If your calendar pages start with Sundays, this week began with Henry Talbot’s first paper on photography being read to the Royal Society on 31 January [1839]. Last week we saw some examples of the types of photographs that Talbot exhibited at the Royal Institution on 25 January, the first photographic exhibition in Britain and the first known exhibition of photographs on paper anywhere in the world. There was neither the opportunity nor the time for a text for this exhibition and we must piece together Talbot’s later comments and the sparse reactions that were published at the time to get a sense of it. This week we have a hastily-written but fascinating seminal text to examine:


As we have seen, when Talbot learned about the existence of Daguerre’s process in mid-January, he felt that he had been “placed in a very unusual dilemma (scarcely to be paralleled in the annals of science): for I was threatened with the loss of all my labour, in case M. Daguerre’s process proved to be identical with mine, and in case he published it at Paris before I had time to do so in London.” His paper for the Royal Society was intended to put on record his own priority for his own process. ‘Some Account’ was a non-technical survey, revealing no specific manipulatory details, designed to stimulate interest. It was a report of work in progress, offering “to lovers of science and nature” a brief outline of the possibilities of the new art. Happily, his original manuscript for this paper has been preserved intact in the Archives of The Royal Society.

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Just the day before in a letter to The Literary Gazette, Talbot lamented that he could not “help thinking that a very singular chance (or mischance) has happened to myself, viz. that after having devoted much labour and attention to the perfecting of this invention, and having now brought it, as I think, to a point in which it deserves the notice of the scientific world, – that exactly at the moment when I was engaged in drawing up an account of it, to be presented to the Royal Society, the same invention should be announced in France.” Had Talbot in fact been engaged in drawing up his memoir before Daguerre’s announcement? This is the only occasion on which he made this claim, but there is no reason to doubt it, for he could have written it up in 1834 or 1835 had he chosen to. As it is, the earliest datable documentation that we have is his draft of 18 January.


This is typical of surviving early drafts of his papers, including contractions and emendments. As many writers do, he drew up a rough outline of his thoughts, starting with reference to Humphry Davy’s 1802 publication of the attempts of his friend, Thomas Wedgwood:


Davy had lamented “that all experiments had proved unsuccessful” in identifying a fixer, and Talbot said that “such a statement was calculated materially to discourage further inquiry,” but that he was unaware of Wedgwood’s work when he commenced his investigation. Talbot hinted at the path he had taken: “The nitrate of silver, which has become black by the action of light, is no longer the same chemical substance that it was before. Consequently, if a picture produced by solar light is subjected afterwards to any chemical process, the white and dark parts of it will be differently acted upon … and therefore our object will be accomplished.” Deeply influenced by his longtime friend, Sir John Herschel, Talbot credited his advances to the power of inductive reasoning.

Being written in a hurry and under distress, Talbot’s prose in this paper was not as fluid as was typical. You can read the entire printed text for yourself (and I recommend doing so) . To me, the most revealing part is his section On the Art of Fixing a Shadow, where he lets his guard down and allows his enthusiasm to show His new art “appears to me to partake of the character of the marvelous … the most transitory of things, a shadow, the proverbial emblem of all that is fleeting and momentary, may be fettered by the spells of our ‘natural magic’ and may be fixed for ever in the position which it seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy … such is the fact, that we may receive on paper the fleeting shadow, arrest it there, and in the space of a single minute fix it there so firmly as to be no more capable of change, even if thrown back into the sunbeam from which it derived its origin.”

Talbot recalled his earliest efforts where he “spread on a sheet of paper a sufficient quantity of the nitrate of silver, and then to set the paper in the sunshine, having first placed before it some object casting a well-defined shadow.” Thus, Talbot revealed that he had tamed the halide that had frustrated previous potential inventors, at least for photograms, and most critically he staked out paper as his medium. Under Effect and Appearance of these Images Talbot described the “variously and pleasingly coloured” results produced by various chemical manipulations.

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His First Applications of this Process “were flowers and leaves … these it renders with the utmost truth and fidelity…. It is so natural to associate the idea of labour with great complexity and elaborate detail of execution, that one is more struck at seeing the thousand florets of an Agrostis depicted … than one is by the picture of the large and simple leaf of an oak or a chestnut. But in truth the difficulty is in both cases the same. The one of these takes no more time to execute than the other; for the object which would take the most skilful artist days or weeks of labour to trace or to copy, is effected by the boundless powers of natural chemistry in the space of a few seconds.”

