£50m Courtauld revamp

May 25 2016

Image of £50m Courtauld revamp

Picture: Courtauld

The Courtauld Institute in London has announced plans for a £50m revamp. Galleries will be renovated and visitor centres built, but the thing that most caught my eye was the pledge to create this:

An online archive of 1.1m images from The Courtauld’s extensive image collection with a crowd-sourcing programme involving 10,000 people

Does this mean at long last that the Witt and Conway Libraries (above) will be digitised? These libraries are invaluable resources for those of us who try to trace the attribution, identity and provenance of paintings, containing as it does photographs from exhibition catalogues, auctions and house surveys since the early 20th Century. Some years back, the Courtauld axed the library's permanent staff (and thus ended its collection of images) and threatened to close the place entirely. But a hoo-ha saved the day, and you can still visit the library. A review by Sir Nicholas Goodison - to which yours truly contributed - recommended digitisation. So hurrah to the Courtauld if they're going to now do this.

Update - a reader kindly informs me that more information has been posted on the Courtauld website. The British School is to be digitised first, and it should be all up and running by December. Amazing.

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 by the end of September 2016.

The provisional launch date for the pilot project website is December 2016.

If you were the mystery donor, thanks!

Update II - a reader writes:

regarding the digitisation of the Courtald and Witt records; hallelujah! I too find this a long waited for sigh of relief as it is also handy for me when tracing my artistic ancestors. Let's hope they eventually manage to do all dates and artists. I wish them well with their project.

But a former Courtauld member of staff warns us:

that the long-term plan is to put the mounts themselves into deep storage once they have been digitised, with the aim of freeing up the (admittedly considerable) space taken up by the Witt and Conway for other uses. Having worked in the Library both as a scholar and member of staff, I feel strongly that the physical mounts are important aids to research.

I agree. Release the mounts!

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