Imagine, if you can, a world before mass tourism and before the internal combustion engine. A world where the summers were languid and the air smelt sweet. A world devoid of selfie sticks.

‘Those ancient courts and quadrangles and cloisters look so beautiful, so tranquil and so solemn … In other towns you hear at all times the busy hum of passing crowds … but Oxford in the summer season seems the dwelling of the Genius of Repose.’

Thus wrote William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) inventor of the photograph. Oxford was – apart from his home in Lacock Abbey – the place he liked to picture most. Its ‘genius of repose’ perfectly suited his process, which required long, uninterrupted light exposure; and the quiet, warm stone of Oxford’s colleges provided a perfect backdrop.

Fox Talbot’s first photograph – or, to be more technically precise, his first ‘photogenic drawing’ – of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, was taken on 30 July 1842 and survives to this day in the History of Science museum.

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Henry William Taunt, the man destined to become Oxford’s most prolific photographer, was just eleven weeks old on that momentous summer’s day in 1842. Born in a humble house in St Ebbe’s, he went to work at the age of eleven, developed a fascination with the new camera technology, and in due course raised enough money to establish his own commercial photography business in 1868, eventually ending up with premises in the Broad.

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Over the course of his 80-year life he took thousands of pictures and produced countless souvenir prints (monochrome at first then colour-tinted). Alongside photographic postcards he published a series of image-rich books about popular local attractions, the most famous of which was the first ever illustrated pocket guide to the River Thames. He was always drawn to the water, at one point selling his wares from a houseboat moored on the Isis, and eventually naming his house (393 Cowley Road) Rivera in its honour.

It was there that Henry Taunt died, exactly 100 years ago, on 4 November 1922, leaving an estate of over fifty thousand photographs and negatives – a visual treasure trove and invaluable record of life in Victorian and Edwardian Oxford.

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It’s strange that Henry Taunt isn’t more of a household name in Oxford; but then we don’t seem to be very good at honouring our home-grown heroes. The reason we know about him at all is in large part thanks to another, more recent photographer, someone with Taunt’s love of the camera and devotion to Oxford.

Malcolm Graham was appointed as Oxford’s first specialist local history librarian in October 1970. As a young man with a keen eye he spent his lunchtimes and weekends acquainting himself with his new location, walking its streets, and taking pictures of what he saw.

It was a particularly grim period in Oxford’s architectural history, before statutory protection had come into place. Old houses large and small (including Henry Taunt’s birthplace) were being torn down at every turn to make way for supposedly fashionable ‘modern’ development. Malcolm’s early photographs are a wistful, and at times shocking record of the world we have lost – and an important reminder of the hubris of town planners and builders. He writes:

Take these houses on the west side of Paradise Square, for example, photographed in April 1971. The square, containing houses built between 1838 and 1847, was a peaceful enclave just minutes away from Carfax, but it was cleared for the Westgate carpark development. These last few properties were demolished in 1972. They would now be worth well over £1m each at today’s prices …

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Fittingly, Malcolm’s first book (1973) was entitled Henry Taunt of Oxford. All sales proceeds went towards ‘the improvement of the local history collection’, to which he was dedicated. As Head of the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies, he launched the Heritage Search database in 2005, featuring thousands of yesteryear images which are now available to view at Picture Oxon, a searchable online archive. It stands for generations to come as an invaluable source of visual information, a fascinating socio-historical record, and an inspiration – for photographers and non-photographers alike.

‘All photographs have some limited historical value; those taken today will many of them be much wanted in fifty years’ time.’

HWT 1918

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Here are some more of Malcolm’s images from half a century ago, together with his commentary / captions:

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The keep at Cowley Barracks, April 1971.

This monumental structure was a landmark in Hollow Way, part of the barracks erected in 1876 that had been the regimental headquarters of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. It was demolished as ‘unsafe’ by the Post Office. POX0036909 (D426572)

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Vanishing Victoriana in Museum Road, February 1971.

St John’s College laid out its Parks estate in the mid-1860s, intending it for villas like these. Keble College occupied much of the estate between 1866 and 1882, and the college was responsible for clearing this site for its Hayward and De Breyne Buildings (1973-7). POX0036859 (D426527)

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The Wharf House pub, March 1971.

This distinctive building began life in about 1830. When Friars Wharf was filled in and the site developed in the late 1840s, it became a pub catering to the new houses. Isolated by the clearance of St Ebbe’s, the building has since been converted for residential use. POX0036879 (D426545)

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The former City Waterworks in Isis Street, January 1971.

