History of the Database


Walter Crane described it as the 'hand-glass' of the nation. Lewis Carroll's Alice could not see the point of reading a book without it. Illustration was everywhere in the Victorian period. Pictures accompanied poems, short stories, novels; they appeared in magazines, periodicals and newspapers, in books for adults and children. Despite the visibility of this mode of representation in the nineteenth century, however, it has become almost invisible today. Victorian novels are usually published without their original pictures, and illustration is rarely accorded the critical or scholarly attention it merits.

The Database of Mid-Victorian wood-engraved Illustration grew out of a desire to make these images visible and to suggest the significance of illustration for an understanding of Victorian culture. In 2003 a pilot project, funded by an internal grant from Cardiff University, was undertaken on a small corpus of illustrations in order to assess the feasibility of constructing a larger online database. Following the pilot, an application was made to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and an award was granted to begin work on the database in January 2004.

The Team

The project was based in the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University. It consisted of Dr Julia Thomas, the director; Professor David Skilton, co-investigator; Dr Tim Killick, Research Associate; and Dr Anthony Mandal, database developer.

Creating the Database (2004–7)

The aim of the project was to digitise and mount on a publicly accessible website a cross section of illustrations from different literary texts and by a range of artists and engravers. The team decided that the best way of selecting images from the tens of thousands produced in the period was to focus on a single year. 1862 was chosen because it saw the emergence and growth of major illustrated periodicals, including the Cornhill Magazine and Good Words, and allowed for the inclusion of familiar illustrated works like Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market, illustrated by her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, alongside those that are less well known.

In the first year of the project the illustrations were selected from works in libraries and specialist collections. The project drew primarily on the collection of Periodical Illustrations of the 1860s and 70s in the School of Art Museum and Gallery, University of Wales, Aberystwyth. The collection was gathered by a Victorian enthusiast and consists of illustrations detached from their original setting and mounted on card. This format made the digitisation process straightforward, but necessitated the tracing of the missing texts and bibliographic details. The selected images were digitised, largely by the team, but occasionally by the repositories, and treated to remove any anomalous features. The application of a tool called Zoomify to the digital images makes it possible for the user to magnify features of the illustrations and emphasises the skill of the wood engraver, a figure often marginalised in accounts of illustration.

In years two and three the illustrations were described bibliographically and iconographically and the data was entered into a Microsoft Access database. This dual method of describing the illustrations allows for new and sophisticated ways of searching the digital archive, enabling the user to identify connections and differences between images by searching across multiple fields, including the name of the artist, engraver, the title of the work, and the content of the pictures. One of the most challenging aspects of the project has been the development of a system for describing the iconographic features of the illustrations that is flexible and robust enough to open up the database to users from different backgrounds and with different research interests. For a discussion of the issues involved in the construction of the iconographic system, see Iconographic Description in DMVI.

The Database of Mid-Victorian wood-engraved Illustration brings together for the first time almost 900 illustrations from a variety of literary works and publications, illustrations that it would otherwise be impossible to see side by side. Of course, these pictures only represent a fraction of the range of images that appeared in books and periodicals in the period, but the database gives a sense of the richness of the material and the place of illustration in Victorian visual culture.