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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Henry Fox Talbot

Born: William Henry Fox Talbot 
Other: H. Fox Talbot 
Other: H.F. Talbot 
Other: H.F.T. 
Other: Henry F. Talbot 
Other: Henry Talbot 
Dates:  1800, 11 February - 1877, 17 September
Born:  Great Britain, England, Dorsetshire
Active:  England
English polymath, inventor of the negative / positive process and printing on paper. He was a Renaissance man who researched and wrote on botany, astronomy and archaeology as well as photography. Frustrated by his attempts to draw scenery with a Camera Lucida, Talbot experimented with the action of light on certain chemicals, to capture by other means the view he was unable to draw. With the help of Sir John Herschel, he managed to control this action and "fix" the image, finally producing a negative from which an infinite number of positives could be printed. Over the next thirty years, amongst many other things, he worked on photoglyphic engraving, a forerunner of photogravure.
For excellent Internet biographies check the Internet Resources section and more specifically the Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot site initiated at the University of Glasgow and currently maintained by De Montfort University (UK).
[With contributions by Pam Roberts]
In the secondary photographic literature Talbot is almost always referred to by his full name of William Henry Fox Talbot. However, in life he was known as Henry, not William or William Henry. The signature on his letters and photographs is generally either Henry F. Talbot or H.F. Talbot. Alternately, his photographs, which often are not signed in any case, can simply bear the initials H.F.T. Some of his publications, including "The Pencil of Nature," are credited to H. Fox Talbot. Sometimes in life, and certainly quite often since, Talbot has been referred to as simply Fox Talbot, a name to which he objected. Although some of his descendants have used the multiple names, as far as Henry is concerned Fox is one of his given names (it was a maternal family name) and shouldn't be considered as part of a compound family name, with or without hyphen.
[Contributed by Greg Drake]
The William Henry Fox Talbot: Notebooks
British Library, Add MS 88942/1 : 1778-1877
The British Library collection contains notebooks, letters, photographs, diaries, unbound Assyriological and mathematical folios, natural specimens in herbaria, offprints of Talbot’s articles, patents, artefacts and a small selection of books from Talbot’s library.
Whilst the covering dates of the collection are 1647-1952, most of the material is from Talbot's lifetime.
The Talbot collection as a whole is currently being catalogued [January 2014]. To date, only the first Series of the collection (Talbot's notebooks: Add MS 88942/1) has been completed, and is therefore the only material that is presently available to readers. The extent recorded above (348 folders) refers only to this first Series and will be revised accordingly as the cataloguing project progresses.
Related Resources:
The photographs in this collection are catalogued separately in the British Library Catalogue of Photographs, which can be searched online at:
Talbot's correspondence has been calendared and transcribed by 'The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project' and is available online at A subsequent loan collection of further material came to the British Library from the family in 2008.
Regarding the wider archive, several photographic notebooks and thousands of important prints (originating in a donation to the Science Museum by Talbot's grand-daughter, Matilda, in 1934) are held at the National Media Museum, Bradford and a smaller number of items in several public and private collections. The library of the Talbot family remains at the National Trust Property at Lacock Abbey. The archive of the Talbot family and Lacock Abbey is held on deposit at the Wiltshire County Record Office.
Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55, p.339-341
by George Clement Boase
TALBOT, WILLIAM HENRY FOX (1800–1877), pioneer of photography, born on 11 Feb. 1800, was only child of William Davenport Talbot (d. 1800) of Lacock Abbey, Chippenham, Wiltshire, by Elisabeth Theresa, eldest child of Henry Thomas Fox-Strangways, second earl of Ilchester. He was educated at Harrow from 1811, and was elected a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge. He won the Porson prize in 1820, was twelfth wrangler and second chancellor's medallist in 1821, when he graduated B.A. He proceeded M.A. in 1825. The year after taking his degree he contributed to Gergonne's ‘Annales Mathématiques’ (1822, xiii. 242–7) a paper ‘On the Properties of a certain Curve derived from the Equilateral Hyperbola,’ which was followed by others in the same series, and from that time for upwards of fifty years he wrote numerous articles on mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and archæology. In 1826 he turned his attention to the chemical action of light, the results being communicated to the ‘Edinburgh Journal of Science’ and other periodicals.
