William Henry Fox Talbot, 1800–1877

Henry Talbot made a number of important contributions across a wide range of disciplines which included botany, physics, chemistry, optics, spectroscopy, crystallography, philology, photogravure and the translation of Egyptian and Assyrian cuneiform scripts. However, it was the discovery of the positive/negative photographic process which undoubtedly was his most important achievement and one which formed not only the basis of photography as we know it today but also the whole foundation upon which the reprographic arts are based. What follows is a brief sketch of significant moments in Talbot’s life and in the development of photography.

On April the 17th 1796 William Davenport Talbot, son of John Ivory Talbot married Lady Elisabeth Horner Fox Strangways, (1776-1846) eldest daughter of Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways, second Earl of Ilchester. Four years later on February 11th William Henry Fox Talbot was born at Melbury House, Dorset, ancestral home of the Earls of Ilchester.

His father died on July the 31st 1800 leaving behind Lacock Abbey, the estate and village in a state of disrepair and with accumulated debts amounting £30,000 sterling, an enormous sum, equivalent to approximately $12,000,000 in today's currency. Although the Talbots had lived there since 1539 they were unable to take possession of the Lacock Abbey Estate, until 1827 - five years after Henry Talbot reached the age of maturity at the age of twenty-six.

On April 24, 1804 Talbot’s mother Lady Elisabeth Talbot married Captain, (later Admiral) Charles Feilding of the Royal Navy who, in conjunction with the Ilchester family took responsibility for the reorganisation and running of Lacock Abbey, estate and village.

As a result of their combined efforts the Talbot family’s affairs were stabilized and placed on a solid foundation; by 1810 virtually all outstanding and accrued debts had been cleared by reducing the size of the estate; by leasing the Abbey to a Mr Grossett for 17 years and upgrading the remaining farm buildings and infrastructure. These new arrangements which include the appointment of a land agent generated sufficient regular annual income to pay for the children’s education and secure the family’s future.

Penrice, Melbury and Bowood The lack of a permanent home during Henry Talbot’s formative years does not seem to have had any adverse effect. Although Henry and his mother continued to live in a series of semi-permanent homes the relationships they enjoyed within in these houses was close and secure. The Admiral, initially, spent much of his time away at sea or in London on Admiralty business while Lady Elisabeth and her son stayed for long periods of time with the Fox Strangways at Melbury; the Framptons at Morton Hall, Dorchester; the Lansdownes at Bowood, Wiltshire but most of all at Penrice, on the quiet and breathtakingly beautiful Gower peninsula, a few miles from Swansea. Here Talbot came under the benign influence of a second formidable female: that of his aunt, Lady Mary Lucy, wife of Thomas Mansel Talbot. Penrice, his ‘Fairy Palace’ occupied a special place in Talbot’s childhood reminiscences and recollections in “providing happy memories he would never forget and warm friendships with aunts and cousins which lasted throughout life.” His innate love of learning and thirst for knowledge were nurtured not only by his mother but also by his aunt, whose particular interest in botany first awakened what proved to be a lifelong interest in the subject.

In 1808 his parents sent him to the Reverend, (later Sir), William Hooker’s preparatory school at Rottingdean, Sussex in the South of England, a small school for boys where the classics, mathematics and French were well taught. Hooker generously allowed Henry to return home in the evenings to Brighton for the first six weeks where his mother had established a temporary residence. In a letter to Lady Elisabeth dated May the 20th 1808 the headmaster wrote: ‘…I have not a moments hesitation in pronouncing him to be of a very superior capacity…everything should be done to induce him to play more and think less.’ In the final year at Rottingdean letters interspersed and/or partially written in French, Latin and Greek were already passing between young Henry and his mother.

Harrow and Cambridge After three years at Rottingdean, in 1811, Henry Talbot entered Dr. Butler’s House at Harrow School, during which time he pursued two major interests; chemistry and botany. Banned from carrying out experiment within the precincts of the school Henry made other arrangements. In a letter to her sister, Lady Mary Talbot, Lady Elisabeth wrote that: ‘…as he can no longer continue his experiments in Dr Butler’s House, he resorts to a good natured blacksmith who lets him explode as much as he pleases.” It was whilst at Harrow that Talbot acquired his first substantial reference work on the subject, Samuel Parks’ ‘Chemical Catechism’ a very thorough and extended work based upon a manuscript which the author, a Unitarian minister, had written initially for the education of his daughter. Parks’ philosophy was founded upon the principles and ideas of Maria Edgworth as set out in her then popular and highly regarded work ‘Practical Education’. It was whilst at Harrow Talbot further developed his interest in botany and in chemistry; in conjunction with his young friend Walter Trevelyan, Talbot prepared an index of local flora and fauna.

