On this day, June 24th in 1844, William Henry Fox Talbot upended centuries of tradition in book illustration. In issuing the opening fascicle of The Pencil of Nature, he took the first faltering but bold steps towards forever changing the way that we would produce and view books. This pioneering publication more than anything else demonstrated his far reaching vision and profound understanding of the implications of the art that he had conceived of on the shores of Lake Como in the autumn of 1833. Just eleven years later Henry Talbot had evolved from suffering as a frustrated draughtsman to being a publishing visionary. His influence on the world of books was to become so pervasive that most often we do not even perceive it today.
The Pencil of Nature has fared badly in the histories and it is widely misunderstood even to this day. Part of this stems from the received wisdom that the project was an abject failure, with fading plates presenting unimaginative and repetitive subjects leading to ever-dwindling sales. There are bits of truth in that narrative but only bits. Personally, I have always followed the lead of the late photohistorian Beaumont Newhall, who famously declared that The Pencil of Nature‘s “importance in the history of photography is comparable to that of the Gutenberg Bible in printing.” Today you can readily view a complete copy on Alan Griffiths’s wonderful website, Luminous Lint. Prior to the internet, however, access to original copies was so limited that most modern thinking about The Pencil of Nature was informed by Newhall’s 1968 Da Capo Press version of the book. As the first Director of the George Eastman House, Newhall began at least by 1949 to seek ways to make the book more publicly available. In 1956 he was planning to collaborate with his friend, the great photographer Ansel Adams, to produce a facsimile to be sold by subscription. A single maquette was produced the following year but sadly that project never came to fruition. Finally, in 1969, using letterpress supplied by Miss Matilda Talbot and bromide prints made by Harold White, the Da Capo version was published. The plates, although tipped in, were crudely printed in Japan and more seriously, Harold White’s collection of copy prints was controlled more by availability than by fidelity to the original. A number of the illustrations are similar to the published plates but not identical.
Let us pause to clarify a few things. The Pencil of Nature was published in six fascicles during the period of June 1844 to April 1846, containing a total of twenty-three original salt prints and one original photogenic drawing negative (printed directly from a piece of starched lace). All of the chromolithographed covers were imprinted 1844, although there are two variations of the printing stones. The intent was for everyone to receive identical prints but a couple of negatives were damaged during the course of production and substitutions were made. The fascicles were sold publicly by booksellers and thus there are no subscription lists (as there were for his Sun Pictures in Scotland). Production problems arose and many of the prints started fading in their customer’s hands. Talbot had originally laid out plans for fifty plates – more on that in a moment – but publication ceased after less than half that number. There is no single good copy anywhere in the world but the Census of complete and partial copies demonstrates just how widely the original publication was distributed. While it is entirely fair to judge The Pencil of Nature based on what was actually brought to publication and how it physically stood up to time, we should also consider the full range and implications of what Henry Talbot had conceived. His imagination has stood the test of time.
I saw my first original Pencil of Nature in 1969 when I was teaching photojournalism at The University of Texas at Austin. One of my students informed me about some ‘old pictures’ in the basement of the library – this was the Gernsheim Collection (before the impressive Humanities Research Center building was erected). Although many of the prints in Gernsheim’s original copy of The Pencil of Nature were faded, I saw through that to Talbot’s original image ideas and they were seductive. Newhall’s Da Capo book had just come out and I (as was he) was disappointed both in the loss of the splendid covers and in the poor quality of the halftones. Full of youthful enthusiasm untempered by reason, I decided to produce a limited edition facsimile of The Pencil of Nature in its original form of six fascicles, illustrated with salted paper prints that I would make from enhanced copy negatives taken from the Gernsheim originals. I had an 8×10 camera and the photographic skills. A friend had a letterpress and hand bookbinding experience.
Solar printing, me supervised by J.B. Colson and Russell Banks, ca. 1970, photo by Frank Armstrong
Today I am relieved that I never got very far with this project. While the Texas sun was brighter and more reliable than that available at Lacock Abbey or Reading, the Achilles heel of salt printing was inescapable. With modern chemicals and the advantage of hindsight perhaps I might have crafted more stable prints than those made by Henneman, but the delicate silver images would have always remained vulnerable. In the mid-1980s, my then-new friend Hans Kraus was skeptical of The Pencil of Nature until he saw Harold White’s ‘perfected’ copy with its intensified and hand-selected prints. We decided to produce a limited edition facsimile, bound in six fascicles, with photolithographed prints copied from the finest original prints that we could find. Talbot’s great-great grandson Anthony Burnett-Brown kindly loaned many of the originals. Tri-tone printing was chosen with various mixtures of ink because we could secure guarantees of the stability of these inks, something not attainable with full colour printing at the time. The appropriate paper was commissioned in Italy and Martino Mardersteig of Stamperia Valdonega in Verona personally took charge of the production, much of which relied on hand craftsmanship. I’ll never get to do another book like that again.
