William Henry Fox Talbot's cameras

The cameras belonging to William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 – 1877) are some of the most precious items in the Royal Photographic Society Collection at the V&A. There are eleven in in total, including some of the earliest cameras for paper negatives known to exist.

Most famous of all are the simple little cameras nicknamed 'mousetraps'. These were given this name by Talbot's wife Constance, partly because of their appearance and partly due to Talbot leaving them around the house for long exposure times of up to several hours.

Four simple box 'mousetrap' cameras that belonged to Fox Talbot with different sized lenses. Browns and yellows.
Four of Fox Talbot's 'mousetrap' cameras on display in the V&A's Photography Centre. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Talbot was a gentleman scientist who inherited Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire as his family home. He started experimenting with the technologies which would lead to photography in 1834. His place as the inventor of photography is contested, however, as while Talbot was inventing paper-based photography in the UK, the Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and his partner Joseph Nicéphore Niépce were inventing a different photographic process, the 'daguerreotype', at the same time.

The mousetraps are sturdy little wooden boxes with a brass tube housing a lens at one end, and a sliding wooden panel at the other. Into the wooden panel at the back Talbot would stick a piece of normal writing paper that he had made chemically sensitive to light. On some you can still see the traces where successive pieces of paper have been stuck in place. The mousetrap cameras themselves are pleasant to hold – toy-like even – and their simple design allows even a photographic novice to understand how they might work.

Brown wooden box camera with brass lens at the front.
Sliding box camera used by William Henry Fox Talbot, with a lens made by R. Field & Son. Wood with a brass lens and a dark slide. Originally designed for Daguerreotypes, though used by Talbot for calotypes, 1840 – 1850, England. Museum no. RPS.3040-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The cameras in the collection get more complicated and sophisticated as Talbot's experimentation developed, and he gradually incorporated professionally made elements as they became available. Introducing varying focal lengths, compound lenses and other innovations allowed Talbot to experiment with focusing his images and shortening his exposure times. Subsequently, as the lenses get larger and heavier, the camera's balance of weight changed – making the front surprisingly heavier than the back. Some of these later cameras have numerous removable parts, sliding sections and adjustable features, which make them seem like puzzle boxes.

Composite image of Talbot's Woodcutters image with negative image on the left and positive print on the right. Negative is dark and a reverse image of the paler brown image on the right.
Left: The Woodcutters, paper negative, by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1846, England. Museum no. RPS.80-2017. Right: The Woodcutters, photographic print, by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1846, England. Museum no. RPS.127-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Once the paper was inserted, the camera would be placed in front of the subject being photographed and left for several hours to expose. After that, the paper inside would be carefully removed and chemically treated to bring out and then stabilise the latent negative image. If the experiment reached this point successfully, the negative was used to create positive prints by sensitising a further sheet of paper, laying the negative on top of it in a frame, and exposing it in the sun for several hours. The resulting print would then need to be fixed to stop the image from fading. Getting the right balance of chemicals and treatments for this stage of the process was one of the most vexed areas of research for the duration of early photographic experimentation.

Wooden box with small lens
'Mousetrap' camera, invented and made by William Henry Fox Talbot, about 1835, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The earliest of these cameras dates back to 1835, when cameras weren't available to buy. Instead Talbot made some himself out of cigar boxes and other readymade wooden boxes he could modify. He also employed a local carpenter (near to where he lived at Lacock Abbey) called Joseph Foden, to make more robust boxes to fit lenses from microscopes and telescopes.

In 1839, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre's invention, the daguerreotype, was introduced worldwide, and professional firms of lens-makers such as Giroux and Lerebours started making daguerreotype cameras commercially available. The main difference between the daguerreotype process and Talbot's calotype process was reproducibility. The calotype process first produced a photographic 'negative' in the camera, from which many 'positive' calotype prints could be made, whereas daguerreotypes were a one-off image. Talbot, however, would buy a daguerreotype camera and then modify it for his calotype paper process. Ever since, there has been a grand tradition among photographers to modify their cameras to suit their personal preferences.

Wooden camera with large brass lens. Composite image showing front and back view.
Camera used by William Henry Fox Talbot. Wooden construction with a metal front panel and lens housing. This has an achromatic lens and an internal rack and pinion focusing mechanism, operated by an external brass wheel fixed to the top of the camera., ca. 1840-1844. Museum no. RPS.3039:1-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The provenance of these cameras is another puzzle we have spent time unravelling. We know the cameras in our collection came from Talbot, as there is a letter from Talbot's granddaughter Matilda giving them to the Royal Photographic Society in 1921, along with some photographs and other equipment belonging to Talbot. Matilda inherited Lacock Abbey and took responsibility for her grandfather's photographic legacy. The list in the letter gives each camera a number, and also lists the paper size suitable for each. From this information we were able to cut out paper to the right sizes and compare them to each camera, in order to work out which one was which.

As well as the cameras and prints, Matilda also gave a camera tripod, a little iron for ironing the photographic papers, a box of daguerreotype developing chemicals and various other items. We can use these now to piece together more about Talbot's methods and technical interests. The cameras were loaned to the Science Museum in London in 1920s and 30s, and at that point the museum painted old-fashioned museum numbers on them in white paint. You can still see these on some of the cameras today.

Background image: William Henry Fox Talbot's cameras on display in the V&A's Photography Centre. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London