Talbot and the scullery maid

ht-mousetraps                                  Henry Fox Talbot’s cameras

When Henry Fox Talbot was inventing photography during the 1830s and       40s he needed some cameras to work with. “Legend has it that the simple little wooden cameras were made by the Lacock village carpenter, Joseph Foden. Talbot’s earliest ones looked like the simple little box on the right, about the size of a good Wiltshire apple.”  (Larry Scharf)

For bigger and better cameras like the one on the left, he turned to London instrument maker Andrew Ross, and when these arrived the bill was up to £7 for each one. This doesn’t sound too much for a small wooden box with a simple lens, but it’s about £650 in today’s money, about AU$1000, quite an expensive toy. Still, Talbot was a wealthy man and it would not have hurt.

When later his daughter Matilda got married he bestowed on her a gift of £5000 – that would certainly have hurt. That sum was almost equal to two years expenditure maintaining the abbey, his family, servants, gardener, carriages, horses, plus taxes, insurance and medical expenses.  It is roughly equal to a million dollars in today’s money so it was a very handsome gift (which of course his daughter did not receive since the law made it the husband’s property).

But now let’s consider this wealth from the opposite end – from the perspective of one of Talbot’s servants. The Talbot household kept nine servants and in the mid-19th century servants with low status would have received £10-20 per year (admittedly with room and board supplied). The lowest in the servant pecking order was the scullery maid, basically a kitchen labourer, who worked on the heaviest jobs in the downstairs kitchen. She would work about 12 hours a day and probably 362 days per year as there was no annual leave.

So his daughter, who never had a job, received £5000, and a servant who worked over 4000 hours in a year received £10. Talbot’s £7 camera would have taken that scullery maid almost till September to pay off and represent 2800 hours of hard and dirty labour.

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Lacock Abbey in Autumn

lacock-1bLacock Abbey, where Henry Fox Talbot invented photography, is surrounded by its beautiful grounds – a very English park with orchard and greenhouse, winding paths and grazing sheep. If you’re lucky you can eat apples from his apple trees as I did.

Talbot made outdoor exposures with his new invention – what we call analogue photography – in the 1840s in this very place. It hasn’t changed much in the intervening years and he would have seen more or less what you see here. The photographs were taken on a cool autumn day with the trees in full colour.

lacock-8lacock-3lacock-2lacock-9   lacock-10lacock-4        All photographs by Greg Neville, 2016

Lacock Abbey

lacock-n             Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire was the residence of Henry Fox Talbot who invented photography there in the 1830s. He lived at Lacock for most of his 77 years, the squire of an extensive mansion, surrounding farmland and the medieval village of Lacock. It’s all owned by the National Trust now and can be visited through most of the year.

Lacock and the abbey go far back in time. The village was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and in 1232 the abbey was established as a nunnery. The abbey prospered until the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s when Henry VIII dissolved the monastries and confiscated Catholic property. Lacock was sold to an ancestor of Henry Talbot and was in the family’s hands until 1944. The last Talbots left only in 2010, a family tenancy of 471 years.

The Talbot mansion was built over the top of the abbey cloisters (see below) and later a large Tudor court was added over time. The medieval cloisters and their adjoining rooms are themselves noteworthy being one of the most intact in England. Harry Potter and other films have taken advantage of this.

Talbot made many of his photographs at the abbey, testing and improving the invention that became the basis of almost all photography for the next 160 years. You can look around here and ponder the thought that he created your medium of photography right here in this place where you are standing.

lacock-elacock-d                 talbot-lacock-tower

Henry Fox Talbot, the tower at Lacock Abbey, 1840s

lacock-b   lacock-hlacock-j    lacock-o              lacock-m Colour photographs by Greg Neville, 2016

William Christenberry dies

christenberry-5c              William Christenberry, 5 Cents, Demopolis, Alabama, 1978

American photographer William Christenberry has died at age 80.

Following the example of his friend Walker Evans, Christenberry photographed the overlooked details of America’s backblocks. He captured with feeling the details of his beloved rural Alabama, its roadside shops, old churches and fading signs.

“The place is so much a part of me. I can’t escape it and have no desire to escape it. I continue to come to grips with it. It’s a love affair — a lifetime of involvement with a place. The place is my muse.”

Christenberry was a romantic and his work shows an intimate engagemant with his subject-matter. In contrast, when Walker Evans found similar material to photograph, it was formal and classical. Christenberry took the American tradition of documentary photography into areas that Evans, Frank and others did not venture. His work extended out from photography into  painting and sculpture and most notably into making small replicas of the buildings in his pictures.

christenberry-sprott-church              William Christenberry, Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1971        christenberry-sprott-sculpture             William Christenberry, Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1976

To hear Christenberry talk about his subject, listen to this  short interview on NPR. He describes about his photograph of the tiny church in the settlement of Sprott, and what has happened to it since then.

gneville-sprott-google                   Greg Neville, Sprott Church on Google Street View, 2016