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‘Talbot’ vs. ‘Fox Talbot’

Two Delicate Plant Fronds

The phrase ‘Fox Talbot’ is so harmonious and rolls off the tongue so easily that it is almost universally used for his name today. Many of his contemporaries who did not know him well did the same. However, this form of address was most certainly not warmly embraced by the subject himself! The ‘Fox’ so often associated with his surname was one of his given names, as it was a family name of his mother, Lady Elisabeth Feilding (the outspoken daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester). Perhaps out of deference to Lady Elisabeth, Henry signed some of his books and journal articles ‘H. Fox Talbot.’ In fact, Talbot was known to family and close friends nearly always as ‘Henry’. He signed his letters ‘H.F. Talbot’ or ‘Henry F. Talbot’ far more often than ‘H. Fox Talbot’.

The Fox was only a middle name and Talbot’s surname was never hyphenated, but it is not unusual to see it so treated in secondary literature. In fact, the occasional library card catalogue has Talbot filed under ‘F’, a problem made even more serious by the ubiquitous computer sorting of today. But even this confusion in sorting is not a new problem - in 1823, Henry wrote to his mother from Naples that "I observe you always direct to me Fox Talbot by way of discrimination, but it does rather the contrary. For, the letters are here distributed from different windows, according to the different letters of the Alphabet, and the other day I found no letter for me under T, and accordingly asked for letters for Mr Fox when they immediately produced one from you".

Further evidence that Henry himself had little enthusiasm for the ‘Fox’ is revealed in an a letter of 1842 to his mother on the birth of his only son: "You know we had fixed on the name Charles Henry, but if you wish it we can make it C.H.F.T. Constance says she is quite willing." Even the reluctant offer to incorporate the F. here was not a reference to the family name of Fox, but rather a homage to his beloved late step-father, Admiral Feilding.

A final clue to Talbot’s own feelings on the subject is the fact that among the more than one-hundred photographic prints and negatives that Talbot signed himself, there is not a single one - not a one - where he used the word ‘Fox’ as part of the signature!

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