1st December 1851: W. H. F. Talbot's account of dispute with the Commissioners of the Exhibition

R. Derek Wood

This document has not been previously published in print,
only in this online presentation of ‘Midley History of early Photography’


In the early 1970s the following documents concerning the exhibition of 1851 were held in the 'Fox Talbot Collection' files 148 and 148b at the Royal Photographic Society, at that period in London. Since then that Collection has been transferred to the National Museum of Photography at Bradford. File 148, being three short draft letters of 16 Nov 1851 - to Bolton and Carpmael and Knight - were catalogued at NMP as Doc No.s 06514-6 and the text has since been made available online by the Talbot Correspondence Project at http://foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/ and [here] on this 'Midley History of early Photography'. However the file 148b, a very abbreviated and difficult to decipher draft letter, does not seem to have received attention at Bradford or by the Talbot Correspondence Project (previously at Glasgow, in 2005 transferred to De Montfort University, Leicester, UK). Yet it is doubless the most significant in providing an account of events from Talbot's perspective:

Draft manuscript of a letter dated 1 December 1851 from W.H.F. Talbot to the second Earl Granville (Lord Granville: George Leveson-Gower (1815-1891) chairman of the Finance Committee of the Exhibition of 1851)

[Previously catalogued as File 148b of Fox Talbot Collection, Royal Photographic Society, this collection since transferred to National Museum of Photography at Bradford.]

[To] Ld G[ranville] Dec 1 /51
My Ld, I shall endeavour to lay before your lordship in the following remarks upon the causes which have impeded the execution of the plates of the great work on the Crystal Palace.
This photographic work was unfortunately undertaken after the 3 finest months of the year (M.J.Jy [May, June, July] ) had elapsed. At the end of July and during my absence at B'lin [1] the Executive Committee applied to Mr Henneman to undertake it. He entered into the idea with ardour, but being a foreigner and having no one at the moment to advise him, he unfortunately did not see how necessary it was before entering into an undertaking a work of such magnitude, to have a written contract drawn up and signed (which would have avoided all future difficulties by defining every part of the matter). As it was, the only agreement he made with the Executive Committee in nature of a legal contract He however contracted to supply the committee with 200 negative pictures on glass of the objects they wish for at at the rate of 3 guineas each, and with 100 negatives on paper at the rate of 2 guineas each and with 1 positive copy of each at the rate of 5 shillings, it being understood that this 1st positive copy was to be made with particular pains, therefore to be paid for at a higher price than the subsequent copies were to be furnished at a much lower price.

He [Henneman] immediately sent to Paris to engage the 2 best French photographers on glass Martens and Ferrier, and finding there was a difficulty in obtaining their services he started himself, going and returning I believe in 36 hours. No one could display greater zeal in the matter. He thus engaged the services of these artists at the rate of 2 guineas which was to be paid them for each picture, and all their expenses connected with taking the pictures (such as chemicals apparatus &c) would be provided and paid for by Henneman.

But M. Martens not liking the terms of this engagement in almost a fortnight threw up his engagement and returned to Paris, alleging he was so thwarted and impeded at the Crystal Palace that he could do nothing. Mr Ferrier remained and executed the contract, but his complaints on the same score were continual. There was great difficulty experienced owing to the bad light in the building from the calico which covered the roof being dirty, and the declining light of the sun in September, and still more in October. M. Ferrier also greatly complained that when he had everything prepared to make a fine view of some statue or other object he was frequently prevented from doing it, by the Committee [one illegible word] who informed him they had not yet procured the owner's leave to have it copied. A thing they ought to have taken most anxious pains about. Under these circumstances it is marvellous only a wonder that such good pictures should have been obtained. Mr Henneman and M Ferrier would undertake to photograph the collection of any British nobleman in a tenth part of the time (supposing the number of /ob/ pictures made to be the same) however of course such the nobleman would himself give every facility for the accomplishment of the work he ordered. But in this instance M Ferrier could only work from 6 till 9 in the morning when the advent of the public obliged him to withdraw with his instruments. 227 negatives were taken in this way, but the profit derived by Mr Henneman from the affair, was not sufficient to remunerate him for his great loss of time and neglect of his own business. The only part of this original contract between the Committee and Mr Henneman which would have been really remunerative was that for 100 negatives upon paper. In this part (being done by Mr Henneman himself) of course he received all the profits of it. But upon his furnishing to the Committee the first 20 pictures under this contract, the Committee excercised the right of rejection (which they had reserved to themselves) and rejected 19 of them. Of course Mr Henneman could not attempt to proceed further. And he made executed no more paper of that contract therefore [or thus?] losing nearly 200 guineas to which he was would have been fairly entitled. He had unfortunately (trusting entirely in the Executive Committee) neglected to stipulate for himself any right of appeal or arbitration or appeal against an unjust decision. That it was an unjust one in this instance appears from what follows. The rejected pictures were shown to Sir David Brewster, when he assured me that he thought most of them were excellent, some most beautiful.

