It all started with Martin Andrews, when he invited me [Lesley Saunders] a few years ago to contribute a poem to his fascinating book Fox Talbot & the Reading Establishment (Two Rivers Press, 2014). I chose to write about a photograph taken in 1844 by Henry Fox Talbot that appears in the book – it’s a portrait of a man in a pose of sleep:
‘In those very early days of photography when subjects had to stay still for so long, a conveniently sleeping subject was perfect for a sharp print.’
The man in question was Nicolaas Henneman who – as Martin’s book recounts – was initially Fox Talbot’s valet and later became his photographic assistant; subsequently, with Fox Talbot’s help, Henneman set up his own photographic establishment in Reading.
As it happens I was already interested in early photographic experiments – we live in Herschel Street in Slough, named for the Herschel family, including John Herschel who first developed the process of cyanotype or blue-print. I love the delicacy and tonal subtlety of those early prints or ‘photograms’ done on salted paper to make what Fox Talbot called ‘photogenic drawings’. I find their inherent instability and transience very moving. And there’s a stillness in them, too – stilled lives, as it were… The image of ‘Nicolaas Henneman Asleep’ embodies all these qualities.
Then, last year, I was contacted by Piet Gooijer, who – with his colleagues in Heemskerk – was putting together an exhibition to commemorate the life and work of Henneman, who was born and raised in the town. They invited me to come and read my poem at the opening of the exhibition on Saturday 21 April! It seemed such a delightful thing to do, so Malcolm and I made the trip by Eurostar to Amsterdam. and then on to Heemskerk, where we were most warmly greeted by everyone.
Henneman did not have any direct descendants, but the extended family was a large one, and many of his present relatives attended – including his great-great-nephew, Jan Jacob Henneman, now in his tenth decade. The exhibition, and accompanying catalogue, have been meticulously researched and beautifully presented in the grand foyer of the town hall – including, in one of the glass cabinets, a copy of Martin’s book. There were lively speeches to a sizeable audience, and afterwards plentiful wine and a general sense of something very worthwhile having been accomplished.
Piet and his three colleagues, who have formed the Genootschap ‘t Hofland to celebrate local history and culture, have recently succeeded in having a small lane in the town named for Nicolaas Henneman – it’s the path Henneman used to walk between his home and school and the church. When we strolled along it, the spring blossom was still bright.
Lesley Saunders, 24 April 2018