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WHF Talbot: Biography

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Portrait of Talbot by Ivan Szabo, c. 1850s
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William Henry Fox Talbot was born on 11 February 1800 at Melbury, Dorset, the only child of William Davenport Talbot (1764-1800) of Lacock Abbey and Elisabeth Theresa (1773-1846), daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester. Talbot was only five months old when his father died and his mother was faced with an estate in ruinous condition. The boy and his mother lived in a succession of family homes until Lady Elisabeth remarried in 1804 to Captain (later Rear Admiral) Charles Feilding (1780-1837). It was then that Talbot gained a real father and, soon, two half-sisters, Caroline Augusta Feilding (1808-1881, later Lady Mt. Edgcumbe) and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding (1810-1851, later Horatia Gaisford). Talbot's extensive family connections provided him access to elite circles in science and politics. Although referred to as ‘Fox Talbot’ by some of his contemporaries and many later writers, he strongly disliked this use of the family name, almost always signing Henry F. Talbot or H.F. Talbot. Lady Elisabeth, a petite but formidable and highly intelligent woman, restored the Lacock Abbey estate before Talbot attained his majority.


Although reclusive by nature, Talbot was a brilliant student. His mother was his primary tutor, and her facility with foreign languages clearly stimulated Talbot's later philological and translation work. Intense interest in botanical studies and gardening throughout Lady Elisabeth's family inspired Talbot's lifelong involvement in botany. He was accepted at Harrow School in 1811 and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1817, becoming a Scholar in 1819. In 1820 he won the Porson University Prize in Greek verse. In 1821, he became twelfth Wrangler and won the second Chancellor's Classical Medal before securing his B.A. Talbot proceeded M.A. in 1825.

On 20 December 1832, he married Constance Mundy (1811-1880) of Markeaton in Derbyshire. Almost simultaneously, he was elected to Whig (reformist) Parliament as the reform candidate for Chippenham. By the time he met John (later Sir John) Herschel in Munich in 1824, Talbot had already published six papers in mathematics. This chance meeting established a friendship and a scientific collaboration crucial to Talbot's later success and probably influenced Talbot's turn towards research into light and optical phenomena. In 1826, Herschel introduced him to Dr. David Brewster, the important Scottish scientist and encyclopedist. Brewster and Talbot's researches on light frequently overlapped. Brewster began publishing Talbot's scientific articles in his journal and the two men forged an unusually close and lifelong friendship. This is fully reflected in their correspondence. 


It is for the invention of photography that Henry Talbot's reputation will always be strongest. During a recess of Parliament in October 1833, he had his famous intellectual breakthrough. In the company of his sisters and his new wife on the shores of Italy's Lake Como, he found himself in the frustrating position of being the only one in the group unable to sketch the scenery. The camera lucida (a drawing instrument unrelated to photography) was of no assistance. As he explained in the introduction to the Pencil of Nature in 1844: "when the eye was removed from the prism – in which all had looked beautiful – I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold." A decade before, also in Italy, Talbot had tried to sketch using the common artist's tool, the camera obscura, but with no better success. This led him to "reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature's painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus – fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away... the idea occurred to me... how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper." And thus was the concept of photography born.

Talbot could not conduct his experiments while travelling and was immediately plunged back into Parliamentary duties upon returning to England. At Lacock Abbey, sometime later - in spring of 1834 - he began to convert his dream into reality. By coating ordinary writing paper with alternate washes of table salt and silver nitrate, Talbot embedded a light-sensitive silver chloride in the fibres of the paper. Placed in the sun under an opaque object such as a leaf, the paper would darken where not defended from light, producing a photographic silhouette. Talbot called the resulting negatives (a term devised later, by Sir John Herschel) sciagraphs – drawings of shadows. 

Talbot continued his researches in Geneva during the autumn. Unable at this stage to use his paper in the camera, he asked an unidentified artist friend to scratch a landscape design into opaque varnish coated on glass. Using this as a negative, he then made multiple copies on his photographic paper, originating the artistic technique later known as cliché-verre. It was also in Geneva that Talbot first mentioned stabilizing his images against the further action of light by washing them with potassium iodide – a process now called fixing (again, Herschel's term). Another method of fixing, probably noticed by Talbot even before Geneva, was based on his observation that the edges of his paper sometimes darkened at a different rate than the centre. Tracing this to different proportions of salt and silver, Talbot determined that a strong solution of table salt defended the image against further action of light.