It had all along been intended by the Executive Committee that Mr Henneman should make the positive copies from the glass negatives and it was to that he looked for his remuneration. The only question was as to the price to be paid to him. Mr Henneman since he has been in business I believe never sold a negative picture to any one, and certainly never would have sold these to the Executive Committee except that he thought he was dealing with a public body, of the highest honour, and they assured him repeatedly these negatives would become national property and be deposited most properly in the British Museum - but that he would be allowed the use of them occasionally even after they were so deposited. Upon this assurance he did what he never did before, he consented to part with the negative pictures.

On September 29 [1851] the negatives being nearly finished the Committee offered to make with Mr Henneman a contract for the positive copies at the rate of 2/6 {2 shillings and 6 pence] each, they to have the right of rejecting bad copies &c. He accepted this offer by return of post copying their own words respecting the right of rejection &c &c. Never the less they The Committee made no answer for a considerable time and then withdrew their offer, on the ground that Mr Henneman had refused to comply with other matters contained in the same letter of 29 September. But what were these matters? One of them was the following, which is certainly one of the most extraordinary [exty ?] proposals which ever emanated from any Exec public body. It was that Mr Owen of Bristol (to whom I had [previously?] given my license suitable to do so) should make a certain number of positive copies and for send them to Mr Henneman who should therefore pay Mr Owen for them and forward them to the Committee at the same price who should then pay Mr Henneman for them the same price he had paid to Mr Owen, leaving Mr Henneman (this is expressly stated) to pay out of his own pocket the any royalty due to myself I might claim on the said pictures (NB. the Committee were evidently not then aware that I had relinquished all any such claim to royalty on this occasion). This beneficial arrangement, together with 1 other point of the letter Mr Henneman refused to comply with. And it was upon that ground that the Committee rescinded the contract of the 29 September. The one other point I here allude to was this. The Committee had promised to Mr Henneman as the most beneficial advantageous part of the whole transaction to him that after the completion of the work, he should be allowed to make copies, and sell them to the public for his own benefit (see extract No. 2 and the same on many previous occasions). They now however stated that they would impose upon him a maximum price which he must not exceed (without saying what price this would be). Mr Henneman replied [several draft words deleted here] (A)
/(A) that he was willing thought 5 shillings would be the proper maximum price. The committee made no reply at the time. But they rescinded the contract of 29 September in consequence of this alleged noncompliance./

After this no comment was received from the committee for some time, when we heard to our amazement that they were going to have the work executed in France. A remonstrance was sent thro Dr. L Sir D. B. [Brewster]. immediately undertook to communicate with Col. Reid on the subject but which if he had done I think the subsequent difficulties would have been avoided. But he sought for him in vain at L & Wch [London and Woolwich?] during 2 days after which he was obliged to go to Scotland and shortly after the Col. [Reid] departed to Malta. [2]

A private Remonstrance was then [6 November] sent to the Committee through Dr. L. Playfair, [3] but remained unattended to. The points urged were that this being a patent involved the committee could not legally employ any non-licensed person to execute the photographic plates in England, nor could they legally import them from France without taking into account the not to say that this would be a most painful return for the courtesy with which all their wishes had been met on my part. The Executive Committee [merely?] informed me by letter [dated 8 November 1851 [4] ] 1st that the price of 2/6 [2 shillings and 6 pence] per copy was too great, 2ndly that Mr Henneman made bad copies which would not last possess any permanence. To the 1st point I replied [on 9 November [5] ] that the price of 2/6 was their own proposal [to Henneman] of September 29th. And to the 2nd I replied by the following offer which I trust your Lordship will consider a very reasonable one -"Would the Committee like to see specimens of positives produced by Mr Henneman from 6 to 10 years ago which have remained unaltered? In that case I would forward a parcel containing 100 of them for their inspection"

