words and pixels

Be prepared to be overwhelmed when visiting Lacock Abbey (even on a heavily overcast day, as it was when we visited it). The Abbey sits close up against the River Avon in the northern quarter of Wiltshire in glorious, wooded countryside. Much of the original abbey has disappeared but “large parts of the nunnery survive, more in fact than of any other English nunnery”, according to Pevsner. Wrapped around these surviving parts is a buff-coloured country house with an interesting stable courtyard of exceptional size. The two - abbey and house, layered in history going all the way back to the 13th century - shelter cloisters, graced with fine vaulting, and much else. A bit of architectural decoding will help your visit along. If all this isn’t enough, Lacock was the home of, amongst others, William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the photographic negative process.

There’s also every chance that your visit will be hijacked by the village of Lacock itself, a kind of quintessential English village dense with period buildings, notably a fine tythe barn, splendid survivor of the Middle Ages. Parts of all of the above have been used as film sets and backdrops to period dramas (H.Potter included). Remove the cars from the village and - whoosh - replace them with Edwardian era transport or hayricks from the Middle Ages - and everything would still look genuine. No street signs, no modern lamp posts. This is not a private village so road markings are required by law, but paint them over and you’d have trouble guessing which century you were in. Pity the residents, I say, living in a fish bowl. As I said, be prepared. Your visit will not be speedy, nor should it be.

1/12 West façade of Lacock Abbey
West façade of Lacock Abbey

History lies in so many layers at Lacock that it helps to see how these arrange themselves:

  • 1229

    The abbey was founded by Ela Longspée, for Augustinian Canonesses, of which she became the first abbess in 1238.

  • 1300s

    Building of the tythe barn in the village.

  • mid-1400s

    The cloisters were rebuilt in the perpendicular style.

  • late 1400s

    The west walk of the cloisters was demolished.

  • 1539

    The abbey was dissolved.

  • 1540s

    The stable courtyard was enclosed following the property’s purchase by Sir William Sharington. This was followed by substantial re-modelling of the abbey, turning many of its rooms into more habitable rooms within the house. This was when the abbey’s small church was removed, its north wall subsequently serving as the south wall of the house.

  • 1754 - 6

    Sharington’s Hall was remodelled in the Gothic fashion for John Ivory Talbot who inherited the estate in 1714.

  • c.1830

    The three windows in the south wall were remodelled into oriel windows in the Gothic Revival style.

  • 1800 - 1877

    Lacock was home to the pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot.

  • 1944

    The estate, the abbey and the village was given to the National Trust by Matilda Talbot.

This goes some way to explaining why what looks like a handsome manor house has cloisters inside it, when in fact over the years an Augustinian abbey evolved into a house, albeit a rather grand one.

2/12 South façade of Lacock Abbey
South façade of Lacock Abbey

Sheep and wool

How fitting that sheep graze the pastures around Lacock today because back when Lacock was a working abbey sheep were the principle source of its wealth. It was recorded as having a flock of 2,000 sheep in 1476, kept on nearby Salisbury Plain with tenants shearing them and washing their wool.

The Abbess, Ela, secured the right to hold a weekly market in the village and several years later she was granted a charter to hold an annual fair which eventually became a week-long affair. Wool would have been the main commodity. The village tythe barn would have been an essential resource and other buildings of that period (the 1300s and 1400s) attest to increased wealth due to the wool trade. After the abbey’s dissolution in 1539, the new owner, Sir William Sharington continued these traditions and is recorded as having traded in wool.

The 1225 Magna Carta

Lacock Abbey’s founder and first abbess Ela, was the widow of William Longspée, earl of Salisbury who also happened to be the sheriff of Wiltshire and therefore the king’s representative in the county of Wiltshire. When the 1225 version of the Magna Carta came into existence, one was issued to him. On his death in 1226, Ela became the sheriff and the charter passed into the abbey’s archives where it stayed until it was given to the nation in 1944 by Matilda Talbot. It now resides in the British Library, one of only four in existence.

