Andrea K. Henderson, “William Henry Fox Talbot: The Photograph as Memorial for Romanticism”


This essay argues that William Henry Fox Talbot’s invention of the negative-positive photographic process was facilitated by the fact that he conceived of his historical moment as one in which the ideals of Romanticism, while still attractive, were becoming increasingly untenable. Talbot found the Romantic conception of the poet as the archetypal artist deeply compelling, but he feared that he and other men of his generation might be unequal to the task of artistic creation as it was theorized and practiced by late-Romantic poets like Shelley and Byron. Talbot addresses this anxiety in a poem of his own, “The Magic Mirror,” in which he explores the possibility that a special device might preserve a poetic account of nature in the form of a visual image. For Talbot, such a technology would of necessity fall short of Romantic ideals, being an externalized manifestation of poetic power—a tool to hand rather than an inspired voice within. At the same time, he understood that it would be possessed of a magic of its own in its capacity to revive a Romantic vision of nature. This conception of the visual image as (inadequate) memorial to a poetic ideal actually empowered Talbot by enabling him to tolerate the tendency of his early experimental photographs to darken or fade, and it prompted him ultimately to produce photographs whose melancholy character constitutes an important part of their extraordinary beauty.

Victorian photography has long been associated with empiricist science and realist aesthetics, but during the early years of its development it was also animated by Romantic ideals.[1] As Reese Jenkins remarks, many of the “pioneers of photography. . . . were epistemological positivists and ontological Romantics” (20). Indeed, in Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography, photographic historian Geoffrey Batchen compellingly argues that a Romantic view of nature as a repository of essential truths and affective values motivated scientific experimenters to invent a means for preserving what they regarded as “nature’s [own] painting” (Talbot, Pencil 77).  That motivation was not, however, sufficient in itself to sustain photographic experimentation through necessarily long periods of partial success. Humphrey Davy and Thomas Wedgwood, for example, despite their knowledge of chemistry and the stimulating friendship of S. T. Coleridge, were so dismayed by the instability of the images produced by photosensitive chemicals that they abandoned the project of developing a viable photographic process. William Henry Fox Talbot, thirty-five years later, did not abandon the project—and became the single most influential of the English pioneers of photography. Photographic historian Larry Schaaf wonders aloud why it was Talbot who was able to “make the imaginative leap” from seeking a direct reproduction of nature to appreciating an inverted, negative image, an image that was, moreover, prone to fading or darkening (Photographic Art 15).

I will argue here that Talbot’s willingness to proceed despite the ostensible shortcomings of his early images can be attributed to the fact that, as an artist working in the 1830s, his relationship to Romanticism was necessarily belated.  Talbot’s conception of natural beauty as ephemeral rather than enduring is characteristic not of high Romanticism but of the second-generation Romanticism of the ‘teens and ‘twenties.[2]  Moreover, I will argue that, even as Talbot espouses late-Romantic aesthetic ideals, his work is organized around an intuition that the creative moment of Romanticism has passed.  In his writings, Talbot celebrates the (implicitly Romantic) poet, presenting him as the very type of the artistic genius, moved by what Percy Shelley would describe as an “invisible influence” within to produce “something divine” (294, 293).  But Talbot also suggests that such poets—and such idealized accounts of poetry—are a thing of the past, and that belief in divine inspiration has been replaced by an investment in the merits of tool and technique. Talbot’s initial lack of mastery over the process of artistic production, and the fugitive character of his first photographic efforts, made both process and product appropriate to a post-Romantic age. Little more than haunting traces, Talbot’s first photographs resemble ruins, and, since they tended to fade or darken, they became more ruinous with time. (See Fig. 1.  Talbot’s earliest surviving paper negative was of this same window, and has faded almost entirely.) These photographs’ capacity to conjure ruin and loss lends them, like much Romantic poetry, a nostalgic tone.  But the focus of their nostalgia is, as it were, Romanticism itself.  Photography was for Talbot a technology for guarding against loss—a loss that was nevertheless constitutive of the photographic project.

Oriel Window, Talbot photograph

Figure 1: The Oriel Window, South Gallery, Lacock Abbey


In his account of the origins of photography, Geoffrey Batchen notes that “the basic components of photography—the images formed by the camera obscura and the chemistry necessary to reproduce them—were both available in the 1720s, quite some time before the photograph was officially ‘invented’ in 1839” (Burning 26).  The reason for the delay of this invention, he convincingly argues, is that the desire to photograph did not become widespread until the turn of the century.  This desire took a specific form:

From Henry Brougham to Louis Daguerre, photography’s many inventors described their aspirations in a remarkably uniform fashion.  Almost all spoke of wanting to devise a means by which nature, especially those views of it found in the back of a camera obscura, could be made to represent itself automatically.  (56)

Certainly this was true for Talbot, who published his first book of photographs under the title The Pencil of Nature.  Talbot’s conception of nature as artist is manifest not just in his metaphors but also in his photographs; he “delighted in identifying those images where nature appeared to compose itself, where the repetition and symmetry which are so characteristic of human pattern-making seem justified by nature.  These often appear as reflection pictures” (Jeffrey 7).  Initially at least, Talbot’s longing to make nature represent itself arose out of a frustration at his own incapacity to create beautiful landscapes.  In his letters as in his published accounts of his experiments in photography, Talbot laments his shortcomings as a draftsman:

One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was in map iconItaly, taking sketches with Wollaston’s Camera Lucida, or rather I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest possible amount of success.  For when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.  (Pencil 76)

The camera lucida is a prism through which the artist sees his subject and his drawing paper simultaneously; it not only facilitated mimetic accuracy but could also be used “to bring a more picturesque order to what was seen by the naked eye” (Batchen, Burning 73).  It rendered the landscape of map iconLake Como—already a canonized beauty spot—beautiful in a way that was in keeping with Romantic ideals.

Unfortunately, neither the camera lucida nor the camera obscura, another popular aid to drawing, could make an artist of Talbot.  Unable to capture the picturesque charms of nature by means of his own “faithless pencil,” Talbot felt that he needed nature somehow to preserve itself:

[Using a camera obscura, I tried] to trace with my pencil the outlines of the scenery depicted on the paper.  And this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus—fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.  It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me . . . how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!  (Pencil 77)

These “fairy pictures” are at once wholly natural and inflected by poetic values; Talbot’s language conjures the fairy bowers of second-generation Romanticism.  These are images not of an unchanging Wordsworthian nature, notable above all for its permanence, but of the fleeting nature of Keatsian rainbows, morning roses, and other forms of “Beauty that must die” (Keats, lines 16, 15, 21).  Talbot longs for a copy of these magical visions not just because they are beautiful but also because nature in this incarnation is not what perdures.  Talbot would later extol his photographic process precisely for its capacity to “fix” fleeting images while still somehow preserving their essentially transient character; he proudly proclaimed that he had captured “a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary” (“Some Account” 25).  Like the proto-photographers who preceded him, Talbot shows himself a good Romantic in his longing to represent the beauties of nature by means that could themselves be called “natural.”  But in his conception of nature as a source of transient beauty he reveals the specifically second-generation Romantic character of his thought.  For Talbot, unlike Wedgwood and Davy, the fugitive quality of the images in the camera obscura and the instability of photochemically impressed papers would have made them all the more compelling.

For the second-generation Romantic, in fact, the propensity to fade is paradigmatic not only of natural beauty but also of artistic inspiration:

the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed. . . . Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.  (294)

For Shelley, all great art partakes of the quality of the “fairy pictures” of the camera obscura and the fleeting “shadows” of the photograph.  Little wonder, then, that Talbot regarded his early photographs—the darkened pages, negative contact prints, and uneven exposures—not simply as means to a straightforwardly mimetic end but also as compelling in themselves.

Talbot’s project to freeze images that he regards as beautiful for their transience is, of course, inherently paradoxical.  His photographs seek, like Keats’s Grecian urn, to render beauty static and fixed even as they foreground the inevitability and the poignancy of change.  Throughout his groundbreaking volume The Pencil of Nature, Talbot makes much not only of the preservative power of photography but also of the immanent likelihood of loss: “the whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted. . . . The more strange and fantastic the forms of his old teapots, the more advantage in having their pictures given. . . . should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures—if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court—it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind” (86-7).  (See Fig. 2.) Carol Armstrong remarks that the composition of the picture, with its shelves “parallel with the top and bottom edges of the image,” makes the photograph function like a glass display case for “precious possessions” (138).  Indeed, the photograph both displays and preserves artifacts whose fragility is part and parcel of their beauty; in a similar photograph Talbot displays “articles of glass.”

Articles of China

Figure 2: Articles of China, Plate III of _The Pencil of Nature_, with facing page (courtesy of Yale University)

The value of exotic collectibles notwithstanding, the “treasures” Talbot most wants to preserve are works of high art from the past, works whose virtue, like that of Shelley’s fading coal, consists in their proximity to the artist’s original conception. Talbot explains of his plate of a sketch of Hagar in the Desert,

This plate is intended to show another important application of the photographic art.  Fac-similes can be made from original sketches of the old masters, and thus they may be preserved from loss, and multiplied to any extent. (102)

The individual coal might fade, but Talbot would hoard a brazier-full of them.

For Shelley, of course, the art form most expressive of the artist’s original conception was poetry:

language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being . . . is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than color, form, or motion . . . is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. . . . Hence the fame of sculptors, painters, and musicians, although the intrinsic powers of the great masters of these arts may yield in no degree to that of those who have employed language as the hieroglyphic of their thoughts, has never equalled that of poets in the restricted sense of the term.  (279-80)

Image, scene in a library

Figure 3: Plate VIII of _The Pencil of Nature_ (courtesy of Yale University)

Talbot, too, revered verbal art, and the preservation of the written word was so important to him that he sought to use his camera for that purpose despite the fact that print technology already fulfilled that function.  Contemporaries understood that his well-known photographs of books on shelves (he produced at least five such images) were not only scientific exercises in “microscopic fidelity” but also “still life[s]” in which the books functioned as fetish objects, “most exquisite miniature[s]”: “the books looked alive.”[3]  Talbot’s title for the photograph of this type that appeared in The Pencil of Nature, A Scene in a Library, simultaneously implies that books themselves have an inherent dramatic interest and lends the image—more obviously a still life than a “scene” —a quasi-literary character.  (See Fig. 3.) Indeed, Talbot’s regard for language is manifest in his very decision to produce The Pencil of Nature.  The book format certainly takes advantage of the reproducibility of the paper calotype (as opposed to the singular metal daguerreotype), but given that its primary claim to fame was that it was the first commercially produced book illustrated by photographs, it is notable that The Pencil of Nature includes more text than photographs.  Armstrong remarks that “the matter that is perhaps most fundamental to The Pencil of Nature . . . [is] writing and the photograph”; “throughout he inscribes photography within the space of writing” (141).  At times, as Armstrong notes, the photographs are intended to obviate the need for verbal description (145), but, while certain of the pictures provide descriptive information that therefore need not be reproduced verbally, they are always accompanied by text.  Indeed, the self-explanatory character of the photographs makes Talbot’s decision to accompany them with verbal ruminations—ruminations that are sometimes only tangentially related to the picture itself—even more striking.  Moreover, the book tends in its presentation to privilege words over images: every page of text is framed with linear decorations and each new section opens with an elaborate capital.  (See, for example, Fig. 2.) Although he reminds the reader that its images were not produced “by hand,” Talbot models the book on the illuminated manuscript, as if its value lay in its sacred text rather than its innovative photographic technology.

Even in his discussions of his work as scientist and inventor, Talbot relies upon a late Romantic account of innovation that presumes the exemplary status of poetic inspiration.  He makes much of his conception of photography, the initial, creative “idea,” which came to him amid “floating philosophic visions” (Pencil 78)—visions that, tellingly, sound the same metaphoric note as the fairy pictures he so adored at Lake Como.  Fearing that the idea might, like the fading coal, prove as fleeting as the fairy pictures, he immediately wrote it down, “lest the thought should again escape” (Pencil 78).  To his mind, “the numerous researches that were afterwards made—whatever success may be thought to have attended them—cannot, I think, admit of a comparison with the value of the first and original idea” (Pencil 78).  He was surely delighted when chemist Nevil Story-Maskelyne praised him by remarking that “I have always looked on the Photographic idea as one of the true poet-ideas of this marvelous age—and on you as its herald and enunciator” (qtd. in Buckland 25).


Despite his many Romantic proclivities, however, Talbot also shows a marked tendency to speak of artistic production as a form of techne.  Not only was he fascinated by devices that could aid the artist in his work—the camera lucida and camera obscura—but he also tends in his metaphors to define art in terms of tools, such as the “pencil” of Nature.  These tools, moreover, are described as if they had agency; thus Talbot attributes the shortcomings of his Italian sketches to his “faithless pencil.”  He would later say of his efforts to write poetry, “I don’t hold ‘the pen of a ready writer’” (Talbot to Elisabeth Feilding, 8 November 1829, Schaaf). This displacement of agency permeates Talbot’s writing and is ultimately incompatible with his commitment to the Romantic idealization of art and the artist.  This is particularly apparent when Talbot describes his own experience of the process of artistic production.  However magical his images of nature, Talbot does not experience them as products of his own imagination in good Romantic fashion: he would later remark of his photographic process that “it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself.”  The photograph is, he says, “a little bit of magic realized: of natural magic. You make the powers of nature work for you, and no wonder that your work is well and quickly done” (“New” 73). 

Talbot photo, Dandelion seeds

Figure 4: Dandelion Seeds, 1858 or later.

Wonderful as nature’s forces might be, Talbot’s insistence on their superiority to his own necessarily makes the performance of “photogenic drawing” less than fully empowering for him as would-be artist.  It is, therefore, not surprising that even when Talbot proudly enumerates the virtues of photography he often does so in a way that reveals its link, for him, to the “melancholy” experience of his early efforts to preserve the scenes around Lake Como.  Mike Weaver, Talbot’s most sensitive critic, finds in Talbot’s photographs a fixation not just on the changefulness of nature but on our incapacity to do anything about it: “Talbot’s cult of human transitoriness, implying a state of melancholy, constituted for him a kind of religious experience, which he expressed in his photographs sometimes hermetically, sometimes picturesquely, and often simply topographically” (“Diogenes” 24). In his “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats advises his reader actively to embrace the pain of transient pleasure, to “burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” (28), but Talbot, bereft of agency, finds less to enjoy in transience, and tends in his photographs to focus on its chastening effect. Weaver claims that many of Talbot’s finest photographs function as memento mori. He argues, for instance, that in Constance and Her Daughters Talbot presents his own family in such terms, with the result that “here melancholy verges on morbidity” (“Diogenes” 20). Much of the power of Talbot’s photography lies in its capacity to make things themselves articulate, both literally, as in his images of plants (Fig. 4), and metaphorically, in such emblematic works as The Soliloquy of the Broom. These objects speak for themselves, and the stories they tell remind us not only of their fragility but also our own; in Soliloquy, as Larry Schaaf notes, we are invited to cross a threshold emblematic of the boundary between life and death (Photographic Art 106).  The Keatsian lover knows that beauty fades but acts to “emprison” it in the meantime (Keats 19); Talbot focuses instead on the capacity of photographs to serve as “interesting memorials”—moving reminders of beauties already past and losses already sustained (“Early” 51).

Nowhere is Talbot’s inclination simultaneously to idealize poetic conception and to render it a product of technique more apparent than in his Specimen of Byron’s Hand.  An image of the final lines of a manuscript version of Byron’s “Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte,” the picture was to be published in a memorial publication in honor of the poet, along with an image of his home.  For Talbot, the photographic facsimile had the capacity to preserve not just poetry but traces of the genius that animated it—it had the virtue of embalming not just the poem but something of the poet who wrote it.  At the same time, however, the reproduction of a handwriting sample rather than a whole poem has the odd effect of making poetry appear to be a manual skill or craft, a matter of refined technique rather than divine inspiration.  On the one hand, then, the picture’s function as memorial to the most famous/infamous poet in Europe speaks to its admiring if belated status relative to a prior moment of inspired artistic creativity.  Given that, as Harold Bloom argues, “Romantic literary psychology” is itself a “psychology of belatedness” (35), Talbot acts the good Romantic here even as he conceives his own historical moment in terms of loss.  On the other hand and at the same time, his picture of Byron’s handwriting aims to lend a new—if only “technical” —value to the old work of art.

This belated relationship to Romantic ideals is written into Talbot’s perception of the photographer as copyist; he not only makes multiple copies as a hedge against loss but also relies on the superiority of his tools to enable him to do what artists before him had accomplished by virtue of some “power aris[ing] from within.”  A line in one of Talbot’s letters is symptomatic of his longing for creative power and his experience of his own efforts as imitative: “I wish I could imitate the Enchanter in Southey’s poem, who changed himself into seven enchanters of equal power with himself, & thus was enabled easily to overcome the difficulties which had previously been too much for him” (Talbot to Elisabeth Feilding, 29 Jan 1846, Schaaf).  It is perhaps telling that in The Pencil of Nature Talbot includes two images of a bust of Patroclus, himself a figure of imitative greatness—the warrior who cast himself as Achilles by wearing his armor.  In the text accompanying the second image of the bust, Talbot derisively describes photographers who, in their lack of skill at drawing, sound uncomfortably like himself:

Already sundry amateurs have laid down the pencil and armed themselves with chemical solutions and with camerae obscurae.  Those amateurs especially, and they are not few, who find the rules of perspective difficult to learn and to apply—and who moreover have the misfortune to be lazy—prefer to use a method which dispenses with all that trouble.  (97-8)

Talbot touts the usefulness of the camera even as he derides the men of his generation for their failures as creative artists.[4]  He understands, moreover, that even the preservative power of photography is necessarily limited: “The number of copies which can be taken from a single original photographic picture, appears to be almost unlimited. . . . But being only on paper [the original picture] is exposed to various accidents” (102-3).  Armstrong notes that this reflection, accompanying as it does the final image of The Pencil of Nature, makes that image less an “icon” than “an index of and to the fact of the photograph’s fragility, its material susceptibility to damage and disintegration, despite the idea, prevalent throughout the book, that the photograph preserves the things it records” (176).[5]  Unlike the idealized Romantic poet, “the unacknowledged legislator[] of the world” (Shelley 297), the copyist is consigned to a perpetually defensive posture.  Like Patroclus, the gods will permit him to defend his camp but not to take the enemy city.


Talbot’s investment in late Romantic ideals, and his perception of his own moment as a falling-off from a great period of poetic creativity, is visible in his one book of poetry.  Nine years before his announcement that he had developed a workable photographic process, Talbot published a volume titled Legendary Tales in Verse and Prose.  Although presented as genuine folk legends that Talbot had merely “collected,” the pieces appear to be original compositions; in 1829, he wrote in a letter to his mother: “I am employed in writing some Tales in prose & verse, which I mean to print if they are likely to amuse anybody—very short however, for I don’t hold ‘the pen of a ready writer’” (Talbot to Elisabeth Feilding, 8 November 1829, Schaaf). As works of literature, the tales are not entirely successful, and Talbot’s mother herself told him that “I do not like these tales & poems to be taken in the world for the Standard of what you can do” (Elisabeth Feilding to Talbot, 25 February 1830, Schaaf).  Nevertheless, the first poem in the volume, “The Magic Mirror,” is of considerable interest, in that it would seem to be a rumination on the relative virtues of verbal and visual art, inspiration and technique.

The magic mirror of the poem’s title, with a curtain before it that must be moved aside to reveal the image of a beautiful landscape, bears a resemblance not only to the camera obscura but also, presciently, to the photographic camera. The poem begins, however, with an encomium to the special power of poetry, which is presented in terms that presume the precedence of poetry among the arts.  Shelley’s account of poetry could serve as a commentary on the opening stanzas of Talbot’s poem: a man described as a “magician” and a “wizard” creates a “glorious Castle” on a mountain by means of words alone:

about his breast
He wrapt his robe with wond’rous Signs imprest,
And words spoke quick and earnestly . . . their sound
Was in the howling of the wild wind drown’d.
Hover’d around the form of nameless things,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yet slow—at length—the powerful Spell prevail’d! (37)

The wizard’s words bring into existence a landscape crowned by a magnificent castle. The narrator explains that the reader cannot be told the actual words of the spell, “in Runic rhymes of strange unearthly sound” (37), because they are simply too potent for anyone but a wizard to know and speak them.

Like the meaning Talbot believed was latent in hieroglyphics and cuneiform script, the power of these Runic rhymes derives from their essential connection with the things they name. As Weaver notes, “Talbot’s life-long interest in philology was . . . determined by the widely held conviction that words represented latent things as well as expressible ideas” (“Diogenes” 6). In his account of the wizard’s act of creation, Talbot makes explicit his investment in the Romantic notion that poetry, at its best, does not just refer to its object but somehow conjures it. Because they are not merely conventional signs, words can always be traced back to a singular origin. Talbot’s sometimes fanciful etymologies reflect this faith:

Now it is easy to see that the word Sinnbild is derived from Sinn (sense, meaning) and Bild (a figure).  But, notwithstanding that, I think it probable that it is the same word as Symbol—only in a German dress.  In short, that one of those words was derived from the other. (English Etymologies 195)

The word “symbol” itself—that privileged term of Romantic aesthetics—is provided a history that dramatizes the continuities of linguistic significance.[6]  Words return us to our origins, and, when wielded by a poet, have themselves an originating power.

Although Talbot is clearly fascinated by the power of words, his celebratory account of poetry is displaced partway through the poem by a rumination on the special features and functions of visual art, as they are made manifest in the magic mirror of the title.  The value of the mirror consists in its capacity to sustain a poetic vision of nature:

What show’d the Mirror?  In an azure sky
The Sun was shining, calm and brilliantly,
And on as sweet a Vale he pour’d his beam
As ever smiled in youthful poet’s dream . . . .  (39)

Like the scenes in Talbot’s “fairy pictures,” this landscape is simultaneously natural and poetic; it is fitting that it is populated with exotic birds that “caroll’d wild, with Nature’s minstrelsy” (39). Indeed, the scene closely resembles one of Shelley’s metaphors for poetic insight: “It is as it were the interpretation of a diviner nature through our own; but its footsteps are like those of a wind over the sea . . . whose traces remain only as on the wrinkled sand which paves it” (294). In the landscape of the magic mirror, “A Temple’s fair proportion graced the Isle” and “prints of tiny footsteps on the sand / Betray’d the gambols of some fairy band” (39). These fairies leave behind them fruits and flowers like those that bloomed in Eden; we are reminded again that the wizard’s language, which created this world, is presumptively divine.

Given the extraordinary features of this landscape, the mirror’s power to preserve it is magical, indeed.  Although secondary to creation, preservation is, in this recasting of the Genesis story, valuable enough to warrant its own myth.  Knowing his death is immanent, the wizard explains to his daughter:

In days of yore I framed a charmed Spell,
Which like a shield o’er this enchanted ground,
Sheds its protecting influence around.
Not that by this alone I caused to rise
The might Fabric that around thee lies,
(Far other secrets raised its banner’d wall,)
But in this Talisman they center all!
‘Tis like the Clasp of a mysterious Chain,
Which if though [sic] rendest . . . all the links are vain.
Behold yon Mirror . . . veil’d! . . . In Secrecy
What it concealeth, seek not Thou to see.  (38)

The mirror’s function is to bind, like a clasp—to compose and “fix” the magic world made by words so that the wizard’s daughter can enjoy it after his death. Like the “portable machines for seeing” of Talbot’s day (Batchen, Burning 73)—the camera obscura, the camera lucida, and even the Claude glass (which was literally a mirror)—the magic mirror is a device not for self-reflection but for preserving a poetic vision of nature. A talisman, it is a receptacle for the powers of its maker, which it renders lasting and exchangeable: it is poetic power materialized in an object. Talbot provides here not just a creation myth, but one in which tool-making is on par with world-making.  He provides, moreover, a solution of sorts to the problem of creative agency: artistic power can spring from without rather than within and yet be no less magical. He would later describe his own photographic process in just such terms: “A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing of all this was executed by the hand, must imagine that one has at one’s call the Genius of Aladdin’s Lamp” (“New” 73).

This allegory of the shift from verbal creation to technical preservation speaks not just to Talbot’s doubts regarding his own artistic gifts but also to his sense that the Romantic ideal of the divine wizardry of the poet was one whose time had passed. It is not by chance that the wizard who dies midway through “The Magic Mirror” has all the features of the doomed Byronic hero; for Talbot, both the ideal of the poet of power and the passing of that ideal would have been embodied in the life and poetry of Lord Byron.[7] In Talbot’s letters, Byron’s poems function as cultural touchstones; Talbot not only mentions specific Byron poems but also quotes freely from Byron and compares his own experiences, particularly on his European travels, to passages in Byron’s poetry.[8] For Talbot, Byron’s early death might well have signaled the end of an era, but, of course, Byron’s poetry itself reveals a diminishing faith in the transformative power of the “unacknowledged legislator.”  Within Byron’s poetry, this growing pessimism is marked most clearly in the shift from the earnest passion of the early poems to the wry satire of Don Juan. In his own poetry, Byron thus enacted the collapse of Romantic ideals even as that poetry framed contemporary European culture as a whole in precisely such terms.[9] Talbot simultaneously clung to a Romantic notion of the poet as quasi-divine creator and feared that his was a moment characterized by the passing of such creativity and even of the cultural tenability of the notion itself. Fittingly, Talbot was drawn to a stanza from Don Juan that underscores the transience of even monumental art:

I saw Lord Byron’s Don Juan in all the shops in Town, and read a few stanzas of it, one of which I subjoin.

[illegible deletion] What are the hopes of Man? Old map iconEgypt’s King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole & mummy hid.
But somebody or other rummaging
Burglariously broke ope his coffin’s lid.
Let not a monument give you or me hopes
since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops. (Talbot to Elisabeth Feilding, 10 August 1819, Schaaf)

Talbot’s poem makes a Cheops of the Byronic hero himself. The wizard, like the eponymous hero of Byron’s Manfred, is a man of extraordinary if dangerous gifts, a man whose profound knowledge of nature and the world of spirits enables him to command both. Described as proud and joyless, the wizard, like Manfred, enforces the submission of powerful spirits, who do not serve him willingly. Although his project is unhallowed, the wizard is impressive both for his talents and for his “stern Resolve” (38). His daughter, Bertha, is a singularly unimpressive heir to such a father. Worldly, dissipated, and vain, she combines the clichéd features of the prodigal son with the implied weakness of being a woman, an heir only by default. Given Bertha’s cynicism and her entire lack of merit, it is fortunate that her father has bequeathed her his talents in the form of a tangible legacy. The mirror preserves the castle and landscape he had made, just as Talbot’s photograph of Byron’s handwriting, intended to be paired with a photograph of his residence, was tasked with preserving traces of his genius for a cynical age.

Its magic notwithstanding, however, this preservative talisman proves to be even more fragile than Cheops’ pyramid, for a mere month after her father’s death, Bertha decides to disobey his dying injunction not to look into the “Fatal Glass” (38). That act of disobedience and vanity has the effect not just of expelling her from the Eden of her father’s making but also of destroying it altogether; the lovely scene first revealed by the mirror is soon overwhelmed by a storm, and only traces of the fairy bands that once populated it remain: “how changed a picture doth it show / Of desolation, misery, and woe!” (39). Unable to master the forces embodied in the mirror, Bertha watches in dismay as a volcanic eruption finally destroys not only the landscape within the mirror but also the castle she inhabits, which she is forced to flee. Ultimately, then, although the “Fatal Glass” does not reflect her image, looking in it does reveal to Bertha her own inadequacy. The mirror thus functions, if only indirectly, like the mirror in a vanitas painting, making it, like Talbot’s photographs, yet another memento mori.

The nostalgic tenor of this “legendary tale,” and its fixation on generational decline, illustrate with striking clarity the account of art that shaped Talbot’s ambitions and expectations throughout his career as photographic innovator and practitioner. While he embraced a Romantic account of the power of the poet to shape the world, he feared that such power was on the wane, displaced by a technology that was magical in itself but demanded less from the artist. Moreover, Bertha’s mismanagement of the mirror dramatizes a concern that even with the aid of magic machines artists of Talbot’s generation might be incapable of fulfilling their already more modest role.  It is unsurprising, then, that a few years later Talbot was undeterred by the tendency of his photographs to darken or fade; he had, as it were, written the story of the photograph before he had even invented it. Indeed, the crucial turn in the poem, in which the lovely images in the mirror are replaced by a scene of desolation, is described in terms that bring to mind Talbot’s failure, in his experiments of the 1830s, to find chemicals that could fix the photographic image. Bertha, who at first hangs “In rapture o’er the mirror,” is horrified when “a dimness seemed to steal/ O’er the bright glass” and “lurid Darkness overspreads the day” (39); Talbot, similarly, lamented the inevitable darkening of his first photographs, “turning slowly to a darkish violet colour when exposed to the sun” (Pencil 78). Talbot thus already had a template for understanding the fugitive images of the camera: they were fairy pictures, destined to fade—descendants of the fairy bands that fled the scene in the magic mirror.

This problem of the tendency of photographs to fade or become discolored continued to haunt the art in its first decades. Even after photography had become an established part of public life— “a household word and a household want” (Eastlake 443)—problems with fading remained. Thus a poem in Punch makes a joke of the fact that sentimental portrait miniatures were prone to fade as rapidly as sentiments themselves:

Behold thy portrait! —day by day,
I’ve seen its features die;
First the moustachios go away,
Then off the whiskers fly.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Thy hair, thy whiskers, and thine eyes,
Moustachios, manly brow,
Have vanished as affection flies—
Alas! where is it now?  (143)

A perfect vehicle for Romantic philosophical and aesthetic ideals, the photograph also dramatized their unsuitability for an increasingly cynical and practical modern culture.  Popularly called “the mirror with a memory,”[10] the camera performed what contemporaries often described as a kind of necromancy, a communication with or raising of the dead (Batchen, Each Wild 132-3); for Talbot, the revenants of photography included not just the subjects of specific photographs but also a generation of artists whose aesthetic ideals seemed to have passed too soon. Moving testaments to a world of change, Talbot’s photographs transform the uncertainties and losses that characterize their own production into images of extraordinary beauty. Hauntingly melancholy, they remain masterpieces of what was, for Talbot, a post-lapsarian art even before its invention.

published October 2012

Andrea Henderson is a professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, and an ACLS and Guggenheim fellow.  The author of Romantic Identities (Cambridge UP, 1996) and Romanticism and the Painful Pleasures of Modern Life (Cambridge UP, 2007), her current work focuses on the impact of mathematical principles on Victorian aesthetic theory.


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[1] Thus, for instance, Carol Armstrong, who links Talbot’s account of his invention of the photographic negative to positivist narratives of experimentation (114), notes that it is a “commonplace of art history” to define British photography as the “end point of a teleology commencing with Dutch painting” (163).  As Kendall Walton remarks, “photography is commonly thought to excel in one dimension especially, that of realism” (14).  Walton himself goes on to complicate this account, and generally speaking critics of photography have put increasing pressure on photography’s claims to veracity and objectivity.

[2] The phrase “second-generation Romanticism” has conventionally been used to designate the poetry of John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, although it could also refer to such figures as L.E.L. and Mary Tighe, who, like these male poets, came to maturity after the early excitement and subsequent disappointment of French Revolutionary hopes for a new, more democratic social order.  These poets—unlike their seniors William Wordsworth, S. T. Coleridge, or Joanna Baillie—tend in their writing to make extensive use of natural imagery but do not eschew artifice or seek a moral ground in nature.

[3] The phrase “exquisite miniature” is from an anonymous review of The Pencil of Nature (Art Union 7: 78 [1 March 1845]: 84); the other quotations are from an essay recalling the early days of photography (Anonymous, The Daily Telegraph [27 September 1877]: 5).

[4] Talbot did, however, insist that photography itself was not to blame for any decline in creativity: “I remember it was said . . . when photogenic drawing was first spoken of, that it was likely to prove injurious to art, as substituting mere mechanical labour in lieu of talent and experience.  Now, so far from this being the case, I find that . . . there is ample room for the exercise of skill and judgement. . . . I feel confident that such an alliance of science with art will prove conducive to the improvement of both” (“Two Letters,” 60-1).

[5] Armstrong notes more generally that, although Talbot “enters photography in the contest with art,” he retracts “every boast he makes . . . almost as soon as he makes it” (166).

[6] For Coleridge, the symbol finds its highest exemplification in biblical language; it “partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible” (Coleridge 30).  The power of language to connect the ideal and the real is nicely encapsulated in Talbot’s history of the word “thing”:  “So very abstract a term as a thing must have caused some difficulty to our early ancestors to determine what they should call it.  They made choice of a term derived from the verb “to think”.  Anything is anythink—whatever it is possible to think of” (English Etymologies, 13).  Words yoke together thoughts and things.

[7] While palpably inspired by Byron’s poetry, Talbot’s tale of the displacement of the heroic poet, who has no place in the cynical and self-serving society that surrounds him, takes up a theme that is also common in the poems of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the “size and type[face]” of whose 4-volume Poems Talbot took as a model for his own book of poetry (Talbot to his publisher John Murray, 6 March 1830, Schaaf). Landon’s “A History of the Lyre” is a case in point: the protagonist, herself an inspired improvisational poet, extols the artist’s power, marveling that “bodiless air/ Works as his servant” (104). But the poet is invariably tainted by the worldliness of those around him or her and is left with nothing to do “but hang his lute on some lone tree, and die” (106), as the protagonist herself ultimately does.

[8] Talbot also had tangential connections to Byron the man: Byron’s fellow poet and friend Thomas Moore was a friend and neighbor of the Talbot family, and when in map iconGenoa, Talbot considered at length the possibility of renting Byron’s villa.

[9] Talbot’s mother—one of his most important interlocutors, as their extensive correspondence suggests—wrote to him that she considered Byron’s political satire The Age of Bronze “excessively inferior” to The Island, a romance (22 November 1823, Schaaf).

[10] The phrase is most famously used by Oliver Wendell Holmes (Holmes 54).