Cardiff / Design / Victoriana / Wales

Exploring pictures from the past

canvasFaversham! Bicycle! False teeth! No, it’s not a strange word game, but some of the searches I randomly carried out at a major arts-meets-tech launch in Cardiff this week (March 31, 2015).

The Illustration Archive is the world’s largest searchable archive of book illustrations, making more than a million old images from books freely available online.

The images from 68,000 books held in the British Library are now ready to view, thanks to a research project by academics at Cardiff University.

The images cover everything from travel writing to history, philosophy to botany, and all genres in between.

Professor of English Literature Julia Thomas, who forged the project in just one year said: “This labour of love by our small dedicated team incorporating experts in English Literature and Computer Science is not only giving life again to thousands of neglected images but also giving back our visual culture, which might otherwise have been lost to the public
“We have focused on illustrations from books spanning the 18th to the 20th century, a period that is arguably the most important in British book illustration. This was a time when rapid changes in reproductive techniques were paralleled by changes in the meanings of art and its reception. Art was democratised and book illustrations became more widely collectable and mobile than ever before. In the same spirit, our work advances this leap further into the modern digital age.
“Now as The Illustration Archive – the world’s biggest searchable archive of book illustrations – becomes free to the public, it has the potential to revolutionise how illustration is understood and the importance accorded to it, to supply an image-hungry commercial world with illustrative material, and to lead to ever more accurate ways of classifying and analysing images in large databases.”

The launch at the university brought together academics across disciplines, external collaborators, and others of us from the spheres of arts, communication and education.  We got to meet the team who had done all the work, and we were able to play around with the site – searching for random words, historic interests or particular themes.

Now you can access it from any internet-connected computer. The search engine is easy to use, and there’s an opportunity to play a part in the project too – by helping to add tags to the images.

That searchability is a big deal, as legendary illustrator Quentin Blake said in a comment which was read out at the launch: “The printed pages of the 19th century are full of remarkable images, if we can find them. The Illustration Archive puts a million of them within reach. Amazing.”

Try for yourself by following the link here.

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