link to Talbot Project home page link to De Montfort University home page link to Glasgow University home page
Project Director: Professor Larry J Schaaf

Back to the letter search >

Document number: 3987
Date: 07 Dec 1839
Recipient: HERSCHEL John Frederick William
Author: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Collection: Royal Society, London
Collection number: HS 17:299
Last updated: 8th June 2016

Lacock Abbey
Decr 7th 1839

My Dear Sir

I enclose a little sketch of the interior of one of the rooms in this house, with a bust of Patroclus on a table. <1> There is not light enough for interiors at this season of the year, however I intend to try a few more. I find that a bookcase <2> makes a very curious & characteristic picture: the different bindings of the books come out, & produce considerable illusion even with imperfect execution. I will write to Town & enquire whether Daguerre <3> has yet enrolled the specification of his patent. Six months are allowed, but that time must be nearly expired. The last I heard of it was, that he had by his agent applied to the Lord Chancellor for an injunction to restrain the Adelaide Gallery from showing the process; but although this application was ex parte, the Chancellor refused to do so. I do not know whether this portends that the patent will not be sustained.

In a subject in which common sense enters in so very small a proportion as it does in our Patent Laws, it would be unsafe for anyone but a Lawyer to hazard an opinion. I do not learn from your letter whether you have yourself experimented on the Daguerreotype <4> – Ive procured all the apparatus from Paris,<5> but not yet had leisure to attempt a single picture. My method of acting on glass is simply, to expose it at a red heat to the vapour of Phosphoric Acid; this corrodes the surface in undulating microscopic furrows, and if you look at a Candle thro’ the glass you see it surrounded with beautiful coloured Halos. I am sorry that your great Astronomical work should oblige you to withdraw your attention entirely from Photography, & trust however that you will occasionally revert to the latter as an amusement, especially as the experiments require only occasional superintendence, & during the greater part of the time, execute themselves.

Your process with the 2 liquids which you call A and B, one of which obliterates the photograph & the other restores it, is certainly very extraordinary, especially as you say it may be exposed to the sun during the interval, which presupposes a certain kind of fixation. I have not met with any phenomena of this description. By the way your experiment seems applicable to another purpose, that of secret writing, like a sympathetic ink, unless indeed the concealed images or letters are rendered visible by ordinary chemical reagents, or by heat.

Your method of taking pictures with the Camera is entirely the same in principle, though somewhat different in the details, from that which I have employed for some months past, often with great success. I enclose some bits of my paper, which requires to be washed with nit. silver to make it sensitive, and I shall be glad if you could spare me a bit of yours, in order that an accurate comparison may be made of their respective sensibilities & other qualities. I believe they differ in one respect, for you say that yours, if washed with the silver solution & not then used, darkens spontaneously whereas mine remains white, but loses it sensibility & has therefore to be washed again when used.

I rather deprecate a too hasty disclosure of this method, as I am convinced we are only on the threshold of what may be done. Although the perfection of the French method of Photography cannot be surpassed in some respects; yet in others the English is decidedly superior. For instance in the capability of multiplication of copies, & therefore of publishing a work with photographic plates. Do you find that your camera views on the most sensitive paper, give good transfers, & many of them, without wearing out, or suffering change? The effect which I obtained from Moonlight in 10 minutes does not seem to have been so great as what you found in 55, with the salted paper. I am going to try exactly your proportions &c with acetate of lead in order to see which paper deserves the preference, yours or mine, but as I do not measure my nitrate silver by its spec. gravy I should be glad to know how many grains of crystallized salt, to the oz. of water answers to your sp. gravy of 1.20.

I am rather surprised that you find the Hyposulphite never to fail. I find that unless it is strong it does not fix the lights quite white, but they have a dirty or gloomy appearance; and if it is strong, it is apt to destroy the more delicate shadows.

Yours very truly
H. F. Talbot

Sir J. Herschel Bart
&c &c &c


1. Patroclus was a favourite subject for WHFT’s photogenic drawings and later calotypes. Although no print has been located in the dispersed Herschel collections, this image is probably WHFT’s view of Patroclus in the window, made on 23 November 1839, reproduced in Larry J Schaaf, Out of the Shadows; Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992) p. 90. Schaaf 2319.

2. On 26 November 1839, WHFT had made an image of one of his bookcases. The negative (totally faded) is in the Fox Talbot Collection, the British Library ( Schaaf 2319). One print was in an album of the Lady Jame Montgomerie; it is now in Special Collections at Glasgow University Library, B36/2. Another print is illustrated in Larry J. Schaaf, The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), plate 16.

3. On August 14, 1839 patent agent Miles Berry obtained a Writ of the Privy Seal for a New or Improved Method of Obtaining the Spontaneous Reproduction of All the Images Received in the Focus of the Camera Obscura, specification to be enrolled six months later. Berry was acting on behalf of Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), French artist, showman & inventor who wished to patent his invention in England.

4. Herschel had experimented with the Daguerreotype by 1 October, working with his neighbor, Dr. Edward Craven Hawtrey. Three days later, Hawtrey had succeeded in a picture of a statuette of the Laocoon. However, Herschel soon moved on to experiments with the 'Daguerreotype on Glass.' See Schaaf, Out of the Shadows, p. 85.

5. Uncle William had assisted WHFT in getting an early Daguerre apparatus by transporting it via the diplomatic pouch - see Doc. No: 03963.