In his 1844-46 illustrated treatise on photography, The Pencil of Nature, William Henry Fox Talbot wrote of Oxford that its “ancient courts and quadrangles and cloisters look so beautiful so tranquil and so solemn at the close of a summer’s evening, that the spectator almost thinks he gazes upon a city of former ages, deserted, but not in ruins: abandoned by man, but spared by Time. No other cities in Great Britain awake feelings at all similar. In other towns you hear at all times the busy hum of passing crowds, intent on traffic or on pleasure—but Oxford in the summer season seems the dwelling of the Genius of Repose.”
In this image Talbot has concentrated on the commercial High Street. This general view was made famous by the accounts of visitors to Oxford. In the days before the railroad, the coach path up from London led over the Magdalen Bridge, where this active sweep was the introduction to the city. Talbot’s exposure time—perhaps a minute or so—blurred any figures in the roadway; only a horse cart in the distance was recorded clearly. It is a powerful composition, the unusual framing doing full justice to so memorable a scene. The location is much the same today, but the risks in placing one’s camera in this position are markedly increased. Contrary to the quiet summers that Talbot enjoyed there when the university was out of session, the summertime now is a punishing crush of sightseers. This scene can be taken only in brief segments in the intervals between giant tourist coaches.
Larry Schaaf, William Henry Fox Talbot, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002), 62. ©2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.