Not the slightest notice was taken by the Committee of this offer. Mr Henneman subsequently informed me that the defects in a few copies complained of by the Committee were caused by their having been done in a hurry by one of his assistants while he was himself absent making views at Osb [Osborne House, Isle of Wight] by command of her Majesty,

Finding that Mr Cole was prejudiced against Mr. Henneman had objected as to Mr Henneman's pictures I advised my other licensee Mr Knight of Foster Lane, Cheapside, to see Mr Cole and offer to take the contract either alone or making Mr Henneman such indemnity as might be agreed on between them. Mr Knight accordingly waited on Mr Cole when Mr Cole offered him the contract to make the copies at 1/ each [1 shilling]. This It seems inconsistent that Mr Cole should make him offer him the contract, and it shows (I may fairly argue) that the price which Henneman asked was the real ground of objection with the Committee and not any real or fancied imperfection in his [Henneman's] work. Mr. Knight however rejected the offer as too low and withdrew. We soon afterwards learnt that the Committee had actually made a contract with Mr. Bingham /who has no license from me / to execute the copies in France at the price of 1/6 per copy, and to furnish them to the Committee at the rate of [80?] per diem at which rate the work would be executed in 8 months.

I called [either on 17 November or "some days" later [6] ] upon Mr Knight with reference to this matter and stated it as my opinion when on my pointing out remarking that great expense would be incurred by Mr. Bingham in establishing a photographic manufactory in the south of France (supposing him to be allowed ever to do so) he informed me that Mr. Bingham would not have undertaken the contract at the price of 1/6 per copy if this had been the only consideration, but that the principle one was that Mr. B the Committee had granted to Mr. Bingham the right of selling to the public for his own benefit as many copies as he pleased, after furnishing the stipulated number to the Committee and that as Mr. Bingham intended to sell them in France where whither my patent does not extend it /the permission/ would be very valuable undertaking. I replied that the Committee could not grant such privilege to Mr. Bingham, because (apart from all other considerations) they had already granted it to Mr. Henneman: but Mr. Knight persisting in the correctness of his information I had an interview with Mr. Bingham himself when Mr. Bingham fully confirmed the statement. Nor did it appear from what he said that the Committee had taken any security or in any way tied him down bound him not to sell some of these copies in France even during the time he was employed by about the work of the Committee.

Under these circumstances the only remedy seemed to be to seek the protection of a Court of Law, and give publicity to all the proceedins. But it was thought best /
I have omitted to mention that some days previous to this I was advised/ to ask for a personal interview with the Committee - then consisting of only 2 members in activity - Mr. Cole and Mr. D. [Charles Wentworth Dilke (1810-1869)] - Accordingly I went, accompanied by my Solicitor [J. H. Bolton of Price & Bolton, Lincolns Inn, London] and had a conference with these gentlemen in the Great Exhibition Building on Monday the 17 November [1851]. The Committee then stated that they had made such arrangements with Mr. Bingham that it appeared to them the best way of terminating the difficulty would be to offer ask me to sanction their arrangement with Mr. Bingham and to offer me compensation. I replied that I had all along disclaimed any pecunary compensation - but that I would agree to accept a certain number of copies of the photographic part alone of their great work, and on that condition would myself undertake to partly compensate Mr. Henneman with a present of 200 thus undertaking ? (quite unnecessarily I must confess) a portion of the just responsibilities justly of the Committee. Mr.C and Mr. D. accepted the proposal and after a short consideration the number of copies was fixed at 15. Mr. Cole and stated that the cost of each copy to the Committee would be 30, the total therefore of 15 copies 450. I undertook on my part not to sell any of the copies but give them all away. me to put the offer The Committee then desired me to put the agreement in writing and let them have it that Monday [17 November]. I replied I would send it as soon as I could. I accordingly drew it out as follows and posted it the same evening and they of course received it on Tuesday morning [18 November] /I must observe that/ The sentence "I presume [... space of one line follows here in the draft manuscript] was not a part of the agreement entered into that day with the Committee but was merely mentioned by me as a thing that had been frequently promised (see for instance extract from correspondence No. [Space for actual number left blank in manuscript here] ). Not having an idea at the time that their sale had been likewise promised to Mr. Bingham I did not allude to it /the subject [7] / during that interview. My Solicitor who was part of the interview will bear witness that the letter my letter of 17 November of which the foregoing following is a copy correctly contains precisely the same offer which the Committee had accepted. (letter) [8]
I now considered the matter settled, except the mere formality of a reply. On Tuesday and Wednesday I heard nothing from the Committee - But on Thursday [20 November 1851] came the following answer repudiating the contract. [9]