What was the genesis of Talbot’s grand project? What did he hope to accomplish? This is where confusion generally reigns. I couldn’t help but to be struck by one prominent curator’s explanation that “in 1843, four years after announcing his invention of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot went to France to make views of cathedrals … unfortunately, he couldn’t obtain some official permissions he needed and ended up trying to think of something else to photograph to make the trip worthwhile … working under such circumstances didn’t suit Talbot’s temperament. When the cathedral project failed, he decided to base the book he had planned on views of his ancestral home, in Wiltshire, England. Thus did The Pencil of Nature come to be about life at Lacock Abbey.”
Briefly, here is the childhood of The Pencil of Nature as recorded contemporaneously in Talbot’s correspondence. With Henry’s longstanding interest in book publication, the idea of using the reproductive capabilities of his new art must have come immediately. In March 1839 he wrote to his friend Sir John Herschel declaring that “the enclosed scrap will illustrate what I call ‘every man his own printer and publisher.’” The use of photography would “enable poor authors to make facsimiles of their works in their own handwriting.” As 1839 drew to a close and he had more time to weigh the merits of Daguerre’s process, Talbot returned to this subject in a letter to Herschel: “although the perfection of the French method of Photography cannot be surpassed in some respects; yet in others the English is decidedly superior. For instance in the capability of multiplication of copies, & therefore of publishing a work with photographic plates.” It took the discovery of the calotype negative and his own strengthening talent as a photographer to convince Talbot that a book was possible. In early 1842 he again wrote to Herschel, outlining his plans to travel to Germany “to make some views of interesting architecture. ” Herschel replied that “the tour you are projecting in search of architectural specimens will be the most interesting thing imaginable. In a very few hours you will find you record all the details of a cathedral which would have cost a draftsman years … to execute with infinitely less fidelity.”
Early in 1843, the chemist and photohistorian Robert Hunt wrote to Talbot revealing that “Mssrs. Longman have informed me that it is your intention to publish calotype views of the cathedrals &c and have asked me to refer to your production in the work I am engaged on ‘Light considered as a Chemical Agent.’ With Hunt’s press deadline looming, Talbot thanked him “but as the first No of my work is not yet published, nor will be for some time, I think it could not be mentioned with advantage.” That time was to prove to be shorter than Talbot imagined.
Talbot had been working towards such a publication all along. In February 1843, Talbot replied to a request from William (later Sir William) Snow Harris to use Talbot’s process for a book: “the intention being (if I understand you) to prepare Calotype drawings for an extensive work, which are to be afterwards engraved & published … will you allow me to ask why your friend proposes to go to the great expense of having the drawings engraved, when the process itself is capable of furnishing an unlimited number of copies, all facsimiles of each other, and at an expense I should think far inferior to that of engraving. The Calotype process dispenses not only with the draughtsman but also with the engraver & the copperplate printer. It executes the whole itself. The pictures I believe to be quite permanent. A month’s exposure to daylight at a window produces no effect on them, for they seem to have the same fixity as a printed page.”
Bolstered by a fat portfolio of negatives gathered from around Britain and France – certainly not restricted to life at Lacock Abbey – and confident that his prints were permanent, Talbot established the identity of The Pencil of Nature. At the start of 1844, his favourite uncle William Thomas Horner Fox Strangways not uncharacteristically took some of the credit for this: “your book of specimens is just what I suggested to you three years ago – you know perhaps the book that was published at the time of the introduction of lithography by Senefelder & Ackermann, called a complete Course of Lithography with specimens—something in that style—quarto—but less voluminous, & a greater variety of tint & colour would do.”
Talbot introduced his book with the explanation that “the little work now presented to the Public is the first attempt to publish a series of plates or pictures wholly executed by the new art of Photogenic Drawing, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil.” It was meant to be a ‘sampler’ – a demonstration of the various things that photography could accomplish. The introductory text is one of our most valuable resources in the early history of Talbot’s invention. One might be disappointed that the text accompanying each plate often seems disconnected from the image. However, these brief statements often provide rare insights into Talbot’s imagination and perception.
There quite a few manuscripts surviving that document Talbot’s ongoing creation of The Pencil of Nature. They are fragmentary in some cases and distributed among several collections, public and private. From these we can assemble a pretty good picture of what he was actually hoping to accomplish. He anticipated a monthly production of ten fascicles, each with five original plates. From these lists we can identify at least an additional thirty-one photographs that Talbot considered for publication:
Balustrade Westminster Abbey
Eve [at the Fountain, statuette]
frame (with something enclosed)
Gate of Magdalen [College, Oxford]
Group of Scotch fishermen [probably a Hill & Adamson]
house boulevard [in Paris]
house building [Sussex Gardens, London]
Italian print of Arch
Lacock South front
Neapolitans [copy of an oil]
old botanical engraving
old engraved portrait of …
Orleans Place [ie, a town square]
page Comptes Rendus [the French scientific publication]
Paris [statuette or city?]