According to the reports of his teachers at the school, he was an exceptionally gifted and brilliant pupil, so much so that at the age of fifteen, he was asked to leave! There had been a long-standing tradition at the school for the brightest and most able in the school to be made head boy. However, being only in his fifteenth year he was not considered to be sufficiently mature to take on such responsibility.

After a short interval Talbot continued to study, between 1811 and 1816, under the direction of a number of private tutors and in 1818 entered Trinity College, Cambridge, coming under the influence and tutelage of the Reverend William Whewell, when he studied mathematics and the classics and was awarded the Porson Prize for Greek Iambics in 1820. In his final year he became a Chancellor’s Medallist and was awarded a first class honours degree in mathematics and the classics, finally matriculating in 1821.

On February 11th 1821 Talbot came of age, all “investments, consoles and annuities” passed directly to him. Lacock Abbey and its estate were now in good repair, due to the efforts of his stepfather and uncle, and all debts had been cleared, leaving an annual income, net, in the order of £100-150,000 in today’s money. As head of the family, Talbot took all his obligations seriously. Following a visit to Lacock in 1821 he decided to mark the occasion of his twenty-first birthday with a gift of £1,000 to fund the construction of a new school. The building, completed in 1824 functions to this day as Lacock Village (primary) School.

Between 1821 and 1834, Henry Talbot, his mother and half sisters, Caroline Augusta and Horatia Maria Feilding made regular extended journeys to the European mainland, visiting France, Northern Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, the German states. Talbot, accompanied by his Italian manservant, Giovanni, in 1836took a long extended trip through France and Italy and eventually to the Greek Island of Corfu. Fluent in many languages and familiar with the arts and sciences in Europe, Talbot sought out and conversed with some of the most prominent scientific, and cultural figures whose work and interests most closely related to his own. On almost all his journeys Talbot included in his travel luggage a number of optical instruments and drawing aids, among which were various types of camera obscura, camera lucida and reflective devices (Claude glass, concave mirror etc), with sporadic reference being made, in his notebooks to a collimator, sextant, and theodolite.
Between 1822 and 1872 the catalogue of the Royal Society alone lists fifty published papers written by Talbot covering a range of disciplines. His first, On the Properties of a Certain Curve Drawn from the Equilateral Hyperbola, was followed by six further mathematical papers published in Gergonne between 1822 and 1823. According to his earliest scientific notebook, he appears to have commenced his researches into the study of light in 1825, resulting in the publication of related papers. Talbot’s interest in the study and behaviour of light marked the first phase of his optical researches, which eventually led him toward the discovery, between May 1834 and August 1840, of the negative-positive photographic process using the light sensitive properties of the silver salts initially by ‘superposition’ (contact).

The year 1827 marks the point in time when Henry Talbot together with his mother, Lady Elisabeth Feilding, stepfather, Rear Admiral Charles Feilding, his two half-sisters, Caroline Augusta and Horatia Maria Feilding and their French governess, Amélina Petit de Billier, took up residence at Lacock. Several important structural changes and modifications were made to the Abbey over a period of five years, in particular to the south façade. Between 1827 and 1831 the family replanned and replanted the estate woodlands and gardens at Lacock, effecting a number of major structural changes to the house including the insertion of three new stone oriel windows set within a new southern central section, the largest on the east, the intermediate on the west and the smallest, the now famous oriel window set centrally immediately above the doorway leading through to the cloisters and the Cloister Court. Inside the building at first floor level two new fireplaces were installed. These alterations provided the family with a more usable domestic space, the new windows providing substantially improved levels of natural light. The small central oriel window, of course, being the subject of his first successful photographic camera paper negative taken in August 1835.

Two diversions from Talbot’s mathematical and scientific pursuits occurred in the early 1830s. Talbot’s first book was published 1830 Legendary Tales in Verse and Prose, was not well received by his mother Lady Elisabeth Feilding but generous approval and praise was forthcoming from his two half-sisters, Caroline Augusta and Horatia Maria for this collection of gothic romantic stories. On December the 10th 1832 he was elected member of Parliament for the borough of Chippenham serving as a member of the Whig (liberal party for a single five year term only.

