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Book of the Month

February 2007

William Henry Fox Talbot

The Pencil of Nature

  London: 1844 
Sp Coll Photo A18

The Book of the Month for February is the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published: The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877). A revolutionary work in terms of the processes used to produce the images, the artistic composition of each frame is equally impressive.

Detail from Plate 15: Showing Lacock Abbey from a distance

William Henry Fox Talbot was a true Nineteenth Century polymath. While he is remembered for his advances in photography, he also excelled in a range of different disciplines and vocations from his days at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge, through to his death. As he, with some understatement, put it in a letter to his step-father Charles Fielding in 1821: "There is nothing like having two or three different pursuits for se délasser [i.e. for relaxation] when anything goes wrong".
Fox Talbot showed a precocious intelligence and desire for learning from his earliest academic days at Harrow. In 1812 he wrote and published his first book The Flaura and Fauna of Harrow, and in the following years quickly mastered Hebrew, French, Italian, Latin and Greek. While at college he received prizes for his studies in Greek verse and Classics, also showing distinction in Mathematics. After leaving College in 1821 he travelled Europe extensively before taking up his position as Lord of the Manor of Lacock Abbey in 1827. He later became Whig MP for Chippenham in 1831. In the years following, when Fox Talbot made his greatest advances in photography, he still found time to accrue awards and recognition in several fields. From work on integral calculus, producing papers on telescopes for the British Association, becoming an expert on Assyrian cuneiform translation, and work on linear electrical motors and heat engines. Fox Talbot was remarkable, not only for his ability to master many skills, but for his ability to advance the knowledge and understanding of each of them.

The publication of The Pencil of Nature in 1844 was the fruition of eleven years of experimentation and discovery which began in Italy on the banks of Lake Como in October of 1833. While trying, and largely failing, to sketch the views surrounding him with the aid a camera lucida, Fox Talbot's thoughts turned to his earlier experiences with his camera obscura: ".and this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature's painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus - fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away. It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me. how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!"

Detail from Plate 19: Showing the tower at Lacock Abbey

Detail from Plate 20: showing part of a positive image of a piece of lace

Fox Talbot knew from previous experiments that certain silver salts turned dark when exposed to light. It followed that treating a piece of paper with such a salt, placing an object upon it, and exposing it to sunlight would result in only the areas exposed to the light darkening. Taking this as his starting point, he began his experiments. Finding that silver nitrate paper was not sufficiently sensitive for his purposes he moved to a silver chloride precipitate. While this was an improvement, it was not until spring of 1834 that Fox Talbot made his initial breakthrough. By first coating the paper with a weak solution of common salt and then with a solution of silver nitrate, he discovered the sensitivity of the paper to light was greatly increased. This allowed him to capture "distinct and very pleasing images of such things as leaves, lace and other flat objects of complicated forms and outlines". Fox Talbot called these images "photogenic drawings", a term that is used periodically today, but has generally been replaced by the term photogram.

By the summer of 1834 Fox Talbot had refined his process sufficiently to send photograms to relatives and colleagues. While this was a great step forward, the problem of fixing - or stabilising - the images remained. The images were required to be stored in the dark, and could not be viewed under strong light as it would cause the image to darken. In September, while on holiday in Geneva, he made his second great breakthrough, as described in the "Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art" which he wrote as a preface to The Pencil of Nature:

"The next interval of sufficient leisure which I found for the prosecution of this inquiry, was during a residence at Geneva in the autumn of 1834. The experiments of the previous spring were then repeated and varied in many ways; and having been struck with a remark of Sir H. Davy's which I had casually met with - that the iodide of silver was more sensitive to light than the chloride, I was resolved to make trial of the iodide. Great was my surprise on making the experiment to find just the contrary of the fact alleged, and to see that the iodide was not only less sensitive than the chloride, but that it was not sensitive at all to light; indeed that it was absolutely insensible to the strongest sunshine. However, the fact now discovered, proved of immediate utility; for, the iodides silver being found to be insensible to light, and the chloride being easily converted into the iodide by immersion in iodide of potassium, it followed that a picture made with the chloride would be fixed by dipping it into a bath of the alkaline iodide."

