Abbey. There is a certain process-oriented inversion to Mike Robinson’s recent daguerreotypes of major features of the buildings, but they provide an intriguing counterpoint to the paper prints. More compelling are Abelardo Morell’s inverted camera obscura view of the courtyard (another process-centric reversal) and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s rephotographed and enlarged reworking of Talbot’s own image of the oriel window, the delicacy and fragility of the print made gorgeously tactile.
The best of Talbot’s photographs here provide a small slice of historical presence, as if we were there at Lacock with him as he was planning his image-making revolution. Of course, in these years, he was often testing compositions and understanding the limits of his new invention, but in a few works, something else seems to slip in, and it’s that little bit of spine tingling, history-in-the-making, energy that gives these pictures their magic.
Collector’s POV: The Talbot works in this show range in price from $12000 to $190000, with some either POR or NFS. In the past decade, Talbot’s prints have only been intermittently available in the secondary markets, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to $275000.