Constance Portrait 1840

By William Henry Fox Talbot

10th October 1840

Courtesy of RPS Collection

Victoria & Albert Museum, London[1]

 

Constance Talbot née Mundy (1811-1880) is frequently referred to as the first woman to take a photograph.  She assumed many roles as the wife of William Henry Fox Talbot, including becoming the subject of this ethereal portrait, taken by her husband, marking the birth of calotype photography.[2]

Constance Mundy was born on January 30th 1811, daughter of Francis Mundy M.P. (1771-1837) and his wife Sarah Leaper Mundy née Newton.[3] She was baptised the following day, 31st January destined to be a highly significant date during her adult life. Constance was the youngest of five siblings; William (1801-1877), Marian (1803-1860), Laura (1805-1842) and Emily (1807-1839) enjoying a comfortable childhood at Markeaton Hall, Derbyshire.

Constance’s brother William joined the extended Talbot family in 1830 through marriage to Henry’s cousin Harriot Georgiana Frampton (1806-1886).  Within two years of Henry’s introduction to Constance and the Mundy family, he wrote to his step father Charles Fielding announcing his engagement –“…you could have no doubt of the prospect of happiness which this union holds out to me…”[4]

Newly elected M.P. for Chippenham, William Henry Fox Talbot (known as Henry) married Constance Mundy by licence on 20th December 1832 at All Souls Church, Marylebone, and the couple began married life in Talbot’s home at Lacock Abbey. She organised the housekeeping of her new home, endearing herself to the staff, providing some with medical care and coping with Henry’s frequent absences from their Wiltshire home.[5]

During a visit to Lake Como the following year Henry tried and failed to sketch the scenic view using a camera lucida acting as a drawing aid. The effort was lamented in Talbot’s 1844 Pencil of Nature – “I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold”.[6] [7] Constance, an amateur artist, displayed artistic capability, unfortunately lacking in her husband.[8]

Prompted by frustration, Talbot pursued a scientific answer to his artistic quest, enlisting Constance’s help as photographic assistant. Talbot’s early experimental cameras measured approximately three inches wide, fitted with a simple microscope lens. He described the resulting small pictures “might be supposed to be the work of some Lilliputian artist”. [9] Constance once referred to these cameras as “mousetraps”. [10]

Talbot announced his invention at the Royal Society on 31st January 1839, following a public display of his sun pictures at the Royal Institution on 25th January, hosted by Michael Faraday.[11]

1839 would be a life altering year for Constance; Henry’s Royal Society announcement preceded the birth of their third child by three weeks, and later the same year Constance’s sister Emily tragically died at the age of thirty two.[12]

Henry and Constance became parents to Ela Theresa (1835-1893), Rosamond Constance (1837-1906), Matilda Caroline (1839-1927) and Charles Henry (1842-1916).[13] Matilda was born on 25th February 1839 to the delight of extended family; Harriot Georgiana Mundy suggesting the name Photogena in honour of her father’s discovery.[14]

 

Talbot Family

 

The Talbot Family

Collection of Henry Lambert,  Courtesy of Fox Talbot Museum

Left to right: Ela, Charles, Rosamond and Henry. Constance is seated, Matilda is absent

 

 

Constance the Photographer ?

In H J P Arnold’s comprehensive biography of William Henry Fox Talbot he confidently states that Constance Talbot was certainly the world’s first female photographer.[15]

Several women, however, became early exponents of the new photographic art, some within Talbot’s extended family.  Correspondence between members of the Talbot family indicate wider female interest in the new photogenic drawing process. Henry’s half sister Caroline Augusta Edgecumbe (1808-1881) is thought to have created a photograph in April 1839, subsequently shown to Queen Victoria but not otherwise documented.[16]  Four months later Henry offers practical advice to his cousin Mary Thereza Talbot (1795-1861) in response to her photographic “experimentalizing”.[17] Bristol artist Sarah Ann Bright was also active in the summer of 1839, creating the earliest surviving photographic image by a woman.[18]

Professor Larry J Schaaf suggests a different interpretation of Constance’s photographic contribution, – “Constance’s understanding of her husband’s work, including his photography, was conversational and her role was to be minimal.  It would be an overstatement to call her a photographer.”[19]

