Never before seen watercolours from family of “the father of photography” Henry Fox Talbot go on display for the first time

Press release
Dal giardino Della Sirene, Sorrento, Italy painted on 26 May 1870 by Rosamund Constance Talbot
Published : 01 Dec 2020

A collection of watercolours at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, which have never been seen in public before, are being made available online, thanks to a new partnership between the National Trust and the Watercolour World.

The collection of nearly 1,000 watercolour paintings and preparatory sketches have been digitised and catalogued for the first time, allowing anybody to explore the collection.

The watercolours were painted by the family of the owner of Lacock Abbey, Henry Fox Talbot, who was inspired to invent photography by his own failings as an artist.

It was ten years ago that the National Trust acquired the collection but, because watercolours are especially sensitive to light, they have not been able to be put on display. Now, thanks to the partnership with The Watercolour World, they have been scanned, catalogued and made available to the public for the first time.

Some paintings by the family were sold by them to raise money for local charities – it is now hoped that some of those works may now be discovered thanks to the collection being available for study.

Sonia Jones, the Lacock Abbey House and Collections Manager said: “We acquired the collection together with books, furniture and other items from the family but because the watercolours are so fragile and extremely sensitive to light, they are very hard to display well and safely. So, they have, sadly, spent the last ten years locked away in storage. 

“It has only been recently that we have had the chance to work through them and see what is in the collection properly – particularly during lockdown in March and April, which was when we realised the full importance of what we had in the collection, both in terms of quality and variety of subject, but also how they had captured views of a pre industrial world.”

The collection mostly consists of works by Constance Fox Talbot and her children, Charles, Ela Theresa, Rosamond Constance and Matilda Caroline, but there are works by other artists, mostly those the family met on their travels who swapped pictures with them. Rosamond and Matilda were the most enthusiastic artists, and Rosamond probably the most talented. They were all good amateur artists, except for Henry who, in his letters and writing, showed he had been frustrated by his lack of artistic talent. 

Sonia added: “Some of the paintings even have prices on them, a legacy of when they were exhibited and put up for sale to raise money to support Alms Houses in Wiltshire. Being able to see the collection properly for the first time really is quite special since previously they have only been seen by the family. One advantage of the watercolours having been stored away from daylight all this time is that the colours haven’t faded at all and are still true.”

Lacock is better known as the birthplace of photography, but it was the artistic talents of the Fox Talbot family which drove Henry Fox Talbot to find ways to capture images photographically instead of drawing them. On honeymoon with his wife, Constance in October 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, Fox Talbot failed to draw the view despite using a Camera Lucida to project the image onto the paper.

He wrote later that: “I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold” and he wondered if it would be possible to have natural images print in a durable way onto the paper. Within just two years he developed a way of capturing the image of a window at Lacock in a process which created the first photographic negatives – allowing multiple copies of an image to be printed from each negative.

His early experiments, including the world’s oldest surviving photographic negative, are in the collection at Lacock Abbey along with his family’s watercolours which inspired his dedication to photography.

Sonia added, “Lacock has one of the largest collections in the National Trust but I was particularly keen to take the opportunity this year to make this less well-known element more available to everybody without putting the fragile watercolours at risk. Having some time during lockdown in spring made it possible to work through the collection.

“Sadly however, one of the things we did come across whilst working with the Watercolour World on the scanning of the collection, were some clear signs of damage that has occurred to about 40% of the watercolours as a result of having been stored in over stuffed portfolios and mounted on acidic mount board 150 years ago. Resolving the cramped storage of the watercolours is something that is now fortunately underway, thanks to a recent, extremely generous donation of conservation storage boxes and packing materials. In time, our aim will be to undertake the remedial conservation of the entire watercolour collection so as to both ensure the long-term preservation of such a unique and complete collection of watercolours, and also vastly improve access to the collection for both visitors and researchers in the future.”

“We know some of the paintings were sold by the family for charitable purposes, it would be wonderful if, as a result of the digitisation project, some of the sold Fox Talbot family watercolours were to come to light.”

The Trust is also considering creating exhibitions of the watercolours in future, although, because they are so sensitive to light, the pictures on display would have to be rotated with each only shown for a short time to limit their exposure. 

The Watercolour World is a UK charity which is creating a free online database of documentary watercolours painted before 1900. The database allows the collection to be explored on a world map, or by topics and brings together watercolours from multiple collections in one place.