Ten days later on the 20th of December 1832 William Henry Fox Talbot married Constance Mundy of Markeaton Hall, Derbyshire with whom he shared a common interest in botany. His new wife was also a keen amateur artist and watercolour painter. However, both his mother, Lady Elisabeth, and half-sister, Caroline, were far more accomplished and skilled in this respect. Both appear at some time in the 1820s and 30s to have had tuition or have been in contact with drawing masters Cornelius Varley, James Bourne, Charles Hancock, and GM Montgomerie. The latter, a close family friend, introduced them to Charles Hullmandel, one of the first skilled exponents of the new art of lithography, recently established in Bath.

The Beauty of the First Idea In the early Autumn of 1833, while on an extended honeymoon in northern Italy, it first consciously occurred to Talbot during one of his “philosophic visions,” that it might be possible to form or create images spontaneously - “…without the aid of an artist’s pencil” and …by the agency of light alone.”. His point of conscious apperception was elegantly and succinctly described by Neville Story Maskelyne in an unsigned article published in the North British Review who wrote that “it was on that beautiful Italian water whose triple arms converge on the point of Bellagio that Mr Talbot longed for a power to enable him to bear away an image of the soft silvery radiance of Lecco and Como. There he resolved to work out the problem by which Nature herself would be induced to perpetuate the outline of her own beauties in artistic form.” This somewhat romanticized but nevertheless elegant account was drawn from the reverie that Talbot himself set out in his introduction to The Pencil of Nature, and that marked the point where his photographic ideas first crystallized and coalesced.

The following year, in the spring and early summer of 1834, Talbot began experimenting at Lacock, with the light sensitive salts of silver, initially as a simple and convenient way of making an accurate record, copy or impression of botanical specimens. Later, that autumn, he travelled to Switzerland, to join his family and continue his proto-photographic experiments at Copet, close by Geneva, where he made a small number of silver prints from plants, leaves, feathers and at least two cliché verre negatives, a number of which have recently been identified by scholars as originating from this first experimental batch.

During the winter of 1835 Talbot wrote up his experiments and set down the first documented description of the negative-positive (photographic) process. Sometime on or after February 8, in Scientific Notebook M, he wrote the following short, descriptive sentence: ”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.” Written at least six months before taking his first photographic negative image in camera thus providing a clear indication that he understood the base principle of the negative-positive concept during the time that he was creating copies of botanical specimens by the simple process of printing by contact.

The “brilliant summer of 1835,” as he described it, saw significant advances. Talbot made several kinds of photogenic drawing. Starting with superposition; contact prints taken from objects on treated papers, stabilized, after exposure, with sodium chloride, potassium iodide, or potassium bromide: such prints are lilac, burnt orange, or other similar shades, according to the chemicals employed during the process of stabilization.

Then in August, using small camera obscurae, Talbot is known to have made at least three or four small paper negatives of the oriel window in the South Gallery of Lacock Abbey. This group of images includes the annotated specimen now held in the archives of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, the Science Museum at Bradford, England. Talbot appears to have not been sufficiently satisfied with the results he had achieved and between 1836 and 1838 appears to have suspended all practical photographic study and experiment.

Unable to make further progress he redirected his attention toward his theoretical studies, resulting in the publication of several theoretical scientific papers. At the same time Talbot prepared for the publication of two new works “The Antiquity of the Book of Genesis – Illustrated by some new Arguments,” (1839) and “Hermes: or Classical and Antiquarian Researches No 1.” (1838) and “No.2” (1839).

Enter Daguerre On January 7 1839 François Arago, Secretaire Perpetuelle to the French Chamber of Deputies and well-known scientist (Talbot worked at the Paris Observatory, where Arago was director, in 1825 and 1829), announced the invention of the Daguerreotype, with no detailed description of the process being given. Subsequently a report appeared the following week in Comptes Rendus a journal giving an accounts all important scientific meetings and events in France. The following day the announcement appeared in translation in London’s Literary Gazette on January 12. Talbot was shocked and surprised. He immediately sent a selection of images which were displayed at a meeting of the Royal Institution on January 25, followed immediately by the publication of his now-famous paper Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing or the process by which Natural Objects may be made to Delineate Themselves without the Aid of the Artist’s Pencil. He submitted this paper in handwritten form first of all to the Royal Society on January 31st.

Talbot followed this up by immediately writing to François Arago, Jean-Baptiste Biot, and Alexander von Humboldt, scientists who verified and substantiated Daguerre’s invention, informing them that he intended to submit a formal claim of priority to the Académie Française. At the same time he notified all his close scientific associates both in the United Kingdom, mainland Europe and the USA. However, there was little support for Talbot in Europe scientific and cultural circles. Jean Baptise-Biot being the only member of the Academie des Science in Paris to give serious consideration and encouragement to Talbot and his work. The matter took on greater political significance due to the long term rivalry that existed between France and England. Daguerre was awarded a state pension on the understanding that his invention was given free to the world. However, shortly afterward, through Miles Berry, a London Agent he took out a patent which effectively forced Talbot two years later to respond in kind.

