William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)


The following is reproduced from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Talbot, William Henry Fox (1800–1877), pioneer of photography, was born on 11 February 1800 at Melbury, Dorset, the only child of William Davenport Talbot (1764–1800), army officer, of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, and Elisabeth Theresa (1773–1846), eldest child of Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways, second earl of Ilchester (1747–1802), and his wife, Mary Theresa (d. 1790). The father died when his son was five months old, leaving an estate in ruinous condition and forcing the boy and his mother to live in a succession of family homes. Then, in 1804, Lady Elisabeth married Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Charles Feilding (1780–1837) and the boy effectively gained a real father. Two half-sisters, Caroline Augusta Feilding (1808–1881; later Lady Mount Edgcumbe) and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding (1810–1851; later Horatia Gaisford) became close and both exerted artistic influence on him. His extensive family connections provided him access to élite circles in science and politics, and Caroline’s later position as lady-in-waiting to the queen strengthened his royal contacts. Although referred to as Fox Talbot by some of his contemporaries and many later writers, Talbot strongly disliked this use of the family name, almost always signing Henry F. Talbot or H. F. Talbot.

The brilliant student

Lady Elisabeth’s firm management restored the Lacock Abbey estate before Talbot attained his majority. He was a brilliant student and eager to learn, but was painfully shy and reclusive by nature. His mother’s facility with foreign languages was reflected in his later philological and translation work. Her propensity for travel abroad diversified his education and contacts, and the intense interest in botanical studies and gardening throughout her family inspired his lifelong involvement in botany. Following his initial tutoring at home and in Sussex, he was accepted at Harrow School in 1811. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1817, becoming a scholar in 1819. In 1820 he won the Porson university prize in Greek verse. In 1821 he became twelfth wrangler and won the second chancellor’s classical medal before securing his BA. He proceeded MA in 1825. On 20 December 1832 Talbot married Constance Mundy (1811–1880) of Markeaton in Derbyshire. Almost simultaneously, he was elected to parliament as the reform candidate for Chippenham.

By the time he met John Herschel in Munich in 1824, Talbot had already published six papers in mathematics. This chance meeting established a friendship and a scientific collaboration crucial to Talbot’s later success, and probably influenced Talbot’s turn towards research into light and optical phenomena. In 1826 Herschel introduced him to the Scottish natural philosopher David Brewster; Brewster’s and Talbot’s researches on light frequently overlapped, Brewster began publishing Talbot’s scientific articles in his journal, and the two men forged an unusually close and lifelong friendship. In 1831 Talbot was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

The concept of photography

Talbot had his most famous intellectual breakthrough in October 1833, on the Italian shores of Lake Como, when he found himself in the frustrating position of being unable to sketch the scenery. As he stated in the introduction to his 1844 The Pencil of Nature, the camera lucida (a drawing instrument unrelated to photography) was no help, ‘for when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all had looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold’. A decade before, also in Italy, he had tried to sketch using the common artist’s tool, the camera obscura, but with no better success. This led him 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 … 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.”

Thus was the concept of photography born.Talbot possessed no facilities for experimenting while travelling and was immediately plunged back into parliamentary duties on his return to England. At Lacock Abbey, some time later in spring 1834, he began to turn his dream into reality. By coating ordinary writing paper with alternate washes of table salt and silver nitrate, he embedded a light-sensitive silver chloride in the fibres of the paper. Placed in the sun under an opaque object such as a leaf, the paper would darken where not defended from light, producing a photographic silhouette. He called the resulting negatives (a term devised later, by Sir John Herschel) ‘sciagraphs’—drawings of shadows. He continued his researches in Geneva during the autumn. Unable at this stage to use his paper in the camera, he asked an unidentified artist friend to scratch a landscape design into opaque varnish coated on glass. Using this as a negative, he then made multiple copies on his photographic paper, originating the artistic technique later known as cliché-verre. It was also in Geneva that Talbot first mentioned stabilizing his images against the further action of light by washing them with potassium iodide—a process now called fixing (again, Herschel’s term). Another method of fixing, probably noticed by Talbot even before Geneva, was based on his observation that the edges of his paper sometimes darkened at a different rate than the centre. Tracing this to different proportions of salt and silver, he concluded that a strong solution of table salt defended the image against further action of light.

