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The Ladder, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire

Photographer: William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 - 77)

'The Ladder, May 1845'

Talbot’s composition of figures grouped round a ladder in the yard of Lacock Abbey was published in May 1845 as plate 14 of The Pencil of Nature

Although he wrote in the accompanying text that ‘portraits of living persons and groups of figures form one of the most attractive subjects of photography, and I hope to present some of them to the reader in the progress of the present work’, this was to be the only photograph in the work which included people. 

The tones of the present print show more contrast than would have originally been present, this example having been chemically intensified in the 1950s.

Salted paper print from a calotype negative

Calotype process

William Henry Fox Talbot's calotype process, the first practical negative-positive photographic process, was patented by him in 1841. 

A sheet of good-quality paper was first treated with light-sensitive silver compounds before exposure in the camera. The 'latent' image thus produced was then developed in gallo-nitrate of silver and fixed. This concept of negative-positive photography, allowing the production of an unlimited number of prints from a single negative, has formed the basis of photographic practice up to the present day, and is only now being challenged by digital imagery. 

The calotype negative was the subject of many refinements in the 1840s and 50s and it was common practice for photographers to apply heated wax to the developed negative in order to increase printing transparency and lessen the visibility of the paper fibres.

Lacock Abbey

Henry Talbot inherited Lacock Abbey, a former Augustinian nunnery dating from the 13th century, on the death of his father in 1800, but did not live there until 1827. In the following decades, Lacock was to be the location for Talbot’s earliest photographic experiments, while the house and surrounding estate formed the subject of much of his work in the first half of the 1840s.

Talbot's Notebooks

Talbot was an active mathematician, experimental scientist, Assyriologist, classicist and land-owner whose work encapsulates intriguing tensions between the past and the future in 19th-century science and society. 

His notebooks, now in the British Library, are the subject of a post-graduate research project. Find out more

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