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Document number: 07072
Date: Wed 29 Nov 1854
Recipient: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Collection: British Library, London, Manuscripts - Fox Talbot Collection
Collection number historic: LA54-62
Last updated: 18th February 2012

Ashmolean Museum. Oxford. <1>
Wednesday Novr 29. 1854.

My dear Sir

On reading the specification, I find it to be as nearly as possible in the identical words of the formula I followed. <2>

Allow me to make a suggestion to you. I think it would be a mistake in you to Endeavour to prove that your specification was such as a person of ordinary intelligence could at once or very speedily work out into practical results. Photography is a very difficult art – It is as far as manipulation goes, as much a Chemical art as is the making of a simple Chemical analysis. Yet where will you find even the most talented student who can at once, from the formula in a treatise, make a Chemical analysis? – It requires the same patience, the same repulses from want of familiarity with the instruments & materials, to accustom the hand & the mind to the practice & the ideas of the one & the other art. I have questioned a pupil of my own who had tried your process from your formula & utterly failed – though a very intelligent man (a 1st class in Mathematics) – but on enquiring of him I found his failure consisted in his not in fact strictly following the injunctions though he thought he was doing so. Had he first learned the manipulatory processes of the Laboratory, I doubt not he would have succeeded. I have determined on putting the thing to a fair test.

My German Assistant <3> – a good practical manipulator – is to go through the process by himself. He has never worked the Talbotype, though he has dabbled with Collodion. <4> I have given him the specification – shall see that he understands the English properly, and have told him to make a picture by it. I am unfortunately delayed by Newman (at 120 [sic] Regent St:) still having my slides under repair. Should you be at Henneman’s or he sending thither perhaps you will kindly give him Newman a push forward with them. <5>

The form of your process <6> which I almost exclusively used was the wet one without glass. I found the blotting in 5 cases out of 10, injure[s] the evenness of the surface – probably from not letting the Gallo-nitrate soak in sufficiently before treating with rain water – Moreover the greater sharpness of the picture induced me to give up a glass in front of the sensitive surface.

I could produce my original camera if it would be of any interest in the trial. Perhaps too I could find the Handbook <7> (I think one of Palmers – was there such a one?) from which I worked. I believe they are both at Basset-Down. <8> The late Mr Dollond <9> suggested it to me, when on a visit to my Father at Basset-Down I think in 1844 – I practised the art in 45 <10> & got pictures that same winter or the next early spring – I exhibited some trees to various persons at Southampton at a meeting of the British Assocn <11> but I think that was after I had read a paper in the Philosoph: Magaz:ne <12> (by a Mr Cundall, <13> I think) which certainly rendered the manipulations more certain in their results. But I had made pictures before I read that paper. My greatest push forward in producing dry pictures behind glass was given by Henneman whom I visited at Reading <14> once, en passant, I forget when. He may know. It was on an occasion when I bought one of the first Cameras which you imported I think, from Chevalier. <15> It is the Camera I use to this day.

I suspect however that this was not till the year after, probably spring 1847. It is important for your Counsel to bear in mind that every one follows to this day his own favourite process – at least I know no two, I think, who practise the same – a sufficient proof how much practise is required, how minute the little precautions to be taken are, and how experience really teaches them better than any formula.

I follow your process now when I take a Talbotype, almost exactly as I taught myself to do it in 1845–6 & I only wish I could now produce pictures equal to the avenues & trees which I used to do then. I have no doubt if I could give a clear month to it, I should do better ones.

Believe me, my dear Sir Yours very truly
Nevil Story Maskelyne

Turn over

It would be worth while finding out how many good pictures result from the £2000 a year Mr Thomas of Pall Mall <16> makes by the manufacture of Collodion! It would furnish a good argument against those who abuse your formula for its want of correctness or difficulty of application –


1. Story-Maskelyne lectured on mineralogy and chemistry at the University of Oxford, and had a laboratory in the lower part of the museum building. He lived and lectured there from 1851–1857.

2. See Doc. No: 07068 for WHFT’s concerns about the accuracy of this.

3. Carl Ewald, Ph.D. See Doc. No: 07089.

4. The wet collodion on glass negative process was given freely to the public in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857), a sculptor and photographer. He disclosed the operational details in an 18 February 1851 letter published in The Chemist, n.s. v. 2 no. 19, March 1851, pp. 257-258. It soon supplanted the calotype negative in most commercial applications, however, many true amateurs remained loyal to the paper negative for some time after this.

5. John Frederick Newman ( ca.1789–1860), philosophical instrument maker to the Royal Institution, (and later his son) operated from 122 Regent Street, London from 1826 to 1862, when the the building was sold to Negretti and Zambra. After 1846, the Sun Picture Rooms, operated by Nicolaas Henneman (1813–1898), Dutch, active in England; WHFT’s valet, then assistant; photographer, were located at the same address.

6. The prepared paper could be used either wet or dry, as WHFT makes clear in Doc. No: 07068.

7. See Doc. No: 07068.

8. Basset Down House, the Story-Maskelyne family seat, located about three miles southwest of Swindon, Wiltshire.

9. George Dollond (1774–1852), optician and scientific instrument maker.

10. See Doc. No: 05479, Doc. No: 05483.

11. The British Association for the Advancement of Science.

12. Philosophical Magazine.

13. Joseph Cundell (1818–1895), publisher, London.

14.Nicolaas Henneman (1813–1898), born in Holland and trained in Paris, was WHFT’s valet who emerged as his assistant in photography. Henneman set up his Calotype works at 8 Russell Terrace, Reading. Commencing operations at the start of 1844, it functioned both as a photographic studio and as a photographic printing works and continued through late 1846, at which time Henneman transferred his operations to London. Although Talbot supported Henneman through custom, such as printing the plates for The Pencil of Nature, and loans, it was always Henneman's operation. His business cards made no mention of "The Reading Establishment," the designation that it is popularly given today; the only contemporary use of that title seemed to be by Benjamin Cowderoy - see Doc. No: 05690.

15. Charles Chevalier (1804–1859), optician, Paris.

16. See Doc. No: 06862.