William Henry Fox Talbot: Beyond Photography

24 June 2010 - 26 June 2010

CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge


Mirjam Brusius (History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge; British Library)
Chitra Ramalingam (Mellon/ACLS Fellow, CRASSH, Cambridge)
Katrina Dean (Curator for the History of Science, British Library)


Conference summary

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) is remembered primarily as a photographic pioneer and influential early voice on photographic aesthetics, but his activities as a Victorian intellectual and 'gentleman of science' ranged widely across the natural sciences, classical scholarship and Assyriology. This interdisciplinary conference will approach Talbot’s work with this wider perspective in mind, bringing together art historians, curators, historians of science and practitioners of the many scholarly fields to which Talbot contributed. It will situate Talbot against the networks and institutions of Victorian intellectual enterprise, while raising basic questions about the relation between photography and these other fields.

The occasion for this conference is the British Library’s recent acquisition of a large archive of Talbot’s manuscripts, including research notebooks, diaries, correspondence, and photographic prints.  The majority of papers delivered during this conference will present new research based on the study of hitherto unexamined items in this collection. They will explore such topics as Talbot’s lifelong engagement with mathematics, his successful attempts to decipher cuneiform scripts, his interest in philology and literature, the meaning of his botanical specimens, and his fascination with optical illusions and physiological optics. Contributions on Talbot’s photographic oeuvre will take into account the connections between Talbot’s invention of photography and his other scholarly and scientific activities. Further papers will explore the historical context of Talbot’s Cambridge education at Trinity College and his habitual practice of keeping research notebooks, in order to suggest how we might understand the manuscripts as material records of an intellectual culture and way of life that both enabled and constrained Talbot’s activities. The two keynote lectures, by James Elkins and Larry Schaaf (head of The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot Project), will explore the conference’s larger themes: the relationships between science, art and photography, and Talbot’s identity as a Victorian intellectual.


The conference will be accompanied by a small exhibition (25 June to 9 July 2010), displaying facsimiles of a selection of Talbot’s manuscripts and photographs at the Wren Library, Trinity College Cambridge, Talbot’s former college.



We are pleased to be able to offer up to 20 bursaries to graduate students to defray the cost of registration on a first come, first served basis.  Please contact Michelle to apply before registering using the online booking form.


For all administrative enquiries please contact Michelle Maciejewska

Conference Sponsors

This conference has been organised with the support of the British Academy, the Gerda Henkel Foundation,  the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, The Mellon Centre for Disciplinary Innovation (CDI) at CRASSH, The British Library and Trinity College Cambridge.


Thursday 24 June
Mill Lane Lecture Room 1



Keynote Lecture

Professor James Elkins (School of the Art Institute of Chicago)
The Variable Relation of Photography and Science

Professor Paul Binski (Faculty of Architecture and History of Art, University of Cambridge)

Followed by a reception at CRASSH

Friday 25 June


8.30 - 9.00


9.00 - 9.45

Dr Katrina Dean, John Falconer and Mirjam Brusius (The British Library)
The Talbot Collection at the British Library

Lacock Abbey and the country house archive/The Talbot Collection at the British Library/Talbot’s notebooks. A short survey

9.45 - 11.00

Keynote lecture

Professor Larry J. Schaaf (Baltimore, Maryland)
Lady Elisabeth's Henry

Introduction:  Professor Jennifer Tucker (Weslyan University)

11.00 - 11.30

Tea/coffee break

11.30 - 12.45

Session 1: Foundations: Mathematics and Antiquity
Dr Tony Crilly (University of Middlesex)
Talbot and the Cambridge Tripos

Dr David Gange (Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, University of Cambridge)
The Antiquity of Genesis and the Origins of Civilisation

Dr Steve Edwards (The Open University)

12.45 - 13.45


13.45 - 15.15 

Session 2: Knowledge Practices: Observation and Notetaking

Dr John van Wyhe (University of Cambridge/National University of Singapore)
Making Scientific Notes in the 19th Century: The Notebooks of Darwin and Wallace

Dr Anne Secord (University of Cambridge)
Talbot's First Lens: Botanical Vision as an Exact Science

Dr Katrina Dean (The British Library)

15.15 - 15.45 

Tea/coffee break 

15.45 - 17.15 

Session 3: Gentlemanly Pursuits: Antiquarianism and Literature

Mirjam Brusius (University of Cambridge/The British Library)
Preserving the Forgotten: Talbot and the Antique

Professor Graham Smith (University of St. Andrews)
In Scott's Shadow:Talbot and the Wizard of the North

Roger Watson (Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey)

17.15 - 18.00 

Commentary and discussion (chair as above)

Professor James A. Secord (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge)

18.15 - 19.15 

Reception and visit to the exhibition of Talbot facsimiles at Trinity College (Wren Library)
For conference speakers and paying delegates who have pre-booked


Conference dinner at St John's College (Wordsworth Room)
For speakers and paying delegates who have pre-booked



Saturday 26 June


9.00 - 10.30

Session 4: Tracing Origins: Etymology and Decipherment

Professor Anatoly Liberman (University of Minnesota)
Talbot as a Student of Word Origins

Dr Eleanor Robson (University of Cambridge)
Bel, the Dragon, and Henry Fox Talbot: deciphering cuneiform after decipherment

Dr David Gange (Wolfson College/Cambridge Victorian Studies Group, University of Cambridge)

10.30 - 11.00

Tea/coffee break

11.00 - 12.30

Session 5:  Image and inscription in Talbot's Scientific Network

Dr Chitra Ramalingam (CRASSH, University of Cambridge)
The Most Transitory of Things: Talbot and the Optics of the Instantaneous Image

Professor Frank James (Royal Institution, London)
Images of Faraday: Photography at the Royal Institution

Dr Kelley Wilder (DeMontfort University, Leicester )

12.30 - 13.30


13.30 - 15.00

Session 6: Re-reading “The Pencil of Nature”

Professor Vered Maimon (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Talbot's Art of Discovery

Professor Robin Kelsey (Harvard University)
The Photograph as Sign in The Pencil of Nature

Professor Roger Taylor (De Montfort University, Leicester) 

15.00 - 15.15

Tea/coffee break

15.15 - 16.00 

Commentary and final discussion

Professor Simon Schaffer (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge)

Dr Chitra Ramalingam (CRASSH, University of Cambridge)


Conference ends