Encouraged by the "brilliant summer" of 1835, Talbot laboured to increase the sensitivity of his coatings sufficiently to make camera negatives practical. He immediately grasped the idea that his negatives could themselves be printed on sensitive paper, reversing the tones back to normal and allowing the production of multiple prints from one negative. While his cameras at this stage were small, crude wooden boxes, left about the grounds of Lacock Abbey for long exposures (leading to Constance once calling them "mousetraps"), the fundamental concepts of permanent negative-positive photography were all within Talbot's grasp two years after his initial frustration at Lake Como. By the end of 1835, although he had already achieved a high degree of success, Talbot desired to improve matters further before publication, and the knowledge of his discovery remained within his family.

During the following three years, Talbot was fully engaged in other optical studies and in refining his mathematical works. And while Talbot had found little taste for politics, attending Parliament faithfully but speaking infrequently, his retirement in 1835 had not stopped his political life. In 1838, when the "Royal vegetable patch" now known as Kew Gardens was threatened with closure, Talbot challenged the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He then galvanized the Council of the Linnean Society to petition the Commons. Although carried through by others, it was largely Talbot's initiative, born of strong personal convictions, that firmly established this treasure as a national collection. In 1836, because of his investigations of crystals, he was invited to give the prestigious Bakerian Lecture to the Royal Society. In 1838, he received the Society's Royal Medal for his work in mathematics. By the start of 1839, Talbot had published nearly thirty scientific papers and two books, with two more to follow within the year.


During November 1838, Henry Talbot finally returned to his photographic experiments and started drawing up a paper for presentation to the Royal Society. In a brutal shock just weeks later, word came from Paris in January 1839 that Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre had frozen the images of the camera obscura. With no details disclosed, Talbot was placed in the dilemma of the loss of his discovery if Daguerre's method proved identical to his. In the gloomy light of an English winter, Talbot could not demonstrate his own process, but on 25 January Michael Faraday displayed some of Talbot's still-preserved examples from 1835 at the Royal Institution. On 31 January, Talbot's "Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing" was read before the Royal Society. This hastily written but wide-ranging paper gave a new name to his process and explored many of its implications. Three weeks later, Talbot detailed his working procedures before the Royal Society.

Daguerre's method, disclosed seven months later, proved to be totally different from Talbot's, but the damage was already done. Fervent support by the French government and singularly impressive early results gave the Frenchman an early lead. The year 1839 was unremittingly gloomy for the English inventor, both in the weather and in his own spirits. The Royal Society gave him little support, refusing to publish his work on photography in their Transactions (they were to partially atone for this with the award in 1842of their prestigious Rumford Medal). Fortunately for Talbot, the sun acquired unusual vigour early in 1840. Spurred on by the active experimenting of Herschel and the enthusiastic support of Brewster, Talbot succeeded by summer in producing a significant body of hauntingly beautiful photographs. The very process Talbot had invented had taught him to see, giving him for the first time the ability to rapidly translate the complex scenes of nature into monochrome renderings on paper. He was the first artist to be tutored by photography and, in turn, he became its first artist.


Talbot's photogenic drawings had been achieved by the direct action of light. When the negative was removed from the camera, the image was fully visible, but this required enormous solar energy and thus very long exposures. Talbot's continuing researches paid off in a series of brilliant observations in September 1840. He discovered that a very short exposure triggered an invisible effect in his silver paper. By employing a chemical developer, Talbot could build this latent image into a full-strength negative. Exposure times, previously measured in minutes or even hours, plunged to seconds. Publicly announcing this new negative process the following spring, Talbot called it Calotype Photogenic Drawing; it was soon known as the Calotype, or amongst his friends, the Talbotype. Responding to the urgings of his mother and of Brewster, Talbot patented this process. It was a move that was to bring him no end of grief, and some of the complexities of this situation can be understood through reading his correspondence about them.

In 1839, the extra step of making a negative seemed disadvantageous compared with Daguerre's direct process. However, the unique value of the negative as a source of multiple prints ultimately triumphed. Talbot's financial support enabled his former valet, Nicolaas Henneman, to set up a commercial photographic works at Reading. Opened late in 1843, Henneman's establishment was geared to the mass production of original photographic prints to compete with engravings and lithographs. In June 1844, Talbot began selling his serial Pencil of Nature, illustrated with original photographic prints and designed to demonstrate the potential of photographic publication. In 1845, Talbot issued by subscription Sun Pictures in Scotland, illustrated with 23 original photographic prints. Another 6000 original prints were supplied to the Art-Union for inclusion in its 1846 volume. This all went tragically wrong. Only when put to the test of mass production was the inherent vice of photographic publishing revealed. Each hand-coated sheet of paper was exposed under fickle sunlight, then fixed and washed, often with inadequate or contaminated water supplies. With so many variables, insuring the stability of silver-based prints proved impossible. Many of the photographic plates began to fade, often to the derision of artists who had felt threatened by the new invention. With the death in 1846 of Lady Elisabeth, Talbot lost both a demanding friend and the inspiration for many of these pioneering projects. The Pencil of Nature, a bold effort ahead of its time that had drawn praise from contemporary critics, was discontinued after 24 prints in six fascicles had been issued.

