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An Online Catalogue for All 25,000 of William Henry Fox Talbot’s Photographs

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford launched the first complete, digital catalogue for 19th-century photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot.

William Henry Fox Talbot, “Nelson’s Column under Construction, Trafalgar Square, London” (first week of April 1844), salted paper print (courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs)

William Henry Fox Talbot’s influence on photography was immense, from his introduction of the negative in 1839, allowing multiple prints of the same image, to his invention of a salted paper process. The online William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné, launched this month by the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, is a portal to all 25,000 surviving images in Talbot’s archive.

Ivan Szabo, “Portrait of W H F Talbot” (1850), wet plate negative (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

“There are actually 25,000 surviving prints and negatives, but about 4,500 surviving ‘image ideas’ — sometimes more than one print survives,” Professor Larry J. Schaaf, project director for the Talbot Catalogue Raisonné and a visiting professor of art at the University of Oxford, told Hyperallergic. “Each is important to me, having been made by hand; each has Talbot’s DNA on the sheet of paper. I wish that we could hire CSI. Often an isolated print has its own contribution — an inscription — revealing a connection through its provenance.”

The digital catalogue debuted with around 1,000 images and will be updated weekly until it reaches 25,000. Every photograph is annotated with references to Talbot’s notebooks, letters, and other resources. Prints and negatives are linked, connecting, for instance, a negative at the Smithsonian Institution to one of the salt prints made from it at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Pivotal objects are also featured, including the glassware seen in Talbot’s “Articles of Glass” photograph, which was published in the 1844–46 book The Pencil of Nature. The Bodleian stated in a release that although catalogues raisonnés are “common in art history, nothing of this scale has been attempted for photography — it is a record of both the invention of an art and of the art of invention.”

The online Talbot Catalogue Raisonné (courtesy Bodleian Libraries)
The online Talbot Catalogue Raisonné (courtesy Bodleian Libraries)

The creation of the catalogue took two years for Bodleian Libraries, following the acquisition of Talbot’s personal archive in 2014, though Schaaf has researched the work of the British “father of photography” for decades. For the catalogue, he worked closely with the Talbot family, ensuring that more familiar images, such as those in The Pencil of Nature, are seen alongside lesser-known experiments with light, exposure, and the limits of the then-new medium.

“Most people have seen the same images over and over — ‘The Open Door,’ ‘Lace,’ some botanicals — but the sheer quantity and his intense effort is stunning,” Schaaf said. “After four decades or so, I keep thinking that I’ve seen it all, but then something comes out of nowhere and surprises me.”

Over 100 collections, public and private, are featured in the online catalogue, from large institutions like the British Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to smaller archives in Estonia, South Africa, and Russia. Talbot’s family members — among the first humans photographed in history — pose at his Lacock Abbey home in Wiltshire in some images, while anonymous people and horse-drawn carriages are blurred phantoms in his long exposures of London in the 1830s and 1840s.

“I think when people are able to see the whole corpus, they will make a lot of surprising connections,” Schaaf said. “There will be answers to questions that I never thought to ask.”

William Henry Fox Talbot, “Three Botanical Specimens” (1840), photogenic drawing (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “Westminster from the Hungerford Market – London across the Thames” (June 1841), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “Constance Talbot with her daughters by a rustic gazebo” (1842), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “Lady Elisabeth Feilding as Paolina Borghese” (April 20, 1842), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “Magdalen Bridge, Oxford” (July 30, 1842), salted paper print (courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “High Street, Oxford” (probably July 1842), salted paper print (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “The Botanic Garden, Oxford” (July 30, 1842), salted paper print (courtesy National Gallery of Canada/Musée des beaux-arts du Canada)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “II. View of the Boulevards at Paris” (May 1843), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “I. Part of Queens College, Oxford” (probably September 4, 1843), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

William Henry Fox Talbot, “The Open Door [wide shadow]” (April 1844), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “IV. Articles of Glass [on three shelves]” (June 1844), salted paper print (courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

William Henry Fox Talbot, “Lacock Abbey towards Sharington Tower” (1844), salted paper print (courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs)
“The Fruit Sellers” (Lacock Abbey, probably September 9, 1845), salted paper print, possibly taken by Rev. Richard Calvert Jones (courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “Elm tree in the grounds of Lacock Abbey” (1844), salted paper print (courtesy Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Fine Photographs)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “2. Sir Walter Scott’s Monument as it appeared when nearly finished” (October 1844), salted paper print (courtesy British Library)
William Henry Fox Talbot, “The Royal Exchange, London” (winter 1844 to spring 1845), salted paper print (courtesy National Media Museum/Science & Society Picture Library)

The William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné is available to explore online through Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford.

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