Martin Gayford

Is it art or science?

Plus: a wisely small show of Dutch flower paintings at the National Gallery and a unwisely medium-sized Sicily exhibition at the British Museum

William Henry Fox Talbot had many accomplishments. He was Liberal MP for Chippenham; at Cambridge he won a prize for translating a passage from Macbeth into Greek verse. Over the years he published numerous articles in scholarly journals on subjects ranging from astronomy to botany. One thing he could not do, however, was draw well — and it was this inadequacy that changed the world.

While on holiday in Italy in 1832, he became so frustrated by his failure to draw Lake Como satisfactorily using a pencil and a drawing aid known as the camera lucida — his efforts were well below GCSE art standard — that he resolved to find another way to preserve such views. The results are on show in an exhibition at the Science Museum, Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph.

Talbot (1800–77) was not the sole inventor of photography, an honour that belongs to several individuals, independently and collectively, both French and British. In other words, it was a technique whose time had come. But was it a scientific discovery or an artistic one? A case can be made for each.

The Science Museum’s acquisition in 1934 of some 6,500 photographs from Talbot’s collection — the basis of the current exhibition — suggests that his achievement was scientific. Its essence — reproducing images by using negative to make positive prints, and fixing them using chemicals — was indeed technological (his French rival Louis Daguerre came up with a quite different process that created a unique, one-off image on metal). But Talbot — the man who could not draw, even with a camera lucida — became an artist by using a different sort of camera, one with a piece of light-sensitive paper in it.

There is a delicately romantic quality to many of his photographs — especially those taken in and around his house, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, and featuring his family, servants and farm-workers.

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