Pullen [a servant at Lacock]
Sabine [statuette of Rape of the Sabines]
Schools Oxford [now the Bodleian Library]
Staircase at Toledo [probably a print]
Thomas Moore’s handwriting
Here is one example where we know not only the image that Talbot considered but also have his draft text planned to accompany it. ‘Le Château de Chambord’ was from a negative that Talbot took in the summer of 1843, during the same trip to France when he took the second plate in The Pencil of Nature, ‘Boulevards of Paris.’ Expanding his draft notes:
“The Château de Chambord was built by Francis I in 1519, four years after the young prince had ascended to the throne. During an excursion in France in the summer of 1843, I bent my footsteps towards this venerable pile. It was with the recollection of a long previous visit in May 1822. Chambord had ever dwelt upon my memory as one of the most remarkable objects I had seen in the course of my wanderings. Fortune did not altogether smile, for I was impeded by very unfavourable circumstances.”
In other words, the weather was awful.
Since today is the anniversary of the publication of the first fascicle of The Pencil of Nature I’ve included its five plates below. Brief excerpts from Talbot’s original text are supplemented by press reactions at the time, written by editors who in most cases were just becoming familiar with the syntax and possibilities of not only a new art, but also a radically new way to illustrate books.
Negative: 4 September 1843“This building presents on its surface the most evident marks of the injuries of time and weather, in the abraded state of the stone, which probably was of a bad quality originally. The view is taken from the other side of the High Street—looking North. The time is morning. In the distance is seen at the end of a narrow street the Church of St. Peter’s in the East, said to be the most ancient church in Oxford.”
The Spectator remarked on “the abraded surface of the stone front with a strikingly real effect,” an observation echoed in The Literary Gazette : “the time-worn abrasions in the stone are felicitously recorded.” The Art-Union found the representation “the most perfect that can be conceived; the minutest detail is given with a softness that cannot be imitated by any artistic manipulation; there is nothing in it like what we call touch; the whole is melted in and blended into form by the mysterious agency of natural chemistry.”
Plate II. View of the Boulevards at Paris.
Negative: May 1843
“This view was taken from one of the upper windows of the Hotel de Douvres…. The time is the afternoon. The sun is just quitting the range of buildings adorned with columns: its façade is already in the shade, but a single shutter standing open projects far enough forward to catch a gleam of sunshine…. They have just been watering the road, which has produced two broad bands of shade upon it…. A whole forest of chimneys borders the horizon: for, the instrument chronicles whatever it sees, and certainly would delineate a chimney-pot or a chimney-sweeper with the same impartiality as it would the Apollo of Belvedere….”
The Spectator expressed surprise that Talbot’s paper print was “almost equal in distinctness of detail to a Daguerreotype. The images of the Calotype are only inferior to those of the Daguerreotype in this respect—the definition of form is not so sharp, nor are the shadows so pure and transparent.” The Literary Gazette marveled that this view “takes in vast masses of building, a distant horizon of chimneys, and also trees in the foreground; the effects of light and shade are remarkable, and well deserving the attention of the landscape-painter. The angles of vision, too, merit his study, as determining perspective lines in a singular manner.” The Art-Union found that “it is curious to observe the entire absence of human life in the picture; this will forcibly strike those who know how crowded is the Boulevard des Italiens in the afternoon, for that is the time of day. This, however, will be a matter of surprise only to persons unacquainted with the nature of photography; and it is only necessary to say in explanation, that no moving object can be represented.”
Negative: prior to January 1844
[originally titled: Articles of China with a Dark Background ]
“From the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a…collector…might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory…and would a thief afterwards purloin the treasures—if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court—it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind…. The articles represented on this plate are numerous: but, however numerous the objects—however complicated the arrangement—the Camera depicts them all at once…. [The lens] should be diminished by placing a screen or diaphragm before it, having a small circular hole…. The resulting image is more sharp and correct. But it takes a longer time to impress itself upon the paper.”The Spectator thought this plate “exquisite for the precision with which the forms and patterns are represented.” The Art-Union found the china “depicted with wonderful perfection: for, having generally white grounds, they can be represented with wonderful nicety.” The Literary Gazette was the most delighted of all, saying that the pieces of china were “all exceedingly curious. A boy and a china basin with a bird upon it, on the right of the centre vase in the second row, are the most perfect fac-similes of the articles they copy that we ever saw, and yet either might be drawn on the space of a thumb-nail.”
