Patenting ideas at Lacock abbey

In August 1835 photography in the form of a calotypes was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot at his Wiltshire home of Lacock Abbey. Like any National Trust property it is a treat. Two things remain long in my mind after a wintry visit.

Lacock Abbey

First, at the height of King Charles I’s passion for Italian Renaissance art, the Talbot family purchased a discrete element of Mediterranean life to the so-called Stone Gallery. Here in the former medieval (nuns’) dormitory, a line of Sgabello chairs were introduced. Made in London in 1635, these were walnut chairs with backs resembling shells embossed with the crest of the Talbots. Cleverly conceived to look like stone, it is their curious shape which immediately catches the eye. They seem so out of place in this otherwise quintessential English aristocratic home. Italy, you sense on this cold February day, was always ever-present in the long history of this family. The polymath, William Talbot himself honeymooned there, as did his predecessors. These chairs were evident reminders of clear skies and warm days.

The Stone Room

The second is a cultural heritage tip, now employed throughout the abbey. On each Sgabello chair, and then I noticed, every chair lay a single teasel. Why I asked a docent. Well, you wouldn’t sit on one would you, she replied, grinning. Better than signs saying please don’t sit on the chair, on every chair, and much more thought-provoking in the depth of winter.

One of the Sgabello chairs, c.1635 with teasel

Talbot failed to patent his discovery of photography and long regretted it. Less important for the history of humankind, the use of bristly teasels is an inventive alternative to intrusive, prohibitive signage.

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