Taken in a few seconds /// By the reflection of light
A solo exhibition by Abigail Reynolds presenting some of the oldest artefacts in our collection.
Cased daguerrotypes of John Addison and his daughter Anne Agnes Crofton, 1846.
Abigail Reynolds lives in St Just, Cornwall, and has a studio at Porthmeor in St Ives. Her work is closely linked to books and libraries.
Her new work for the Harris displays rare books and the oldest photograph from the Harris collection, pictured above, alongside a moving image work giving voices to these objects and exploring the secret places of the Harris.
Abigail’s work offers a unique opportunity to experience objects from the Harris collection that have never been on display before.
A few words from the Artist
Excerpt taken from the final work Taken in a few seconds /// By the reflection of light
A closer look
The daguerreotype was invented by Frenchman, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. It was the first commercially successful photographic process and it was very expensive. Daguerreotypes are developed on a silver plate over fumes of mercury and have a distinctive property. When held at different angles in the light the photographic image alternates from positive to negative.
The daguerreotype on display is the oldest photograph at the Harris. It shows John Addison and his daughter Anne Agnes Crofton in 1846. The Addison family were solicitors and well established in Preston. The daguerreotype clearly illustrates the type of work Eastham was undertaking in the mid-1840s and his intended clientele. In 1845, Eastham began working from 11 Avenham Road which he called the Photographic Gallery.
Elephant and atlas portfolios
Portfolios are very tall books of up to 15 inches or more. They are named according to their height by the printers. Elephant portfolios are up to 23 inches in height, atlas portfolios up to 25 inches and double elephant portfolios can be up to 50 inches tall.
By the mid 19th century folios were made with state of the art printing technology instead of by hand. Larger sheets of paper and new roller presses could accommodate the creation of these oversized books.
Abigail discovered several portfolio books in the special book collection at the Harris. She selected exact copies of ancient Egyptian papyri in two enormous books – The Book of the Dead, The Papyrus of Anhai, British Museum, 1899 and The Coffin of Amamu, British Museum, 1886.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead is a collection of magical spells which enabled the soul of the deceased to gain access to the afterlife. They imagined the afterlife as a journey you had to make to get to paradise – but it was quite a hazardous journey so you would need help along the way.
Another amazing find was The Coffin of Amamu, a book of ancient Egyptian texts including inscriptions found on the coffin of Amamu. It has 32 large colour lithographs reproducing exactly the inscriptions and decorations found on the exterior and interior of this coffin, with English translation by renowned Egyptologist Samuel Birch.
The Pencil of Nature
William Henry Fox Talbot is famous for his contributions to the invention of photography.
In 1833, while visiting Lake Como in Italy, he grew frustrated by the lack of his skill to draw the scenery around him. On his return to England he began to experiment with an idea that occurred to him at the lake.
He found that paper coated with salt and a solution of silver nitrate darkened in sunlight. When a second coat of salt was applied it stopped further darkening or fading. He used this discovery to make precise tracings of plants.
He placed a leaf or plant on top of the sensitised paper and covered it with a sheet of glass and left it in the sun. The paper darkened where the sunlight hit and wherever the plant blocked out the light it remained white. He called his new discovery ‘the art of photogenic drawing’. This became known as a calotype.
He wrote the Pencil of Nature which was published in six instalments between 1844 –1846. It was the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs executed by the new art of photogenic drawing. The book includes 24 calotype prints pasted in by hand.
Talbot felt compelled to insert the following notice into his book: ‘The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.’ In August 1835 Talbot created the first photographic negative.
The book is not on display as it might have been damaged by light in the room. It was filmed under very low light in a darkened room and features in Abigail’s film.
These two images are taken from The Pencil of Nature, from the chapter Articles of Glass, 1846. See some of Abigail’s glasswork below.
Sir Isaac Newton’s Opticks
Isaac Newton (1642–1727) is often described as the greatest of all scientific thinkers. He is most famous, perhaps, for having formulated the universal law of gravitation, as well as the laws of motion. His interests also included alchemy, theology, mathematics and the branch of physics known as optics.
Optics is the science of light and how light behaves. Newton conducted optical experiments for several decades before he published Opticks in 1704. His achievement was twofold. He developed a theory of light and then proved his theory through experimentation and observation. Newton’s experimental method was a new approach to science and it helped to propel scientific investigation into the modern era.
At the beginning of the book he makes it clear to the reader that ‘my design in this book is not to explain the properties of light by hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by reason and experiments’.
The film also features the book Celestial Atlas by Alexander Jamieson in the Harris collection published in 1822. A Celestial Atlas is a star atlas, Jamienson’s includes 30 plates, 26 of which are constellation maps and some of these are hand-coloured.
Dioclesian by composer Henry Purcell
The image above shows a page from the vocal score from the opera Dioclesian by composer Henry Purcell. The copy was water damaged many years ago and musical notes were washed away. The book has been lovingly repaired and you can see where the musical notes have been drawn in by hand.
Dioclesian is a tragicomic semi-opera in five acts by Henry Purcell to words adapted by Thomas Betterton from the play of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger. It was first performed in London at the Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden in 1690.
Behind the Scenes
Abigail made several site visits to the Harris starting in March 2019. During each visit she researched works in the collections and explored Preston. She gathered information which informed her ideas for her final piece Taken in a few seconds /// By the reflection of light.
Here are a few behind the scenes shots from Clare Tavernor documenting the books and filming around the building and photographs from the recording session at UCLan with Josh Horsley, Lorraine Hulme and Anya Turner and Scarlett Stirland from St Patricks school.
Date: 15 February, 2020 - 31 July, 2020
Time: Available to see all day
This exhibition is free to view