Digitising British Art in the Witt Library - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Digitising British Art in the Witt Library

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Digitising British Art in the Witt Library


Courtauld Image Libraries

Digitising British Art in the Witt Library

Digitising British Art in the Witt Library

Generous support from a private individual has allowed us to embark upon a one-year pilot project to scan, catalogue and display online approximately 250,000 images from the British School.


How have the images for this project been chosen?

Calculations based on random sampling show that the whole British School contains approximately 525,400 images.  Images for this pilot project have been selected by the date of birth of the artist. By starting with the earliest artists and moving forwards in time, a selection of 250,000 images will cover the works of artists born up to and including 1780, possibly extending as far as 1799. The final cut off point will reflect our estimates of the average number of images and folders per box, and the way in which the Witt collection rises and falls over time. 

How many artists and boxes will this project include?

Approximately 2,600 Witt boxes, containing the work over 2,100 British artists.

How will the collection be presented online and to what level will the images be catalogued?

We will scan each entire mount in high resolution and include a scan of the back if information is present. We will also display a photograph depicting the shelf and stack in which the box sits in order to preserve as many of the physical qualities of the library as possible.

For this pilot project the British School will be broken down by artists’ surnames, and then by genre/subject matter (as with the current folders).  Each image will have a unique identifier.  Data from sources such as the Getty’s Union List of Artist Names will be added to the electronic records in order to offer a greater number of avenues for searching. Any text on the mounts that can be detected by OCR will form part of their catalogue records.

When will the images be removed for digitisation, and how long will it take?

We plan to remove the 2600 boxes from the British School selected for digitisation in early July 2016. Digitisation and cataloguing will take place off site, with the expectation that they will be returned to the Library on 22 October 2016.

The provisional launch date for the pilot project website is now Summer 2017.


Background: a short history of the Witt Library

Portrait of Sir Robert Witt

Portrait of Sir Robert Witt, 1931, by Oswald Hornby Joseph Birley (1880-1952). The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London\the estate of the artist

The Witt Library is a collection of over two million photographs, reproductions and cuttings of paintings, drawings and engravings of Western Art from c1200 to the present day. All major artists are represented in depth and one of the strengths of the library is its coverage of lesser-known artists, unparalleled elsewhere.

The Library was founded in the 1890s by Sir Robert Witt whilst an undergraduate at Oxford reading History and specialising in the Italian Renaissance. It was there he met his future wife Mary, who also collected photographs of works of art: friends described their marriage in 1899 in terms of the union of two photographic collections as much as two people. Initially the library had a staff of four volunteers who worked under Mary’s supervision, and the first catalogue was published privately in 1920, followed by a supplement in 1925. At one stage his library was destined for the National Gallery but, at some time in the 1930s, it was offered to The Courtauld. Witt made a deed of gift in 1944, and on his death in 1952 the library moved from his home at 32 Portman Square to 19 Portman Square, next door to The Courtauld at number 20.

In the introduction to his Catalogue of Painters and Draughtsmen represented in the Library of Reproductions of Pictures and Drawings formed by Robert and Mary Witt (1920), Robert Witt wrote about the aims of the library:

“What has been attempted, therefore, is to form, after the analogy of the great Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, a kind of Murray’s Dictionary of Pictures and Drawings, by concentrating and bringing together reproductions of, as nearly as may be, the whole body of European painting and drawing, and arranging it as a Dictionary in the manner most convenient for easy reference. As a Dictionary it has, accordingly, to include not only what is most interesting and important, and not only the work of the great, but also that of the little Masters, many of them of quite secondary consideration, yet playing some part in their time, and as such contributing to the general history of the painter’s craft”.

The Witt Checklist was published in 1978 under the encouragement of Robert’s son Sir John Witt, followed in 1995 by a second edition. In 1982 the Getty Trust began funding a database project that, by its close in 1993, had catalogued 150,000 records on a database. No images were included, and the database is currently offline.

A comprehensive survey of the Witt carried out in 2013 show that it comprises 2,151,862 images in 102,995 folders, housed in 19,139 boxes.  26 Schools are represented, the most numerous being the British (525,401 images), the French (450,970), the Netherlandish (396440) and the Italian (368,444). Following a survey by the Frick as part of their PHAROS project, the Witt is understood to be the third largest library of its type in the world.

Tom Bilson

April 2016

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