This stone building, jutting out into the Thames, was the City Waterworks between 1826 and 1856, pumping untreated river water into customers’ homes. It was later used as a mill and then as part of a City Engineer’s depot before being demolished in a local clearance area. POX0012223 (MG00575)

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Nos. 8-10 Charles Street, now Turn Again Lane, October 1970.

When this photograph was taken, similar listed seventeenth-century houses, nos. 6-7, had already been demolished for the Westgate development, and these properties were only saved after a vigorous campaign led by local amenity societies. They went on to become the headquarters of Oxford Preservation Trust in 1972. POX0012293 (MG00456)

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Feedback

Henry Taunt not only photographed Oxford and its environs. He even turned his camera towards the heavens to record this spectacular photograph of the Great Daylight Comet of 1910 – not Halley’s Comet which appeared a few months later the same year. The attached article explains. We’re most grateful to Eddie Mizzi, its co-author and owner of the Taunt postcard.
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Malcolm Graham’s magnificent Centenary blog is essential reading for anyone interested in Henry Taunt:
More feedback from Mark Davies, this time about HT and H2O:

As someone with a particular interest in Oxford’s waterways, I’m especially grateful to Henry Taunt for his photographs of the River Thames and Oxford Canal, several of which I have included in my books and talks, and some of which feature in this Oxford-Perm Association online exhibition:

https://www.permarchive.ru/water/en/oxford.html

Taunt also happened to be present with his camera on one of the most dramatic mayoral ‘Riding the Franchise’ events in its more-than-five-hundred-year history. This is the ceremonial circuit of the city’s boundaries, which were (and in places still are) largely comprised of rivers and streams, as his photograph (courtesy of Oxfordshire History Centre) demonstrates:

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Richard Bossons writes:

It was largely thanks to Taunt’s guidebooks that the Thames became such a popular tourist destination so he certainly deserves to be better known. Apart from Malcolm Graham’s excellent book, I can recommend The River Thames Revisited by Graham Diprose and Jeff Robins (2007). The two photographers retrace Taunt’s journeys down the Thames, taking high quality digital pictures from exactly the same spot as Taunt. I attach a picture of the cover. I have also attached a picture of the cover of another good book on Taunt, similar to Malcolm’s.

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I don’t know if Morris Oxford readers have come across the actual Thames Guides? I have all of them including the pocket ones. Here is the last one published in 1897, 25 years after the first one, with a Tribute to Her Majesty on her Diamond Jubilee!

We rowed from Kingston to Oxford in our skiff a few years ago using this Guide and it was very accurate. Not a great deal had changed which was rather nice. – RB

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Mark Davies, expert on all things Wonderland, reminds us that Henry Taunt was not Oxford’s only celebrated Victorian photographer.

Henry Taunt might have been Oxford’s most prolific and important professional photographer of the Victorian era; but Oxford’s most famous photographer (although not at the time) was an amateur: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. As well as grappling with mathematical formulae, inventing games and puzzles, and penning children’s books under the name of Lewis Carroll, Dodgson was an early adopter of the new technology. He quickly built a reputation as an extremely accomplished portrait photographer, being, according to the photographic historian Helmut Gernsheim (an early collector of Dodgson’s photographs), ‘the most outstanding photographer of children in the nineteenth century’.

While children were certainly his preferred subjects, Dodgson also photographed some of the most famous writers, artists, and other notables of the period, often with their children or other family members. The artists John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are cases in point, as was the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose writing Dodgson admired enormously. When Dodgson showed Tennyson his photograph of six-year-old Alice Liddell as a beggar-child – perhaps the most reproduced, and controversial, of all his pictures – Tennyson thought it was ‘the most beautiful photograph he had ever seen’.

As far as we know, Dodgson never charged for his photographs – it seems to have been his way of demonstrating a tangible, intimate appreciation of people he liked and admired. Very helpfully, he was meticulous about recording the date of the sitting and the identity of his subjects, often getting them to sign their own names on the prints. And despite his responsibilities as a Christ Church don, he took an astonishing total of nearly three thousand photographs before stopping, suddenly, in 1880. How fortunate that he managed to find the time to dash off a couple of children’s books as well! – MD

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Henry Taunt’s home for over thirty years, Rivera, 393 Cowley Road, has since been renamed, and is now monitored by cameras of an altogether less welcoming kind.
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Stephanie Jenkins writes:

The indefatigable Henry Taunt brought late Victorian Oxford alive for us. If you search PictureOxon with the keyword ‘Taunt’ you will get a breathtaking 15,620 results!

https://heritagesearch.oxfordshire.gov.uk/images

Our thanks to the History of Science Museum for access to Henry Fox Talbot’s first ever photogenic drawings of Oxford, and especially to Lee Macdonald who enabled us to photograph the back of the picture frame with its all-important date:
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