I have only to add that I then for the first time heard of the existence of the "Financial Committee" that the gentlemen of the Executive Committee during the interview of the 17th gave no intimation that they were not fully authorized and empowered to treat with me, that my Solicitor and myself consider all both parties to be bound in honour by the agreement, that for my part I had no idea that I was a liberty to change the terms of that agreement if on reflection I should be dissatisfied with them and that such a proceeding strikes at the root of all honorable arrangement of the difficulties which must occasionally occur in the settlement of all important or complicated transactions.
[To] The Earl Granville &c &c.

References and Notes

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1.   Berlin : Talbot was “on the Continent in order to observe the total solar eclipse of the 28th of July... at the little town of Marienburg”, H. F. Talbot ‘On the production of instantaneous photographs’, The Athenaeum, 6 December 1851, p.109

2.   Sir William Reid (1791-1858) of the Royal Engineers was chairman of the Executive Committee and "undertook the duties of communicating with the public departments". Reid had been Governor of the Bermudas and then Windward Islands during most of the 1840s. His departure for Malta mentioned by Talbot was to take up his new appointment as Governor there.

3.   Dr. Lyon Playfair (1818-1898), Chemist and a Statesman of Science, had been appointed "Special Commissioner in charge of Juries". He and Henry Cole were a complementary pair and when the Science and Art Department was established in South Kensington in 1853 Playfair was Science and Cole Art. Some draft notes of Talbot's letter to Playfair, dated 6 November 1851, survive in the Talbot Collection, Lacock Abbey, LA51.75
[Note that the Talbot Collection previously at Lacock, in 2005 was transferred as a gift to the British Library, to be its permanent home.]

4.   Letter dated 8 Nov 1851, C. Thurston Thompson (on behalf of the Executive Committee) to Talbot, Lacock Abbey Collection, LA51.80

5.   A draft copy of Talbot's letter to the Executive Committee dated 9th November has survived in the Lacock Abbey Collection, LA51.81

6.   According to Talbot's letter of 16 November 1851 to his solicitor J. H. Bolton, Knight was to be interviewed by Bolton, and presumably Talbot also could have gone with him, on the following day of 17th November.

7.   Talbot must mean here the subject of Bingham being allowed the sale of prints rather than the production of prints by Bingham which had certainly been discussed - see earlier in Talbot's letter.

8.   The actual text of "letter" was not included here in the draft manuscript

9.   The answer of the Executive Committee dated 19 November appeared as item B on a separate sheet of Talbot's observations and extracts from letters, in Fox Talbot Collection file 148b, Royal Photographic Society:
"(B) Answer. November 19 [1851] – I am directed by the Executive Committee to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 17th Nov. and to say that it shall be submitted to the Finance Committee at their 1st meeting. At the same time I am to say that the proposal as now made submitted in your letter is one which the Executive Committee would not feel themselves justified in recommending for the sanction of the Finance Committee.  G. Francis Duncombe for M. D. Wyatt"
Wyatt was Secretary of the Executive Committee and G. F. Duncombe (with F. M. Harman) translated into French the official Catalogue of the Exhibition.

First page (out of 15) of Talbot draft letter to Lord Granville dated 1 Dec 1851

First page (out of 15)

of W. H. F. Talbot's draft

of letter dated Dec 1, 1851

to Lord Granville

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