William Henry Fox Talbot (11 February 1800 – 17 September 1877) and The Pencil of Nature!

Today was a very difficult day for me, for reasons I will keep to myself for now. Suffice it to say, I found myself wandering through Bryant Park ending up at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. The famous large library with the two lions outside the main entrance. I thought the exhibit on Frank Sinatra was there, and wanted to take a quick look. However, a security guard told me it was  a different library. Oh well, I was going to leave when I saw a giant image of a camera on one of their marble walls saying, Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography.  Hm, I do believe in signs, so I walked in and the first table I saw had a book entitled,'The Pencil of Nature' by William Henry Fox Talbot.  I smiled immediately, recognizing the name and era. This book is tagged, "first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published" between 1844 and 46; pre-dating my beloved Julia Margaret Cameron. It was an interesting exhibit covering 175 years of photography, chronologically with a main focus on American photography.
So, I wanted to first provide a brief biography of Talbot's professional accomplishments before I quote some of his beautiful descriptions of his work in photographic methods during the nineteenth-century. 

 William Henry Fox Talbot by John Moffat, 1864, Albumen print, carte de visite mount with his camera! 

Two generations of Talbot’s lived at Lacock Abbey, in Lacock, Wiltshire, England. However, by the time little William was born at Melbury in Dorset in 1800, the lavish lifestyle was about to come to an abrupt end. William’s mother Lady Elisabeth Fox Strangways was living at her family’s house at Melbury when her husband, officer in the Dragoons, died when William was just six months old. The Talbots owed enormous debts and had little money to pay them. One would think that with the fancy titles on the mother’s side of the family, they would have money enough to pay off their debts and recover. According to Lady Elisabeth’s grandfather, the Earl of Ilchester, this was untrue. He had no money to help them out and his only solution was for Mrs. Talbot to lease to a wealthy tenant. Subsequently, for several years, they moved from one wealthy friend’s home to another until Lady Elisabeth married her second husband, a Captain Fielding, when William was four years old. He was a naval officer, who was usually an absent husband despite his love for his wife and family. 

At the age of eight, little William, who was called ‘Henry’ by those close to him was sent to boarding school at Rottingdean where he immediately impressed his teachers with a methodical approach to his work. Henry would write down everything in his diary describing his daily activities, instructing his parents not to throw away his letters but to save them for the future; pretty interesting thoughts for an eight year old?  He left Rottingdean, at the age of seventeen, in 1817, to attend Trinity College, Cambridge. Having become ‘squire’ of Lacock Abbey on his birthday at the age of twenty-one, he left college. When Henry found out that the abbey already had a tenant with more years left on his lease, he went to the continent to study. 

By 1822 he became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society travelling to London to lecture. It wasn’t until 1827 that Henry lived at Lacock Abbey. Once, moved in and with restorations made to his standards, he studied physics, chemistry, astronomy and whatever other science he wanted. His membership was accepted to the Royal Society at the age of thirty-one and within about a year he was elected Fellowship. It was well known and discussed amongst his colleagues that the fact of his receiving such a Fellowship at such a young age was quite a rare accomplishment. His talents scientifically did not go unnoticed either.

At a meeting of the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839, Talbot exhibited several paper photographs he made in 1835 attempting to communicate to the members the nature of his process. He had invented the first process for creating reasonably light, fast, and permanent photographs that was made available to the public. It was at this same time that a Frenchman named Louis Daguerre invented something called a ‘daguerreotype’ an announcement said that January 1839. Talbot begged to differ! 

It was in 1841 he announced his calotype process and licensed, miniature painter, Henry Collen as the first professional calotypist.  A noteworthy mention should go to Scotsmen Hill & Adamson but that’s another article in and of itself. In February 1841, he obtained an English patent for his calotype process. The individual patent at the time cost twenty pounds each; later, he lowered the fee to four pounds. Always in constant competition or working in similar fields, Louis Daguerre’s agent, two years before, in 1839, applied for English and Scottish patents for the daguerreotype discovery. He was granted a pension for it, declaring his ‘invention’ “free to the world”. The United Kingdom and the British “Colonies and Plantations abroad” became the only places where a license was legally required to make and sell daguerreotypes. Talbot, following a year later, in 1842, received the Rumford Metal from the Royal Society for his photographic discoveries. Ten years later, in 1852, he discovered that gelatin treated with potassium dichromate, a sensitizer is made less soluble when exposed to light. This discovery would later form the basis for the carbon printing process. With the death of Louis Daguerre, in 1851, a man named Frederick Scott Archer publicized the wet collodion process, making it practical to use glass instead of paper when making a camera negative. By 1858, he had evolved a process he called photoglyphic engraving and a second patent was granted. He continued perfecting the photographic processes until the end of his life. In 1862 he was awarded a photoglyphic engraving prize medal from International Exhibition in London. After an illness, he died in his study at Lacock Abbey on 17 September 1877 and was buried there.

