The Bodleian Libraries have been awarded £ 1.2 million by the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) towards the acquisition of the Personal Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot . The only significant Talbot collection remaining in private hands, this important archive is being sold for £2.2 million and the Bodleian Libraries have until the end of February to raise the remaining funds.
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) was one of the greatest polymaths of the Victorian age, and is most famous today for being the British ‘founder of photography’. The archive contains great potential for fuller understanding of the breadth of Talbot’s scholarly activities, and of the influences exerted by the women in his family, in particular their educative roles, their shared interests in botany, languages, art, travel and history that are so central to Talbot’s work, and their roles as practitioners, supporters, and collectors of the new art.
The collection includes artefacts such as glassware and artworks that Talbot photographed for the ground-breaking publication The Pencil of Nature, the first book illustrated with photographs. There is a strong connection to Oxford, as the archive includes some of the first pictures of the city.
Carole Souter, Chief Executive of NHMF, said: ‘Considered by many as the’ father of photography’, the impact of William Henry Fox Talbot’s pioneering work is felt daily by all of us whether we are snapping our holidays with a camera or capturing outings on our mobile phones. This collection offers fascinating new insights into Fox Talbot’s family life, particularly the wonderful contribution made by the women of his family; this is why the Trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund felt it was so important that the archive should be secured for future generations to explore.’
Richard Ovenden, Deputy to Bodley’s Librarian said: ‘The archive is an essential resource for scholars on the history of photography, the history of science, and a range of other disciplines. The Bodleian is anxious to ensure that the collection is made available to scholars and to the general public to allow the legacy of this extraordinary innovator and pioneer in photography to continue to inspire new generations of researchers, innovators and photographers. ’
Hiroshi Sugimoto, one of the world’s greatest living photographers, said: ‘The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford is seeking to acquire the archive of William Henry Fox Talbot in order to ensure that scholars, artists, photographers and the general public can have access to the mass of papers, sketchbooks, photographs and artefacts that it contains to promote our understanding and appreciation of this great innovator, stimulate new art and other forms of creativity and broaden our understanding of the founder of a field of communication that has changed our world. I would like to add my support to their campaign to secure the Archive of William Henry Fox Talbot.’
The Fox Talbot archive includes:
- original manuscripts by Talbot
- family diaries
- family drawing and watercolour albums and sketchbooks, including images made by Talbot’s mother, his wife, and by his sister
- early photographic images made by Talbot
- an image made by Talbot’s wife, c. 1839, which may be the earliest image made by a woman
- several hundred photographs received by Talbot - by other photographers from Britain and across the continent, contemporaries of Fox Talbot who shared their images and attempts at early photography
- portraits of Talbot and his family
- materials and artefacts related to the Lacock estate including estate plans, bills etc
- books from Talbot’s personal library
- musical scores from Talbot and his immediate family
- scientific instruments from Talbot’s own collection
- botanical specimen albums made by Talbot and members of his immediate family.
- two of the world’s greatest photographers Martin Parr and Hiroshi Sugimoto;
- scientists: Sir Paul Nurse, President of The Royal Society; Sir Michael Berry, FRS, Melville Wills Professor of Physics, (Emeritus), University of Bristol;
- historians: Colin Ford, CBE, Founding Head, National Media Museum; Prof Martin Kemp, FBA former Prof of Art History, University of Oxford
- Michael Pritchard, Director-General of the Royal Photographic Society.
‘Having the collection in the UK would be especially valuable because it covers much more than the invention of photography for which he is best known. The collection covers a vast scope, including photographs (not only by Talbot), correspondence, artefacts, personal effects, and music. To my knowledge this is largely unexplored material. Having it available for research in the UK would surely lead to deeper understanding of the vast web of Victorian scientific, industrial, cultural and political activities in which Talbot was intimately involved for many years.
My connection with Talbot goes back to the 1990s when as part of my work as a theoretical physicist I studied and developed one of his discoveries in physics, now at the forefront of current research in optics. Visiting Lacock searching for relevant documents led to my appreciating the vast range of Talbot’s accomplishments. I do hope that the Bodleian can get this new material.’
Sir Michael Berry, FRS, Melville Wills Professor of Physics (Emeritus), University of Bristol
‘There can be no doubt about the importance of the Lacock Abbey Talbot Archive. Talbot was not only the British inventor of photography but a true polymath. He made significant contributions to many Victorian developments, knew and corresponded with most of the important inventors and scientists of the day, and kept detailed records of his activities. There is still much research to be done on all this – perhaps particularly in the non-photographic areas – and this will be made much more difficult if the archive is allowed to remain abroad. After studying the catalogue of the archive at some length, I believe that a library such as the Bodleian would be the ideal home. It would then be possible for scholars in England to study Fox Talbot in the round at just three major British institutions – the British Library, the National Media Museum and the Bodleian Library. I cannot too strongly urge the need to make this possible.’
Colin Ford, CBE, Founding Head, National Media Museum
‘As we all know it was Fox Talbot who invented the concept of the photographic negative, and alongside Daguerre, invented the craft of photography. I was amazed to hear that this very important collection was given an export licence, but delighted to learn that the Bodleian now has a last minute chance to acquire this collection and thus retain it in the UK. The very notion of this collection leaving the UK, just defies belief, and the only possible explanation is that the under appreciation of photography in the UK, is still here in a very disturbing way. The Bodleian are the ideal custodians of this collection. Their appreciation and collecting of many aspects of photography is most encouraging, especially given their close associations with Talbot.’
Martin Parr, photographer
This Archive is the only significant Talbot collection remaining in private hands. It gets its strength, not from the significance of individual items, but rather from its totality. The Bodleian Library is an ideal repository to keep this collection together and to bring out its latent potential. I strongly support the acquisition of this collection as a whole.’
Prof. Larry J. Schaaf, independent photohistorian and consultant. Shaaf taught photography and photographic history at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founder and Editor of the Online Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot which includes 10,000+ letters http://www.foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk
‘For some years (not least having worked on some of the original material previously held at Lacock) I have been anxiously watching the tortuous fate of the Talbot Archive. It is astonishing that it has not passed into public hands already. The importance of the invention of photography does not need stressing, nor Talbot's key role and his notable activities in public and scientific life. What is apparent from the list of materials in the archive is that it goes far beyond standard kinds of documentation, embracing, as is does through its objects and instruments, the whole material and intellectual history of Talbot's invention.’
As a former Trustee of a number of national museums I am familiar with the claims of directors and curators that this or that potential acquisition is of unique importance. I can say in this case that the description is fully deserved. I should be thrilled if the Bodleian becomes its home, knowing that it will be properly conserved, curated, made available and exhibited (as appropriate).'
Prof Martin Kemp, FBA former Prof of Art History, University of Oxford