Wednesday brought us the 179th anniversary of Henry Talbot’s first paper on photography Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, read before the members of London’s Royal Society on 31 January 1839. The gods celebrated appropriately this week by producing the ‘Super Blood Moon’, an astronomical event that surely would have fascinated Henry.
Today, in the first of what I hope to continue as a series by various contributors, Roger Watson examines some of the physical underpinnings of Talbot’s photographs. Our Advisory Board member and the Curator of the Fox Talbot Museum, Roger starts with Talbot’s cameras, a subject that frequently fills my mailbox with queries.

Guest post by Roger Watson

Sometime on the afternoon of 5 October 1833, the idea of photography took shape in Henry Talbot’s mind. From that moment, Talbot’s goal was to get Nature to do his sketching. As he later related in The Pencil of Nature, thinking about the camera obscura he had previously attempted to draw with, he hoped “to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper.” Talbot’s long experience in optics and his previous use of a camera obscura gave him insight into the optical requirements for bringing photography into being. His chemistry insufficiently sensitive at first, he temporarily resorted to contact negatives of objects such as leaves and lace. These possessed their own beauty and created their own sense of wonder and I am sure that he placed certain ones in the highest ranks of what he produced, as we rightly do today. But camera images continue to fascinate. Frustratingly, Talbot wrote very little about his cameras and most of his equipment was dispersed long ago.

In 2008, I began touring the various collections known to hold examples of Talbot’s scientific equipment, including cameras. My inspiration was photographs taken by earlier admirers of Talbot’s work. My primary guides were two vintage photographs. The most complete is Catharine Weed Ward’s 1905 staging of seventeen cameras and three camera stands in the Cloister Garth at Lacock Abbey. Also, sometime In the early 20th century, Herbert Lambert, a close friend of Matilda Talbot, photographed a number of Talbot’s cameras. Combined, these pictures revealed more than twenty distinct cameras ranging from the crude little wooden boxes cobbled together at Lacock to high-quality cameras crafted by scientific instrument makers in London and Paris. All played a role in Talbot’s progress.

We will never find all of these. Talbot undoubtedly cannibalized some of his cameras to make new ones, transferring lenses and other fittings. His son Charles Henry took up photography later, adopting and adapting some of his father’s old equipment. We will never know how many of the cameras were destroyed or discarded or given to relatives and visitors to Lacock Abbey. The organised dispersals began when Henry’s granddaughter Matilda Talbot sought to bring her grandfather’s legacy to wider attention through donations to organizations and museums. That is how thousands of photographs and various other items left the Abbey, including most of the cameras. In 1921, The Royal Photographic Society was the first and took five of Talbot’s cameras. The South Kensington Museum (now the National Science and Media Museum) took fifteen of the remaining cameras. The Royal Scottish Museum (now the Museum of Scotland) took their share as well including seven cameras and most of the best pieces of scientific instruments that Henry had amassed over the years. A few pieces went elsewhere at later dates but the majority went to these three institutions.

Let us start with the three camera obscuras that we know Talbot had at his disposal at Lacock . The oldest carries the name of John Talbot written in ink on the top, probably not his father but rather the ancestor who lived from 1691-1772. In common with each other, these three had poor quality lenses with a sharpness barely suitable for drawing. Even with their wide aperture they could not pass enough light to expose his photogenic papers in a reasonable amount of time. The best lenses that Talbot would have had in his possession were those used in his scientific instruments. Each of the three institutions listed above took away one camera obscura for their collections

By the summer of 1835 Talbot was using several homemade box cameras (‘mousetraps’, as Constance once styled them), barely crowding an outstretched hand, which have traditionally been credited to either Joseph Foden or John Gale, both carpenters living and working in Lacock. Some are so crude that no self-respecting carpenter would have let anybody see them which makes me think that they were cobbled together from various boxes found in the Abbey, either by Talbot himself or by one of the servants.

One has a useless hinge in one side and a hole patched with another piece of wood. Certainly this was a quickly thrown together piece, perhaps cut to size simply for testing a lens. The reasons for their diminutive size are easily explained. Henry’s understanding of light and optics meant he would have been aware that the greater the distance between the lens and the back of the camera, the less intense would be the light that reached the paper therefore requiring much longer exposures. And he already possessed numerous small lenses for his microscopes and as telescope objectives. These Lilliputian cameras allowed better optics and shorter focal lengths that would have supplied enough light to create his first camera images. There are six extant versions of these tiny box cameras and many modern replicas of the cameras. These are exacting copies made by the model makers at Kodak Harrow in 1949. The original cameras are in the Royal Photographic Society collection, now at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. One set of the replicas was sent to George Eastman House and a second set were kept for the Kodak Museum, now one of the collections of the Science Museum. The replicas included three mousetrap cameras, a medium sized box camera and a camera obscura.

The least known of Talbot’s cameras, and the ones most likely to be responsible for many of his photogenic drawing negatives and early calotypes, were the medium and large size box cameras constructed of pine, oak or whatever the carpenter had to hand. These were much better made than the mousetraps and the lenses were also made to order for them. These camera boxes are more likely the ones mentioned as having been made by Lacock carpenter, Joseph Foden.

