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Thoughts on Talbot in 1839: a postscript to
‘Accounting W. H. F. Talbot’s Photogenic Drawing at the Royal Society in 1839’

an unpublished article by R. Derek Wood

1839 — Photogenic Drawing

As we have seen in ‘Accounting W. H. F. Talbot’s Photogenic Drawing at the Royal Society in 1839’, when reports of Daguerre’s discovery reached London in mid January 1839 Talbot became eager to be acknowledged for his past work on ‘photogenic drawing’. Yet as he had not pursued the subject during the previous couple of years, he himself had obviously realised that he had not attained the breakthrough required for his work to warrant publication. Indeed in 1839 Talbot’s past exploration of the subject was of little consequence with regard to the discovery of the central techniques required for photography. However, of special significance in 1839 was Sir John Herschel who began his investigation of photographic science and technology when that January he heard the news from Paris of Daguerre’s discovery. With admirable ease he solved the basic problem of fixation that had been the crucial barrier to success.[43] Herschel had indeed not given any previous thought to these matters, but it was immediately obvious to him that light sensitive silver salts would be the way to produce images. This illustrates well the situation in the late 1830s when such knowledge was extremely widely known. To use but one example of that fact — which does also show that Talbot was very far from unique in having pre–1839 ideas of photography. The most popular textbook of the day in England was Brande’s Manual of Chemistry. In the 1836 edition Brande described ‘a very pretty experiment showing the action of light upon nitrate of silver, was devised by Mr Wedgewood [sic] ’:

a piece of paper or other convenient material, was stretched upon a frame and sponged over with a solution of the salt [nitrate of silver]; it was then placed behind a painting upon glass; and the light, traversing the painting, produced a kind of copy of it upon the prepared paper; those parts in which the rays were least intercepted being of the darkest hues....

Yet traditional histories of photography provide more the impression that Talbot was unique in the 1830s in pursuing ideas of photography. And the established view of events in 1839 is equally Talbo–centric, but is not indeed borne out by contemporary sources. Thus Talbot may from his own efforts have captured the attention of the press in England in February 1839, but the way he obtained a stable image by converting the light sensitive silver halide combination to a non–sensitive pure chloride was only a partial solution to the problem of preservation of images. If Talbot had been absent from London, other people familiar with current knowledge as expressed by Brande would have, and indeed did, take up the challenge of solving the crucial problem of fixation. Herschel did not stand on the shoulders of Talbot — indeed it is worth noting that Herschel simply gave all his attention to research and experiments, publishing what he thought was significant, without like Talbot disfiguring publication by any obsession with obtaining priority of discovery.

At the risk of giving it even more exposure and influence, let us look (figure 3) at the beginning of one of the first of Talbot’s publications [44] that he wrote at end of January 1839 on learning that an announcement had been made in Paris about the diorama painter Daguerre inventing a way of capturing the images seen in a camera obscura. Talbot says

In the spring of 1834 I began to put into practice a method I had devised sometime previously, for employing to purposes of utility the very curious property which has long been known to chemists to be possessed by the nitrate of silver ; namely, its discolouration when exposed to the violet rays of light.

And introducing his Pencil of Nature, of 1844, Talbot gives his own ‘Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art’ that has widely formed the easy basis of many historians’ own un-investigated accounts of the history of photography:

One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy, taking sketches ... And since,according to chemical writers, the nitrate of silver is a substance peculiarly sensitive to the action of light, I resolved to make a trial of it, in the first instance, whenever occasion permitted on my return to England. ...

It now seems a familiar story. For a great deal of it became the basis of the story of the opening stages of photography as repeated by historians for more than a century. Talbot’s own words have become the paradigm that indeed strangles the discipline. If the relationship between Talbot’s own account in his first publication and the history of the beginning of photography as written by historians is not absolute, then it is primarily because the historical writings have some additional journalistic amplification which has been repeated from another variation on the theme by Talbot in the ‘Historical Sketch of the Invention’ in his Pencil of Nature of 1844.
Take that sketch and the first comments shown in figure 3 away from the history of photography and we have a situation where historians would be deprived of an easy option and would have had to have actively researched more on [to have taken more notice of] a wider range of contemporary sources published in 1839.
Take away the same publication from his contemporaries, and the following one published on 23 February where Talbot provided information about the chemicals and technique he used to produce what he called photogenic drawings, and what would have been the situation?
What if, in January and February 1839, W. H. F. Talbot had been momentarily inactive due to illness or away from public communication on a quiet holiday? So continuing our exercise of imagination of removing Talbot from the scene in January and February 1839 (of course we allow him activity after 1839 – this is not a critique of Talbot’s very significant contribution of the later calotype process, that is a very different situation) then, in the judgement of the present writer, the work and understanding of other persons in 1839 experimenting with photography on paper would not have been greatly different — the subsequent actual development of photography would have been little affected, but the writing of that history would have been less historiographically distorted [and less whining self-promotion emanated by Talbot].
However, the influence of Sir John Herschel would have been clearly recorded by early historians without constraint from a Talbo–centric mindset that actually existed.
The reality that Talbot was indeed very publicly involved at the beginning of photography in 1839 still does not change the actual influence of Sir John Herschel in 1839, except that Talbot’s own writings and long continuance in photography have hidden the importance of Herschel’s paper of 14 March 1839 because of later historiographic factors.

