£2.2m bid to stop Britain losing archive of father of photography
In 1839, a country gentleman stood up to address the Royal Society about some experiments he’d been conducting at home – and ended up capturing the world. William Henry Fox Talbot, an amateur scientist who had been pottering about with lenses, wooden boxes and chemicals had found a way to capture 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 an hopes will attract a National Heritage ge Memorial Fund grant for just under half f the cost, is supported by photographers, rawith including Martin Parr, and historians.
“We are now bombarded with images, we carry whole libraries rle of images around in mobile phones, but all of that, the internet, ternet, Flickr, YouTube, goes back to o Fox Talbot,” said Ovenden.
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 toons of people be being held in clamps for long enough to have their portraits taken. Fox Talbot p published the first book illustrated with w photographs, The Pencil of Nature, including many taken in Oxford, just five years later.
Recently bought bo from the family by a New York Yor dealer, the archive holds Fox Talbot’s Ta earliest records, as well as family papers such as a letter le he wrote to his mo mother when he was six in which he wrote sadly ““come to me, you have been away three weeks and six days”. There are 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 he acquired from other pioneers.
There is also a rather dull image of four 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, and so is 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 the UK permanently. “The very notion of this leaving the UK, just defies belief, and the only possible explanation is that the underappreciation of photography in the UK, is still here in a very disturbing way,” he said. Colin Ford, the first director of the National Media Museum in Bradford, said there could be no doubt about the archive’s importance. “There is still much research to be done on all this – perhaps particularly in the non-photographic areas.”
Fox Talbot spent the rest of his life defending his claim to be the father of modern photography. His 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 copper 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.”