This version 1225 version of the Magna Carta arose from King Henry III’s need to raise an army to retake the province of Gascony in south-west France (which that army quickly did), so this updated charter acknowledged the rights of the kingdom’s barons with even greater clarity and force (in return for the taxes raised to pay for the army).

Lacock Abbey - a house that swallowed an abbey

The Abbey’s Augustinian order was a Catholic one. Its dissolution removed from it any religious function and became a license to demolish, re-build or otherwise muck about with what was there. The law of the day said that this was perfectly acceptable.

3/12 Lacock's Sharington Tower where the 1225 Lacock Magna Carta was kept prior to being gifted to the nation
Lacock’s Sharington Tower where the 1225 Lacock Magna Carta was kept prior to being gifted to the nation in 1944

To help visualise this ‘re-purposing’ of Lacock, the National Trust has carefully put in place some transparent scale designs that mark where the abbey’s original church stood prior to its demolition. These range along the south wall of the house, showing that that wall was once the north wall of the abbey’s church.

4/12 The South Gallery's principle oriel window
The South Gallery’s principle oriel window
5/12 The Abbey's east and north cloister walks
The Abbey’s east and north cloister walks

As you pass through the cloisters - a Perpendicular Revival re-modelling with some vestiges of the original 1300s work - don’t fail to look up above you. These lierne vaults have fascinating stone bosses: lambs, angels, pelicans, a mermaid, a jester, a tumbler, beasts and birds, many of which mutate from one of these to another, such as a fish swallowing a goat, diversions for the nuns moving from prayer to table.

6/12 Lacock Abbey's Chapter House
Lacock Abbey’s Chapter House

The Stable Court

Lacock’s stable court is well-worth taking time over. It is essentially a sixteenth century chain of buildings, except for the gatehouse which was built a century earlier. The stone buildings with their half-timbered dormers and twisted chimneys are gloriously organic and seem to have spread haphazardly.

7/12 Part of Lacock's Stable Court
Part of Lacock’s Stable Court

But look again and you’ll note the continuous roof line and the consistent size and form of most of the windows, showing a planned extension to the property dating back over five hundred years. Rather than provide any corridors to link the ground floor rooms, outside doors have been given to each. After all, why would one need to defensively close any of these spaces once the main gatehouse was shut? This way, space was gained internally. (I’ve stitched a run of photographs together into a single panorama to better help visualise this area. Please excuse the resulting curvature.)

8/12 A stitched panorama of Lacock's Stable Court
A stitched panorama of Lacock’s Stable Court

What’s missing?

Apart from the blue sky (which returned the following May day, see my post on nearby Great Chalfield), I could have written about a Brown Gallery, a Pulpit Room, a Yellow Room, a Stone Gallery, a Tapestry Room, a Cloister Room, a Short Lobby, an Ante Room, an East Upper Room, a Painting Room, the Tower Room, a Blue Parlour, the South Gallery (the one Fox Talbot occupied to create that mysterious, tiny photographic negative in August 1835), the Dining Room (which the NT has creatively used to set places at table for eminent friends that Fox Talbot might have had to dinner), the very curious Hall, replete with crazed terracotta sculptures, and on and on. You will have to visit Lacock yourself.

St Cyriac’s Church at Lacock

St. Cyriac was a Norman saint, so this church has Norman roots, if not Saxon ones before it. As with the abbey, it has undergone substantial re-modelling, being partly rebuilt in the 1300s, and again more extensively in the 1400s. Further work followed in 1604, in 1777, in 1861 and in 1902. Take these as indications of local wealth, both communal and private.

9/12 St Cyriac's Church at Lacock
St Cyriac’s Church at Lacock

The 15th century rebuild, funded by income from local taxes (the wool trade probably), created the perpendicular church we see today and added an east bay chapel, seen above (from the grounds of the Abbey itself), that has an unusual east chancel arch window of six lights. The larger version of the photograph above shows this clearly.