Now, for the quotes in William Henry Fox Talbot's own words and description of his photographic processes,

William Henry Fox Talbot, Nicolaas Henneman Showing The Pencil of Nature to Charles Porter, probably 1845, salt print from a calotype negative, 15.3 x 19.4 cm

For when the eye was removed from the prism in which all looked beautiful I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.

After various fruitless attempts, I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion, that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing, which unfortunately I did not possess. I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was, to take a Camera Obscura, and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of transparent tracing paper laid on a pane of glass in the focus of the instrument. On this paper the objects are distinctly seen, and can be traced on it with a pencil with some degree of accuracy, though not without much time and trouble.

I had tried this simple method during former visits to Italy in 1823 and 1824, but found it in practice somewhat difficult to manage, because the pressure of the hand and pencil upon the paper tends to shake and displace the instrument (insecurely fixed, in all probability, while taking a hasty sketch by a roadside, or out of an inn window); and if the instrument is once deranged, it is most difficult to get it back again, so as to point truly in its former direction.

Besides which, there is another objection, namely, that it baffles the skill and patience of the amateur to trace all the minute details visible on the paper; so that, in fact, he carries away with him little beyond a mere souvenir of the scene which, however, certainly has its value when looked back to, in long after years.

Such, then, was the method which I proposed to try again, and to endeavour, as before, to trace with my pencil the outlines of the scenery depicted on the paper. 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!

And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.

The picture, divested of the ideas which accompany it, and considered only in its ultimate nature, is but a succession or variety of stronger lights thrown upon one part of the paper, and of deeper shadows on another. Now Light, where it exists, can exert an action, and, in certain circumstances, does exert one sufficient to cause changes in material bodies. Suppose, then, such an action could be exerted on the paper; and suppose the paper could be visibly changed by it. In that case surely some effect must result having a general resemblance to the cause which produced it: so that the variegated scene of light and shade might leave its image or impression behind, stronger or weaker on different parts of the paper according to the strength or weakness of the light which had acted there.

And since, according to chemical writers, the nitrate of silver is a substance peculiarly sensitive to the action of light, I resolved to make a trial of it, in the first instance, whenever occasion permitted on my return to England.

But although I knew the fact from chemical books, that nitrate of silver was changed or decomposed by Light, still I had never seen the experiment tried, and therefore I had no idea whether the action was a rapid or a slow one; a point, however, of the utmost importance, since, if it were a slow one, my theory might prove but a philosophic dream.

Such were, as nearly as I can now remember, the reflections which led me to the invention of this theory, and which first impelled me to explore a path so deeply hidden among nature's secrets. And the numerous researches which were afterwards made whatever success may be thought to have attended them cannot, I think, admit of a comparison with the value of the first and original idea.

I began by procuring a solution of nitrate of silver, and with a brush spread some of it upon a sheet of paper, which was afterwards dried. When this paper was exposed to the sunshine, I was disappointed to find that the effect was very slowly produced in comparison with what I had anticipated.

I then tried the chloride of silver, freshly precipitated and spread upon paper while moist. This was found no better than the other, turning slowly to a darkish violet colour when exposed to the sun.

Instead of taking the chloride already formed, and spreading it upon paper, I then proceeded in the following way. The paper was first washed with a strong solution of salt, and when this was dry, it was washed again with nitrate of silver. Of course, chloride of silver was thus formed in the paper, but the result of this experiment was almost the same as before, the chloride not being apparently rendered more sensitive by being formed in this way.

Similar experiments were repeated at various times, in hopes of a better result, frequently changing the proportions employed, and sometimes using the nitrate of silver before the salt, &c. &c.

