Thursday, 28 January 2010

The startling significance of Mr Talbot's spectacles

I had the pleasure yesterday of accompanying Radio Wiltshire's Mark O'Donnell to the Fox Talbot museum at Lacock Abbey in beautiful rural Wiltshire. It was a great day for it - crisp, light sun, hardly anyone around. We were recording the first of a series of little pieces on Wiltshire science and technology.

At the museum, we met up with curator Roger Watson to do a three way chat on the significance of Fox Talbot's work. (Or Talbot as Mr Watson called him - it seems Fox wasn't part of his surname. But having said that, William Henry did sign himself 'Fox Talbot' sometimes, so there's some justification for using both.)

It was fascinating - apart from anything else, it's not every visit to a museum that you get the best bits pointed out personally by the curator. He was particularly proud of a new acquisition, Fox Talbot's spectacles. From them, they have been able to deduce that he had good sight in one eye, but very poor sight in the other. This potentially made him quite poor at drawing without aids - and that's important.

Fox Talbot came to photography, and his production of the first photographic negative 165 years ago (the picture to the left is a print from it, courtesy of Wikipedia), after using a device called a camera lucida, which superimposed a virtual image of a scene with the drawing paper in an artist's eye, enabling them to sketch the scene with help. This led to using a camera obscura, producing a real image on the paper - and then to playing around with photosensitive paper to capture that image.

So quite possibly these newly recovered spectacles give a clue as to why Fox Talbot started down that route. I love it when some little thing pops up like this and throws scientific history into a new light.

If you want to see the Fox Talbot Museum (and the remarkable Lacock Abbey), it's currently open at weekends, and goes to seven day a week opening towards the end of February. Check the website for details.

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