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Fox Talbot’s cache of ghostly monument photographs

faded black and white photograph

The Tomb of Sir Walter Scott, in Dryburgh Abbey. William Henry Fox Talbot, © Bodleian Libraries

A collection of faded photographs from the dawn of photography reveal Henry Fox Talbot’s love of historical monuments

Henry Fox Talbot’s photographs of some of Britain’s most famous monuments and buildings have long been regarded as important documents from the early history of photography.

As well as charting the aesthetic progress of a new artform, they also mark the beginning of photographic historical records being the first time such monuments were captured on camera.

Today they remain the earliest photographs ever taken of Edinburgh, London, and other locations in the UK and France.

An important private collection of these photographs has recently been placed on long-term loan at the Bodleian Libraries, where they are being studied, exhibited and made available digitally.

faded black and white photo of a building with archways, towers and other features

Fontainbleau, William Henry Fox Talbot, © Bodleian Libraries

faded sepia photo of a deck of a sailing ship with cannons and sailors

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Deck of HMS Superb in Plymouth. © Bodleian Libraries

sepia photo of a spire like monument

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh, as it appeared during construction. © Bodleian Libraries

a faded photo of a building frontage with archways and cornices etc

William Henry Fox Talbot, York Minster. © Bodleian Libraries

The inventor of modern photography particularly loved his trips to Scotland – as evidenced by what he then described as a series of ‘photogenic drawings’ of various Scottish castles and other notable sites with connections to the author Sir Walter Scott.

He made the two-week photographic trip with his manservant, Nicolaas Henneman, in October 1844 and many of these studies appeared in what has often been referred to as the first illustrated monograph, ‘Sun Pictures of Scotland’ which he issued in 1845.

Talbot made 100 copies of the pioneering tome, which was available by subscription – with Queen Victoria among the subscribers – but there are believed to be only 20 surviving copies, one of which now resides safely with the Bodleian.

Talbot captured the ruined medieval castle of Doune atmospherically hugging the horizon of a mound, in an image befitting of its role in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Waverley in which it’s described as a “gloomy yet picturesque structure”.

black and white photo of a ruined castle see beyond trees

William Henry Fox Talbot, Castle of Doune, Scotland. © Bodleian Libraries

photo of a open page of an photo album with a sepia toned photo of an spired monument

William Henry Fox Talbot, Martyr’s Memorial, Oxford. © Bodleian Libraries

faded photograph of a Gothic stone archway and gate

William Henry Fox Talbot, Gateway at Usk Castle. © Bodleian Libraries

Scott’s tomb, within the Gothic ruin of Dryburgh Abbey, was brilliantly captured in all its brooding splendour by Fox Talbot although, like many plates in the collection, its original rich brown tones have faded to a ghostly hue. (To see it in its original form take a look at this copy in the Met Museum collection).

According to Professor Larry J Schaaf who has been overseeing the Bodleian’s ongoing project to produce a Catalogue Raisonné many of the prints that appeared in the copies of Sun Pictures of Scotland were insufficiently fixed and washed by Henneman, which accounts for their often faded condition.

Beyond his Scott pilgrimage, which also captured the Scott monument in Edinburgh when it was nearing completion and several views of the author’s home, Talbot also took some of the earliest photographs of Oxford, including the Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Libraries), the Botanic Gardens (celebrating its 400th anniversary this year) and many colleges.

The often ghostly images will be incorporated into the Bodleian Libraries’ William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné, the ground-breaking online corpus of the photographic works of the Victorian photographer, building on the growing photographic collections at the Bodleian Libraries, which include copies of the earliest photobooks: The Pencil of Nature, (1844–46), and another copy of Sun Pictures in Scotland.

black and white photo of a domed building

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford University (part of the Bodleian Libraries). © Bodleian Libraries

a very faded photograph of college buildings with spires at Oxford

Henry Fox Talbot, one of his many views of Oxford. © Bodleian Libraries

faded photo of a building in the Greek style with classical pillarsmpi

William Henry Fox Talbot, de la Madeleine, Paris. © Bodleian Libraries

Read more about Henry Fox Talbot on the Bodleian Libraries website. 

Explore the Bodleian’s online image portal at digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

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Bodleian Library

Oxford, Oxfordshire

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…

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