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Bodleian Library launches £2.2m bid to stop Fox Talbot archive going overseas (UPDATED)

It has been reported in The Guardian that a £2.25m bid has been launched this week to acquire an archive of Fox Talbot's life and work – including some of the first photographs ever taken, and the first taken by a woman. The bid, which the Bodleian hopes will attract a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant for just under half the cost, is supported by photographers, including Martin Parr, and historians.

The key meeting is on 11 December when the National Heritage Memorial Fund Trustees meet to discuss supporting of up to half the cost of the Bodleian's acquisition of what is almost certainly the last major archives of material by the British pioneer of photography William Henry Fox Talbot still to remain in private hands.


UPDATE: The NHMF has awarded the Bodleian £1.2m towards acquiring the Talbot archive. An appeal will be made to public and private donors to secure the balance. More soon...

The archive was recently bought from the family by a New York-based dealer, and holds Talbot's earliest notes and records, as well as family papers such as a touching letter he wrote to his mother when he was six in which he asked for green plums and wrote sadly "come to me, you have been away three weeks and six days". There are estate records from Lacock Abbey, records of his time as an MP, his own photographs, and hundreds of images which he acquired from other pioneers. The papers were acquired from a descendant of Talbot and are subject to an export licence before it can be exported. 

You can read the rest of The Guardian's story here.

The British Library has acquired a substantial collection of Talbot material (see: 

At the same time photography commentator Francis Hodgson describes the campaign and sets it in to a wider context. He comments that: 'Very noticeable, for example, is the emergence of two great libraries as photographic centres of excellence.  Both the Birmingham City Library and the British Library in London have grasped that incredible photographic riches have been held and filed under categorizations other than primarily photographic.  Both are making large efforts to make that material available.  Birmingham is working on a strategy of positioning itself as a ‘hub’ among photographic institutions, and will have world-class facilities for study and display of photographs when its new building is completed.  Photography, that is to say, is already at the heart of Birmingham’s plans for cultural provision over the next generation.' 

Read more here:


The British Library acquired the most significant collection of Talbot material in 2006: 

The single most comprehensive collection of manuscript material relating to the many facets of the prime inventor of photography, William Fox Talbot's career and scientific and scholarly interests has been donated to the British Library.The gift of the collection to the British Library will for the first time allow full access to many hitherto little-studied aspects of the work of one of the most creative scientific minds of the Victorian period.

Talbot is most widely known today as the inventor of the negative-positive photographic process (the calotype or Talbotype process) and the archive includes a uniquely important collection of original prints, negatives and other photographic material, which is of seminal importance to the history of photography. In addition to more than 1000 original calotype negatives and prints, both by Talbot himself and some of the most important photographers of the 1840s (including Rev. Richard Calvert Jones and Rev. George Bridges), the collection contains the finest existing daguerreotype portraits of Talbot and his family and one of the best-preserved copies of Talbot's Pencil of Nature (1844-46), the first photographically-illustrated book. Less generally known, but equally important, much of Talbot's researches were directed towards photomechanical printing processes and the archive also includes unique documentation (early prints, correspondence and research notes) relating to this aspect of his career.

Talbot's importance as a scientist and scholar was not, however, restricted to photography. In the course of his life, Talbot published seven books and nearly 60 scientific and mathematical articles (his mathematical researches were recognised by the award of the Royal Society's medal in 1838), maintained an extensive correspondence with the leading scientific thinkers of the day and for some years represented Chippenham in Parliament. All these aspects of his career are represented in the extensive archive of photographs, correspondence, manuscripts and research notes.
Fox Talbot's granddaughter Matilda, distributed examples of his work to institutions worldwide, while ensuring that a full account of his work was reflected in the archive placed on loan to the National Trust and housed in the Fox Talbot Museum at Talbot's home of Lacock Abbey. This archive has been donated to the British Library to allow more researchers to access the collection. All the objects and other material currently on display at the Fox Talbot Museum will remain on loan to the National Trust as part of a long-term loan agreement between the British Library and National Trust.

Clive Field, Director of Scholarship and Collections at the British Library said: "The gift of the Talbot Collection to the British Library and to the nation by Petronella and Janet Burnett-Brown and other members of the Talbot Family Trust is an act of immense generosity. It is a hugely important addition to the Library's existing holdings in the fields of 19th-century photography and science. Talbot's connections and correspondence with many of the major scientists and scholars of his time include several figures whose papers are already held by the Library and fuller accessibility to this wealth of primary source material can be expected to stimulate research in the future."

Stephen Ponder, National Trust Curator for Lacock, said: "The National Trust warmly welcomes the exceptionally generous gift to the nation of the Talbot Collection. The Trust has for nearly 30 years housed and cared for the Collection, on behalf of the Collection's owners, in the Fox Talbot Museum in Lacock, cataloguing the Collection, providing access for researchers and loans to other institutions from the Collection. We are delighted that the Collection's new home, the British Library, will be able to offer increased access to this marvellous collection.

"In partnership with the British Library, the link between the Talbot Collection and Lacock will continue. The Trust's Fox Talbot Museum, as it has for many years, will continue to tell the story of William Henry Fox Talbot and his pioneering work at Lacock, through displays from the Collection of Talbot's equipment, objects he photographed, his publications and personal items. A loan agreement between the British Library and the National Trust will ensure that the Talbot link remains unbroken."


Additional information and reporting by Michael Pritchard

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