Plate 23: Hagar in the Desert by Francesco Mola

Detail from Plate 14: regular models grew used to remaining still for a long exposure

By February 1835 Fox Talbot had found a way to make his paper more sensitive to light by using alternate washes of salt and silver nitrate and then using the paper while still moist. This, coupled with the ability to 'fix' his images, led to the third breakthrough made by him in this short period. Now that he could expose his negatives to sunshine for extended periods of time it was possible to reverse them - to make positives. From his notebook entry for February 28 1835: "In the photogenic or Sciagraphic process, if the paper is transparent, the first drawing may serve as an object to produce a second drawing, in which the lights and shadows would be reversed."

This is the earliest recorded reference to negative/positive photography, and from this technical milestone modern photography is derived. From one 'negative', as Sir John Herschel called Fox Talbot's primary picture, any number of 'positives' (also Herschel's nomenclature) could be produced. From here it was a short step to using a camera obscura to record outside images in what Fox Talbot called "the brilliant summer of 1835".

Fox Talbot then appears to have spent the following years on various other projects, happy to meditate on his photographic discoveries and in no hurry to progress the work of refining the production of positive images. We know that he was a believer in patience, with inspiration springing from careful thought, so whether this delay was because he had achieved his initial aims, or because he had no inkling of the way forward, is unclear. Soon after picking up his experiments again in late 1838 the announcement of Daguerre on Jan 7th 1839 of a process to achieve similar photographic results was the spur needed for Fox Talbot to, in effect, complete his work.

There followed a period of intense activity for Fox Talbot. After hurriedly submitting his paper 'Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing' to the Royal Society on the 31st of January to establish the provenance and history of his own process, he devoted all of his energies to photographic research. Throughout 1839 and 1840 he continued to develop his process and by 1841 felt confident enough to patent his discovery. He first settled on Calotype, from the Greek word for beautiful 'Kalos', but was later persuaded by friends to name it the 'Talbotype' though in the years that followed calotype became the commonly used term.
For the next three years Fox Talbot experimented extensively with his newly patented calotype process and by 1843 he was confident of being able to produce prints of a consistently high standard. He now decided to produce prints for publication and sale. Being that the Lacock Abbey estates were far removed from London, where the biggest market for such prints would be located, a new and specialised establishment was required. After some deliberation a former school in Reading, halfway between London and Lacock, was chosen as the place to produce photographs in quantity. Nicolass Henneman, Fox Talbot's servant and close collaborator in his photographic experiments for a number of years, was appointed manager; his work to convert a greenhouse into a printing works was completed in short order. After an initially quiet start, demand and production increased, with 10,400 prints made in just seven months. The majority of these photographs were portraits and copies of paintings, in addition to prints from Fox Talbot's own stock of negatives. Individuals would bring in engravings, maps, paintings, valuable documents or themselves to be photographed and were then supplied with any number of positives. Interested parties could even sign up for group or individual lessons in producing their own calotypes.

The most important production undertaken at Reading was undoubtedly The Pencil of Nature. Released in six issues, it was the first book to be placed on sale with photographic illustrations. The Virgil quotation chosen for the title page clearly shows that Fox Talbot was aware of the significance of this work: 'It is a joyous thing to be the first to cross a mountain'.

Title page of the first issue of The Pencil of Nature

Fox Talbot chose the 24 illustrations for the book and wrote the introduction and the accompanying text for each plate. The text, written in a conversational style, makes enlightened observations on the subject. Nonetheless there remains a lucid, and even romantic, literary tone to the text. The 24 images selected for publication were chosen largely on two criteria. The first was that they be easily accessible to an audience unfamiliar with the medium of photography. That is, that the viewer would be impressed with the superb detail of the prints and their close representation of reality rather than be distracted by any events happening within the frame. The second, and equally important, criterion was that the images should illustrate some application of the photographic process, or usefulness of a photographic print, which had hitherto been impossible by other means or upon which the use of photography improved. It is fortunate that Fox Talbot had a keen eye for composition and a strong sense of the artistic, for it meant that what could have been a dry, academic work became something much more uplifting.

