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William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)

Articles of China, 1844

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)
Articles of China, 1844
salt print from calotype negative
annotations, 'LA3A' in ink and 'X2291', 'WHT/1020' in pencil (verso)
image: 5½ x 7 1/8 in. (13.9 x 18.1 cm.)
sheet: 7 3/8 x 8 3/4 in. (18.7 x 22.3 cm.)
Andrew Smith Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2011.
William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, London, 1844-1846, pl. III.
Russell Roberts et al., Huellas de Luz: El Arte Experimentos de William Henry Fox Talbot, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2001, p. 240.
Weston Naef, William Henry Fox Talbot: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2002, pl. 37, p. 80.

Lot Essay

The more strange and fantastic the forms…the more advantage in having their pictures given instead of their descriptions.
William Henry Fox Talbot

This fine Talbotype is of one of the twenty-four images selected by Talbot to illustrate his landmark The Pencil of Nature. This publication, the very first to combine letterpress text and photographic plates, was issued in six parts, Part I being distributed in June 1844. The project was conceived by Talbot as a means of exploring and sharing with others the many possibilities opened up by his invention. The range of images selected demonstrated the considerable potential versatility of photography to record and disseminate pictorial and indeed written information, for both practical and high aesthetic ends. Talbot anticipated many of the ways in which photography was ultimately to revolutionize and dominate the print media. Historian Beaumont Newhall justly claimed, in his introductory text to the 1968 facsimile edition, that The Pencil of Nature’s ‘importance in the history of photography is comparable to that of the Gutenberg Bible in printing’.

This image, entitled Articles of China, featured as Plate III in the historic first fascicle of The Pencil of Nature, with an accompanying text in which Talbot wrote of the camera’s impressive ability to create unimpeachable visual inventories. With great foresight, he anticipated the evidential value of such records: ‘From the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted on paper in little more time than it might take him to make a written inventory... The more strange and fantastic the forms… the more advantage in having their pictures given instead of their descriptions. And should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures – if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court – it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind…’ Talbot had foreseen the Art Loss Register.

For the most part, the plates mounted into the original publication have faded, most likely through their adverse reaction to chemicals in the adhesives used in their mounting. As a consequence, they rarely do full justice to Talbot’s intent. The present untrimmed and unmounted print has preserved its original deep tones and so bears witness to the high quality of which Talbot’s invention was capable. This print was most likely made under Talbot’s direction at his Reading Talbotype Establishment, founded for the purpose of fulfilling the ambitious numbers of original prints needed for his publication project.

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