Photo Histories
The Photographers' History of Photography

TITLE: The Art of Photogenic Drawing
BY: William Henry Fox Talbot
PUBLISHED 1839 by R & JE Taylor,
London for the author
SIZE: 258×208 mm

The Art of Photogenic Drawing

Fox Talbot’s pamphlet The Art of Photogenic Drawing explains the principle of unlimited copies from an original photographic negative for the very first time.

In the race to proclaim the invention of photography William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) was pipped at the post by the Frenchmen Nicéphore Niépce with his ‘heliograph’ or sun drawing of 1826, and by Niépce’s partner Louis Daguerre with his daguerreotypes of 1835. But the principle of a single original image being used to create unlimited positive copies – one of the fundamental principles of photography even in the digital age – goes to the Englishman Fox Talbot. He describes those principles for the first time in this document.

The announcement of Daguerre’s discovery, in Paris on January 7th 1839 compelled Fox Talbot to compile a document on his discovery for presentation to the Royal Society in London.

A little over three weeks later, on January 31st Fox Talbot stood before the Society and read the following from The Art of Photogenic Drawing, “In the spring of 1834 I began to put in practice a method which I had devised some time previously for employing to purposes of utility the very curious property which has been long known to chemists to be possessed by the nitrate of silver, namely its discolouration when exposed to the violet rays of light.”

The Royal Society then heard how Fox Talbot had constructed a box camera and recorded images of his west country home onto sensitised paper. As it was not until August 19th that Daguerre published his findings this may be the earliest published work in the history of photography.

Open a history book to grasp the temperament of the time. In Britain in 1839 there was a young Queen Victoria on the throne. The pace of industry and of empire were quickening.

In that year alone, tea arrived from India for the first time, the steam hammer and the fuel cell electric battery were invented, the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires began with the First Afghan War, and in literature Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby was being serialised following the success of Oliver Twist.

Louis Daguerre’s process – immediately bought by the French Government – was patented in England, Wales and the British Colonies, but “offered as a free gift” to the rest of the world. But, it seems the generosity of the French Government was tempered by the treatment of another claimant to the title ‘Inventor of Photography’, one Hippollyte Bayard. Told to supress his discovery Bayard reacted with the world’s first propaganda photograph (and perhaps the first self-portrait). The image taken in 1840 depicts Bayard a drowned suicide, he claimed, because of the injustice.

However, Fox Talbot – who maintained detailed records of his experiments – patented his own positive/negative process in London and continued to do so with most of his later inventions as well. In 1848 he profited from the sale of the patent of his process to be used in the USA.

Intended for private distribution and published by R and JE Taylor for Fox Talbot himself, an original copy of The Art of Photogenic Drawing is a rare document. On May 31st 2007 the one featured above sold at auction at Christie’s in London for £24,000 ($47,000).

The Art of Photogenic Drawing was photographed at Christie’s, London in May 2007. Text copyright © 2007 Graham Harrison.

Browse more Photo Books