PRINT January 1974

In Search of “Sun Pictures”

Splendid buildings constructed of six kinds of precious wood I built within the precincts of Nineveh for my royal dwelling. With Sarmakhu trees from the foot of Mount Hermon, which the Syrian carpenters call the very best trees that they have in their land, or in the land of Chaldaea either, I erected the columns of its porticoes. Then Nineveh my royal city and its dwellings I embellished and made as splendid as the Sun.

SO SPAKE SENNACHERIB, “THE GREAT king, the powerful king, the king of Assyria,” according to the first attempted translation from a cylinder seal in the British Museum by Henry Fox Talbot, Esq., in a slim booklet, “printed for private distribution,” in 1856. There is a certain aptness, fully in accord with the tradition of the English gentleman as tinkerer and inspired dabbler, to the fact that it took a classical etymologist to invent the modern technique of negative photography. His eye sharpened by inspection of medieval charters, his mind finely attuned to the subtleties of pre-Homeric languages and mythology, here was a man perfectly suited to the task of coaxing latent images out of treated paper, like an archaeologist carefully dusting pot shards. Although Talbot had developed the essentials of his technique as early as 1835, it was on September 20, 1840, that the process which he baptized “calotypy” (from the Greek kalos, “beautiful”) was perfected. It is the direct model of the system of printing and enlarging from celluloid negatives, different from today’s practice only in that Talbot printed his negatives on paper.

In his remarkable album, The Pencil of Nature, published 1844–46, Talbot proudly announced that “the plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.” And, in describing a View of the Boulevards at Paris, one of the “calotypes” hand-tipped into the album, he wrote prophetically: “A whole forest of chimneys borders the horizon: for the instrument chronicles whatever it sees, and certainly would delineate a chimney-pot or a chimney-sweeper with the same impartiality as it would the Apollo of Belvedere.”

One of Talbot’s masterpieces from Pencil of Nature, a negative print of a spiderweb silhouette of Lace, is unfortunately not included in the show at the Scott Elliott Gallery, undoubtedly because it cannot be found outside of one of several public library collections in New York, London, or Vienna. But the calotypes that are on display (and for sale) are in excellent condition, evidently better than the tipped-in prints in the original albums, most of which have become discolored by the chemical action of the paste employed. The view of Queen’s College, Oxford, for example, merits this contemporary critical opinion: “The minutist detail is given with a softness that cannot be imitated by any artistic manipulation; there is nothing in it like what we call touch; the whole is melted in and blended into form by the mysterious agency of natural chemistry.”

The Scottish portrait painter, David Octavius Hill, and his associate Robert Adamson, were the leading propagators and beneficiaries of Talbot’s invention, moving past the originator’s refined, pedagogically oriented demonstrations to the exploration of vivid genre scenes, and to portraits of Scottish notables and their distinguished English visitors. In the latter category is a suave portrait of Lady Eastlake, wife of Sir Charles Eastlake, a gentleman well placed from Hill’s point of view by being President of the Royal Academy and Director of the National Gallery in London. From among the Scottish worthies we may single out the Rev. John Julius Wood, a minister who composed popular readers for use in elementary school religious instruction. As Wood explained it, even lessons in natural history were “interspersed with religious and moral reflections: thus, for example, the metamorphosis of the caterpillar suggests reflections on the resurrection and our own great change.” Nevertheless, a conservative minister objected to the democratic intentions of Wood’s primers:

It is absurd to teach pauper children in an agricultural district, and whose occupations are for the most part those of crow-keeping, pig-minding, and turnip-pulling, that minerals are, as the case may be, “brilliant,” “opaque,” “malleable,” “ductile,” or “fusible.” Such a system of education is not suited to that state in which it has pleased Providence to place the agricultural poor.

Providence, evidently, had also appointed the Established Church of Scotland to be subservient to the English government, and around 1840 England began applying veto power to the appointment and promotion of Scottish ministers. I do not know what the underlying issues were in the dispute, or what the Scottish ministers were doing or saying (were they arousing the agricultural poor?) that needed to be so carefully regulated. But in any case, England’s interference with Scotland’s church affairs prompted the resignation en masse of ministers of the Established Church on March 18, 1843, and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

This event galvanized Hill to project a colossal painting, not completed until 1866, which would contain, as the Prospectus noted, “Four Hundred and Fifty Portraits representing the Signing of the Deed of Demission,” by which that many ministers “gave up their Livings, Manses, and Glebes, rather than surrender the liberty of the Church of their fathers.” The painting itself, judging from a brief encounter with a reproduction and copious verbal eulogies, was at best a dreadful bore, and at worst a frightful aberration. Consider this description of one of the portrait-heads by an admiring critic: “Most of thesemission-labourers have gone to their rest and their reward, but here is Dr. Duff still among us, beaming with benevolence, glowing with zeal, and going forth as the sun leaves his chamber in the East, like a strong man to run his race.” Can one imagine 450 such visages, “each face with its own tone and hue?” Mercifully, the photographic studies, which assemble smaller groups of worthies, have an amiable and less pretentious flavor.

In a brilliant essay published in 1836, in which he attempted to demonstrate that the Greek word “rhapsody” meant “harp playing,” Talbot had remarked on the perfect condition of an ancient Egyptian harp in the British Museum:

Strange caprice of fortune! while so many edifices have crumbled into dust beneath the hand of Time, a frail harp has survived to the present day, having owed its preservation to the dryness of the climate and the security of the tomb in which it had been deposited. When touched it still emits a sound!

And so do Talbot’s calotypes, and those of Hill and Adamson, unearthed and momentarily tuned at the Scott Elliott Gallery.