Lacking a Local Buyer, an Historic Photo Album by Pioneering Photographer Julia Cameron Gets the Go-Ahead to Leave the UK

The album containing photographs of Charles Darwin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson has been issued an export license after no serious intention to purchase it was raised at home.

King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther. From Images from the Life(the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

A collection of important work by the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is at risk of leaving the United Kingdom. Earlier this month, a temporary export bar on the photographer’s historic Norman Album expired amid a lack of local buyer interest. Now, the photo collection is primed to relocate should it intrigue buyers outside of the UK.

Cameron is a pioneer of portrait photography, known particularly for her portraits of celebrities of the era as well as photos depicting scenes from myths and legends. Mrs Cameron’s Photographs from the Life, more commonly referred to as the Norman Album, is up for sale at a £3.7 million ($4.9 million) asking price.

The album features portraits of important historical figures including Charles Darwin and the poet Alfred Tennyson, which she compiled between 1864 and 1869. Comprising 74 albumen prints, the book was originally gifted to Cameron’s daughter Julia and her husband Charles Norman to thank them for giving Cameron her first camera and introducing her to the art of photography.

Charles Darwin. From Images from the Life(the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

Arts minister Michael Ellis placed a temporary export bar on the album in February, hoping that a UK based buyer would be able to come up with the cash to purchase it before May 5. He made the decision to defer granting the export license following a recommendation from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, an independent body administered by The Arts Council. The committee justified its recommendation on the grounds that the album met the Waverley criteria established in 1952, noting the works’ “outstanding aesthetic importance and significance” to the study of the history of photography, and particularly to the study of Cameron, deemed “one of the most significant photographers of the 19th century.”

“I would be delighted to see this unique album on display in the UK, where the public can enjoy and admire it,” Ellis said in a statement at the time.

The bar could have been extended until September 5 if there were a proven attempt to raise the money to buy it, and Ellis also said he would consider offers from public bodies even if they did not meet the $4.9 million price tag.

But no buyer materialized. After the export bar expired, a spokesperson for Arts Council England told artnet News, “At the end of the initial deferral period, no offer to purchase the album had been made and we were not aware of any serious intention to raise funds.” 

Julia Jackson, from Images from the Life (the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

Just 10 similar such albums by Cameron are known to exist today. Some of the photographs depict Cameron’s niece, Julia Jackson, who modeled for a number of Pre-Raphaelite painters such as George Frederic Watts and Edward Burne-Jones. Jackson was also the mother of the modernist writer Virginia Woolf. Cameron photographed her both as herself and in imagined historical situations such as the Biblical scene in which Queen Esther faints before King Ahasuerus after asking him to spare the Jewish people, whom he has sentenced to death.

This is not the first time the Norman Album has been at risk of leaving the United Kingdom. In July 2013, the Arts Council considered an application to export the collection, concluding then that it satisfied all three Waverley criteria. The application was subsequently withdrawn.

See some of the striking photographs from the Norman Album below.

Alfred Tennyson. From Images from the Life (the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

Alamayou the son of King Theodore of Abyssinia. From Images from the Life(the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

The Passion Flower at the Gate. From Images from the Life(the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.

The Red and White Roses. From Images from the Life(the Norman Album), by Julia Margaret Cameron. Public domain.


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