William Fox Talbot

(1800 - 1877)
" A painter's eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable."

William Fox Talbot was born on 11 February 1800 at Melbury, Dorset, the only child of William Davenport Talbot of Lacock Abbey and Elisabeth Theresa, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester.


Talbot was only five months old when his father died and his mother was faced with the prospect of looking after an enormous Estate in ruinous condition. His mother remarried in 1804 to Capitan Charles Feilding (1780 - 1837). It was then that Talbot gained a real father and, soon, two half sisters, Caroline August Feilding and Henrietta Horatia Maria Feilding.

Talbot's extensive family connections provided him access to high-ranking circles in science and politics. His mother definitely had a tremendous influence on Talbot, who inherited her love of learning and of subjects such as languages, mathematics, politics, botany, optics and astronomy.

He was accepted at Harrow School in 1811 and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1817, becoming a scholar in 1819. In 1920 he won the Porson University Prize in Greek verse. In 1921, he became twelfth Wrangler and won the second Chancellor's Classical Medal before securing his B.A. William Fox Talbot preceded M.A. in1825.

On 20 December 1832, he married Constance Mundy and almost at the same time, he was elected and joined the parliament until 1834 as the reform candidate for Chippenham.

By the time he met John (later Sir John) Herschel in Munich in 1924, Talbot had already published six papers in mathematics. This chance meeting established a friendship and a scientific collaboration crucial to Talbot's later success and probably influenced his turn towards research into light and optical phenomena.

In 1826, Herschel introduced him to Dr. David Brewster, the important Scottish scientist and encyclopaedist. Brewster and Talbot researches on light frequently overlapped and they formed a close friendship.

In 1833, William Fox Talbot and his wife took a much-deserved vacation to France, Switzerland, and Italy. It was while relaxing at Lake Como in Italy that Talbot tried to draw some pictures with the aid of a camera lucida, but found himself in the frustrating position of not being able to sketch the scenery. Talbot's imagination turned to the possibility of the light itself drawing the picture upon the paper, by using a camera obscura.


William Henry Fox Talbot

"How charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durable and remain fixed upon the paper! And why should it not be possible? I asked myself."

When he returned, William Fox Talbot set to work experimenting and in the spring of 1834 he began to convert his dream in to reality.

By coating ordinary writing paper with alternate washes of table salt and silver nitrate, William Fox Talbot embedded a light-sensitive silver chloride in the fibres of the paper. Placed in the sun under an opaque object such as a leaf, the paper would darken where not defended from light, producing a photographic silhouette. Talbot called the resulting negatives sciagraphs - drawings of shadows.

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Talbot continued his research in Geneva during the autumn. Unable at this stage to use his paper in the camera, he asked a friend to scratch a Landscape design into opaque varnish coated on glass. Using this as a negative, he then made multiple copies on his photographic paper, originating the artistic technique later known as cliche-verre.

It was also then that William Fox Talbot first mentioned stabilizing his images against the further action of light by washing them with potassium iodide - a process now called fixing.

Another method of fixing, probably noticed by Talbot even before Geneva, was based on his observation that the edges of his paper some times darkened at a different rate than the centre. Tracing this to different proportions of salt and silver, Talbot determined that the strong solution of table salt defended.

Talbot recognized the value in producing a negative image at first, because it meant that the picture could be duplicated. When the paper negative was soaked in oil it became transparent, and could then be contact printed onto another identically sensitised paper, a positive.


By February 28, 1835 William Fox Talbot had described in a letter the negative-positive system. His paper negative of Lacock Abbey's window, made in August 1835, survives to this day. He built many small wooden camera obscuras but he did not publicize his work. In 1835 Talbot contemplated writing a report to the Royal Academy of Sciences, but he did not see any reason to make a premature announcement until he had enough time to perfect the process. So, he set aside his photographic work and directed his efforts instead on writing a book called Hermes, or Classical and Antiquarian Research.

Daguerre and Arago's January 6, 1839 announcement in the French press of their own method of freezing the image of the camera obscura, must have come as a shock to Talbot.

He rushed to publicise his own, incomplete, work. He sent samples of his work to the Royal Institution in London, which were shown to its members on January 25th 1839. These pictures included scenes of Lacock Abbey's contact prints of lace, of engravings, and pictures made through a microscope. He also sent letters claiming his priority of invention to the French press science official Francois Arago.

Daguerre's method proved to be totally different from Talbot's, but the damage was already done. The year 1839 was a difficult year for Talbot. The Royal Society gave him little support, refusing to publish his work on photography in their Transactions.

Spurred on by the active experimenting of Herschel and the enthusiastic support of Brewster, William Fox Talbot succeeded, by the summer of 1840, in producing a significant number of beautiful photographs.


The very process Talbot had invented had taught him to see,
giving him for the first time the ability to rapidly translate
the complex scenes of nature into monochrome rendering on paper.

Talbot's photogenic drawings had been achieved by the direct action of light. When the negative was removed from the camera, the image was fully visible, but this required enormous solar energy and thus very long exposure.

Talbot's continuing research paid off in a series of brilliant observations in September 1840. He discovered that a very short exposure triggered an invisible effect in his silver paper. By employing a chemical developer, Talbot could build the latent image into a full-strength negative. Exposure times, previously measured in minutes or even hours, plunged to seconds

Publicly announcing this new negative process the following spring, Talbot called it Calotype photogenic drawings: it was soon known as the Calotype.

Unlike Daguerre who made his discovery available to the public at no fee, William Fox Talbot patented his invention in England and pursued infringers. This was one of the reasons way the Daguerreotype was more popular. He also took out a patent in France but did not seem to have enforced it.

In 1841, William Fox Talbot made another important discovery - that of the latent image. Previously, the sensitive material had to be exposed long enough to darken by the action of the sunlight alone. Talbot exposed sensitive paper, but not long enough to leave a visible image. He then applied more silver compound and the image appeared! By this he was able to dramatically shorten the exposure time needed to make an image.

Between 1844 and1846, Talbot published in two volumes the world's first book containing photographs. He named it "The Pencil of Nature" , and it included 24 pictures, among them botanical contact prints as well as scenes from Lacock Abbey.



Negatives made with Talbot's process came to be called Calotype, from the Greek "Kalos" meaning beautiful. Talbot set up Lacock Abbey as a production line for the development and duplication of prints.

Other inventions that Talbot worked on included photo etching, process he patented as photography in 1858. In 1852, he had already come across the idea of using a fine mesh screen to obtain what is now called a "halftone" print. He also predicted infrared photography, photo duplication (copy machines) and microfilm.

William Fox Talbot was an extremely talented individual who distinguished himself in almost every field he touched and he remained intellectually active throughout his life. He also left extensive archives of photographs, correspondence, manuscripts and research notes.

After persistent illness, he died in his study at Lacock Abbey on 17 September 1877.

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Further Resources

Talbot Books and Images

William Fox Talbot Museum

The Calotype Patent Lawsuit of Talbot v. Laroche, 1854

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