On 1 Oct. 1833, when trying to sketch the scenery along the shores of the Lake of Como by the aid of Wollaston's camera lucida [see Wollaston, William Hyde], having previously tried the camera obscura for the same purpose, and wearied by many successive failures, he was led to consider whether it would be possible to make permanent the pictures which the glass lens of the camera obscura threw upon the paper. In 1802 Thomas Wedgwood [q. v.] (son of the potter) produced evanescent sun-pictures or ‘profiles by the agency of light’ upon sensitised paper, and Talbot followed up Wedgwood's line of research. After experimenting for five years he had nearly arrived at a satisfactory consummation when he learned that his results had been rivalled by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Daguerre had since 1824 been seeking to perfect the experiments of Joseph Nicéphore de Niepce of Châlon-sur-Saône, who, as early as 1824, produced permanent ‘heliotypes’ by means of glass plates coated with bitumen. Some of Niepce's ‘heliotypes’ were exhibited in London in 1827. On 7 Jan. 1839 Arago communicated to the Académie des Sciences at Paris the fact of Daguerre's successful production upon silver plates of photographic images. On 25 Jan. following Faraday briefly described Talbot's independent invention of ‘photogenic drawing’ at the Royal Institution, and on 31 Jan. Talbot communicated to the Royal Society an account of his researches, entitled ‘Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the process by which natural objects may be made to delineate themselves without the aid of the artist's pencil’ (Proceedings, 1839, iv. 120–1; Philosophical Mag. 1839, xiv. 196–211). Talbot's process consisted in producing the photographic image on writing-paper highly sensitised by chemical treatment. White images of the objects were formed after a long exposure upon a dark ground, these being the ‘negatives,’ from which ‘positives’ could be obtained by printing in the manner still employed.
In September 1840 Talbot greatly improved and accelerated the procedure by employing paper rendered sensitive by iodide of silver and nitrate of silver. This paper received in the first few seconds of its exposure to the light an invisible image, which could be rendered visible by treating it with a solution of gallic acid. This improved method, at first called the ‘calotype,’ and afterwards the ‘talbotype,’ was the foundation of the photography of the present day. Talbot patented it on 8 Feb. 1841, but his claim to priority of invention in regard to this phase of the development of photography directly conflicts with that of Joseph Bancroft Reade [q. v.] In 1851, after the introduction of the ‘collodion’ process of Frederick Scott Archer [q. v.], Talbot discovered a method by which instantaneous pictures could be taken, and in 1852 a method of photographic engraving. About 1854 he secured a gloss on photographic prints by means of albumen. All these inventions were patented; but in 1852, at the solicitations of the presidents of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy, he consented to throw open his discoveries, with the sole exception of ‘portrait-taking for sale to the public.’ In December 1854 he unsuccessfully endeavoured in the law courts to enforce his patent against Sylvester Laroche, whose development of negatives by the collodion process he held to infringe his rights.
The simultaneous invention of the daguerreotype and the calotype naturally created jealousies on both sides of the Channel. Talbot found an advocate in Sir David Brewster, and the ‘talbotype’ rapidly drove the ‘daguerreotype’ out of the field. Blanquart Evrard and others who perfected the invention of photography developed the ‘talbotype’ system of printing from negatives. If the French were unjust to Talbot in the early days of photography, they made amends at a later period, and at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 awarded him the great gold medal.
Talbot's name is so closely associated with the beginnings of photography that his mathematical powers have been overshadowed. In his memoir, ‘Researches in the Integral Calculus,’ published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ (1836, pp. 177–215, and 1837 pp. 1–18) he gave an account of his investigations upon the comparison of transcendents, which shows that he had independently been led to consider the development and generalisation of Fagnani's theorem, and was on the track that might have led him to rediscover Abel's great theorem. In 1842 he read at the British Association (Report, pp. 16–17) a paper ‘On the Improvement of the Telescope,’ and in the 41st report (1871, pp. 34–6) there is a paper ‘On a new Method of estimating the Distance of some of the Fixed Stars.’ He was, with Sir Henry Rawlinson and Dr. Hincks, one of the first to decipher the cuneiform inscriptions brought from Nineveh, and he made numerous contributions in literature and archæology to the Royal Society of Literature and to the Society of Biblical Archæology.
He was elected a member of the Royal Astronomical Society on 13 Dec. 1822, and a fellow of the Royal Society on 17 March 1831, receiving the royal medal in 1838 and the Rumford medal in 1842. He sat in the first reformed parliament for Chippenham from 1833 to 1834, and then retired from politics. He died at Lacock Abbey on 17 Sept. 1877, having married, on 20 Dec. 1832, Constance, youngest daughter of Francis Mundy of Markeaton, Derbyshire.
Of his writings the most interesting is ‘The Pencil of Nature,’ which was issued in six parts in 1844–6. It is the first book ever illustrated by photographs produced without any aid from the artist's pencil; it is now very rare. His other works were: 1. ‘Legendary Tales, in verse and prose,’ collected, 1830. 2. ‘Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Researches,’ 1838–9, two numbers only. 3. ‘The Antiquity of the Book of Genesis,’ 1839. 4. ‘English Etymologies,’ 1847. 5. ‘Assyrian Texts translated,’ 1856. He also contributed an appendix to the second edition of the English translation of G. Tissandier's ‘History and Handbook of Photography,’ 1878, and in the catalogue of scientific papers he is credited with fifty-nine contributions.
A portrait of Talbot is in the South Kensington Museum in the collection of ‘fathers of photography.’
[Proc. of Royal Soc. of London, 1878, xxvi. 427, 428; Proc. of Royal Soc. of Edinburgh, 1878, ix. 512–14; Monthly Notices of Royal Astronomical Soc. February 1878, pp. 148–51; Times, 25 Sept. 1877, p. 4; Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th edit. 1888, xxiii. 27; W. J. Harrison's History of Photography, 1888; Brothers's Manual of Photography, 1892; Werge's Evolution of Photography, 1890; Ville's Introduction to Blanquart Evrard's Traité de Photographie, 1851; Photographic News, 5, 19, 26 Oct. 1897; cf. arts. Herschel, Sir John, Ponton, Mungo, and Taylor, Alfred Swaine.]

