Feb 112016


Today is the birthday (1800) of William Henry Fox Talbot who was a British scientist, inventor and photography pioneer who invented the salted paper and calotype processes, precursors to photographic processes of the later 19th and 20th centuries. His work in the 1840s on photomechanical reproduction led to the creation of the photoglyphic engraving process, the precursor to photogravure. He was the holder of a controversial patent which impacted the early development of commercial photography in Britain. He was also a noted photographer who contributed to the development of photography as an artistic medium. He published The Pencil of Nature (1844–46), which was illustrated with original salted paper prints from his calotype negatives, and made some important early photographs of Oxford, Paris, Reading, and York.


The Pencil of Nature, was published in six installments between 1844 and 1846, and has good claim to be the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published. It was written by Talbot and published by Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans in London. The book detailed Talbot’s development of the calotype process and included 24 calotype prints, each one pasted in by hand, illustrating some of the possible applications of the new technology. Since photography was still very much a novelty and many people remained unfamiliar with the concept, Talbot felt compelled to insert the following notice into his book:

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

The Pencil of Nature was published and sold one section at a time, without any binding (as with many books of the time, purchasers were expected to have it bound themselves once all the installments had been released). Talbot planned a large number of installments; however, the book was not a commercial success and he was forced to terminate the project after completing only six. Given the laborious method of production and expense, this is hardly surprising.


Shortly after Louis Daguerre’s (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/daguerrotype/ ) invention of the daguerreotype was announced in early January 1839, without details, Talbot asserted priority of invention based on experiments he had begun in early 1834. At a meeting of the Royal Institution on 25 January 1839, Talbot exhibited several paper photographs he had made in 1835. Within a fortnight, he communicated the general nature of his process to the Royal Society, followed by more complete details a few weeks later. Daguerre did not publicly reveal any useful details until mid-August, although by the spring it had become clear that his process and Talbot’s were very different.


Talbot’s early “salted paper” or “photogenic drawing” process used writing paper bathed in a weak solution of ordinary table salt (sodium chloride), dried, then brushed on one side with a strong solution of silver nitrate, which created a tenacious coating of very light-sensitive silver chloride that darkened where it was exposed to light. Whether used to create shadow image photograms by placing objects on it and setting it out in the sunlight, or to capture the dim images formed by a lens in a camera, it was a “printing out” process, meaning that the exposure had to continue until the desired degree of darkening had been produced. In the case of camera images, that could require an exposure of an hour or two if something more than a silhouette of objects against a bright sky was wanted. Earlier experimenters such as Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Niépce had captured shadows and camera images with silver salts years before, but they could find no way to prevent their photographs from fatally darkening all over when exposed to daylight. Talbot devised several ways of chemically stabilizing his results, making them sufficiently insensitive to further exposure that direct sunlight could be used to print the negative image produced in the camera on to another sheet of salted paper, creating a positive.

Daguerre’s work on his process had commenced at about the same time as Talbot’s earliest work on his salted paper process. In 1839, Daguerre’s agent applied for English and Scottish patents only a matter of days before France, having granted Daguerre a pension for it, declared his invention “free to the world”. The United Kingdom and the British “Colonies and Plantations abroad” therefore became the only places where a license was legally required to make and sell daguerreotypes. This exception is now usually regarded as both an expression of old national animosities, still smoldering just 24 years after Waterloo, and a reaction to Talbot’s initial aggressive assertion of an extremely broad claim of priority of invention. Talbot never attempted to patent any part of his printed-out silver chloride “photogenic drawing” process.

In February 1841, Talbot obtained an English patent for his developed-out calotype process. At first, he sold individual patent licenses for £20 each; later, he lowered the fee for amateur use to £4. Professional photographers, however, had to pay up to £300 annually. In a business climate where many patent holders were attacked for enforcing their rights, and an academic world that viewed the patenting of new discoveries as a crass hindrance to scientific freedom and further progress, Talbot’s behavior was widely criticized. One reason Talbot later gave for vigorously enforcing his rights was that he had spent, according to his own reckoning, about £5,000 on his various photographic endeavors over the years and wanted to at least recoup his expenses.


In 1844, Talbot helped set up an establishment in Baker Street, Reading, for mass-producing salted paper prints from his calotype negatives. The Reading Establishment, as it was known, also offered services to the public, making prints from others’ negatives, copying artwork and documents, and taking portraits at its studio. The enterprise was not a success.

Rather than explore Talbot’s inventions and personal history more I’d like to present a small gallery of his works using various processes. To my eye, many are breathtakingly beautiful, and are also priceless records of his life and times.

ht12 ht11 ht10 ht9 ht8 ht7


William Henry Fox Talbot (British, 1800–1877) Group Taking Tea at Lacock Abbey, August 17, 1843 Salted paper print from paper negative; Mount: 9 15/16 in. × 13 in. (25.3 × 33 cm) Sheet: 7 3/8 × 8 15/16 in. (18.7 × 22.7 cm) Image: 5 in. × 7 1/2 in. (12.7 × 19 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Maurice B. Sendak, 2013 (2013.159.50) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/306333


Given that Talbot’s studio was located in Reading, and a great many of his photographs were of Victorian Reading I thought I would give you Reading sauce as my recipe of the day. Reading sauce is virtually unknown now, but it was very popular in Victorian times. In Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, Fogg one day had for his breakfast at the Reform Club in London “. . . a side-dish, a broiled fish with Reading sauce.” Lewis Carroll wrote:

Then, fourthly, there are epithets, That suit with any word
As well as Harvey’s Reading Sauce, With fish, or flesh, or bird.


The sauce rivaled Worcestershire sauce in Victorian times but fell out of favor in the early 20th century. However, there have been attempts recently to revive interest – especially in Reading. Here, of course, is Mrs Beeton.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—2-1/2 pints of walnut pickle, 1-1/2 oz. of shalots, 1 quart of spring water, 3/4 pint of Indian soy, 1/2 oz. of bruised ginger, 1/2 oz. of long pepper, 1 oz. of mustard-seed, 1 anchovy, 1/2 oz. of cayenne, 1/4 oz. of dried sweet bay-leaves.

Mode.—Bruise the shalots in a mortar, and put them in a stone jar with the walnut-liquor; place it before the fire, and let it boil until reduced to 2 pints. Then, into another jar, put all the ingredients except the bay-leaves, taking care that they are well bruised, so that the flavour may be thoroughly extracted; put this also before the fire, and let it boil for 1 hour, or rather more. When the contents of both jars are sufficiently cooked, mix them together, stirring them well as you mix them, and submit them to a slow boiling for 1/2 hour; cover closely, and let them stand 24 hours in a cool place; then open the jar and add the bay-leaves; let it stand a week longer closed down, when strain through a flannel bag, and it will be ready for use. The above quantities will make 1/2 gallon.

Time.—Altogether, 3 hours.

Seasonable.—This sauce may be made at any time.