TALBOT, William Henry Fox

b. 11 February 1800; d. 17 September 1877

His signature is Henry Talbot, and though he is said to have disliked being called Fox Talbot, that name has stuck.

Though Fox Talbot was not the first to produce photographs, he made a major contribution to the photographic process as we know it today.

Talbot studied the classics and mathematics at Cambridge, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1822, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1832. He was also an MP, Biblical scholar, a Botanist and Assyriologist, making a contribution to the deciphering of cuneiform inscriptions brought to England from Nineveh.

Though some of his pictures show a measure of artistic taste, it was his inability to draw which caused him to experiment with a mechanical method of capturing and retaining an image. Talbot attempted to draw with the aid of both a camera obscura and a camera lucida when producing his sketches, one of which was Villa Melzi. Later he wrote:

"(In) October, 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como in Italy, taking sketches with a Camera Lucida, or rather, I should say, attempting to make them; but with the smallest possible amount of success...

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 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 on the paper!"

The earliest surviving paper negative is of the now famous Oriel window in the South Gallery at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, where he lived. It is dated August 1835. Talbot's comments read "When first made, the squares of glass about 200 in number could be counted, with help of a lens."

Talbot described how he took his pictures:

"Not having with me... a camera obscura of any considerable size, I constructed one out of a large box, the image being thrown upon one end of it by a good object-glass fixed at the opposite end. The apparatus being armed with a sensitive paper, was taken out in a summar afternoon, and placed about one hundred yards from a building favourably illuminated by the sun. An or so afterwards I opened the box and I found depicted upon the paper a very distinct representation of the building, with the exception of those parts of it which lay in the shade. A little experience in this branch of the art showed me that with a smaller camera obscura the effect would be produced in a smaller time. Accordingly I had several small boxes made, in which I fixed lenses of shorter focus, and with these I obtained very perfect, but extremely small pictures..."

These "little boxes", measuring two or three inches, were named "mousetraps" by the family at Lacock, because of the various places they were to be found.

January 1839 was a busy month as far as announcements of discoveries were concerned. On 7 January Daguerre announced the development of his process. A few days later Talbot wrote to Arago, who had promoted Daguerre's invention, suggesting that it was he, not Daguerre, who had invented the photographic process. (At that time he was unaware that the process was entirely different). One of Arago's fellow-scientists replied that Daguerre had, in fact, devised a number of processes over fourteen years.

Doubtless annoyed that Daguerre had been put in the lime-light he felt he himself deserved, Talbot began to publicise his own process. On 25 January 1839 he announced the discovery at the Royal Institution of a method of "photogenic drawing."

At the time the sensitivity of the process was extremely poor. Then, in September 1840 Fox Talbot discovered the phenomenon of the latent image. It is said that this was a chance discovery, when he attempted to re-sensitise some paper which had failed to work in previous experiments; as the chemical was applied, an image, previously invisible, began to appear. This was a major breakthrough which led to drastically lowered exposure times - from one hour or so to 1-3 minutes. Talbot he called the improved version the calotype (from the Greek "Kalos", meaning beautiful) and on 31 January he gave a paper to the Royal Society of London. The paper was entitled "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."

Talbot patented his invention on 8 February 1841, an act which considerably arrested the development of photography at the time. The patent (a separate one being taken out for France) applied to England and Wales. Talbot chose not to extend his patent to Scotland, and this paved the way for some outstanding photographs to be produced in Edinburgh by Hill and Adamson.

In 1844 Talbot began issuing a book entitled "The Pencil of Nature", the first commercial book to be illustrated with actual photographs.* In order to produce these prints, he helped his former valet, Nicolaas Henneman to set up the Reading Establishment, a photographic processing studio within relatively easy reach of both London and Lacock. This however lasted only four years, as it was not a financial success.

Talbot's process in general never reached the popularity of the daguerreotype process, partly because the latter produced such amazing detail, but partly because Talbot asked so much for the rights to use his process. A writer of the time, Henry Snelling, commented:

"He is a man of some wealth, I believe, but he demands so high a price for a single right.... that none can be found who have the temerity to purchase."

Consequently calotypes never flourished as they might have, and the fault must lie largely with him.

The newly formed Calotype club sought unsuccessfully to persuade Talbot to relax his restrictions in order to encourage the growth of photography. It is claimed that Talbot, somewhat put out by the fact that Daguerre had received many honours whilst he had been given none, was reacting accordingly.

Sadly Talbot's name was somewhat tarnished by his series of attempts to enforce his patent. A claim in 1854 that the Collodion process was also covered by his calotype patent. was lost in court, and from then onwards, knowing that the faster and better collodion process was free for all to use, there were no further restrictions and photography began to take off in a big way.

Having said this, there exists some evidence that there had been a concerted attempt to discredit Talbot in order to overturn the patent. Talbot increasingly viewed the defence of his calotype patent as a defence of Henneman, who had invested heavily in setting up the Reading Establishment . Talbot was enormously loyal to Henneman, and concerned about profit being made at his expense It is possible, therefore, that history has been a little too harsh on Fox Talbot. He too had spent a considerable amount of money developing his invention, and it has been suggested that his enforcement of patents was more due to his careful upbringing as far as finances were concerned than his desire to make a fortune. Other documents, particularly relating to the early days of the Photographic Society, reveal him to be far more magnanimous and generous than is commonly supposed. (See Talbot and patents.)

Talbot summarised his achievement thus:

"I do not profess to have perfected an art but to have commenced one, the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain. I only claim to have based this art on a secure foundation."

The Royal Photographic Society has two complete sets of the limited edition of "Pencil of Nature", together with many of Fox Talbot's letters, books and documents.

August 1999: A new web-site led by Professor Larry J. Schaaf is the definitive site on this remarkable inventor. It is part of a three year project, and is a must for any student of Talbot. It is located at http://www.foxtalbot.arts.gla.ac.uk/

PS On a lighter note, in a discussion on Talbots' name, someone came up with what must be the definitive answer: "He was called Fox because he was a particularly cunning animal, and finally outran the Dag-hare!"

* However, see also Atkins.

© Robert Leggat, 2006