Lacock’s medieval tythe barn

Lacock’s growth as a place for marketing wool required that it had a barn sufficient for the purpose. Constructed in the 1300s, this raised cruck barn retains a high proportion of its medieval fabric, carpenter’s markings included, and is thus of architectural interest.

(Walking inside and onto this barn’s beaten earth floor, I felt immediately at home: I could write a separate post about French barns that I have known, but have a crack at this one, written several years ago for our French students.)

10/12 Inside Lacock's medieval tythe barn
Inside Lacock’s medieval tythe barn
11/12 Lacock's 14th century tythe barn
Lacock’s 14th century tythe barn

This tythe barn is known as a raised cruck barn. A cruck building is one where the weight of the roof (and sometimes that of the walls) is carried not on the walls but on a series of transverse trusses formed of a pair of inclined timbers which rise from the ground to meet at the apex. These trusses are tied together by a collar or tie-beam to form an A-frame. Purlins and ridge-beams are supported on these trusses and on them lie tiles or slates. In this arrangement vertical walls have no importance.

This raised cruck barn has trusses whose feet have been raised off the ground and sat on solid stone blocks, helping to keep the feet of the trusses dry. Additional headroom has been gained by not using a horizontal tie-beam that spans the space between the walls, the trusses alone being sufficient to carry the weight of the roof. That this was accomplished in the 14th century is testimony to considerable expertise in carpentry.

William Henry Fox Talbot and Photography

Fox Talbot’s name is synonymous with the development of silver-halide photography. One knows his name without perhaps knowing anything else about him - or where he lived.

Undoubtedly Fox Talbot was privileged. He inherited Lacock (albeit along with its debts) as a baby but grew up to be a keen student who devoted most of his free time to scientific pursuits. He attended Harrow (an elite ‘public’ school), which he left having attained ‘top of class’ status. He then went on to study mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge. He became set for a well-connected future, developing friendships with a handful of leading scientists and intellectuals.

Window in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey made from the oldest photographic negative in existence
Window in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey made from the oldest photographic negative in existence, August 1835, taken by William Fox Talbot (1800 - 1877). This file has been released under the Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0, from the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television collection.

It was during his honeymoon in Italy in 1833 (just after his election to parliament as a Whig) that his frustration at his ability to draw encouraged him to explore alternative approaches to recording the visible world. Thus began his scientific experimentation with chemicals to create shadow drawings using small wooden boxes made by the village’s carpenter that he left dotted about the house. His daughter called them little mousetraps. In this way, negative - or light-and-dark reversed - images were created, from which their equivalent positives could eventually be developed by exposing a new sheet of light-sensitive paper through the negative.

12/12 The Abbey's oriel window that Fox Talbot photographed in the what is thought to be the world's first photographic negative
The Abbey’s oriel window that Fox Talbot ‘photographed’ in what is thought to be the world’s first photographic negative

Fox Talbot’s early progress with these photographic images was somewhat blunted by Louis Daguerre’s 1839 announcement from Paris about the output of his camera obscura which led to him being known as the father of photography. The following year Fox Talbot discovered that by using gallic acid as a chemical developer he could speed up the exposure process dramatically making full-strength negatives. He announced this discovery in 1841, naming the negative a calotype from the Greek work kalos meaning ‘beautiful’. Although he patented the methodology, he made little from it, being first a scientist and not a natural businessman.

The 1845 calotype negative Fox Talbot took of Canterbury Cathedral
The 1845 calotype negative Fox Talbot took of Canterbury Cathedral

In 1975 part of the 16th century barn and stables was converted into The Fox Talbot Museum in order to house a considerable collection of photographic equipment representing the activity from its early roots to the current day, including the Fenton Collection once held by the British Film Institute. Upstairs a mezzanine level gallery houses temporary exhibitions. Downstairs one can get up close to some of Fox Talbot’s early work and one can handle Kodak Brownies, Leicas and a 1948 Nikon rangefinder.

Upstairs in Lacock's Photographic Museum
Upstairs in Lacock’s Photographic Museum

Links and references