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Henry Fox Talbot
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

William Henry Fox Talbot was one of a small group of individuals who experimented with light sensitive chemicals and optical devices in the 1830's. He is central to the birth of photography because of his calotype process, which he developed and eventually patented in 1841. This made use of ‘negatives’ from which an unlimited number of prints could be made. Talbot published the first photographically illustrated book in 1844-1846, The Pencil of Nature, which attempted to bring photography and its many uses to the attention of a wider audience. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Approved biography for Henry Fox Talbot
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Photography on paper — photography as we know it — exists because of Talbot. A brilliant only child born into the financially strapped branch of a well connected family, he was brought to his full and considerable potential through the efforts of his mother, the Lady Elisabeth Fox-Strangways, later Feilding. His half sister Horatia provided intellectual inspiration and close support, while his other half sister Caroline, later Lady Mount Edgcumbe, provided an artistic model and access to the royal court. The resonant name “Fox Talbot” so beloved of historians was actually anathema to him. Professionally he was H. F. Talbot, and to his family he was Henry. Talbot took an early interest in botany, mathematics, and travel. He had published six papers on mathematics before he met John (later, Sir John) Herschel in Munich in 1824. More than anything else, their meeting changed the direction of Talbot’s scientific life, moving it in the direction of the physical sciences and toward the work of his later close friend Sir David Brewster. By 1839, the year that photography was announced to the public, Talbot was a fellow of the Royal Society, had given their Bakerian lecture, and had published nearly thirty scientific papers and two books. More were to follow, but they were overshadowed by his invention of photography.
In 1832, while a member of the Reform Parliament, Talbot had married. In 1833 he and his new wife, Constance Mundy Talbot, commenced a Continental tour, and in the autumn they had reached Bellagio on the banks of Lake Como, where they were joined by Talbot’s sister Caroline. Talbot was frustrated by watching her and Constance happily sketching, for, with all his talents he could not draw, and even turning to Wollaston’s camera lucida only proved that science could not substitute for artistry. Talbot considered the problem with his analytical mind and realized that the light entering a camera obscura could affect physical entities. Back at his home, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, Talbot by the summer of 1834 had managed to harness light to produce an image on silver-nitrate-coated paper. He called this skiagraphy, the depiction of objects through their shadows: the light darkened the paper, producing what we now call a negative. Talbot improved this process in 1835 to the point of being able to take pictures of nature in Lilliputian cameras. He then put these primitive photographs into a drawer, having triumphed over the immediate problem and with much work to do in mathematics and crystals.
When Daguerre made his surprise announcement in 1839, Talbot was caught completely off guard and hastened to make his first presentation of photogenic drawings (as he now styled them) before the Royal Institution in London on January 25, 1839. His photographs on paper, capable of producing multiple prints, were viewed unfavorably compared to the unique daguerreotypes with their crisp detail. Talbot continued to work at his process, observing how Nature translated herself onto his paper. His autumn 1840 discovery of the latent image culminated in his 1841 calotype process, a developed paper negative with a realistic exposure time. While many refinements would follow, photography was complete at this point. Between 1844 and 1846 Talbot issued the fascicles of his The Pencil of Nature, each copy illustrated with pasted-in photographic prints. Talbot submitted a good deal of work to the 1852 Society of Arts exhibition in London, but his most significant entry was a precious album, inscribed in his own hand: The Specimens sent by H.F. Talbot are intended to exhibit an Early Period of the Art from 1841 to 1846. None of them are of a more recent date. Talbot had already moved on from photography based on silver, realizing that it could never be permanent. In 1852 he introduced photographic engraving, the first successful merger between the image of nature and the time-tested ink of the printer. In 1858 he revealed his improved photoglyphic engraving, a significant step on the path toward photogravure. Talbot spent the last thirty-five years of his life, three times as long as that of his photographic involvement, perfecting a method of bringing the photographic image to the printed page. The true dimensions of his vision were as clear as they had been in 1833. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Further research

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Henry Fox Talbot 
Family history 
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Exhibitions on this website

19th century photograph types
ThumbnailHenry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature 
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Visual indexes

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Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website
The International Photographers Hall of Fame has provided a biography. Go to website

Internet resources

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William Henry Fox Talbot ... 
BBC website 
The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot (DeMontfort University) 
This website has Professor Larry J Schaaf, a widely recognized authority on the early history of photography and the work of Fox Talbot, as a volunteer editor and includes excellent biographical information. 
Laycock Village and the Fox Talbot Museum ... 
Home of William Henry Fox Talbot one of the inventors of photography. 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.32 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.505-507 
• Weaver, Mike (ed.) 1989 The Art of Photography 1839-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press) p.469 [This exhibition catalogue is for the travelling exhibition that went to Houston, Canberra and London in 1989.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.249-250 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.262-263 
• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.8-13, 18-19 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Henry Fox Talbot are included in this classic history.] 


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