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By Mark Green on

‘The Pencil of Nature’: history’s first commercial book of photography—reborn

William Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature was a photographic milestone, and we're taking steps to republish this seminal book.

On the left: our Curator of Photographic Technology, Colin Harding. On the right: Daniel Kirkpatrick of Chicago/London book publishers KWS. Two men with one very special plan: bring back to life one of the the world’s most historically important photographically-illustrated books.

The Pencil of Nature was published in six instalments between June 1844 and April 1846 by William Henry Fox Talbot. It was a real milestone: the first ever commercially-published book to be illustrated with photographs, coming just a few years after Talbot himself invented the calotype process—the foundation of modern photography.

Photography was so new in the 1840s that the book was very much an explanation of, and manifesto for, the whole idea of photography. Talbot had to explain things we take for granted today—such as the fact that, unlike a hand-painted portrait, putting more people in the frame doesn’t increase the time it takes to create the picture.

Most copies of The Pencil of Nature around the world—and only around 400 copies were ever actually sold—are deteroriating. But thanks to our unrivalled collection of both Talbot’s original prints and copies of the instalments themselves, Harding and Kirkpatrick are recreating The Pencil of Nature page by page. It’s been republished before as an expensive collector’s edition, but this is a new opportunity for libraries, schools and photography enthusiasts to own a piece of history, affordably.

It’s a painstaking process. There are two kinds of pages in The Pencil of Nature: the photographs themselves (which were physically bound into the book), and printed text. The text pages don’t need any work done—we can use them straight. For the photographic plates, Harding and Curator of Collections Access Brian Liddy (above) select the best prints from the many original Talbot calotypes we have in our collection. These are the actual 1840s prints that were destined to be placed into copies of the original book.

In some cases, the images vary across different editions of The Pencil of Nature. There’s scaffolding in one photo from an early edition; in a later edition, the scaffolding’s gone. So it’s not always a simple choice.

Once the calotypes are chosen, Paul Thompson, our Collections Photographer, takes charge of the scanning process. We have a bank of LED lights that we shine on the prints to illuminate them; the heat and ultra-violet light from normal lighting setups would damage those ever-fragile calotypes. It’s a quick process, and we don’t wade in with Photoshop afterwards—the idea is to recreate the original perfectly without touching up imperfections.

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