The Fox Talbots of Lacock Abbey

The Fox Talbot collection of family watercolours at Lacock Abbey encapsulates the purpose of The Watercolour World project. While Henry Fox Talbot was developing photography, his family continued to record the world in the traditional manner, attracted by picturesque scenes, but also anxious to memorialise what was being lost. As his wife Constance wrote on October 27, 1851: “I must tell you now of Chester. This morning we walked again to gaze at the ancient houses, inspect the Cloisters and Cathedral, and inspect the shops – which are very good. Mr Vardon made several excellent sketches. The old shops are fast disappearing; and I think we came only just in time to see them, as the character of the Town will be quite gone in a few years.”

In 1833 when Henry and Constance were on their honeymoon on Lake Como, he failed to draw the view from the Villa Melzi despite using a camera lucida to project the subject onto paper. This prompted him to reflect “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!” Thereafter he left drawing to Constance and their children, Charles (1842 – 1916), Ela Theresa (1835 – 93), Rosamond Constance (1837 – 1906) and Matilda Caroline (1839 – 1927), the only one to marry – in 1859 to John Gilchrist Clark. This being the period when the Grand Tour was giving way to Cook’s Tours, they made many visits to the Continent, France, Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands in particular. In the 1890s Rosamond, and perhaps others, went to Norway which was then in fashion.

Rosamond and Matilda were the most enthusiastic artists, and Rosamond probably the most talented. They copied a number of watercolours by professionals, including Gabriel Carelli and Charles Bentley, but the only teaching that they recorded having had came from Mr Vardon during that 1851 stay in the Lake District, when he gave them lessons every Monday. This was Alfred Thomas Vardon (1811 – 92) by whom there are several examples in the collection. They brought him south, where he hoped to establish himself in Bath but seems to have had little success, as they continued to support him. His sister Agnes Georgiana Caroline (1816 – 98) may have been responsible for some of these drawings. Other professionals in their orbit included William Henry Delamotte, for whom Rosamond took a view in Normandy, and the Condys, Nicholas and Nicholas Matthews.

The sisters also arranged exhibitions where their drawings and those of fellow amateurs (including a Mrs Hamilton, of whom one would like to know more) were sold for charity. These were usually held at Lacock, but sometimes they ventured further. In 1876 Rosamond wrote: “Now I must tell you of my good luck – it seems that one of the drawings I sent to the ‘Lady Artists Exhibition’ in London was sold on the day of the opening – It was a view of Lichfield, the price was 5 guineas. Noel Mundy bought another, which he liked, a study of trees…price £2.10…so you see I am rapidly growing rich – but there are expenses to deduct, of course, frames &c.” These were respectable prices for an amateur.

Huon Mallalieu is a member of the TWW Advisory Board. He is a writer, historian and art critic who has written Country Life’s art market column for three decades. He is also the author of the invaluable and enduring Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists.

Click here to view the collection of watercolours from Lacock Abbey (National Trust).