[The original letter has not been located. This is reproduced from the printed version in the section for Fine Arts, 'The New Art', The Literary Gazette and Journal of belles lettres, science and art, no. 1150 2 February 1839, p. 73.]
Dear Sir, -
I have great pleasure in complying with the wish which you have expressed to me, that I would go into some details respecting the invention which I have communicated to the Royal Society: viz. the art of photogenic drawing, <1> or of forming pictures and images of natural objects by means of solar light.
I do this the more readily, on account of the interest with which the scientific public have read the accounts which have recently appeared respecting the discoveries of M. Daguerre, <2> of Paris, in some respects identical with mine - in others, I think, materially different.
Although I am very far indeed from being of the opinion, that " Chance rules supreme in the affairs of men;" yet I cannot 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.
Under these circumstances, by the advice of my scientific friends, I immediately collected together such specimens of my process as I had with me in town, and exhibited them to public view at a meeting of the Royal Institution.* <3> My written communication <4> to the Royal Society was, from its length, necessarily deferred to the week following.*
These steps I took, not with the Intention of rivalising with M. Daguerre in the perfection of his processes (of which I know nothing, but am ready to believe all that Biot and Arago <5> have stated in their praise), but to preclude the possibility of its being said hereafter, that I had borrowed the idea from him, or was indebted to him, or any one, for the means of overcoming the principal difficulties.
As the process of M. Daguerre is at present a profound secret, even at Paris, it is evident that no one could imitate him here, or exhibit pictures formed in the same way, or depending on the same optical principles, who was not already fully acquainted with a secret, not, indeed, the same, but similar or tantamount to his.
That M. Daguerre's pictures will stand the effect of time, is, I suppose, the fact, though I do not find it expressly mentioned in the report of M. Arago ( Comptes Rendus, 7th January). <6> My own have stood between three and four years. I therefore consider that the principles of the art are firmly laid.
Many instruments have been devised at various times for abridging the labour of the artist in copying natural objects, and for insuring greater accuracy in the design than can be readily attained without such assistance.
Among these may be more particularly mentioned, the Camera Obscura and the Camera Lucida, which are familiar to most persons; certainly very ingenious and beautiful instruments, and in many circumstances eminently useful, especially the latter. Yet are there many persons who do not succeed in using them, and I believe that few are able to do so with great success, except those who, in other respects, are skilled in drawing.
Up to a certain point, these inventions are excellent; beyond that point they do not go. They assist the artist in his work; they do not work for him. They do not dispense with his time; nor with his skill; nor his attention. All they can do is to guide his eye and correct his judgment; but the actual performance of the drawing must be his own.
From all these prior ones, the present invention differs totally in this respect (which may be explained in a single sentence), viz. that, by means of this contrivance, it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself. All that the artist does is to dispose the apparatus before the object whose image he requires: he then leaves it for a certain time, greater or less, according to circumstances. At the end of the time he returns, takes out his picture, and finds it finished.
The agent in this operation is solar light, which being thrown by a lens upon a sheet of prepared paper, stamps upon it the image of the object, whatever that may chance to be, which is placed before it.
The very foundation of the art, therefore, consists in this - eminently curious - natural fact, viz that there exists a substance so sensitive to light as to be capable of receiving even its faint impressions. The whole possibility of the process depends upon this; for if no such substance existed in rerum naturá, the notion of thus copying objects would be nothing more than a scientific dream. Moreover, it is not sufficient that the paper should be so sensitive as to receive the impressions of external objects; it is requisite also, that, having received them, it should retain them; and, moreover, that it should be insensible with regard to other objects, to which it may be subsequently exposed.
The necessity of this is obvious, for otherwise new impression would be received, which would confuse and efface the former ones.
But it is easier to perceive the necessity of the thing required than to attain to its realization. And this has hitherto proved a most serious obstacle to those who have experimented with this object in view.
This was one of the few scientific inquiries in which Sir Humphry Davy <7> engaged, upon which Fortune did not smile.
Either his inquiries took a wrong direction, or else, perhaps, the property sought for was of so singular a nature, that there was nothing to guide the search, or perhaps he despaired of it too soon; however this may be, the result undoubtedly was , that the attempt proved unsuccessful, and was abandoned. As Sir Humphry Davy himself informs us, "No attempts have as yet been successful."
These words are quoted from his own account in the "Journal of the Royal Institution for 1802." <8>
The subject then dropped, and appears to have been no more spoken of for upwards of thirty years.
