Between 1844-6, William Henry Fox Talbot used the title The Pencil of Nature for his set of published prints which featured images of botanical specimens, photograms, still life and landscapes. Photography was very young at the time of the Pencil of Nature; this set being the first published photographically illustrated book. Talbot first investigated the usage of the camera obscura and camera lucida to aid his sketches by tracing the image projected onto the paper through the prism; “it was his inability to draw which caused him to experiment with a mechanical method of capturing and retaining an image” Leggat, 2000.
Through his want to record the everyday beautiful without the need of an artistically skilful hand, came his procession into photography. Talbot saw the results of his investigations not as a collection of random images, but “the possibilities he saw for photography, including pictorial, scientific and technical usages” Marshall, 2004. Talbot had a scientific outlook and sensational enthusiasm for his calotypes, a paper process which he invented.
He saw them as successful outcomes of his intention to fix the image he saw, exactly as he saw it without “the recourse of the artist’s pencil” Scharf, p14, but only for a very short time without a fixative. He was recorded in the Fox Talbot Museum as having problems with the salt print fading rapidly, “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably and remain fixed upon the paper”. The problem of the disappearing image was later solved by Sir John Herschel’s invention of fixative.Order now
From the plates of the Pencil of Nature, two images that I believe to illustrate the title well are Flowers Leaves and Stem, and Transverse Section of a Stem. The image Flowers Leaves and Stem is a botanical photogram, showing the form of flowers and plants. Talbot did this print by placing leaves and flowers onto paper soaked in sodium nitrate and sodium chloride, making it light sensitive, and positioning it in direct sunlight. After chemical development, the final image is a drawing of flora by the sun.
Detail can be seen in some parts of the image where the light has penetrated single petals, offering the subscribers of the Pencil of Nature a slightly different view into the botanical, as the more scientific Transverse Section of a Stem does. Transverse Section of a Stem is a microgram of a stem, created by light passing through the stem slice onto treated paper through the microscope. This is something that people would not see with the naked eye, and not without a microscope, arousing interest in the piece. The image shows both the negative and the positive.
The positive was attained from the negative by placing the negative onto a sheet of chemically treated paper, then exposing it to the sun. The result is a directly reversed image of the negative. This was the first process that enabled people to make multiple copies from a negative, unlike existing processes that were one-off shots. Transverse Section of a Stem reflects Talbot’s scientific approach to photography; what was first made as an aid to drawing continued as an investigation into the sciences and later, an experiment into a new form of artistic expression. Apart from the scientific, Talbot also shows a strong artistic taste.
From the Pencil of Nature, it was the more artistic pictures “that attracted the most attention” Marshall, 2004. Marshall cites Talbot stating a very pictorial sense of view in his review of the Pencil of Nature; A painter’s eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feeling, and picturesque imaginings. Talbot had an affinity to the artistic, and from his want to record the beautiful sprung which I feel is best displayed in The Ladder.
The image is of three men posed in front of a stone storehouse, with a ladder leaning against the wall above the door. The three men, one facing, one side on and the other with his back to the camera, form a triangle in the image. A second triangle is formed between the ladder and the bent shadow of the ladder in the middle of the men’s triangle. Thick bare vines creep up the side of the storehouse on either side of the door, framing the subjects. The composition of the image is the key feature; it has been well thought out and is a very pictorial scene, taking after the classical painterly traditions.
Before Talbot and the few photographers in his time, scenes such as this would not have been contrived without the hand of an engraver, sketcher or painter. In Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, the first set of images were accompanied by a ‘Notice to Reader’ after it was realised that many viewers did not understand what the pictures physically were. In Marshall’s review of Pencil of Nature, he cites that the notice read “The plates of the present work are impressed by the agent of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation”.
He called his prints shadow pictures, sun paintings and sun drawings, and is quoted in Scharf’s Pioneers of Photography as stating that they were “impressed by Nature’s hand” p15. This is true, to put the process of photography simply. With the help of chemicals, it is light and shadow that is recorded on the roll of film in our camera, and light which allows us to expose the image in printing. Photography is a very common term now, but in Talbot’s time it was looked upon with fresh eyes and the process explained in words which to us now, seem too wondrous for such a familiar method.