Constance’s letters to Henry tell their own story, one of support but not of enthusiasm for photography, and frustration at her photographic failures. It appears that Constance and Henry were not scientific partners, a symbiotic relationship demonstrated by Margaret Brodie Herschel (1810-1864) and husband, photographic pioneer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871).[20]But her letters clearly chronicle a familiarity with Henry’s invention.  This contrasts with Madame Louise Georgina Daguerre who had not been allowed to enter the experimental world of her husband Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, inventor of Daguerrotype photography.[21]

In May 1839, Constance refers to her attempts at photography in her letters to her husband. The correspondence reflects her continuing frustration, complaining about her failure to get a decent image in her camera.[22]

Constance talks about the fixing process failing in her letter to Henry of 17th May followed a week later reporting that she has been “labouring hard on the photographs without much success”.  She laments, “I ought to have begun my study of the art while you were at hand to assist me in my difficulties….” She then talks about wasting her time and strength and failing to get the right focus. [23]

But she maintained an interest in Henry’s work and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre.  In August 1839 she writes –“… I thought you might wish to see as soon as possible on account of M. Daguerre’s disclosure. I am impatient to know what you think of it.”[24] [25]

On November 30th 1839, showing uncharacteristic enthusiasm, she tells Henry of a visit to a display of Daguerre’s pictures with Caroline Augusta Edgcumbe, “Caroline took me yesterday to see M Daguerre’s pictures – some of them delighted me”.[26] Constance’s role as conduit between her husband and photographic assistant Nicolaas Henneman is revealed in many letters, occasionally she acts as personal assistant in his absence from Lacock.[27] In August 1843 she documents the arrival of 20 quires of gilt edged paper with an incorrect watermark, and awaits instructions from Henry.[28]

Constance was rarely critical of her husband, in contrast to her mother in law Lady Elisabeth Theresa Feilding, née Fox Strangways, (1773–1846).  Talbot’s formidable mother took a direct interest in the protection and promotion of his photographic invention.  On 3rd February 1839, rather than congratulate her son for his announcement at the Royal Society, she remonstrated with Henry – “If you would only have made it known one year ago, it could never have been disputed, or doubted…”[29]

On 1st December 1843 Constance wrote to Henry saying, “I have composed a little frame with the four first lines of the “Last Rose of Summer” & it is now waiting for brighter weather.”[30]  She was referring to a photograph of a typeset poem by family friend Thomas Moore.  This is the first documented photograph attributed to Constance Talbot.[31]

Constance did not become a member of the newly formed Photographic Society of London, unlike Henry’s cousin Lady Caroline Margaret Kerrison (1819-1895) who joined in its inaugural year, 1853.[32]

Henry remained a devoted husband, refusing the presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1868 to care for Constance during a serious illness. Rheumatism was a recurring trial but, during a visit to Venice, daughter Rosamund reported a decline in her mother’s health, “She looked dreadfully tired and very ill”.[33]

Henry Talbot died on 17th September 1877 leaving Constance to survive her husband for a further three years.[34]  She died on 9th September 1880 at her daughter’s London home, 27 Marloes Road, Kensington, then reunited with Henry again on 13th September in the family grave at Lacock Cemetery.[35] [36]

Constance Talbot’s contribution to photography is unclear, but her dedication to Henry and their family is beyond doubt. Her subtle influence is ever present, supporting her husband’s professional and personal worlds, and consequently the birth of photography.

 

Constance Talbot (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Constance Talbot

by

Elmslie William Dallas,  Courtesy of Fox Talbot Museum

 

My grateful thanks to Larry J Schaaf and Roger Watson for their invaluable guidance and help.

 

Further reading with reference to Constance Talbot:

Arnold, H.J.P. William Henry Fox Talbot : pioneer of photography and man of science. London : Hutchinson, 1977.

Buckland, Gail. Fox Talbot and the invention of photography. London : Scolar Press, 1980.

Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the shadows : Herschel, Talbot & the invention of photography. Yale University Press, 1992.

Schaaf, Larry J. The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2000.

Watson, Roger, Rappaport, Helen. Capturing the Light: A Story of Genius, Rivalry and the Birth of Photography. London: Macmillan, 2013.

