St Cyriac's Church chancel: what did this have to do with photography?
One of the most prominent landmarks in the village of Lacock (aside from the abundance of pubs!) is St Cyriac’s (Church of England) Church: a picturesque little church, with a reasonably tall steeple, whose origins go as far back to Norman and even Saxon times. Its six bells may be heard most Sundays, at bell ringing practice Monday nights, and before Midnight Mass every Christmas and at weddings and other special occasions. The building is mostly devoid of stained glass windows creating a light and airy ambience. Much has been reported in the local, national and international press about the sale of its famous Chalice. Tourists come daily to photograph this pretty little church, which is an historic Grade I listed building. But how much is known about the connection of its chancel with photography?
Let’s go back a while. William Henry Fox Talbot, the only child and son of William Davenport Talbot and Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways, was born in Melbury, Dorset, on February 11, 1800. The family home was Lacock Abbey. However, his father was dead before he was even six months old. An extravagant man, William Davenport Talbot had left the family with enormous debts and Lacock Abbey was rented out to tenants. Despite the family being related to the Second Earl of Ilchester (Elisabeth’s father), no financial aid was forthcoming from that quarter and the Talbots were forced to move about in their poverty. Eventually, Fox Talbot became heir to the Lacock Abbey and it became his home.
He was a quiet child. And pretty much of a genius. From early on in his life, he was experimenting with optics, physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy and practically any branch of science that appealed to him. In amongst his wide and varied interests were Antiquities and towards the end of his life, he became quite an expert in deciphering Cuneiform writings of ancient Assyria and Mesopotamia. He was an avid archaeologist as well.
Fox Talbot was one of the youngest persons to be awarded a Fellowship with the Royal Society, at the young age of 32. He had already been made a member of the Royal Astronomical Society about a decade before. He was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1832, having successfully fought the Chippenham constituency for the First Reform Parliament.
It was in around 1834 when he started his very early experiments into photography and “Photogenic Drawings”, as he called them. But it was in August 1835, using a lattice window of the Abbey as his subject, that he produced the very first photographic negative, a facsimile of which may be seen at the Lacock Abbey museum. The original is kept safely at the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire. Photography had been born, an art that was to revolutionize the transmission of information throughout the world. (What would he say if he could see a digital camera or the film used for the IMAX cinemas?) Fox Talbot used little “mousetrap cameras” as they were called by his mother and his wife!
After suffering poor health, Fox Talbot died September 17, 1877, and left behind a legacy of his dedication to his cherished art – photography. He is buried in the Lacock graveyard.
He was a patron and lay-rector of St Cyriac during the incumbencies of the Reverends Nichol (1864-1870) and Roach (1870-1878). So, it was fitting that his son, Charles Henry Talbot, initiated a venture to have the Chancel of the church remodelled in his honour. A committee was set up headed by the Right Reverend, the Lord Bishop of Bristol, one George Forrest Browne, DD, and the churchwardens, Edwin Eyres and Thomas Pike. Various press reports of their intentions were noted. In 1902, a petition was sent to the Bristol Diocese to the Consistory Court and a Faculty requested for the restoration of the Chancel. The Faculty was granted and the restoration began. The architect was Sir Harold Brakspear, FSA, of Corsham. A very detailed and comprehensive 29-page estimate of his plans is to be found at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Center under catalogue number of 2512/100/6. In this, one may see that even the type of the wood and stones to be used were specified. Sir Harold did not leave any stone unturned, so to speak! He was thorough in his work. Although there was a quotation for stained glass in the Chancel, if one visits the church one sees only clear glass in the large window above the High Altar. Perhaps this is a perfect tribute to Fox Talbot since light gave him his famous invention – you can’t have photography without light!
A number of reports on the progress of the restoration of the Chancel were prepared and these may be found at PR/Lacock St Cyriac with Bowden Hill St Anne/173/13 1902-1904. Before its restoration, the Chancel was described by Charles Henry Talbot in an article in the Journal of the British Archaeological Society published in 1905, as being “formerly bald in the extreme…”
The chancel was reopened, June 12, 1903. Several memorials to the Talbot family are easily seen on its walls. And above the Sedilia (the stone seat to the right of the High Altar if one is facing it) a memorial inscription to Fox Talbot may be seen. It reads: “This Chancel rebuilt in the year 1777 was remodelled by subscription in the year 1902 in memory of William Henry Fox Talbot the only child of William Davenport Talbot. He was born on the 11th day of February 1800: Exhibited marked ability in early years: Devoted his life to scientific and literary research: By his discoveries and inventions conferred a lasting benefit on his contemporaries and their successors and entered into rest the 17th day of September 1877.”
So, not only is St Cyriac a place of devout worship to God, but it is also a fitting tribute to the father of modern photography. Long may his legacy live.
All photographs in this article have been taken by the author of the article.