Encouraged by the ‘brilliant summer’ of 1835, Talbot laboured to increase the sensitivity of his coatings sufficiently to make camera negatives practical. He realized that his negatives could themselves be printed on sensitive paper, reversing the tones back to normal, and allowing the production of multiple prints from one negative. While his cameras at this stage were small, crude, wooden boxes, left about the grounds of Lacock Abbey for long exposures (leading Constance to christen them ‘mousetraps’), the fundamental concepts of permanent negative–positive photography were all within Talbot’s grasp two years after his initial frustration at Lake Como. By the end of 1835, although he had already achieved a high degree of success, he desired to improve matters further before publication, and the knowledge of his discovery remained within his family. During the following three years, he was fully engaged in other optical studies and in refining his mathematical works.

Although Talbot had little taste for politics, attending parliament faithfully but speaking infrequently, his 1835 retirement had not stopped his political life. In 1838, when the ‘Royal vegetable patch’ known as Kew Gardens was threatened with closure, he challenged the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He then galvanized the council of the Linnean Society to petition the Commons. Although carried through by others, it was largely Talbot’s initiative, born of strong personal convictions, that firmly established this treasure as a national collection. In 1836, because of his investigations of crystals, he was invited to give the Bakerian lecture to the Royal Society. In 1838 he received the Society’s royal medal for his work in mathematics. By the start of 1839 he had published nearly thirty scientific papers and two books, with two more to follow within the year.

Competition with Daguerre

During November 1838 Talbot finally returned to his photographic experiments and started drawing up a paper for presentation to the Royal Society. In a brutal shock just weeks later, word came from Paris in January 1839 that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had frozen the images of the camera obscura. With no details disclosed, Talbot was faced with the possible loss of his discovery if Daguerre’s method proved identical to his. In the gloomy light of an English winter, he could not demonstrate his own process, but on 25 January, Michael Faraday displayed some of Talbot’s still-preserved 1835 examples at the Royal Institution. On 31 January, Talbot’s ‘Some account of the art of photogenic drawing’ was read before the Royal Society. This hastily written but wide-ranging paper gave a new name to his process and explored many of its implications. Three weeks later, he detailed his working procedures before the Royal Society.

Daguerre’s method, disclosed seven months later, proved to be totally different from Talbot’s, but the damage was already done. Fervent support by the French government and singularly impressive early results gave the Frenchman an early lead. The year 1839 was unremittingly gloomy for the English inventor, both in the weather and in his own spirits. The Royal Society gave him little support, refusing to publish his work on photography in its Transactions (it was partially to atone for this with the 1842 award of the prestigious Rumford medal). Fortunately for Talbot the sun acquired unusual vigour early in 1840. Spurred on by the active experimenting of Herschel and the enthusiastic support of Brewster, Talbot succeeded by summer in producing a significant body of hauntingly beautiful photographs. The very process that he had invented also taught him to see, giving him for the first time the ability rapidly to translate the complex scenes of nature into monochrome renderings on paper. He was the first artist to be tutored by photography and, in turn, he became its first artist.

The image captured: the calotype

Talbot’s ‘photogenic drawings’ had been achieved by the direct action of light. When the negative was removed from the camera, the image was fully visible, but this required enormous solar energy and thus very long exposures. His continuing researches paid off in a series of brilliant observations in September 1840. He discovered that a very short exposure triggered an invisible effect in his silver paper. By employing a chemical developer he could build this latent image into a full-strength negative. Exposure times, previously measured in minutes or even hours, plunged to seconds. Publicly announcing this new process the following spring, Talbot called it ‘calotype photogenic drawing’; it was soon known as the calotype, or among his friends, the ‘Talbotype’. Responding to the urgings of his mother and of Brewster, he patented this process: it was a move that was to bring him endless trouble.

