There are times when some piece of historical information fits exactly in place and locks in an argument already made. This occurred last week when I visited for a second time the exhibit Endless Forms: Charles Darwin and the Visual Arts at the Yale Center for British Art (the show runs until May 3.)
The pictures that caught my attention on the first trip were the watercolors by Joseph Dalton Hooker from his botanical and geological trip to Sikkim and Nepal in 1848-9. You will find a photograph of a rock formation that Hooker described in his Himalayan Journals on page 122 of my book Himalayan Portfolios; Journeys of the Imagination. I called it “Hooker’s Obelisk.”
But on my second trip to Endless Forms I noticed a rather small photograph labeled The Geologist by William Henry Fox Talbot (dated ca.1843, salt print from a paper 'calotype' negative.) In the inset I have cropped off a woman with a bonnet to the left (his mother?) The shadow of the walking stick implies that the exposure was relatively short. This picture was made at the point when Talbot’s ten years of research had created photography as we know it. The astronomer Sir John Frederick William Herschel had just recently suggested to Talbot that hypo would be a better fixing agent for dissolving unchanged silver chloride in nergatives and prints than alkaline potassium nitrate. The reducing agent Gallic acid had been introduced in order to convert silver chloride to silver (i.e. develop the latent image) in exposed paper negatives or prints. The camera obscura had become the view camera. All this progress was drawn together in the first photographic book The Pencil of Nature published in sections in 1844-46. Direct contact prints of leaves and other objects on silver nitrate imprgnated paper were probably made some decades earler by the circle that included the Wedgewoods and Sir Humphry Davy, but examples are lacking (see recent dispute.)
Those of you have read the essay in my book will realize that I have been intrigued by the linkage between Himalayan photographers and geology. In the essay I discussed the influence of John Ruskin (you will find a painting by Ruskin of a rock formation in the Endless Forms exhibit.) Ruskin’s Modern Painters appeared between 1843 and 1864, so Fox Talbot was not following Ruskin. Almost certainly he was responding to the publication of Charles Lyall’s Principles of Geology (1830-32) that appeared just in time for Darwin to take with him in the Beagle a copy of the first volume. It is also the point at which Fox Talbot began to explore the photographic idea. Lyall’s bombshell was that he made the case in popular form for James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1785). Hutton argued that the landscape we see had been formed by great forces of erosion, eruption and movement over vast periods of time. Fox Talbot’s photograph not only points to the existence of “deep time” but it has a second connection with “deep space”. Sir William Herschel had been interested on hypo because he wanted to use a telescope to obtain silver images of stars that could be assayed to measure relative star magnitudes. Ruskin's painting is about experience -- the quidity of rocks. Talbot's phtograph is about the process of interpreting the rocks.
What about the above Latin quotation? it appears on the title page of The Pencil of Nature. A little poking around on the Internet established that it is from Book III of Virgil’s Georgics. Fox Talbot studied Classics and Mathematics at Harrow and Trinity College Cambridge (alongside exercising his scientific curiosity). He published in both areas. Virgil was part of the basic training in the classics, so the quote implies a context that a reader would be expected to fill in. The poem is concerned about Nature, including horses, oxen and goats, hence it fits well with the title of the book. But the specific reference is to Mount Parnassus, a mountain of barren limestone in central Greece that towers above Delphi. Parnassus is dedicated to Apollo and is the home of the muses. The expanded quotation and a poetic translation are as follows:
sed me Parnasi deserta per ardua dulcis
raptat amor; iuvat ire iugis, qua nulla priorum
Castaliam molli devertitur orbita clivo.
But I am caught by ardent sweet ravishing desire
Above the bleak Parnassian steep; I love
To walk the heights, from whence no earlier track
Slopes gently downward to Castalia's spring.
Fox Talbot was the first to walk the heights.
He made his own track.