William Henry Fox Talbot

William Henry Fox Talbot was born in Wiltshire in February 1800. Educated at fine establishments, he became an eminent mathematician, astronomer, scientist and author.

Fox Talbot wanted to visually record the world he saw, but he was not an artist and he struggled to draw. In 1834, he began scientific experiments and announced his invention of the ‘photogenic drawing’ in January 1839.

His early work was simply documenting of flora and fauna. He did not aim to create any abstraction in his compositions, or line to draw the eye; he merely documented nature as it was, as a recognisable of physical reality.

His early technique, chemicals and paper mean that the images have a poor contrast, with backgrounds that lack density. However, they were a revolutionary approach to visual recording at the time.

As his work moved on, it is possible to see how he began investigation into object’s translucency, and then experiments with the patterns and line in lace (‘Lace’) add to his images aesthetic qualities and compositional elements.

‘Leaves of Orchidea’
Photogenic drawing negative, 1839

‘Lace’
Photogenic drawing negative, 1844
From ‘The Pencil of Nature’

‘Botanical specimen, Buckler fern frond’
Photogenic drawing negative, c. 1839

Photogenic drawing process

– soak writing paper in salt solution
– brush with silver nitrate to form light sensitive silver chloride
– expose paper in the sunlight (which can be unpredictable) for up to 1 hour
– stop and fix