5 min read

The watercolours that ‘made’ Henry Fox Talbot invent photography 1

watercolour of a beach scene with cliffs

Fox Talbot family Whitby 1899 © National Trust-Watercolour World

The Fox Talbot family watercolours go online to offer a new perspective on the motivations of ‘father of photography’ Henry Fox Talbot

It is not widely known but it was Henry Fox Talbot’s family – specifically their love of painting watercolours and his own inability to paint like them – that led him to ‘invent’ photography.

Many of the amateur watercolours produced by the talented family Fox Talbot now reside at their former family residence, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, in a collection comprising nearly 1,000 paintings and preparatory sketches which have recently been digitised and catalogued, allowing anybody to explore them.

This sideways insight into the early days of photography was acquired by the National Trust ten years ago, but only now, thanks to a partnership with the educational charity the Watercolour World, have they been scanned and made available to the public.

“We acquired the collection together with books, furniture and other items from the family but because the watercolours are so fragile and extremely sensitive to light, they are very hard to display well and safely,” says Sonia Jones, the Lacock Abbey House and Collections Manager.

watercour of a reiver seen from a grotto or temple entrance

Charles Henry Talbot c 1877 Temple of Amada. Copyright National Trust-the Watercolour World

old photograph of a Victorian family outside a house

The Fox Talbot family at Lacock. (L-R) Charles, Rosamund, Henry, Ela and Constance. Apart from Henry, they were all accomplished amateur artists who left a collection of 1,000 watercolours, now available to be seen for the first time.

painting of a small yellow poppy

Fox Talbot family Large yellow poppy studies [undated] © National Trust-Watercolour World

“It has only been recently that we have had the chance to work through them and see what is in the collection properly – particularly during lockdown in March and April, which was when we realised the full importance of what we had in the collection, both in terms of quality and variety of subject, but also how they had captured views of a pre-industrial world.”

It seems that Constance Fox Talbot and her children, Charles, Ela Theresa, Rosamond Constance and Matilda Caroline were all adept watercolourists – with most experts agreeing that Rosamond was the most talented artist in the family.

“Some of the paintings even have prices on them, a legacy of when they were exhibited and put up for sale to raise money to support Alms Houses in Wiltshire,” adds Jones.

“Being able to see the collection properly for the first time really is quite special since previously they have only been seen by the family.

“One advantage of the watercolours having been stored away from daylight all this time is that the colours haven’t faded at all and are still true.”

But while his family put their brushes to paper, the letters and writing of Henry Fox Talbot reveal his frustration with his own lack of artistic talent, which in turn drove him to find ways to capture images photographically instead of drawing them.

a view of a river with houses and a bridge in the foreground

Dal giardino Della Sirene, Sorrento, Italy 26 May 1870 Rosamund Contance Talbot. © National Trust-Watercolour World

photo of portfolios filled with watercolours

Sorting and cataloguing the watercolours. © National Trust

two open pages of a watercolour book with flower studies

Fox Talbot family Untitled botanical studies [undated] © National Trust-Watercolour World

grainy photo of a latticed stone window

Henry Fox Talbot, Latticed Window at Lacock Abbey, 1835. National Museum of Photography, Film and Television collection


On honeymoon with his wife, Constance in October 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, the brilliant polymath and inventor miserably failed to draw the view despite experimenting with a Camera Lucida to project the image onto the paper.

He wrote later that: “I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold” and he wondered if it would be possible to have natural images print in a durable way onto the paper.

Within just two years he had developed a way of capturing the image of a window at Lacock in a process which created the first photographic negatives – allowing multiple copies of an image to be printed from each negative.

These early experiments, including the world’s oldest surviving photographic negative, are in the collection at Lacock Abbey along with his family’s watercolours which inspired his dedication to photography.

“We know some of the paintings were sold by the family for charitable purposes,” adds Jones, “it would be wonderful if, as a result of the digitisation project, some of the sold Fox Talbot family watercolours were to come to light.”

The Trust is also considering creating exhibitions of the watercolours in future, although, because they are so sensitive to light, the pictures on display would have to be rotated with each only shown for a short time to limit their exposure.

For now the Lacock Abbey collection can be seen on their website at: www.watercolourworld.org/article/lacock-abbey

watercolour of an Italian cobbler

Fox Talbot Family 14 May 1868 Cobbler of Palazzo Imperioli Genoa © National Trust-Watercolour World

watercolour scene of an Italian canal with bridges in the distance

Fox Talbot Family 28 Oct 1869 Du Pont De Fer Les Casina © National Trust-Watercolour World

watercolour of an old overgrown church in a valley

Fox Talbot family Borgund Stave Church July 1893 © National Trust-Watercolour World

The Watercolour World is a UK charity which is creating a free online database of documentary watercolours painted before 1900. The database allows the collection to be explored on a world map, or by topics and brings together watercolours from multiple collections in one place.


Lacock Abbey is a house with over 800 years of history. Founded as an abbey in 1232, it has been a home to many different characters, each of whom has put their own unique stamp on the building.

One comment on “The watercolours that ‘made’ Henry Fox Talbot invent photography

  1. Sonia Jones on

    Thank you for the really good article. You’ve captured every salient point, and gratifying to see the photo of the re-boxing taking place 😉


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *