william henry

william henry

Larry Schaaf - The Damned Leaf: Musings on History, Hysteria & Historiography

5d ago
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In 1984, a Victorian family album was broken up, dividing its contents among specialist departments at Sotheby’s in London. It had belonged to Henry Bright, initially confused with a watercolourist by the same name, but soon identified as an East India Merchant. A related group of six early photographs was split into individual lots acquired by several purchasers. In 2008, Sotheby’s in New York prepared one of these photographs for sale. Traditionally identified as being by the inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, it was an enigmatic contact negative (photogram) of a single leaf. I knew right away it was not by Talbot—sadly—for it was gorgeous, but this news came as a shock to the owner and to the auctioneers. ‘If not Talbot, then who could it possibly be?’ came back the question, and I volunteered a one-page essay suggesting possible dating and authorships. One bookend was Henry Bright himself in the 1860s, with several figures in between, finally ranging back to Thomas Wedgwood around 1800. A firestorm of verbiage followed, with the poor little leaf unexpectedly garnering enormous attention, becoming front-page illustrated news in papers worldwide. Diverse members of the community of photographic historians weighed in, often with strong reactions. Many were intrigued by the possibilities and eager to learn more. But I was shocked by how many of my colleagues threw imagination and fact out the window in an effort to protect a particular canon of history as they knew it. Ideology and sometimes nationalism tinged many of the disapproving responses. With the confusion and feelings running so high, the leaf was withdrawn from sale. Weeks before the auction was the last time that I ever saw the leaf, but it continued to intrigue me. In the ensuing months, the six ‘Brights’ were examined by several conservators, attempting to tease out physical clues as to their origin. My approach was the traditional archival one of biography, seeking an explanation of the objects through the stories of the people who handled them. With the extensive cooperation of members of the Bright family on two continents, I believe that the dating and authorship of these can now be established and that the answer lies within my original bookends. This talk will be the first time that I have aired my conclusions publicly. Beyond that, however, I feel that there needs to be an examination of just what is history, how do we approach constructing or re-constructing it, and how do we accommodate evolving information and perspectives without destroying the historical record in the process? Professor Larry J. Schaaf is the Director of the William Henry Fox Talbot Catalogue Raisonné, an online resource currently under development at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. This is based on his four decades of work on Talbot, the Victorian polymath who was the inventor of negative-positive photography; the progress of the project can followed on the blog at http://foxtalbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/. He is also a consultant on the Bodleian’s newly-acquired Personal Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot. Schaaf was Oxford’s 2005 Slade Professor of Fine Art. He is the founder and editor of the Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project, which makes available fully searchable transcriptions of more than 10,000 Talbot letters online: www.foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk. He has published numerous journal articles and books, lectured widely, and been a consultant on computer applications in the humanities, archival collections, and the history of photography.