When William Henry Fox Talbot discovered a way to make pictures with light in 1839, one of the few men he entrusted with his knowledge was Sir David Brewster, Principal of the University of St. Andrews. Within a few years the town had become a centre of experimentation in the new techniques, with local doctor John Adamson and his brother Robert taking the lead.
The following scene is part of a work in progress.
St. Andrews, Scotland, 1843
Jane Adamson closed the front door to shut out the wind skirling alongSouth Street and took off her woollen shawl. She pricked her ears to catch what she could of the conversation in the parlour. The voices were familiar enough, her oldest brother John, holding the floor as usual, and Robert, ten years younger, eager to break in where he could. The third voice did not belong to a family member, though these days he was among them so much there was no mistaking it. As she laid her basket of eggs in the pantry, the very thought of his presence made Jane frown.
The Fox and The Rooster, Rob called them for fun, but to Jane’s mind it had all gone beyond a joke. Of the two, at least William Henry Fox Talbot was at a distance, holed up in his English den, playing with his shadow pictures and writing, writing all the time: letters, books and papers that went toLondon, toParis, and now, toScotland, to his friend Sir David Brewster, Principal of St. Andrews University. As she called to the housemaid to see to the tea, his was the crowing Jane could hear.
The enterprise proposed by Brewster had brought a rare gleam to John’s pale smile and a brightness to Rob’s eye. It also filled their parlour on many a night with the entire membership of the St. Andrews Scientific and Philosophical Society. But if any harm should come to Rob, there was only one of them she would hold to account for it.
Soon the parlour door opened and she heard Brewster take his leave. Wherever he went he made a stir, a movement in the air from the swing of his coat or the wave of his expansive hands. She felt it now as he moved from the parlour into the narrow hall, a kind of turbulence. John followed him, closing the door behind him.
‘And you think two weeks will do it?’ said Brewster.
‘About that. The light is better every day. April will be better still.’
‘I’d like to see them before they go.’
‘I’ll send nothing without your approval.’
‘Good night then, Adamson. Your brother has a quick mind and a steady hand.’
Rob had a lot more to offer than mere dexterity, but John was a master of restraint. ‘I’ll tell him you said so.’
‘Do that, Adamson. Do that. Good night to you.’
While John steered The Rooster out of the door and watched him blow and billow along to St. Leonards, Jane slipped in to the parlour.
Rob was standing in front of the fire, his fair skin flushed. She opened her mouth to scold him then shut it again. As he spoke he moved his weight from one foot to the other, like a fledgling ready to launch itself into the air.
‘Janie, you’re back. How was my father?’
Jane nodded. ‘Well. They’re all well.’ She did not say that her father’s chest was bad and her mother was taking on too much of the farm work.
‘Brewster’s been here, did you see him?’ Robert said.
‘No. But I heard him. What’s he fechting about now?’
‘There’s no fechting, Just the opposite. Talbot has agreed.’
The Fox, Jane thought, could be wily. ‘Agreed what?’
‘He won’t take out a patent inScotland.’
‘And that’s good?’
John had rejoined them, his face wearing success in its own way, an upturn of his mouth, a wry smile. He knew Jane was teasing her brother, but Rob was oblivious.
‘Of course, ye cuddie,’ he said. ‘That means it’s legal. He won’t say we’ve stolen his method. He’s giving it to us.’
‘I should think so too,’ Jane said. ‘You’ve done all the work.’
John nodded. John had worked on Talbot’s kalotype method first and taught Rob what he knew, but he was like a father to Rob; he wanted the success to be his. And so did Jane. She drew Rob away from the fire so that she could poke the coals to new life. ‘So what now?’
‘Now it could pay off,’ John said. ‘We are to send some of our prints to the Englishman. If he approves, we can go ahead with it.’
There was nothing for it but to follow them out the back. By the time they reached the old washing-house Jane could feel the chill gnawing at her bones, but when she laid a shawl over Rob’s shoulders, he shook it off.
‘I’ll get Jeannie to light the fire in here,’ Jane said.
‘I’m fine. We’ll not be long.’
She stayed to make sure both men didn’t end up with a fever, watching as they reviewed the results of two years of experiments, two years of standing here handling salted paper and acid fixes, or crouching over a box on the windy corners of the town.
Most of the pictures had been taken months ago and had hung here ever since. Her brothers went along inspecting them for signs of deterioration. If any were suspect, they would open a chest and find another copy that had been kept in darkness, to see how the two compared.
‘The stability of these,’ John stopped in front of two views of the castle, ‘is much better.’
‘But not as good as this,’ Rob replied with a grin. It was hardly a picture at all, Jane thought, a small house nearly all white, the edge of the roof no more than an outline, but in winter it was snow that provided the light for a picture to form.
‘We must take new ones.’ John was in charge. ‘A dozen at least. Using the new solution.’
Rob nodded. ‘We just need a fine day. And both of us to be there.’
Jane laid a hand on each of their arms. ‘But not tonight. Away inside and have your tea.’
Before she locked up the outhouse Jane paused to look again at the pictures, pegged by their corners on a cord, like washing on a still day, the kind of day you might get now and then on the farm, cooried in the lea of a hill, not here on the coast where the wind was always off the sea. She opened the chest to look at the rest of her brothers’ work. The cathedral, the castle, some boats in the harbour, all were in shades of grey or brown or yellow. They were recognisable enough, but they failed to move her. She would rather walk down the brae and see for herself. She craved colour: the bonnie gold and purple of the hills, the aquamarine of some exotic ocean.
Jane knew her Greek, that the word ‘kalotype’ meant beautiful, but she could find no beauty in these muddy tones. And she was damned if she could see what use they might be.