Other complications ensued. Of Talbot's various patents, four were for motive power, two dealt with metallurgy, and six were concerned with aspects of photography. None of his patents was lucrative and the ones for photography began to cause him great anxiety. Talbot's motivations for patenting photography were complex. Part came from the tense competitive circumstances of 1839. Whereas Daguerre received lavish French government support and public recognition, Talbot was all but ignored by his own government. He had freely published this piece of photogenic drawing, but received little recognition. While Talbot's terms for the calotype patent were generous, it undoubtedly limited the spread of photography on paper in the 1840s, at a time when resentment against patents in general was widespread. Scott Archer's wet collodion of 1851 process produced a negative by bringing out a latent image in a chemical developer. Talbot felt that its conceptual basis lay in his original invention and should be covered by his patent. Meanwhile, wealthy amateurs, interested in forming a photographic society, viewed Talbot's patent as an impediment. He was persuaded by 1852 to relinquish all coverage save for the commercial production of portraits. But still this proved insufficient. Talbot was savagely (and generally unfairly) attacked in print. Even his priority of invention was contested, with implications that he had appropriated others' work. When tested in court in December 1854, in spite of affidavits by Sir John Herschel and Sir David Brewster, Talbot's patent was effectively destroyed. The court recognized him as the true inventor of photography but ruled that newer processes were outside his patent. The acrimonious proceedings had stained Talbot's reputation so severely that the prejudices raised continue to surface in historical literature.

Printer's Ink

This ruling came as a great personal blow to Talbot, adding to the chronic ill health that dogged him in the closing years of the 1840s. Removed from further experimenting, he ceased to take original photographs. But as his health began to recover in the 1850s, Talbot proved far from discouraged, as he began building on experiments dating from the very beginnings of his photographic researches. Finally accepting that silver images could never be made truly permanent, Talbot sought a way to realise his photographic images in time-proven printer's methods. In 1852, Talbot patented his photographic engraving process, which produced an intaglio plate that could be printed by conventional methods – the final rendering of the photographic image was in stable printer's ink. Increasingly spending more time resident in Edinburgh, Talbot was able to draw on its innovative printing industry. By 1858, he had evolved a much-improved process, which he called photoglyphic engraving and a second patent was granted. These were direct ancestors of the modern photogravure process, and while they did not succeed commercially within his lifetime, Talbot was on absolutely the right track in this pursuit. Into the twentieth century, far more photographs were seen rendered in ink than in silver. He continued to perfect these processes until the end of his life, finally spending more time on photomechanical printing than he ever had on photography. The 1862 International Exhibition in London awarded photoglyphic engraving a prize medal.

Talbot remained intellectually active throughout his life. In later years, in addition to his work on photoglyphic engraving, he turned increasingly to studies of the Assyrian Cuneiform, publishing many important translations. After a persistent illness, he died in his study at Lacock Abbey on 17 September 1877 and was buried at Lacock.


Talbot left extensive archives of photographs, correspondence, manuscripts and research notes. His son, Charles Henry, inherited these, along with Lacock Abbey. On his death, he gave the Abbey and its contents to his niece, Miss Matilda Gilchrist-Clark (1871-1958), the Scottish-born daughter of Talbot's third daughter, Matilda Caroline. The niece changed her surname to Talbot and actively managed the Abbey and the village. In the 1930s, she made extensive efforts to get her grandfather's work (especially that in photography) preserved, and generously distributed examples worldwide. She gave the largest group of photographically related material to the Science Museum (now transferred to the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford). In 1944, Miss Talbot presented Lacock Abbey to the National Trust. Most of Talbot's correspondence and research notes are still owned by the family.

In a handwritten reminiscence of his father, Charles Henry Talbot concluded that Henry Talbot's "mind was essentially original... he disliked laborious application in beaten paths." In 1863, Edinburgh University celebrated this intellectual diversity by awarding Talbot an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In conferring the degree in the same ceremony that honored Lord Palmerston, in whose Reform Parliament Talbot had served, Professor Muirhead said that Talbot's degree recognized not so much his political contributions, but rather "his pre-eminence in literature and science, and the benefits his discoveries have conferred upon society." The inventor's name is preserved in various scientific fields: in mathematics, there is the "Talbot's Curve"; in physics, "Talbot's Law" and the "Talbot" (a unit of luminous energy); in botany, two species are named after him; in astronomy, a crater of the moon is named after him.

Larry J Schaaf

The above is adapted from the entry for the New Dictionary of National Biography – for more information on this forthcoming publication, see its website at

For more extensive accounts of Talbot's life, please consult the Bibliography

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