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Of all the figures influential in the early history of photography, few can claim the role played by Lady Elisabeth Feilding, William Henry Fox Talbot’s mother. Widowed five months after Talbot was born, she married Captain Charles Feilding four years later in 1804. Together they raised Henry and his two half-sisters and rebuilt the terribly weakened family fortunes. Lady Elisabeth had burning ambitions for her son (ones he did not share!) and carefully tutored him from the start. It was from her that a fascination for languages and a love of travel were instilled. And while she was unable to transfer her own considerable attainments in aesthetic productions to him, certainly Talbot’s appreciation of the fine arts was shaped by her influence. When photography became known to the public in 1839, she immediately began working with Talbot to produce examples. Her cupboards and trunks yielded subject matter, she assisted in setting up scenes, and undoubtedly her advice was freely given. Lady Elisabeth also mined her extensive social contacts to spread the word about the new medium. Talbot’s stock of prints and negatives was continually depleted by her generosity. His definition of the art was shaped by his mother, who for example, was the driving force behind the production of the 1844-46 publication The Pencil of Nature.

This portrait of Lady Elisabeth was preserved in the album compiled by the Scottish journalist and scientist Sir David Brewster. He had enjoyed his visits to Lacock Abbey immensely and had become close friends not only with Talbot, but also with his mother and his wife.

Larry Schaaf, William Henry Fox Talbot, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2002), 50. ©2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.

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