There were variations in the functionality of the cameras such as a ratcheted rack on the side of one camera that allowed for it to be held in a variety of inclinations, sort of a built in adjustable camera stand. (camera W-001)

An unusually long camera was possibly used to make telephoto images such as the view from one tower at Orleans Cathedral to the other.

There were also variations to the camera backs from the most basic flat panel or door on which the sensitised paper would be pinned or stuck on with sealing wax to removable plate backs that allowed the paper to be loaded in the darkroom away from the camera. One camera, with an enormous lens on the front, had a concave plate holder to cup the sensitive paper in order to offset the curvature of field of the lens. This last camera was made to order by Andrew Ross, a London optician and scientific instrument maker. He made another for Henry Collen, Talbot’s first calotype licensee.

Amongst each of the collections I found cameras without backs and backs without cameras, not all of which could be matched up. At some future point I would like to get all of the materials together in one location for a fuller examination and to possibly match up the separated parts. There are others made by unknown camera makers including cameras for use with the wet collodion process. There are no extant daguerreotypes or wet collodion images attributed to Henry but he hints in letters at having attempted daguerreotypes and certainly sat for at least five daguerreotype portraits himself and owned one scenic view of Paris by Chevalier and a view of All Souls Church in London by the enigmatic daguerreotypist M Ste Croix who made daguerreotypes in London in September and October 1839 before being shut down by Daguerre’s patent agent.

The photographic cameras purchased by Henry included at least two whole plate Daguerreotype cameras, made under Daguerre’s license by Alphonse Giroux with Chevalier lenses. Talbot also owned the fuming box, mercury developing box and at least one box of plates. These were ordered from Giroux in October 1839, just a month after production began through Andrew Ross, a London scientific instrument maker and later a maker of cameras as well. There are a further three cameras that match the Giroux cameras but lack the plaque of authenticity signed by Daguerre that the originals always had – they are also made from more economical wood. These may be the ones referred to in a 5 December 1841 letter from Henry to Amélina Petit de Billier, saying “For the Calotype views, I use a camera obscura which I had sent from Paris, like the ones M. Daguerre had constructed. Good ones can be found at Lerebours, the Optician’s.” Noël Marie Paymal Lerebours (1807-1873) was an optician and later daguerreotypist in Paris. They appear to be the type used by Nicolaas Henneman shown in the iconic panoramic view of the Reading Establishment. However the evidence firmly attributing them to Reading is yet to be found.

The daguerreotype connection needs further exploration. Talbot certainly purchased all of the equipment necessary to make daguerreotypes, including plates, through his friend John William Lubbock in October 1839. With everything ready it seems unlikely that he didn’t at least try to make some daguerreotypes but as of this date none have been found. Perhaps he tried and never succeeded, which seems unlikely, although the daguerreotype process was known to be difficult without direct tuition from someone who knew the tricks of the process. A fine Lerebours half plate daguerreotype camera, a fuming box and several plate holders are in the RPS collection and several daguerreotype mercury developing boxes and assorted plate holders and fuming boxes for iodine or bromine, all for making daguerreotypes make up part of the Talbot holdings of the Science Museum and the National Museums of Scotland. It is possible that some of these items have found their way into the lists of Talbot derived objects by mistake. Record keeping has sometimes been lax at most institutions, but there is a definite connection between Talbot and the materials needed for making daguerreotypes.

The remaining four or five cameras are now in the British Library, the Bensusan Library in South Africa and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The British Library’s single camera had been in the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock until 2005 when the collection was moved to its new home in London. The Bensusan Library, now part of the Museum Africa in Johannesburg, purchased their camera(s) from Harold White who had worked with Matilda on the Talbot material for many years. I believe they have two or three but I have not been able to confirm this. The Smithsonian camera would have come from Matilda’s successors at Lacock Abbey, Col and Mrs Alexander Burnett-Brown when Eugene Ostroff of the Smithsonian came in the late 1960s to examine the photographs and letters of Henry Talbot and create the first tentative catalogue of his work.

At this time, I know that there are at least thirty cameras extant (not including later reproductions). Based on the turn of the century images of the cameras there appear to be at least five missing cameras. Whether lost, destroyed or simply in other collections is unknown.

If anybody knows of any of Talbot’s equipment that I might not have yet seen or recognised, I would be most pleased to hear about them.

Roger Watson


• Questions or Comments? Please contact digitalsupport@bodleian.ox.ac.uk • Jennifer Khordi, Super Blood Moon rising behind the Statue of Liberty, 31 January 2018. • Catherine Weed Ward, Cameras Outside Lacock Abbey, 1905, from the negative in the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY. • Camera Obscura for Drawing, 18th c, owned by John Talbot. Royal Photographic Society, RPS-4899 (previously number 1928-676 while it was on loan to the Science Museum). • ‘Mousetrap’ Camera with hinge and patch, The Science Museum, London, 1937-346. • Large Box Photographic Camera, with elevated stand and front hole for focusing and inspection, The Science Museum, London, 1937-343. • Telephoto? Camera, made by Kemp & Co, Edinburgh. National Museum of Scotland, T-1936.30. • Camera with Concave Plate Holder, made by Andrew Ross, London. Royal Photographic Society, RPS 4156.