Lewis Carroll's photographs of the girl immortalised in Alice in Wonderland may be saved for the nation by an alliance of some of Britain's biggest museums.
Carroll's 13 portraits of Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, have faced an uncertain future since they were sold as part of a huge auction of related items at Sotheby's in London last summer. When the Government learnt that anonymous collectors in the United States had bought them, it imposed a temporary export bar, giving British curators a chance to match their £583,000 selling price.
Now, with less than a week to go before the deadline, a consortium led by the National Portrait Gallery has launched an attempt to save the unique collection for the nation.
If they succeed, the unique mixture of stills and glass negatives will form the focus of a rotating collection based at a proposed £2m Lewis Carroll Centre in Oxford.
Peter Funnell, the gallery's curator for 19th-century work, says that applications for grants are about to be made to the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund, Britain's leading arts charity.
"As well as their being lost overseas, the fear is that the photos would be split up if they went to America," he said. "Given the provenance of Alice, we want to keep them together."
Taken in the 1860s, when Carroll was gaining a reputation as a pioneering portrait photographer, the images have long divided scholars. Lewis Carroll – pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – was known as a shy and retiring academic, yet his fascination with the child he described as "dear little girl" has been seen by some as an unhealthy obsession.
Several images also include Alice's sisters, who accompanied her and the author on the legendary "golden afternoon" river expedition in July 1862 during which he first devised his ideas for the Alice adventures.
If, as expected, the pictures remain in the UK, the portrait gallery will share custody of them with its main partner in the consortium, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.
It is hoped that they will also spend some of their time at the Museum of Oxford's proposed Carroll centre, which could open as early as 2004.
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