Negative: prior to June 1844
[originally titled: Articles of Glass with a Dark Background]“The photogenic images of glass articles impress the sensitive paper with a very peculiar touch, which is quite different from that of the China in Plate III…. White china and glass do not succeed well when represented together, because the picture of the china, from its superior brightness, is completed before that of the glass is well begun…. Blue objects affect the sensitive paper almost as rapidly as white ones do. On the contrary, green rays act very feebly—an inconvenient circumstance, whenever green trees are to be represented…”The Spectator was impressed with the representation of “some articles of cut glass, exhibiting with matchless truth the peculiar quality of the lights on transparent substances.” The Literary Gazette found “the reflected lights being the most remarkable portion of the spectacle.” The Art-Union explained that “glass does not, of course, come out so forcibly, but that, also, is described with inimitable truth.” The Athenæum observed that “the minute details exhibited in the two plates displaying porcelain ornaments and glass, are exceedingly curious and beautiful, and they improve under examination with a powerful lens.”
Negative: 9 August 1842 (dated in the negative)“Statues, busts, and other specimens of sculpture, are generally well represented by the Photographic Art…. These delineations are susceptible of an almost unlimited variety…. The directness or obliquity of the illumination causing of course an immense difference in the effect…and when to this is added the change of size which is produced…by bringing the Camera Obscura nearer to the statue or removing it further off, it becomes evident how very great a number of different effects may be obtained from a single specimen of sculpture…. A better effect is obtained by delineating them in cloudy weather than in sunshine. For, the sunshine causes such strong shadows as sometimes to confuse the subject. To prevent this, it is a good plan to hold a white cloth on one side of the statue at a little distance to reflect back the sun’s rays and cause a faint illumination of the parts which would otherwise be lost in shadow.”The Art-Union saw Patroclus as “an excellent subject for photography, in consequence of the whiteness of the material; hence all casts and busts are well adapted for representation. This is a most beautiful reflection, the shadows are finely transparent, and the whole singularly soft, round, and substantial.” The Literary Gazette found the “bust of Patroclus, really sublime in style and effect. Photography is admirably adapted for sculpture; and a noble gallery of all that is great in that art might readily be produced in such splendid imitations as that now before us. Mr. Talbot’s instructions as to the best means for taking these ‘likenesses’ are of high practical value.” The Spectator felt that “the delicate gradations of light into shade produce an appearance of relief and rotundity which attests the superiority of the ‘Pencil of Nature’ to that of Art.”
It has long been my hope to try to reconstruct the complete fifty plate Pencil of Nature, both as a book and as an exhibition. How different would our assessment be of this publication if the full variety of plates that Talbot contemplated had actually reached publication? The 1989 Anniversary Facsimile was a dream come true. Perhaps somehow this one will as well some day.
Larry J Schaaf
Questions or Comments? Please feel encouraged to contact Prof Schaaf directly at firstname.lastname@example.org • Insert and cover from part one of The Pencil of Nature, private collection. • Six fascicles of The Pencil of Nature in their original covers, Harrison Horblitt copy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. • Much fuller information on the gestation and production of WHFT’s great work can be found in my Introductory Volume to H. Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, Anniversary Facsimile (New York: Hans P. Kraus, Jr., Inc., 1989). • See my ‘Third Census of Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature’, History of Photography, v. 36 no. 1, February 2012, pp. 99-120. • Beaumont Newhall, “Introduction,” William Henry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature (New York: Da Capo, 1969). • Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), p. 67. • The book Uncle William referred to was Alois Senefelder’s A Complete Course of Lithography, translated by A.S. (London: printed for R. Ackermann, 1819). • WHFT, manuscript draft for Le Château de Chambord, private collection, courtesy of Hans P. Kraus, Jr., NY. • WHFT, Le Château de Chambord, salt print from a calotype negative, Agfa Fotohistorama, Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Schaaf 1164. • Contemporary press reactions were drawn from The Spectator, v. 17 no. 838, 20 July 1844, p. 685; The Literary Gazette, no. 1432, 29 June 1844, p. 410; The Art-Union, v. 6, 1 August 1844, p. 223; The Athenæum, no. 904, 22 February, 1845, p. 202. • WHFT, Part of Queen’s College, Oxford, salt print from a calotype negative, National Media Museum, Bradford, 1937-1296/3; Schaaf 1461. • WHFT, Boulevards of Paris, salt print from a calotype negative, Fox Talbot Collection, the British Library, London, LA2: Schaaf 128. • WHFT, Articles of China, salt print from a calotype negative, the same as published in The Pencil of Nature; Photographic History Collection, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, 67.172.14; Schaaf 66. • WHFT, Articles of Glass, salt print from a calotype negative, the same as published in The Pencil of Nature; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1998.1047; Schaaf 69. • WHFT, Bust of Patroclus, private collection, courtesy of Hans P Kraus, Jr, NY; Schaaf 190.