In June 1844 Talbot began selling his serial The Pencil of Nature, illustrated with original photographic prints and designed to demonstrate the potential of photographic publication. In 1845 he issued by subscription Sun Pictures in Scotland, illustrated with twenty-three original photographic prints. Another 6000 original prints were supplied to the Art-Union for inclusion in its 1846 volume. However, this all went wrong; when put to the test of mass production the difficulties of photographic publishing were brought to the fore. Each hand-coated sheet of paper was exposed under fickle sunlight, then fixed and washed, often with inadequate or contaminated water supplies. With so many variables affecting the quality of the print, insuring the stability of silver-based photographs proved impossible. Many of the plates began to fade, often to the derision of artists who had felt threatened by the new invention. When his mother died in 1846, Talbot lost both a demanding friend and the inspiration for many of these pioneering projects. The Pencil of Nature, a bold effort ahead of its time that had drawn praise from contemporary critics, was discontinued after twenty-four prints in six fascicles had been issued.

Other complications ensued. Of Talbot’s various patents, four were for motive power, two dealt with metallurgy, and six were concerned with aspects of photography. None of his patents was lucrative and the ones for photography began to cause him great anxiety. His motivations for patenting photography were complex, but arose in part from the tense competitive circumstances of 1839. Whereas Daguerre received lavish French government support and public recognition, Talbot was all but ignored by his own government. He had freely published photogenic drawing, but received little recognition. While the terms he set for the calotype patent were generous, it undoubtedly limited the spread of photography on paper in the 1840s, at a time when resentment against patents in general was widespread. Scott Archer’s 1851 wet collodion process produced a glass negative by bringing out a latent image in a chemical developer, but Talbot felt that its conceptual basis lay in his original invention, and should be covered by his patent. Meanwhile, wealthy amateurs, interested in forming a photographic society, viewed Talbot’s patent as an impediment. He was persuaded by 1852 to relinquish all coverage save for the commercial production of portraits, but still this proved insufficient: he was savagely (and generally unfairly) attacked in print. Even Talbot’s priority of invention was contested, with implications that he had appropriated others’ work. When tested in court in December 1854, in spite of affidavits by Sir John Herschel and Sir David Brewster, Talbot’s patent was disallowed. The court recognized him as the true inventor of photography but ruled that newer processes were outside his patent. The acrimonious proceedings had stained Talbot’s reputation so severely that the prejudices raised continue to surface in historical literature.

The image made permanent: photographic engraving

This ruling came as a great personal blow to Talbot, adding to the chronic ill health that dogged him in the closing years of the 1840s. Removed from further experimenting, he ceased to take original photographs. However, as his health began to recover in the 1850s, Talbot proved far from discouraged, as he began building on experiments dating from the very beginnings of his photographic researches. Finally accepting that silver images could never be made truly permanent, he sought a way to realize his photographic images in time-proven printers’ methods. In 1852 he patented his ‘photographic engraving’ process, which produced an intaglio plate that could be printed by conventional methods—the final rendering of the photographic image was in stable printer’s ink. Spending more time resident in Edinburgh, he was able to draw on its innovative printing industry. By 1858 he had evolved a much improved process which he called ‘photoglyphic engraving’ and a second patent was granted. These were direct ancestors of the modern photogravure process, and while they did not succeed commercially within his lifetime, Talbot was on absolutely the right track in this pursuit. Into the twentieth century, far more photographs were seen rendered in ink than in silver. He continued to perfect these processes until the end of his life, finally spending more time on photomechanical printing than he ever had on photography. The 1862 International Exhibition in London awarded him a prize medal for photoglyphic engraving.

