William Henry Fox Talbot wrote in a letter on March 21, 1839 to his friend Sir John Herschel, the renowned scientist, mathematician, and eventually photographer, "I send you a flower of heath." He enclosed a negative inscribed "March 1839" using the very same botanical specimen found in this image in the Getty Museum's collection. Since the plant would have remained fresh for only a few hours, the Getty version was undoubtedly created on the same day. Only a single leaf dropped off between the making of the negative sent to Herschel (now in the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford) (talbot.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/search/catalog/artifact-4160) and this one.Adapted from Weston Naef, The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995), 8, © 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum; and Larry Schaaf, William Henry Fox Talbot, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002), 16, © 2002 J. Paul Getty Trust.
Talbot chose his subject carefully in the spring of 1839, with its recipient in mind. In 1833, soon after Talbot had first conceived of the idea of using the play of light and chemicals to reproduce images from nature, Herschel, departed for the Cape of Good Hope. While in South Africa Herschel would have encountered some of the more than six hundred varieties of Erica that flourish there. A number of them became subjects for Hershel's camera lucida drawings (91.GG.98.59 and 91.GG.98.48).
Hershel returned to England in 1838 just months before Talbot's new art was made public; his isolation in remote South Africa during the mid-1830s explains why Talbot did not discuss his explorations into photography with his friend earlier. In January 1839, though, Herschel was one of the first people with whom Talbot shared details of his research.
Herschel was a critical source of support and inspiration for Talbot in the early years when both men experimented with fixing images using light and chemistry. This picture was one of many the two friends exchanged. On receiving his copy of this plant, Herschel immediately thanked Talbot for the "very pretty specimen of the heath."
This image was made by placing the specimen directly on top of a piece of ordinary paper thathad been brushed with a solution of table salt and then a solution of silver nitrate. When the silver nitrate comes in contact with the salt it becomes light sensitive silver chloride. When the pair—the specimen on top of the sheet of paper—were exposed to sunlight, the shadow of the specimen was reproduced on the sensitized paper. The tones, however, appear in reverse—the dark areas appear light and vice versa.