The Literary Gazette’s “Pencil of Nature”

by RD Wood © — an unpublished short comment written in Oct 1995.

Thomas M Weprich (‘A President Daguerreotyped’, History of Photography 19:3, Autumn 1995, 270) has noted that an advertisement placed by photographer Justin Moore appearing in a Washington newspaper on 26 March 1841 used a title phrase “The Daguerreotype or Pencil of Nature”. He points out that “The title of the advertisement employs a curious choice of words. The Pencil of Nature is familiar today as the title of the first photographically illustrated book, which was published by William Fox Talbot in 1844, three years after this notice in Washington, DC.” Indeed, like much else attributed to him, the phrase was not unique to W.H.F. Talbot. And it was not originally used with regard to either Talbot’s photogenic drawing technique or to the later calotype, but to Daguerre’s Daguerreotype early in 1839.

The weekly Literary Gazette in London on 2 February 1839 published an article of more than 1400 words about the announcements made in Paris in January 1839 and the first examinations of the Daguerreotypes produced by Daguerre. The author’s name was not given, but it has a tone of being written by the Literary Gazette’s Paris correspondent rather than a production of a London sub–editor or the editor of this influential intellectual weekly. In describing the exquisite detail revealed in those very first daguerreotype images the writer commented “ Nor can this astonish us when the radiant light, which can only act according to the immutable laws of nature, substitutes its rays for the hesitating pencil of the artist”. The title given to this report in The Literary Gazette of 2 February 1839, p.74 was “French Discovery – Pencil of Nature”.
Even so, at this period the phrase was also used elsewhere. Immediately following the article in the Literary Gazette just discussed was a report of Michael Faraday’s words at a meeting on 25 January of the Royal Institution where was displayed photogenic drawings just sent to him by Talbot to establish if necessary a date of priority. The Literary Gazette reported Faraday as saying “No human hand has hitherto traced such lines as these drawings displayed; and what man may hereafter do, now that dame Nature has become his drawing mistress, it is impossible to predict”. Now this is the same general concept but not the exact words. However when the same meeting (a lecture on Polarised light) at the Royal Institution was reported on 9 February 1839 in the London Medical Gazette (Vol. 23, 725–7) the reporter under a pseudonym of “Idios” after very briefly mentioning that Faraday had invited the audience to look at the photogenic drawings exhibited in the library remarked that “Sir Humphrey Davy, in an early volume of the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Institution, has pointed out the practicability of producing a chemical substance upon which the rays of light should act, so as to render the light and shade permanent, and thus perpetuate the drawing made by the pencil of nature.”
R. Derek Wood

Submitted to History of Photography on 9 October 1995, but was not published.


[Thomas Weprich had a revised version of his note published in The Daguerreian Annual 1995, pp.115-8, (not issued until February 1996) in which he draws attention to a comment by Larry Schaaf (in his introduction to a facsimile edition of Talbot’s Pencil of Nature published in New York in 1979) that the first use of the expression is found in a different context in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88) and suggesting that William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette found it to be suitable as a metaphor for the new art of photography.]


Literary Gazette (London), 2 February 1839, p.74:


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