No doubt it can be said that Talbot did indeed participate in the opening chapter of photography in 1839, and that is a fact which cannot be imagined away. However, the purpose of the present exercise is to provide a yardstick by which the significance of Talbot’s contribution of his photogenic drawing method can be judged. It was not so significance for the development of photography as would appear from the early and standard accounts of the history of photography. This exercise better allows us to see that Talbot’s contribution in 1839 was far from being the only one, and indeed was not the most successful.
Talbot’s photogenic drawing did not allow progress in the development of photography, it was a failure. The potential inherent in the light sensitivity of silver salts for obtaining images was widely known and did not need Talbot to make that knowledge universal. On the other hand, Herschel’s grasp of what would now be call photographic science was masterly. Within a few days Herschel had entirely overtaken Talbot’s lack of progress and his announcement of the use of hypo to provide permanence to silver salt images provided the foundation stone on which photography could be built. And again in contrast with Talbot, the published work by Herschel in 1839 was truly momentous, yet obscured by the terms of reference of historians.

The author is not suggesting that recent historians have continued to entirely neglect original contemporary sources, or that Herschel’s contribution of hypo in solving the outstanding problem of the use of silver salts to obtain images by light is not now fully recognised. But when Herschel’s work is discussed it is through his manuscripts and autograph correspondence with Talbot – sources available in museum photographic collections.
Although there is a better recognition of Herschel’s work it is not in the context of the time–span of wider events of 1839 as would be obvious if the work of the historians had been done from a wide range of newspapers and journals of the period rather from those specific photographic sources which are isolated in photographic collections. In spite of discussion of Herschel due to his correspondence with Talbot, the publication of his communication to the Royal Society on 14 March is almost without exception absence from accounts of his work. A better recognition of Herschel’s work has not indeed led to readjustment of the old conceptual paradigm set by the earlier Talbo–centric literature.

End Notes

[43] See the author’s preceding article (originally written as a companion to ‘Accounting W. H. F. Talbot’s Photogenic Drawing at the Royal Society in 1839’ and this present ‘Postscript’): ‘Fourteenth March 1839, Herschel’s key to photography, the way the moment is preserved for the future’, in Jubilee — 30 Years ESHPh. Congress of Photography in Vienna, edited by Anna Auer and Uwe Schögl, Fotohof edition (nr.104), Salzburg, Austria: 2008, pp. 18-31

[44]  The history according to Talbot is found in three published sources: (a) Henry Fox Talbot, ‘Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing...’, The Athenæum No. 589 (9 February 1839), 114–17; (b)‘Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art’ in Part 1 of his The Pencil of Nature, London 1844 (a special issue on Talbot and Pencil of Nature of Image, the journal of George Eastman house, June 1959, Vol. 8, No. 2, is a useful presentation of the full text and discussion on Talbot); (c) A History and Handbook of Photography, translated from the French of Gaston Tissandier, edited by J. Thomson, Second and Revised Edition with an Appendix by the late Henry Fox Talbot, London 1878, pp. 345-382

For a bibliography of Talbot’s publications in 1839 see Addendum of ‘Accounting W. H. F. Talbot’s Photogenic Drawing at the Royal Society in 1839’.

Athenaeum (London), 9 Feb 1839, p. 114

 Figure 3 (above). The Athenæum (London), 9 Feb 1839. p. 114: first three
 paragraphs only of ‘Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing...’
 by [W.] Henry Fox Talbot.

Literary Gazette (London), 23 Feb 1839, Double-click for a larger image

 Figure 4. ‘Photogenic Drawing’
 Literary Gazette (London) No. 1153 (23 February 1839): 3 columns of pp. 123–4
 (letter dated 20 February, read at Royal Society meeting of 21 February 1839),

    For larger image click [here]

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