In 1937 a remarkable and largely overlooked gift was made to the State Library of Victoria.  A parcel was received from Miss Matilda Talbot of Wiltshire, England containing 24 original works by her grandfather William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), one of the inventors of photography. This was one of a number of such gifts made by Miss Talbot to libraries and museums around the world, in an effort to ensure Fox Talbot’s enduring fame.

Matilda Talbot (1871-1958) was notable in her own right; a prolific linguist and world traveller she served in the Women’s Naval Service during the first World War, and was the last private owner of the historic house Lacock Abbey which she bequeathed to the National Trust.

The Coliseum with distant Latin and Alban Mountains, and Church of St. John Lateran
Robert Macpherson, The Coliseum, circa 1860, with Library stamp

When Matilda Talbot made her gift to the Library, early photography was under-valued by libraries and museums, and treated as primarily another form of historical document. For much of their life some of the State Library’s albums of historical photographs were housed on stack shelves alongside printed books, with the expectation they would be handled just the same.  Precious large-plate photographs were blithely defaced with the Library stamp, albeit with the best intentions.

But from the 1960s onwards, interest in early photography and recognition of its unique artistry began to grow, to the present point where good examples of these works are eagerly sought after by collectors and institutions, bringing substantial prices at auction and forming the subject of academic study, lavish publications and major exhibitions.

Before the appointment of the first Pictures Librarian in 1978, picture collecting in the State Library formed part of the so-called Historical Collection.  In fact when the Fox Talbot gift arrived in 1937 it was initially recorded in the Miscellaneous Accessions register and was not transferred to Pictures until 1980.  It contains some of his famous early photographic prints from the 1840s, showing the surrounds and personnel of Lacock Abbey.

Wiliam Henry Fox Talbot, The servants at Lacock Abbey, circa 1842
William Henry Fox Talbot, The servants at Lacock Abbey, circa 1842

It also includes some of his experiments in direct photographic printing from natural objects, to produce photographic etchings.

[Four fern leaves]
William Henry Fox Talbot, Four fern leaves, circa 1841

The importance of Fox Talbot’s work has led to the creation of an online catalogue of all known holdings of his prints and negatives, hosted by Oxford University under the supervision of Professor Larry Schaaf. It includes State Library Victoria’s holdings, which are the largest single collection in Australia.

One mystery about the State Library’s Fox Talbots was that the original records of the gift mention 24 photographs, while only 23 could be accounted for. An annotation on the original brown paper envelope referred to a loan to the Technological Museum in 1939. Professor Schaaf, visiting Melbourne in 2011, was able to identify the stray print in the holdings of Museum Victoria, somewhat the worse for UV exposure.

These photographs are now digitized and downloadable in high resolution directly from the Library’s online catalogue, a development which not even the ingenious Fox Talbot could have foreseen but which he would surely have enthusiastically welcomed.

Gerard Hayes, Librarian, Pictures Collection

A fuller account of these photographs by the Picture Librarian Madeleine Say can be found on the Fox Talbot catalogue blog.

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This article has 2 comments

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  2. Terrific work by the library keeping these treasures for the people.

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