Harbor Scene with Boats Talbot, William Henry Fox  (British, 1800-1877)

Talbot’s final venture into photographic publishing was an ambitious scheme to provide some seven thousand prints for inclusion in the periodical the Art-Union. Beginning modestly in 1839, the journal had grown steadily from a circulation of 750 to about 7,000 copies per issue and had become an influential, authoritative source on the fine arts in Britain. Initially its illustrations were few and of poor quality, but in 1844 high-quality engravings and lithographs began to be incorporated as “inserts”; most often they were plates from already published works submitted to illustrate a new process or to encourage book sales. It was in this context that Talbot agreed to supply examples of his photographs.

In contrast to The Pencil of Nature or Sun Pictures in Scotland, whose circulation was strictly limited by their high cost, the Art-Union sold for a shilling. Through it Talbot would be able to reach a completely new audience, one that he hoped would appreciate seeing an original photograph and reading a detailed explanation of its making. His financial investment in the project was considerable—he later calculated the cost as not “less than a hundred pounds.” What he had not taken fully into account were the demands of making such a large number of prints on a short schedule. This prodigious undertaking placed a severe strain on the rudimentary facilities of the Reading Establishment and probably necessitated the cutting of corners to save time. The disastrous result became evident shortly after the journal was published in June 1846, when all seven thousand prints began to fade. As the editor of the Art-Union. Samuel Carter Hall, reflected some years later, “They are faded and gone—pieces of slurred paper, nothing more.” What had begun as a promotional opportunity for Talbot quickly turned into damaging publicity for him and his process. It is at this point, and likely because of this embarrassment that Talbot would spend the rest of his career in pursuit of printing photographs in permanent printer’s ink. [1]

In July 1849 Malone informed Talbot, ‘we are constantly and unpleasantly cross-examined on the subject. The Art Union copies containing the sun pictures seem to have done harm. The artists who have them are interested in giving every publicity to the fact of their growing faintness.’ [2]

Talbot spent the last twenty-five years of his life developing and perfecting an effective photogravure process. That he should have spent so much time developing a process for printing photographs with ink rather than silver salts is not wholly surprising. Talbot’s early photogenic drawings are so ephemeral that, despite their exceptional beauty, they can never be exhibited or exposed to light without risk of change. Even his far more stable calotypes fixed with hypo were inconsistent in their permanence, many deteriorating in quick order; a reviewer of the 1862 International Exhibition described some photographs as “fading before the eyes of the nations assembled.” Thus, Talbot’s search for a photographic process using permanent printer’s ink was a final step in the refinement of his earlier, still imperfect, invention. [3]


[1] Taylor, Roger, and Larry J. Schaaf. Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007 pp 22-23

[2] Gernsheim Helmut. The Origins of Photography. Thames and Hudson 1982.

[3] The Beginnings of Photogravure in Nineteenth-Century France, Malcolm Daniel This essay is adapted from a paper first presented at a colloquium on photogravure at the Institute for Research in Art/ Graphicstudio, University of South Florida, Tampa, March 22-24, 1995. I thank Hank Hine for the invitation to explore the topic at that colloquium and Jon Goodman, a fellow participant in Tampa, for suggesting that I contribute the paper to the present publication.