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Document number: 04191
Date: 05 Feb 1841
Recipient: JERDAN William
Author: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Collection: PUBLISHED
Last updated: 25th August 2010

[The original has not been located. This was published in The Literary Gazette, no. 1256, 13 February 1841, p. 108.]



To the Editor of the Literary Gazette

Dear Sir, -

It is now two years since I first published a brief account of Photogenic Drawing.* <1> During this interval I have taken much pains, and made many experiments, with the hope of rendering the art more perfect and useful. In this way I have obtained a good many improvements, with the mention of which I shall not detain you at present.

I shall confine myself in this letter to a single subject, viz. the discovery which I made last September of a chemical process by which paper may be made far more sensitive to light than by any means hitherto known. It is not easy to estimate exactly how far this increase of sensibility extends; but certainly a much better picture can now be obtained in a minute than by the former process in an hour.

This increased rapidity is accompanied with an increased sharpness and distinctness in the outlines of the objects, - an effect which is very advantageous and pleasing, and at the same time rather difficult to account for.

The shortest time in which I have yet succeeded in impressing an image in the camera obscura has been eight seconds; but I do not mean to assign this as the precise limit, for it can only be ascertained by more careful and multiplied experiments.

The production of the image is accompanied with some very extraordinary circumstances, to which I will advert in a subsequent letter. These phenomena are extremely curious, and I have not found in chemical writers any mention of any thing similar.

The image, when obtained, must, of course, be fixed, otherwise the process would remain imperfect. It might be supposed, à priori, that this fixation would be very difficult, the paper being so sensitive. But it fortunately happens that, in this instance, what seems a reasonable inference is not borne out by fact, the new photographs being more easily and perfectly fixed than was the case with the former ones. When fixed, a great many copies may be made from them; and thus the original view can be multiplied with facility.

I think that the art has now reached a point which is likely to make it extensively useful. How many travellers are almost ignorant of drawing, and either attempt nothing, or bring home rude unintelligible sketches ! They may now fill their portfolios with accurate views, without much expenditure of time or trouble; and even the accomplished artist will call in sometimes this auxiliary aid, when pressed for time in sketching a building or a landscape, or when wearied with the multiplicity of its minute details.

One of the most important applications of the new process, and most likely to prove generally interesting, is, undoubtedly, the taking of portraits. I made trial of it last October, and found that the experiment readily succeeded. Half a minute appeared to be sufficient in sunshine, and four or five minutes when a person was seated in the shade, but in the open air. After a few portraits <2> had been made, enough to show that it could be done without difficulty, the experiments were adjourned to a more favourable season.

Several photographic processes being now known, which are materially different from each other, I consider it to be absolutely necessary to distinguish them by different names, in the same way that we distinguish different styles of painting or engraving. Photographs executed on a silver plate have received, and will no doubt retain, the name of Daguerréotype. The new kind of photographs, which are the subject of this letter, I propose to distinguish by the name of Calotype; a term which, I hope, when the become known, will not be found to have been misapplied.

I remember it was said by many persons, at the time when photogenic drawing was first spoken of, that it was likely to prove injurious to art, as substituting mere mechanical labour in lieu of talent and experience. Now, so far from this being the case, I find that in this, as in most other things, there is ample room for the exercise of skill and judgment. It would hardly be believed he different an effect is produced by a longer or shorter exposure to the light, and, also, by mere variations in the fixing process, by means of which almost any tint, cold or warm, may be thrown over the picture, and the effect of bright or gloomy weather may be imitated at pleasure. All this falls within the artist's province to combine and to regulate; and if, in the course of these manipulations, he, nolens volens <3>, becomes a chemist and an optician, I feel confident that such an alliance of science with art will prove conducive to the improvement of both.

I remain, yours, &c.

H. F. Talbot.

31, Sackville Street, <4>
February 5, 1841.

*See Literary Gazette of that period, in which we exposed foreign pretensions and established just rights and British claims. - Ed. L.G.


1. WHFT, 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, January 31, 1839 (London: R & J E Taylor, 1839).

2. For an example of this see, 'Constance Talbot', Schaaf 2503, reproduced in Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 96.

3. Whether willing or not.

4. London residence of the Feildings, often used as a London base by WHFT.