A closer look at September 1840 When details of Daguerre’s process became known it was apparent that the process was substantially different to that of Talbot. The Frenchman used metal plates and produced a single positive image. Nevertheless Talbot was spurred into action and over the course of the next 18 months, between January 1839 and October 1840 Talbot worked intensively to improve and to speed up his basic photogenic drawing (printing-out) process. His experiments reached fruition with his final seminal discovery: the development of the latent negative photographic image, the negative-positive (calotype) process, which he realized in principle and in practice between September 23, and October 6th 1840. Talbot had discovered a method whereby he was able to bring out a latent negative photographic image by chemical development and realised that from this single image he would be would be able to created a theoretically infinite number of identical copies using his salt paper print processes ‘to return the shadows and lights to their correct disposition.’ Only today is Talbot’s negative-positive process being replaced by digital imaging technologies within the field of the graphic arts.

Talbot’s genius lay in his ability to bring together the results of his discoveries with the work of a number of the earlier proto-photographic pioneers, pharmacists, chemists and physicists including Beccarius, Kircher, Scheele, Schultze, Wedgwood, Davy, Herschel, Fischer, Suckow and others.

Later in 1842 Talbot proposed the use of the telephoto lens, the electronic flash, infrared photography, and photo typesetting. His later discoveries laid the foundation for photogravure printing technology. From Talbot’s extensive notes, we can see that by 1843 he had already observed, noted, and employed many of the techniques which now form an integral part of contemporary photographic studio and darkroom practice: the law governing reciprocity failure, image reversal, highlight masking, pin registration, the use of reflectors and black flags, and, pseudo-solarization.

The Pencil of Nature and the Reading Establishment Between 1844-1847 Talbot produced his The Pencil of Nature, the first photographically illustrated book, published in six parts. The photographic (salt paper) prints used to illustrate the work were produced by the Reading Establishment, the world’s first photographic developing and printing facility, which Talbot set up at Reading in Berkshire, half way between Lacock and London under the management of his former assistant and valet Nicolaas Henneman. Over this three-year period, the Reading Establishment produced somewhere between 30-50,000 prints.

Based upon the early experiments and findings of Ponton and Bequerel, Talbot discovered the light sensitive properties of dichromated gelatine. This compound possesses the property of being able to act as a proportional resist to the action, first of all platinium chloride on steel and later, the action of ferric chloride on copper. These experiments formed the basis of his two principal photogravure patents dated October 29 1852 and April 21 1858. In doing so Talbot establishes the founding principle upon which the later named Talbot-Klîc process of photogravure was based.

Assyrology and Chaldean Studies In tandem, Talbot actively participated in a programme of study, which continued for the rest of his life, relating to the rediscovery of the great Assyrian civilisation after millennia of obscurity. Working in conjunction with Sir Henry Rawlinson, Sir Edward Hinks, Edwin Norris, Jules Oppert and others Talbot made important contributions to the corpus of academic work and research through publications, academic journals and privately printed papers including: Notes on Assyrian Inscriptions. From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature, Weaver lists 15 published papers and articles by written by Talbot on the subject between 1850-1866.

Final decade Then, between 1866 and 1877 Talbot originates 48 papers and articles which were published in Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archeology and in the Royal Asiatic Society’s publications Transactions and Records of the Past. Although no longer working on the cutting edge of mathematics as he had been in his youth, nevertheless, after 1861 Talbot continued to research and publish several additional mathematical papers. His last published botanical work dated 1866 was titled: ‘Note on Vellozia elegans, from the Cape of Good Hope.

On September 17, 1877: at the age of 77 Talbot passed quietly away in his sleep, whilst still working on the last section of a three-part appendix for a translation of Gaston Tissandier’s History of Photography, edited by John Thomson. In an anonymous obituary published in Nature on October 18, 1877, the author observed that: “Orientalists will call to mind that Talbot was one of the first who, with Sir Henry Rawlinson and Dr [Edward] Hincks, deciphered the cuneiform inscriptions bought from Nineveh. He was the author of several books of much interest and learning, and in his Pencil of Nature, a fine quarto published in 1844, and probably the first work illustrated by photographs, he describes the origin and progress of the conception which culminated in his invention: — Photography.”

Michael Gray 2005