The following images, and Fox Talbot's accompanying text, eloquently illustrate his thoughts:-

Plate XI - Copy of a Lithographic Print

". All kinds of engravings may be copied by photographic means; and this application of the art is a very important one, not only as producing in general nearly fac-simile copies, but because it enables us at pleasure to alter the scale, and to make the copies as much larger or smaller than the originals we may desire."

In this particular case the image presented is reduced in size from the original. Enlargements or reductions in size were accomplished by the simple means of varying the distance between the camera and the object. This is the only plate in Pencil which was trimmed to a decorative shape. This was likely done due to a lack of sharpness in the corners of Fox Talbot's lens.

Plate IX - Fac-simile of an Old Printed Page

"Taken from a black-letter volume in the Authors library, containing the statutes of Richard the Second, written in Norman French. To the Antiquarian this application of the photographic art seems destined to be of great advantage. Copied of the size of the original, by the method of super-position."

Fox Talbot, with his interest in translation of ancient texts, was clearly excited by the prospect of being able to make exact duplicates of fragile or unique texts to allow for study without access to the original. He even went so far as to point out that photography onto paper could revolutionise the printing industry by removing the need for moveable type presses!

Plate X - Haystack

"One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce to our pictures a multitude of minute details which add the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to copy faithfully from nature. Contenting himself with a general effect, he would probably deem it beneath his genius to copy every accident of light and shade . it is well to have the means at our disposal of introducing these minutiae without any additional trouble, for they will sometimes be found to give an air of variety beyond expectation to the scene represented."

This passage highlights a recurring theme for Fox Talbot: the rendering of scenes with full 'reality'. While a lover of the arts, it seems that he remained dissatisfied with the level of detail included in paintings by artists of the day. Assuming that an artist would find it 'beneath his genius' to attempt to realise the level of detail possible in a calotype perhaps shows Fox Talbot's lack of understanding of the artist's craft. Maybe he was satisfied that his process had rendered the landscape artist obsolete in favour of the full 'reality' that a calotype supplied. Certainly connections have been drawn between the rise of the impressionists coinciding with the proliferation of photographic artists, but there is little conclusive proof of this.

Plate II - View of the Boulevards at Paris

"This view was taken from one of the upper windows of the Hotel de Douvres . The time is the afternoon. The sun is just quitting the range of buildings adorned with columns: it's façade is already in the shade, but a single shutter standing open projects far enough forward to catch a gleam of sunshine . They have just been watering the road, which has produced two broad bands of shade upon it . A whole forest of chimneys borders the horizon: for, the instrument chronicles whatever it sees, and certainly would delineate a chimney-pot or a chimney-sweeper with the same impartiality as it would the Apollo of Belvedere."

A fine example of Fox Talbot's handsome prose describing the scene almost as well as his photograph. Such images would provide views of far off places to those who did not have the position of privilege that Fox Talbot and those like him enjoyed. From now on those who were not able to travel widely could at least see the reality of foreign climes rather than relying on the artist's brush or an author's description.

Plate VI - The Open Door

"This is one of the trifling efforts of [photography's] infancy, which some partial friends have been kind enough to commend. We have sufficient authority in the Dutch school of art, for taking as subjects of representation scenes of daily and familiar occurrence. A painter's eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his path, a time withered oak, or a moss covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings."

This is one of the more well known Pencil images. It is one of the earliest examples of photography used with the same sensibilities a painter would bring to framing and subject arrangement. The image went through several iterations before Fox Talbot settled on this one, as he tried different light levels, object placement and chemical washes for varying the mood and tone.

