Pictures from the Rylands Library

A Lecture upon the Shadow: William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature

stella halkyard

Like Donne’s ‘quintessence even from nothingness’ a shadow is a spectral form that temporarily obscures the direct rays of the sun. Yet through his invention of negative/positive photography, William Henry Fox Talbot became one of the first to fetter a shadow and ‘fix the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary’.

The example of Talbot’s invention shown here is called ‘Articles of Glass’ and comes from his book, The Pencil of Nature, 1844–46, one of the first to be illustrated with photographs. It shows the play of light and shadow on the crystalline surfaces of the glass objects arrayed. Permanently captured, first as a negative, and then transformed by daylight and the ‘spells of natural magic’ into numerous positive prints, Talbot could ‘hand down to future ages … the sunshine of yesterday’ (Talbot).

In the making of this image shelves were wheeled out into the grounds of Talbot’s ancestral home at Lacock

Abbey in Wiltshire and draped in black velvet. Precious things of various kinds, including the cut-glass, were brought from the house and then carefully arranged upon them. As paterfamilias at Lacock, Talbot could draw upon ‘all the resources of a country house with numerous chemicals and containers seconded from the kitchen, an ample water supply, spare rooms to darken and servants to assist him’ in his photo-experiments (Larry Schaaf). Alchemical arcana were not therefore the only shadowy qualities inherent in early photography as the phantom fingers from the unseen hands of servants also left their prints (actual and metaphoric) upon photography’s history. Their contribution overshadowed by that of their betters from an elite class of gentlemen (and women) practitioners. These shadows await their moment in the sunshine of photographic history.

In the case of this particular print

however, one of them does step into the light in the form of Talbot’s valet, Nicolaas Henneman (1811–98). Unlike a conventional valet, whose task was to ‘perform trivialities’ (Pamela Horn), Henneman became Talbot’s photo-assistant. In 1844 he set up a commercial studio and photo-printing works (the first of its kind) that came to known as the Reading Establishment. There the hands of up to nine people made the photographs for The Pencil of Nature, including the one shown here. By all accounts, Henneman’s relationship with Talbot was ‘mutually beneficial’, as he was ‘both a willing subject for his master’s camera and an active participant in his research’ (Larry Schaaf). But under obligation to obey and carry out his master’s commands in return for his livelihood, how can we know? Who, after all, can presume to see into the shade of a servant’s heart?

Image: ‘Articles of Glass’, The Pencil of Nature, 1844–46 (RR97511/VPH.45.4). © University of Manchester 2021