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This article is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

Pictures from a Library, cover
Pictures from the Rylands Library
A Lecture upon the Shadow: William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature
Stella Halkyard
‘Articles of Glass, The Pencil of Nature, 1844–46’

Like Donne’s ‘quintessence even from nothingness’ a shadow is a spectral form that temporarily obscures the direct rays of the sun. Yet through his invention of negative/positive photography, William Henry Fox Talbot became one of the first to fetter a shadow and ‘fix the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary’.   

The example of Talbot’s invention shown here is called ‘Articles of Glass’ and comes from his book, The Pencil of Nature, 1844–46, one of the first to be illustrated with photographs. It shows the play of light and shadow on the crystalline surfaces of the glass objects arrayed. Permanently captured, first as a negative, and then transformed by daylight and the ‘spells of natural magic’ into numerous positive prints, Talbot could ‘hand down to future ages … the sunshine of yesterday’ (Talbot).

In the making of this image shelves were wheeled out into the grounds of Talbot’s ancestral home at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire and draped in black velvet. Precious things of various kinds, including the cut-glass, were brought from the house and then carefully arranged upon them. As paterfamilias at Lacock, Talbot could draw upon ‘all the resources of a country house with numerous chemicals and containers seconded from the kitchen, an ample water supply, spare rooms to darken and servants to assist him’ in his photo-experiments (Larry Schaaf). Alchemical arcana were not therefore the only shadowy qualities inherent in early photography as the phantom fingers ...

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