The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project has prepared a comprehensive edition of the nearly 10,000 letters to and from Talbot (1800-1877), the Wiltshire polymath best known for his invention of photography. Draft transcriptions of nearly all the letters were posted by September 2003 and these are now being further annotated and edited.
The conception and editorial foundations of the project took place at the University of Glasgow between 1999 and 2004. Additional development and hosting is now undertaken by Knowledge Media Design, De Montfort University. The Correspondence editor is Professor Larry J Schaaf.
We welcome, and indeed invite, your assistance in providing corrections and additional information on any of the letters or the correspondents. We especially welcome news of any additional letters that have not been incorporated thus far. Whenever practical, we will try to assist researchers in their own queries.Please send any questions and comments to: email@example.com
At the age of eight, Henry Talbot commanded his stepfather to 'tell Mamma & everybody I write to to keep my letter & not burn them' (Document Number 00492). This precocious awareness of the value of his letters, combined with the protection of a stable family structure through several generations, has led to an unusually complete archive. Talbot is best known as the scientist and artist whose role was critical to the invention of the art of photography. In addition, he made significant contributions to fields as diverse as Assyriology, astronomy, botany, electricity, etymology, mathematics, optics and politics. As a scientist, Talbot blended 18th century traditions of the amateur with 19th century concepts of progress and professionalisation. He was a Fellow of the Astronomical, Linnaean, and Royal societies; the latter gave him two gold medals, one for the invention of photography and one for mathematics. Talbot came from a family with strong diplomatic, social and royal connections and sat briefly as a Whig (reform) Member of Parliament. He sensitively guided his estate of Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire through the perils of the social uprisings in the 1830s and the expansion of the railways in the 1840s. Talbot published eight books and more than a hundred journal articles and was granted twelve patents. show moreHe was awarded an honorary Doctorate from Edinburgh University. Although personally shy, Henry Talbot was a brilliant figure who lived within a sphere of substantial influence. When he was young, his family lived extensively on the continent, fostering a lifelong interest in travel and providing lasting contacts outside Britain. His mother, Lady Elisabeth Feilding, was an outspoken daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. Her social connections and ambitions for her son provided the greatest impetus for his public endeavours. Talbot's uncle, William Thomas Horner Fox Strangways, a botanist and career diplomat, helped Talbot gain influence outside Britain. One half-sister, Caroline Mount Edgcumbe, was a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen. A favourite and close cousin was Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, the Welsh industrialist aptly described in his day as 'the wealthiest commoner' in all of Great Britain. The day-to-day life of Henry Talbot provides a rich picture of the process of invention and of the society in which the inventor lived. Talbot's correspondents were a diverse lot. Counted amongst his closest scientific associates were Sir John Herschel, an astronomer and ingenious inventor of photography, and Sir David Brewster, the controversial and highly influential Scottish physicist and scientific journalist. Thomas Moore, the wildly popular Irish poet, was a neighbour and close family friend who provided a different perspective on the new art of photography. Sir Thomas Phillipps, the notorious bibliophile, shared with Talbot linguistic and publishing interests. Talbot's correspondents included politicians and reformers, such as Lord Henry Brougham, and influential members of society, such as Lady Jane Davy, widow of Sir Humphry Davy. Extended negotiations with Isambard Kingdom Brunel over railways pitted Talbot's land-owning nature against his enthusiastic view of progress in transportation. New York's Edward Anthony and Philadelphia's Langenheim brothers, important figures in the establishment of the American photographic industry, sought to promote Talbot's discoveries in America. Talbot's letters are also to and from those who worked closely with him. The efforts by Nicolaas Henneman, his French-trained Dutch assistant, to commercialise photography in Britain are well documented in the letters. The Rev. Calvert R. Jones, a Welsh marine painter, strove to get photography accepted in artistic circles. To these must be added scores of other lesser-known figures. Much of Henry Talbot's correspondence with his family is important. These letters provide crucial insights into emotions, conflicts, and underlying arguments not expressed in the official correspondence. Everyday human factors, such as his state of health and the vagaries of the weather, are recorded in these letters and can be seen to markedly influence Talbot's course of invention and publication.
1For the story of White's quest, and a compilation of the manuscript text that he was able to accomplish, see Larry J Schaaf, Sun Pictures Catalogue Three: The Harold White Collection of Works by William Henry Fox Talbot (New York: Hans P Kraus, Jr, 1987).
2Sadly, however, not always correctly, and the remaining envelopes are still being re-associated with the letters.
3See Larry J Schaaf, 'The Talbot Collection: National Museum of American History', History of Photography, v. 24 n.1, Spring 2000, pp. 7-15.