Photogenic drawing was a print-out process, too slow to capture pictures of people in a camera, but Talbot did suggest “outline portraits, or silhouettes now often traced by the hand from shadows projected by a candle … this manual process cannot be compared with the truth and fidelity with which the portrait is given by means of solar light.” Last week we saw an example of a copy of a painting on glass, and Talbot explains that “the glass itself, around the painting, should be blackened; such, for instance, as are often employed for the magic lantern.”


The solar microscope, with its great concentration of sunlight, was a natural tool for early experimenters, including Daguerre. Talbot thought this application “very important and likely to prove extensively useful” for “the objects which the microscope unfolds to our view, curious and wonderful as they are, are often singularly complicated. The eye, indeed, may comprehend the whole which is presented to it in the field of view; but the powers of the pencil fail to express these minutiae of nature in their innumerable details. What artist could have skill or patience enough to copy them?”

Talbot placed what he thought to be “perhaps the most curious application of this art” under the heading of Architecture, Landscape, and external Nature. “Every one is acquainted with the beautiful effects which are produced by a camera obscura and has admired the vivid picture of external nature which it displays … disposed at first to treat this notion as a scientific dream, yet when I had succeeded in fixing the images of the solar microscope by means of a peculiarly sensitive paper, there appeared no longer any doubt that an analogous process would succeed in copying the objects of external nature.” Obtaining weak results with an hour or two exposure in a conventionally sized camera, Talbot ” had several small boxes made, in which I fixed lenses of shorter focus, and with these I obtained very perfect but extremely small pictures; such as without great stretch of imagination might be supposed to be the work of some Lilliputian artist.” These, of course, were the so-called mousetrap cameras. He reflected on his own frustration that led to inventing photography: “To the traveller in distant lands, who is ignorant, as too many unfortunately are, of the art of drawing, this little invention may prove of real service; and even to the artist himself, however skilful he may be.”

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The last section of the paper dealt with the Copying of Engravings. Importantly for the future of photography, Talbot noted that “the lights and shadows are reversed … but if the picture so obtained is first preserved so as to bear sunshine, it may be afterwards itself employed as an object to be copied; and by means of this second process the lights and shadows are brought back to their original disposition … I propose to employ this for the purpose more particularly of multiplying at small expense copies of such rare or unique engravings as it would not be worth while to re-engrave, from the limited demand for them.” This was the ‘double method’ outlined in his draft above. The ability to make multiple repeatable prints from the as yet unnamed negative would define the central path of analogue photography right down to the present.

As soon as possible after the reading, the Athenaeum called special attention to their report of the Royal Society meeting, noting the “obvious difference…between the process of M. Daguerre and Mr. Talbot,” in that “the former employs metal plates, whereas the latter uses prepared paper. There can be no question as to the superior advantages of the latter; for it would be most inconvenient, if not wholly impracticable, for the traveller to carry about with him several hundred metal plates.” Daguerre received immediate and sustained support from the French scientific community, deservedly so, but poor Talbot had to contend with a Royal Society that had become quite dysfunctional. One would think that with a new invention like this presented by a respected Fellow of the Society that publication would be uncontroversial, indeed embraced. But that was not to be the case.

Sir John Herschel attended the Council meeting where Talbot’s paper was discussed. Because of concerns that Talbot had not yet fully revealed his working methods, the Council postponing publication until “it could appear in complete form.” Herschel had objected to this treatment and suggested that the paper be published in full in the Society’s Weekly Notice, insuring the “speediest circulation of its contents in the scientific world,” without prejudicing later publication in the prestigious Transactions. But the Council was intransigent and Talbot had a dual dilemma. He wanted to put his own method on record in case it differed from Daguerre’s. And he was concerned that if he published his full working details that Daguerre (who he did not know) might include it in his claim. On 5 February, he wrote to Peter Mark Roget, the secretary of the Society, explaining that he was delaying separate publication until he could confirm that it should carry the label “taken from the Transactions.” Roget’s reply was discouraging. Remaining confident that the Society would do the right thing, Talbot gave the Athenaeum the go-ahead to publish the full text, which they did on 9 February.


Five days later, the Council resolved that “as it appears that since the last meeting of the Council, the paper by Mr. H. F. Talbot lately read to the Society…has been published verbatim in the Athenaeum weekly newspaper, the Council do not deem it expedient that it should be republished in the Proceedings of the Society.” In the end, the Society never published his full paper, only a short synopsis later in the Proceedings.

