The Pencil of Nature — William Henry Fox Talbot
Book Review by Geoffrey Batchen
Published by: KWS Publishers
Often referred to as the first photographically illustrated book, William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature has nevertheless long been absent from the bookshelves of most scholars. The initial publication was issued in six parts between June 1844 and April 1846, comprising fascicles containing between three and five tipped-in photographs, each with an accompanying commentary by the author. The first fascicle also came with a ‘Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art,’ in which Talbot provides his own version of the origins of photography, centered on his invention of a photogenic drawing process. The Pencil attracted initial praise from critics but soon also garnered complaints from customers unhappy with the fading of its photographs. Originally intending to offer those customers ten or twelve installments amounting to fifty photographs in total, Talbot eventually issued only twenty-four images and the project was a discouraging financial failure. As a result there are only about 39 substantially complete copies of The Pencil of Nature now known, making it a rare collector’s item.
Those who can’t afford an original must make do with a reprint. But even these have been hard to come by. De Capo Press issued a single-volume monochrome version of The Pencil in 1969, along with an introduction by Beaumont Newhall; it currently sells for at least US$250. In 1989 a more lavish and faithful facsimile was published by the New York-based dealer Hans Kraus Jr., reproducing the original six fascicles and accompanied by a detailed introductory volume written by Larry Schaaf. Expensive then, the Kraus facsimile is unobtainable now. A version of Part 1 of The Pencil was published in Italy in 1976 and a reproduction of the whole volume was brought out in Hungary (with Talbot’s texts translated into Hungarian) in 1994, but these are also not readily available. The decision by the National Media Museum in Bradford to publish a relatively affordable (at US$150) version is therefore a welcome one.
The book is handsomely designed, allowing Talbot’s pioneering vision of photography to be appreciated by a new audience, and it comes with an accessible introductory essay by Colin Harding, the NMM’s Curator of Photographic Technology. Although offering a useful overview for the otherwise uninformed, Harding concedes from the outset that everything he tells us is synthesized from the work of others, most notably from the writings of Schaaf, the world’s leading authority on all things Talbot. As a consequence we are not told even basic information about the specificity of Talbot’s work. For example, despite Talbot’s emphasis on photogenic drawing in his opening essay, there is only one photograph made by this process in The Pencil, Plate XX, a contact print of a piece of machine-made lace. It is also the only negative in the publication. The remaining images are all salt prints from calotype negatives, thus demonstrating the versatility of Talbot’s second photographic invention, patented in 1841.
We are also not told that at least one of the photographs in The Pencil of Nature was taken by someone other than Talbot. The West Façade of Westminster Abbey, Plate XXI, was shot by Nicholaas Henneman two years before the photograph was issued as part of The Pencil in April 1846. A former servant of Talbot’s, Henneman established a photographic business in Reading in late 1843, producing over 30,000 salt prints during its three years of operation, including all the pictures included in The Pencil of Nature. In order to meet this demanding production schedule, Henneman hired a number of employees, most of them ex-shopkeepers or servants, and instituted a strict division of labour, in which some workers operated cameras, while others prepared paper, put exposed prints in frames, sold the prints to bookshops, and so on. As a result, as many as nine people might have worked on any one print, a collective labour completely subsumed under the name of ‘Talbot’ in The Pencil, as well as in this new book. The Pencil of Nature is therefore the first photographic book to be produced according to the logic of industrial capitalism, and is also the first such volume issued as a commercial enterprise, to be sold on the open market.
Harding calls this new version of the book a ‘facsimile edition.’ But what exactly does this mean? It seems to imply that this edition exactly replicates Talbot’s original publication, The Pencil of Nature from 1844-46. If so, that implication is deceptive. For a start, Talbot issued his publication in six parts, not as a single, complete book. Each part came with a paper wrapper, printed in black and red ink. There are slight differences between these wrappers. The NMM’s version simply reproduces the version issued with Part 1, as if it was a single cover. The pages that follow have been printed a salmon pink colour, uneven in tone from page to page and often appearing to be faded around the edges, as if this new book is exactly mimicking some particular ancient tome, light damage and all. It’s an odd affectation, given that the image reproductions (printed flat on the page rather than tipped in, and a little too pink in tone) are all close to perfect in appearance. They look like that because they have been reproduced from loose prints in the NMM’s collection that were never issued as part of The Pencil of Nature (there is no surviving original copy of The Pencil that does not have some significant fading of its images).
In short, this book is an idealized version of Talbot’s original scheme, not a replica of his actual publication. Moreover, for some inexplicable reason the publisher of this version has chosen to enlarge Talbot’s pages, so that the cover wrapper is about 8% larger than the original, while The Open Door, perhaps Talbot’s best known image from The Pencil, is about 10% larger than it should be. All in all, then, this is a pretty sloppy approximation of The Pencil of Nature, posing as something much more than that. Despite these shortcomings, this reprint is a reminder of the sheer ambition of Talbot’s publication, which was a carefully calibrated promotion of the utility of photography as a means of book illustration. Virtually every picture book since then can trace its ancestry back to this one. Hopefully, the renewed availability of The Pencil of Nature will now generate some substantial discussion about its significance, for the history of photography but also for the course of modern life.