Talbot’s final venture into photographic publishing with the Reading Establishment 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 circulations were 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.
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