Talbot remained intellectually active throughout his life. In later years, in addition to his work on photoglyphic engraving, he turned increasingly to studies of the Assyrian cuneiform, publishing many important translations. After many years of heart disease he died in his study at Lacock Abbey on 17 September 1877; he was buried at Lacock. In a manuscript biography preserved at Lacock Abbey, Talbot’s son concluded that his father’s ‘mind was essentially original … he disliked laborious application in beaten paths’. In 1863 University of Edinburgh celebrated this intellectual diversity by awarding Talbot an honorary doctor of laws degree ‘because of his pre-eminence in literature and science, and the benefits his discoveries have conferred upon society’. (In the same ceremony Lord Palmerston, in whose reform parliament Talbot had served, was honoured). The inventor’s name is preserved in various scientific fields: in mathematics, there is Talbot’s curve; in physics Talbot’s law and the Talbot (a unit of luminous energy); in botany two species are named after him; in astronomy a crater of the moon is named after him; and there is the persistent testimony of an art that has become so pervasive in society that its products are sometimes as invisible to us as are his latent images.

In his lifetime, Talbot had published seven books and nearly sixty scientific and mathematical articles. He left extensive archives of photographs, correspondence, manuscripts, and research notes, which his son, Charles Henry, inherited along with Lacock Abbey. On his death, he gave the abbey and its contents to his niece, Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871–1958), the daughter of Talbot’s third daughter, Matilda Caroline. The niece changed her surname to Talbot and actively managed the abbey and the village. In the 1930s she made extensive efforts to ensure that her grandfather’s work (especially that in photography) would be preserved, and generously distributed examples worldwide. In 1944 she presented Lacock Abbey to the National Trust. The family continued this generosity by donating their entire deposit in the Fox Talbot Museum to the British Library in 2005. Since 2003 Talbot’s correspondence (more than 10,000 letters) has been available online (www.foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk).

Larry J. Schaaf


H. J. P. Arnold, William Henry Fox Talbot: pioneer of photography and man of science (1977) · L. J. Schaaf, Out of the shadows: Herschel, Talbot, and the invention of photography (1992) · M. Weaver, Henry Fox Talbot, selected texts and bibliography (1992) · L. J. Schaaf, Records of the dawn of photography: Talbot’s notebooks P and Q (1996) · G. Buckland, Fox Talbot and the invention of photography (1980) · L. J. Schaaf, The photographic art of William Henry Fox Talbot (2000) · Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, Talbot MSS · d. cert.


Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, corresp. and papers · J. Paul Getty Museum, California · National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, prints and negatives · National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, Royal Photographic Society collection · NL Wales, botanical notes · NRA, corresp. · Sci. Mus., corresp. and papers · Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC | BL, letters to Charles Babbage, Add. MSS 37186–37201, passim · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Thomas Phillipps · RBG Kew, library, letters to Sir William Hooker · Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, letters to Sir William Grove · RS, corresp. with Sir John Herschel; letters to Sir John Lubbock · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., letters to Sir Walter Trevelyan · U. St Andr. L., corresp. with James David Forbes


daguerreotype, c.1840–1849, Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire · R. Beard, daguerreotype, c.1842, Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire · C. R. Jones, daguerreotype, c.1845, Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire · A. Claudet, daguerreotype, 1846, Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire [see illus.] · J. Moffat, photograph, 1864, Sci. Mus. · daguerreotype, Sci. Mus. · silhouette (as a child), H. P. Kraus Junior, New York

Wealth at death

under £12,000: probate, 8 Nov 1877, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

The portrait of Talbot is a daguerreotype by Antoine Claudet, ca. 1845, now in the Fox Talbot Collection in the British Library, London.,

Oxford University Press, © Oxford University Press, 2004-2017


• Questions or Comments? Please contact digitalsupport@bodleian.ox.ac.uk • Antoine Claudet, William Henry Fox Talbot, daguerreotype, ca. 1843, Fox Talbot Collection, The British Library, London.