Throughout this tangled process, Talbot had remained so optimistic that he had instructed the Society’s printer to set his paper in type for the quarto page of the Philosophical Transactions. Deeply disappointed and hurt by the Council’s confusion and indifference, Talbot took matters into his own hands. He ‘re-purposed’ the typesetting and placed an order for 250 copies of the paper to be published privately.


Thus was born the first separate publication on photography. Many of the 250 original copies have survived and are now treasured holdings in libraries and public and private collections. In 2001, The British Library paid £50,000 to add a copy to their collection – their press release at the time was titled “One of the most influential works of the 19th century.” The Royal Society recently had their unique original manuscript valued at £800,000. Time has vindicated Talbot’s vision but actually it was not long before the Royal Society re-considered their early 1839 treatment of him. Prior to photography, he had received medals from them for his work on crystals and for mathematics. Finally in 1842, The Royal Society awarded Talbot the prestigious Rumford Medal “for his discoveries and Improvements in Photography.”

Returning to 1839, in the middle of all this turmoil, Sir David Brewster encouraged Talbot to continue perfecting his process, advising him “to keep it perfectly secret till you find you cannot advance farther in the matter, and then it would be advisable to secure your right by a Patent … a Patent would give a more fixed character to your priority as an Inventor.” As much as Talbot respected the opinions of his old Scottish friend, he decided not to follow either of these suggestions. Three week’s later he freely published the details how to work his photogenic process, fully half a year before Daguerre’s disclosure. We’ll take up that topic shortly.

Dr Michael Pritchard kindly drew my attention to this recent YouTube video, the first part of which examines the original manuscript in the Archives of The Royal Society.

manicule-blog- f9f5eeWarning: the selfie portion starting at 2:16 is not safe for viewing by conservators.

Larry J Schaaf


Questions or Comments? Please contact digitalsupport@bodleian.ox.ac.uk • Archives of The Royal Society, AP/23/19/1, image ©The Royal Society. • WHFT, “Photogenic Drawing,” letter to the editor dated 30 January 1839, The Literary Gazette, no. 1150, 2 February 1839, pp. 72-74, Talbot Correspondence Document 03782. • WHFT’s 18 January 1839 draft is in the Talbot Collection, National Media Museum, Bradford. • The pdf of Talbot’s paper is from a copy in the Photographic History Collection, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. • For the influence of inductive reasoning, see Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (London: Longman, Rees, Ormé, Brown, & Green, 1830). • WHFT, letter of 8 April 1839 to the editor of The Literary Gazette, no. 1160, 13 April 1839, pp. 235-236; • WHFT, Solitary Leaf, photogenic drawing negative, Thomas Walther Collection, courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr, Inc, 301451.738, Schaaf 4268. • WHFT, Delicate Botanical Specimen, photogenic drawing negative, Talbot Collection, The British Library, London, LA2106: Schaaf 860. • Brewster to Talbot, 4 February 1839, Doc. no. 03789. • WHFT, Photomicrograph of a plant stem, salt print from a photogenic drawing negative, J Paul Getty Museum, 84.XO.968:14, Schaaf 1487.• WHFT, Looking Up to the Summit of Sharington’s Tower at Lacock Abbey, photogenic drawing camera negative, summer 1835? George Eastman Museum, 74:0047:32; Schaaf 1662. WHFT, Copy of the Celebrated Inscriptions of Ancient Eugubine Tablets, salt print from a paper negative, Auckland Institute and Museum, New Zealand, Tr395T142(3), Schaaf 1557. • The Athenaeum, no. 588, 2 February 1839, pp. 97-98. • Herschel to WHFT, 10 February 1839, Doc. no. 03801. • WHFT to Peter Mark Roget, 5 February 1839, Doc. no. 03791. • Proceedings, v. 4 no. 36, 31 January 1839, pp. 120-121. • “According to our promise, we this day publish in full Mr. Fox Talbot’s interesting paper ‘On Photogenic Drawing’ ; The Athenaeum, no. 589, 9 February 1839, pp. 114-116. • Rough Minutes of Council, R.S., Dec. 8: 1836 to Nov. 11: 1841; Archives of the Royal Society of London. • Manuscript account book of R & E Taylor, the printers for the Royal Society who handled Talbot’s private commission; St Bride Printing Library, London. • WHFT, 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. (London: printed by R. and J.E. Taylor, 1839).