Click here to skip to content

Curator's introduction

The development of photographically illustrated books parallels the explosion in communications technology during the 19th century. In a period of unprecedented advances in science, exploration, travel, tourism and industry, photography provided an exciting, innovative and accurate alternative to conventional methods of book illustration, such as woodcuts, etchings and engravings. The spirit of all pioneering photographers was evoked by Frances Frith in his dictum, "Give a fulcrum for my lever and I will move the world". Frith was accustomed to thinking big: in 1860 he set out to photograph every town and village in the country. The new, vital medium of photography permeated all levels of society. Hailed as a "triumph over mystery", the camera democratised the study of art and science – once the select domain of the upper and professional classes.

Initially, adding photographic prints to books was seen as a novel way to augment the text. But later in the century, photographs became the principal subject matter and the text came to play second fiddle. Constructing a narrative from photographic images provided a new means of illustrating both fiction and non-fiction.

‘The Pencil of Nature’ by William Henry Fox Talbot was the first photographically illustrated book to be published commercially. It was produced in a six parts with 24 plates between 1844 and 1848. The title refers to the light that ‘drew’ the photographic image – a point the publishers were at pains to make clear to their readers: "The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil. They are sun-pictures…" The volumes mostly feature scenes around Fox Talbot’s country home at Lacock Abbey, composed with deliberation in the manner of contemporary paintings.

Talbot’s pioneering and ingenious ‘calotype’ photographs were essentially images formed by the effect of sunlight on a solution of silver nitrate, potassium iodide and gallic acid. A sheet of fine quality writing paper soaked in this solution was placed in the camera and exposed for many seconds, depending on the nature of the sunlight. Chemical development produced a ‘negative’ image on the paper, which was rendered permanent by a ‘fixing’ solution invented by Sir John Herschel. The negative was then placed on top of a sheet of salted paper and exposed to sunlight in a printing frame. The result was a ‘positive’ image of the original scene.

The significance of Talbot’s process was the ability to print many positive copies from a single negative. Earlier processes, such as the French daguerreotype, produced only a unique image. The daguerreotype had the added disadvantage of creating the image on a metal plate, which made it impractical for pasting or binding into a book.

Recognised by the publishing industry as "the most marvellous inventions of modern times", original photographs began to appear in books by the mid-nineteenth century. Such books were expensive and published for an exclusive market. However, once scientific and technical developments had improved the quality and permanence of photographic images and production costs were lowered photographs became more widely used in books for the mass market. Handmade photographic prints continued to enhance book and periodicals until the late nineteenth century. At that time, various photomechanical processes were introduced that made it possible to transfer an original photograph to a printing block, from which an image could be printed directly on to the actual page of the book, just like the text.

Photographically illustrated books represented and reflected the interests, pursuits and innovations of the era. Building on foundations in both art and science, photography’s intrinsic ability to record reality encouraged photographers to explore and capture the world around them. Their work evokes a sense of place and people with the veracity of ‘being there’.

The range of subject matter is immense. Most popular subjects were topography, romantic literature and poetry, portraiture, art, science, travel and exploration. Many of the cultures, places and buildings recorded in the photographs no longer exist – destroyed by the ravages of war, natural disasters or social change. Photographically illustrated books provide unique evidence of the past through their critical juxtaposition of text and image. They both illustrate and illuminate the aesthetic, intellectual and social development of the Victorian age.

Elsewhere on our websites

Newsletter

Latest events - register free online

Mobile app

For iPhone, iPad and Android