In the course of these experiments, which were often rapidly performed, it sometimes happened that the brush did not Passover the whole of the paper, and of course this produced irregularity in the results. On some occasions certain portions of the paper were observed to blacken in the sunshine much more rapidly than the rest. These more sensitive portions were generally situated near the edges or confines of the part that had been washed over with the brush.

After much consideration as to the cause of this appearance, I conjectured that these bordering portions might have absorbed a lesser quantity of salt, and that, for some reason or other, this had made them more sensitive to the light. This idea was easily put to the test of experiment. A sheet of paper was moistened with a much weaker solution of salt than usual, and when dry, it was washed with nitrate of silver. This paper, when exposed to the sunshine, immediately manifested a far greater degree of sensitiveness than I had witnessed before, the whole of its surface turning black uniformly and rapidly: establishing at once and beyond all question the important fact, that a lesser quantity of salt produced a greater effect. And, as this circumstance was unexpected, it afforded a simple explanation of the cause why previous inquirers had missed this important result, in their experiments on chloride of silver, namely, because they had always operated with wrong proportions of salt and silver, using plenty of salt in order to produce a perfect chloride, whereas what was required (it was now manifest) was, to have a deficiency of salt, in order to produce an imperfect chloride, or (perhaps it should be called) a subchloride of silver.

So far was a free use or abundance of salt from promoting the action of light on the paper, that on the contrary it greatly
weakened and almost destroyed it: so much so, that a bath of salt water was used subsequently as a fixing process to prevent the further action of light upon sensitive paper. 

This process, of the formation of a subchloride by the use of a very weak solution of salt, having been discovered in the spring of 1834, no difficulty was found in obtaining distinct and very pleasing images of such things as leaves, lace, and other flat objects of complicated forms and outlines, by exposing them to the light of the sun.

The paper being well dried, the leaves, &c. were spread upon it, and covered with a glass pressed down tightly, and then placed in the sunshine; and when the paper grew dark, the whole was carried into the shade, and the objects being removed from off the paper, were found to have left their images very perfectly and beautifully impressed or delineated upon it

The sensitiveness of the paper to light, considerable as it seemed in some respects, was therefore, as yet, evidently insufficient for the purpose of obtaining pictures with the Camera Obscura; and the course of experiments had to be again renewed in hopes of attaining to some more important result.” 

See what discoveries you can make when out for a walk!  Thank goodness for libraries. I dare to imagine where we would be without them or photography for that matter. All we have to do now to take a photograph is click a button on our phones for heavens sake. Imagine what these great men and women would have to say about that! 

To read Talbot's, 'The Pencil of Nature' for youself, it is available,  Gutenberg Books


Kevin Marsh said…
Hello Kimberly,

Interesting piece.
I know some of the places you have mentioned. Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire is beautiful. The village is one used in many films as it has been left untouched by time, ie, no lines on roads, no electrical or overhead telephone cables and very strict rules on house and building maintenance. Rottingdean is a lovely place in Sussex, didn’t Rudyard Kipling live there?
Thank you for sharing.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,
I would love to visit Lacock Abbey one day not sure about no telephone cables though! I know I thought the same thing when I read Rottingdean. I wonder if it was the same house where Burne-Jones lived? Yes, I think Kipling lived next door to them. Thanks for commenting and stopping by.
Hels said…
"He had invented the first process for creating reasonably light, fast, and permanent photographs that was made available to the public." Talbot's unfortunate bit of history was that he coincided with Louis Daguerre who was creating his own inventions... over the channel. Had Daguerre lived just 20 years later, the problem would never have arisen.

Although Talbot's feelings were hurt, he continued experimenting and improving. Even as late as 1862, you note that he won a photoglyphic engraving prize medal from International Exhibition in London. The world benefited.
Kimberly Eve said…
Spot on as usual Hels. I completely agree!
WoofWoof said…
Fascinating! The ingenuity of these Victorian pioneers does amaze me - to be able to develop a process for lifelike representation from just a heap of chemicals must have seemed like magic in those days. The development of sound recording and playback also makes the mind boggle. The advances we see nowadays by big corporations with huge budgets and vast research facilities is built on the work of these moustachioed Victorian amateurs (on the whole) working painstakingly and often on their own in their little back rooms and sheds.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi there WoofWoof,
Glad you're back. Yes, I never thought about the viewpoint of the process being magiclike until I read Talbot's words but it makes perfect sense. There is something to be said for the ways of the past, for taking your time with things you are passionate about. Thanks for stopping by!