The Pencil of Nature

Cover of The Pencil of Nature, 1844

The Pencil of Nature, published in six installments between 1844 and 1846, was the "first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published" [1] or "the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs". [2] It was wholly executed by the new art of Photogenic Drawing, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil and regarded as an important and influential work in the history of photography. [3] Written by William Henry Fox Talbot and published by Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans in London, the book detailed Talbot's development of the calotype process and included 24 calotype prints, each one pasted in by hand, illustrating some of the possible applications of the new technology. Since photography was still very much a novelty and many people remained unfamiliar with the concept, Talbot felt compelled to insert the following notice into his book:

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

The cover page for The Pencil of Nature clashed designs, which was characteristic of the Victorian era, with styles inspired by baroque, Celtic, and medieval elements. [4] Its symmetrical design, letterforms, and intricate carpet pages are similar to and a pastiche of the Book of Kells.

The Pencil of Nature was published and sold one section at a time, without any binding (as with many books of the time, purchasers were expected to have it bound themselves once all the installments had been released). Talbot planned a large number of installments; however, the book was not a commercial success and he was forced to terminate the project after completing only six.


View of the Boulevards at Paris
Articles of China
The Open Door
Fac-simile of an Old Printed Page
The Haystack
The Ladder

The 24 plates in the book were carefully selected to demonstrate the wide variety of uses to which photography could be put. They include a variety of architectural studies, scenes, still-lifes, and closeups, as well as facsimiles of prints, sketches, and text. Due to the long exposure times involved, however, Talbot included only one portrait, The Ladder (Plate XIV). Though he was no artist, Talbot also attempted to illustrate how photography could become a new form of art with images like The Open Door (Plate VI).

The complete list of plates is as follows:

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