This plaster cast was one of William Henry Fox Talbot’s most active assistants in the early days of photography. While the white material readily reflected light from any angle, facilitating exposures when the chemicals were slow, its deep sculpting was even more important, for it modulated the light in endlessly fascinating ways. The bust was also of convenient size and weight to be carried about, within and without Lacock Abbey. Talbot knew this sitter as Patroclus, the hapless but loyal defender of Achilles. Later research has revealed, however, that the cast, taken from a marble in Charles Townley’s collection (still preserved in the British Museum, London), may be of a companion of Ulysses.
In the Pencil of Nature (1844-46) Talbot wrote:
“Statues, busts, and other specimens of sculpture, are generally well represented by the Photographic Art. . . . since . . . a statue may be placed in any position with regard to the sun . . . causing of course an immense difference in the effect. . . . The statue may be then turned round on its pedestal, which produces a second set of variations no less considerable than the first. And when to this is added the change of size which is produced . . . by bringing the Camera Obscura nearer to the statue or removing it further off, it becomes evident how very great a number of different effects may be obtained from a single specimen of sculpture.”
Talbot made dozens, if not hundreds, of images of this bust. The Getty owns three—this salt print, another salt print and a calotype negative. The three images show the different results he was able to achieve over the years with the help of his faithful friend.
Larry Schaaf, William Henry Fox Talbot, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002), 52. ©2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.