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Document number: 8693
Date: 24 Apr 1863
Recipient: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Author: SMYTH Charles Piazzi
Collection: National Science and Media Museum, Bradford
Collection number: 1937-5426
Last updated: 19th November 2012

[printed notepaper: 1 Hillside Crescent, Edinburgh

24 April 1863

Dear Sir,

Yours of today has arrived with the return box, & more important, your new & almost instantaneous engraving of Mount Gaujara, on the small steel plate. <1>

You have really made a very pretty & effective little thing of it, and, even if circumstances were to prevent you doing anything more, this one will go a long way in controlling the Stationery Office print, because 1st, it shows the reality of that strange hand & fore-finger of rock towards the right hand, [illustration], and 2nd, it shows the non-reality of a line of apparent white stones in the Stationery Office’s view, under the pointed summit of the high mountain [illustration]

Now these white spots being arranged in a row parallel with the lay of the ground at the plan, had quite deceived me, when looking at a print form one of the negatives only: for I conceived [sic] that they must be real, must be remarkable & that I ought to have visited them when living on the top of the mountain only a few hundred yards off.

Yet they are after all, merely accidental spots of microscopic dust on the original negative plate.

You say most truly that your engraving will give the minutæ of a photograph; for I have been examining the Strasburg Cathedral, as well as the Mt Guajara, with a compound microscope, and had my opinion of them greatly raised. Indeed when appreciating the extraordinary minuteness of the forms thus rendered, a want of depth or force in the dark parts is overlooked, or should be, because there is no mechanical plan I suppose by which strong black can be printed, without showing the machinery of its production on a larger scale than the natural forms which you reproduce from the photograph.

The parts however of the Strasburg Cathedral which I liked most, were those in the shade; for there, there was much “half-tint” involvable for making a picture.

Your new Mt. Guajara has a most precious tinge, faint but valuable, of this half tint, over the right-hand part of the hill.

If there could have been rather more of that half-tint: say the right-hand of the depth of the left-hand is, & the left-hand about twice as strong, the thing would be a pictorial, as well as a scientific gem. But perhaps all this would require that my photographing in Teneriffe should have been of a better order.

Yours very truly
C. Piazzi Smyth


1. This refers to the photoglyphic engraving plate that WHFT made for Smyth's report on his 1856 expedition to Teneriffe. The photogravure was published along with several albumen prints. As Smyth astutely observed in his introduction, “To the inventor alike of photography and photoglyphy, it must be comparatively indifferent by which of his two methods these unusual Teneriffe landscapes are introduced into this book, though to readers in a future century it may make a great difference; for the photoglyph must last as long as the paper it is printed on, but the photograph may go the way of some of those beautiful specimens exhibited last year at the International Exhibition, and which faded before the eyes of the nations then assembled.” Charles Piazzi Smyth, Astronomical Observations Made at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, vol. XII1, 1855-1859 (Edinburgh: Neill and Co., 1863). For a fuller discussion of Talbot’s experiments in this period, see Larry J. Schaaf, “Piazzi Smyth at Teneriffe: Part 2, Photography and the Disciples of Constable and Harding,” History of Photography, v. 5 no. 1, January 1981, pp. 27-50.

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