Talbot's "The Pencil of Nature": the origins of the photographically illustrated book

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Open Door, from The Pencil of Nature. Salted paper print. London, 1845, Part 2, plate 6. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

In late 1839, the year in which he had revealed his method of making photographs, William Henry Fox Talbot wrote to his friend and advisor, the scientist John Herschel, discussing the superiority of his photographic process in its “capability of multiplication of copies, & therefore of publishing a work with photographic plates”. He was comparing his invention with the wildly successful French process for photography, the daguerreotype  – also announced in 1839 – which was limited to producing only a single, non-reproducible image plate. For Talbot, the idea of a photographically illustrated publication was an obvious extension of the capacities of the revolutionary image-making medium he had discovered.

A scientist, mathematician and photography pioneer, Talbot saw many practical applications of the newly invented photographic process for scientific illustration, archaeology, etymology, cataloguing and image reproduction. He even speculated about using photographs as evidence in the courts. Talbot also recognized the artistic potential of the new medium although, ever modest, he predicted that it would be others who would bring the new art to maturity.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Bust of Patroclus, c.1846. Salted paper print. Purchased 1975. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC. This image appears in Part X, but this particular print was made separately from those printed at Reading, and is in much better condition than those mounted in The Pencil of Nature.

Bringing a true photographically illustrated publication into existence proved a challenge, however, and Talbot had to wait until his picture-taking method evolved into his 1841 calotype process. Even then, he faced frustrating production and marketing difficulties that would have discouraged a less determined author. In the end, he could not claim the very first photographically illustrated book, since his friend, the botanist Anna Atkins, started producing her British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions in 1843, albeit in small numbers and circulated privately.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Front cover, The Pencil of Nature, London, 1844, Part 1. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Towards the end of 1844, however, Talbot was ready to issue the first part of his serial publication, The Pencil of Nature, which holds claim to being the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs. Over the next two years, five more parts were issued and the complete run included a total of 24 photographic plates. The first issue, currently on view in The Origins of Photography Library at the National Gallery of Canada's Library & Archives, contained a longish text written by Talbot describing what this new image-making technology consisted of and an account of how he came to invent it.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Introductory RemarksThe Pencil of Nature, London, 1844, Part 1. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Following the introductory essay were mounted prints, each accompanied by a letterpress text describing the subject of the photograph, also written by Talbot. The first number included five photographs; Part II, published in January of 1845, included seven plates. The carefully chosen subjects, arranged as specimens of photographic production, served to illustrate the potential for the new medium to serve the interests of general and specialized readers. They include examples of architecture, catalogue images of antiquarian collections, an image of a sculpture bust, a botanical specimen, reproductions of an ancient printed text and of a lithograph, as well as a kind of early travel photograph – a cityscape of Orleans in France. Part I was produced in nearly 300 copies; subsequent parts were produced in progressively fewer copies – Part VI was produced as only some 80 copies.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Part of Queen's College, Oxford, in The Pencil of Nature, London, 1844, Part 1, plate 1. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

To provide the infrastructure for creating the required hundreds of prints of each subject, Talbot encouraged his former servant and photographic collaborator, Nicolaas Henneman, to set up a photographic printing establishment. It started production in early 1844 and was located in Reading, situated about halfway between Talbot's home at Lacock and London. Henneman intended his business to provide photographic services to the public, but his main client remained Talbot and his biggest contract was for the prints that were mounted in The Pencil of Nature.

In these early days of photographic printmaking, the understanding of how to produce prints that would prove to be chemically stable was unfortunately imperfectly understood. This was particularly true of this first attempt to scale up print production to a commercial level. Most of Henneman's Reading prints faded in the years and decades following their production, including most of the images published in The Pencil of Nature. The most recent assessments of the reasons for this deterioration point to the intentional use of exhausted photographic fixer to produce attractive purplish-brown image tones in the finished prints, a technique that was widely practiced until it was recognized as a source of damage in the mid-1850s. It has also been suggested that the abysmally poor quality of the municipal water supply in Reading at the time ― the source of water that was used for making up the photographic processing solutions and for the all-important final wash ― may have resulted in impurities being left in the prints that cause the silver particles of the image to oxidize and fade with time.

William Henry Fox Talbot, The Bridge of Orleans, in The Pencil of Nature, London, 1845, Part 2, plate 12. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Nevertheless, copies of The Pencil of Nature are treasures for collectors and institutions dedicated to representing a complete version of the history of photography. It has been frustrating that the superb collection of photographs at the National Gallery of Canada, which includes extensive holdings of Talbot's work, much of it in excellent condition, lacked any copies of The Pencil of Nature. But along with the Origins of Photography Collection, an anonymous gift of early photographs and related material that came to the National Gallery of Canada/Canadian Photography Institute in late 2016, came an extensive library of photographic publications that included copies of the first two parts of The Pencil of Nature. These, along with a selection of other notable publications included with this gift, are shown in The Origins of Photography Library display at the National Gallery of Canada's Library & Archives.


The Origins of Photography Library is on view at the Library and Archives at the National Gallery of Canada until February 3, 2019. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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