When, in 1834, unaware of Davy's researches, I undertook a course of experiments with the same object in view, I know not what good star seconded my efforts; but, after various trials, I succeeded in hitting upon a method of obtaining this desideratum. <9> By this process, it is possible to destroy the sensibility of the paper, and to render it quite insensible. After this change it may be exposed with safety to the light of day; it may even be placed in the sunshine; indeed, I have specimens which have been left an hour in the sun without having received apparent deterioration. A fact, therefore, is thus established which is not without its importance in a theoretical point of view, besides its more immediate application to purposes of utility.
With this kind of paper, eminently susceptible of being acted on by light, and yet capable of losing that property when required, a great number of curious performances may readily be accomplished. The most remarkable of these, is undoubtedly the copying the portrait of a distant object, as the façade of a building, by fixing its image in the Camera Obscura; but one perhaps more calculated for universal use is the power of depicting exact facsimiles of smaller objects which are in the vicinity of the operator, such as flowers, leaves, engravings, &c., which may be accomplished with great facility, and often with a degree of rapidity that is almost marvellous.
The Specimens of this art which I exhibited at the Royal Institution, though consisting only of what I happened to have with me in Town, are yet sufficient to give a general idea of it, and to shew the wide range of its applicability. Among them were pictures of flowers and leaves; a pattern of lace; figures taken from painted glass; a view of Venice copied from an engraving; <10> some images formed by the Solar Microscope, viz. a slice of wood very highly magnified, exhibiting the pores of two kinds, one set much smaller than the other, and more numerous. Another Microscopic sketch, exhibiting the reticulations on the wing of an insect.
Finally: various pictures, representing the architecture of my house in the country; all these made with the Camera Obscura in the summer of 1835. <11>
And this I believe to be the first Instance on record, of a house having painted its own portrait.
A person unacquainted with the process, if told that nothing of all this was executed by the hand, must imagine that one has at one's call the Genius of Aladdin's Lamp. And indeed, it may almost be said, that this is something of the same kind. It is a little bit of magic realised: - of natural magic.
You make the powers of nature work for you, and no wonder that your work is well and quickly done.
No matter whether the subject be large or small, simple or complicated; whether the flower-branch which you wish to copy contains one blossom, or one thousand; you set the Instrument in action, the allotted time elapses, and you find the picture finished, in every part, and in every minute particular.
There is something in this rapidity and perfection of execution, which is very wonderful. But after all, what is Nature, but one great field of wonders past our comprehension? Those, indeed, which are of every-day occurrence, do not habitually strike us, on account of their familiarity, but they are not the less on that account essential portions of the same wonderful Whole.
I hope it will be borne in mind by those who take an interest in this subject, that in what I have hitherto done, I do not profess to have perfected an Art, but to have commenced one; the limits of which it is not possible at present exactly to ascertain.
I only claim to have based this new Art upon a secure foundation: it will be for more skilful hands than mine to rear the superstructure. -
I remain, Dear Sir, Yours, &c.
H. Fox Talbot.
44 Queen Anne Street,
January 30, 1839.
1. 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, read before the Royal Society 31 January 1839; and published under the same title (London: published privately, printed by R. & J.E. Taylor, 1839).
2. Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), French artist, showman & inventor of the daguerreotype.
3. The Royal Institution's Friday evening lecture, 25 January 1839, led by Prof Michael Faraday (1791-1867), scientist.
4. See note 2.
5. Jean-Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), French scientist, and Dominique François Jean Arago (1786-1853), French physicist, astronomer & man of science.
6. Arago announced, at the meeting of 7th January 1839, the invention of the daguerreotype. See 'Fixation des images qui se forment au foyer d'une chambre obscure', Comptes Rendus hebdomadaires des séances de l' de l'Académie des Sciences, v. 8 no. 1, 7 January 1839, pp. 4-7.
7. Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), chemist. Together with Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805), son of Josiah Wedgwood the potter, Davy undertook photographic experiments. In 1800 Davy and Wedgwood succeeded in taking a photograph, they did not, however succeed in fixing the image.
8. 'An account of a method of copying paintings upon glass and of making profiles by the agency of light upon nitrate of silver', Journals of the Royal Institution, v. 1 no. 9, 22 June 1802, pp. 170-174.
9. A great difficulty for Davy as well as for WHFT was fixing the photographic image.
10. For possible images of these see: 'An Image of Lace, Presented for an Exhibition', Schaaf 1501, reproduced in Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 47; 'Stained glass window, Lacock Abbey front rose from inside', Schaaf 1735, reproduced in Larry J. Schaaf, Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, & the Invention of Photography (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 47; and 'Copy of a print of Venice with gondolas; St Marks Square', Schaaf 426.
11. For possible images of these see: 'Lacock Abbey, front stained glass windows from inside', Schaaf 1119; and 'Latticed Window [&c] August 1835', Schaaf 2242.