 

[1] http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1387793/constance-talbot-30-second-exposure-photograph-talbot-william-henry/  Accessed 08/05/2019

[2] https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2015/10/02/snap-shooting-in-the-evening-sun/ Accessed 14/04/2019

[3] http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/mundy-francis-1771-1837  Accessed 14/04/2019

[4] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Feil-C&pageNumber=146&pageTotal=216&referringPage=7  19/04/2019

[5] Arnold, Harry John Philip. William Henry Fox Talbot : pioneer of photography and man of science. London : Hutchinson, 1977. p.93

[6] Fox Talbot, H. Pencil of Nature. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans,

  1. “Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art”

[7] https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2016/10/07/the-183rd-anniversary-of-tracings-of-light/ Accessed 14/04/2019

[8] Watson, Roger, Rappaport, Helen. Capturing the Light: A Story of Genius, Rivalry and the Birth of Photography. London: Macmillan, 2013. P.92-3

[9] Quoted in Gail Buckland. Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography. Boston: David R Godine, 1980. P.31

[10] Letter from Constance to Henry, 7th September 1835; “…Shall you take any of your mousetraps with you into Wales?…”.  http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-C&pageNumber=63&pageTotal=971&referringPage=3  Accessed 19/04/2019

[11] https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2016/01/29/25-january-1839-dame-nature-has-become-his-drawing-mistress/  Accessed 09/05/2019

[12] A sculpture by Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841) entitled “Miss Mundy” was commissioned by Francis Mundy (1771-1837) in 1825, now exhibited within the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  According to the Walpole ……this bust is most likely to be Emily or Laura Mundy and unlikely to be Constance who would have been fourteen at the time of commission.

[13] Ancestry uk accessed 14/04/2019

[14] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Mund-HG&pageNumber=34&pageTotal=80&referringPage=1  Accessed 17/04/2019

[15] Arnold, H.J.P. William Henry Fox Talbot, Pioneer of photography and man of science. London: Hutchinson Benham, 1977. P.119

[16] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Digb-T&pageNumber=1&pageTotal=6&referringPage=0  Accessed 09/05/2019

[17]http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptFreetext.php?keystring=gloves&keystring2=&keystring3=&year1=1800&year2=1877&pageNumber=9&pageTotal=13&referringPage=0  Accessed 09/05/2019

[18] https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2015/06/19/tempestuous-teacups-and-enigmatic-leaves/ Accessed 12/05/2019

[19] Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the Shadows, Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography. London: Yale University Press, 1992. P.20

[20] Ibid p.16

[21] Watson, Roger, Rappaport, Helen. Capturing the Light: A Story of Genius, Rivalry and the Birth of Photography. London: Macmillan, 2013. P.222

[22] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-C&pageNumber=157&pageTotal=971&referringPage=7  Accessed 20/04/2019

[23] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-C&pageNumber=158&pageTotal=971&referringPage=7  Accessed 20/04/2019

[24] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-C&pageNumber=161&pageTotal=971&referringPage=8  Accessed 20/04/2019

[25] Biography of William Henry Fox Talbot including his competition with Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/talbot/biography/  Accessed 12/05/2019

[26]http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptFreetext.php?keystring=daguerre&keystring2=constance&keystring3=&year1=1800&year2=1877&pageNumber=12&pageTotal=44&referringPage=0 Accessed 14/04/2019

[27] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-C&pageNumber=170&pageTotal=971&referringPage=8 Accessed 20/04/2019

[28]http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptFreetext.php?keystring=constance&keystring2=watermark&keystring3=&year1=1800&year2=1877&pageNumber=1&pageTotal=3&referringPage=0 Accessed 20/04/2019

[29] Letter from Lady Elisabeth Theresa Feilding to William Henry Fox Talbot, 3rd February 1839, British Library, London, Manuscripts – Fox Talbot Collection http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Feil-ET&pageNumber=768&pageTotal=997&referringPage=38  Accessed 14/04/2019

[30] http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-C&pageNumber=282&pageTotal=971&referringPage=14  Accessed 17/04/2019

[31] https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/2016/09/16/thomas-moore-the-ladies-of-lacock/  Accessed 14/04/2019

[32] http://rpsmembers.dmu.ac.uk/rps_results.php?mid=185  Accessed 17/04/2019

[33] 24th June 1868 http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/transcriptName.php?bcode=Talb-R&pageNumber=92&pageTotal=163&referringPage=4  Accessed 19/04/2019

[34] https://talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/talbot/biography/  Accessed 20/04/2019

[35] Probate granted at Principal Registry on 8th December 1880

[36] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/67240232#  Accessed 14/04/2019