Plate III - Articles of China

"From the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a . collector . might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory . and would a thief afterwards purloin the treasure - if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court - it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind . The articles represented on this plate are numerous: but, however numerous the objects - however complicated the arrangement - the camera depicts them all at once . [The lens] should be diminished by placing a screen or diaphragm before it, having a small circular hole . The resulting image is more sharp and correct. But it takes a longer time to impress itself upon the paper."

It is interesting to note that Fox Talbot was aware of the possible uses for photography beyond the artistic. It is easy to take photographic and video evidence being admissible in court cases for granted these days, but quite startling to realise the idea is over 150 years old!
The numbers of issues produced were not great in comparison to printed works for obvious reasons of technical difficulty, but were still considerable for such a pioneering endeavour. There is slight variance in the numbers quoted in different sources but it is certain over a thousand booklets of the six parts were manufactured. It is beyond dispute that 285 copies of the first pamphlet were created and, with encouraging sales figures 150 copies were produced of the second part. It seems probable that 150 copies of each of the final parts were manufactured. Fox Talbot himself sold the parts for 7/6d, 12/- and 21/-. Additionally, some of the completed series were bound together and a subscription list raised headed by Queen Victoria, while Fox Talbot also gifted a few to his family and close friends. A very few of these bound volumes still exist today.

The Reading Establishment was responsible for the production of two other photographic works by Fox Talbot. Sun Pictures of Scotland was based on the works of Sir Walter Scott and was in many ways a similar endeavour to Pencil. Fox Talbot's third photographic work, The Talbotype Applied to Hieroglyphics, only contained three illustrations but these allowed him to use photography to explain one of his other interests. While he had a hand in one or two other productions, these were entirely Fox Talbot's work.

In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer invented the collodion process which, in only five years, rendered the calotype process redundant.

The Pencil of Nature was the pinnacle of Fox Talbot's achievements as a photographer. For eleven years he struggled to create a process whereby he could creatively interpret and reveal the truth or 'reality' of his surroundings. The photographs in Pencil are proof of his success. The calotype process he invented may have become obsolete within his own lifetime, and his calotypes may one day fade completely, but his position as the inventor of photography will remain forever.

Cover of The Pencil of Nature

1. Camera lucida: an instrument that by means of a prism or mirrors and often a microscope causes a virtual image of an object to appear as if projected upon a plane surface so that an outline may be traced.

2. Camera obscura: a darkened enclosure having an aperture usually provided with a lens through which light from external objects enters to form an image of the objects on the opposite surface.

Sun Pictures of Scotland London, 1845: Sp Coll Dougan Add. 2

Photogenic Drawing and negative by H.F. Talbot Photo B36/1 + Photo B36/2

Other works by Fox Talbot in Glasgow University Library:

Legendary tales : in verse and prose London, 1830: Store HA07166

Hermes, or, Classical and antiquarian researches London, 1838-1839: L10-c.19

English etymologies London, 1847: Sp Coll BG51-d.5

Mike Weaver Henry Fox Talbot : selected texts and bibliography Oxford : Clio Press, 1992 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts TA7603 WEA

Robert Lassam Fox Talbot : photographer Tisbury : Compton Press, 1979 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts TA7603 1979-L

Larry J. Schaaf The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford : Princeton University Press, c2000 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts qTA7603 2000-T

Gail Buckland Fox Talbot and the invention of photography Boston : D.R. Godine, 1980 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts TA7603 BUC

H. J. P. Arnold William Henry Fox Talbot : pioneer of photography and man of science London : Hutchinson, 1977 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts TA7603 ARN

Larry J. Schaaf Records of the dawn of photography : Talbot's notebooks P & Q Cambridge : Cambridge University Press in cooperation with the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, c1996 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts TA7603 1996-S

Larry J. Schaaf The pencil of nature : anniversary facsimile New York : Hans P. Kraus, Jr. Inc., 1989 Level 11 Main Lib Sp Coll Photo B33


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Sonny Maley February 2007