Research has uncovered thousands of previously unpublished images in the University’s photo archives — subject of an international conference this week.
By Olivia Gordon
Oxford University’s little-known photographic archives contain all kinds of images, from photos of paintings used to teach Oxford students to anonymous personal albums which somehow ended up in Oxford’s collections. Now the archives are being opened up thanks to the research of Oxford archivists and academics, including History of Art DPhil alumna Dr Deborah Schultz (Trinity, 1999).
A senior lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Regent’s University London, Dr Schultz returned to Oxford just over a year ago to research Oxford’s photo archives as an academic visitor in the History of Art department. She has uncovered thousands of never-published photographs in the Oxford photo archives, which are spread across the Bodleian Library, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the History of Science Museum, the Griffith Institute, the School of Archaeology and the Visual Resources Centre in the Department of the History of Art. Some of the boxes of photographs may not have been opened in decades; perhaps not since they were first filed away.
Oxford’s photo archives are the subject of in an international cross-disciplinary conference being held this week (20–21 April) at Christ Church college, convened by Dr Schultz and colleagues including Professor Geraldine Johnson from Oxford’s History of Art department.
At a time when some institutions have been throwing out their photo archives, the Oxford collections are to be highly valued, not in terms of preserving outdated methods, but in providing new perspectives on current methods,’ says Dr Schultz. ‘The wealth of unpublished material in the Oxford photo archives provides extensive research resources on a range of subjects, from the history of art to archaeology, Egyptology, anthropology and early photography, helping scholars today to understand the ways in which research was carried out in the past.’
In the University’s Visual Resources Centre in the History of Art department, Dr Schultz has sifted through about 600 boxes containing photographic prints of works of art, which Oxford once used for teaching and research. Until the 1970s, black and white reproductions played a central role in the study of art history – but with the advent of new forms of reproduction (more reliable colour slides, colour book reproductions and, of course, digital images), use of the photo archive gradually declined.
As the archaeologist John Henry Parker, keeper of the Ashmolean, commented with regard to the Ashmolean’s collection in 1870, ‘the art of photography enables us to pursue this study by our own fireside, and sometimes even better than we could do by travelling, because we can place the objects side by side, and not have to trust to memory or to drawings, which are not always to be depended on.’ Dr Schultz explains: ‘The notion that something could be studied ‘even better’ through photography than at first hand may seem odd today, however, generations of art historians valued the perceived reliability of the photographic image and the possibility of comparing things side by side.’
The collection of photographs in the History of Art department began shortly after Professor Edgar Wind (1900-1971) was appointed Oxford’s first professor of History of Art in 1955, and grew over the years, acquisitions reaching a peak during 1972-3. The last entry in the logbook, dated 27 April 1998, records a total of 109,005 photographs in the collection, from a variety of sources including the Courtauld Institute, Italian photographic firms, museums and private donations.
The strengths of the collection lie in Renaissance, Baroque and French 19th century art, reflecting the teaching and research interests of faculty at the time. ‘The categories of index cards in this drawer of genre paintings are highly evocative,’ says Dr Schultz. These index cards, with subject headings devised by Oxford professor of Art History Francis Haskell (1928-2000), reveal his interest in French 19th century realism, and also guide other researchers to look for particular themes in photographs.
Many photographs in the archives show the changing history of scholarship across generations.
Known as the ‘Madonna of the Pinks’, after the flowers passed between the virgin and child, the first painting (above) was bought in 2004 by the National Gallery, having raised the considerable sum of £22 million. As the inscription on the mount indicates, attribution of the painting to Raphael was in doubt for some time: initially, when the photograph was mounted, it was thought to have been painted by Raphael, but the inscription was later amended to ‘after Raphael’. By 2005, the year after the painting was bought by the National Gallery, this attribution was once again brought into question by new scholarship.
The second painting (below) was initially thought to have been painted by Raphael, but this attribution was first questioned (with the addition of a question mark), before the work was reattributed to Perugino.
The archives also provide a valuable historical record of what paintings looked like before they were restored.
This photograph, for example, shows a detail from Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle on The Legend of the True Cross, in the Basilica of San Francesco, Arezzo. The $5 million Piero Project allowed extensive restoration work to be carried out over a 15-year period, concluding in 2000. The church is now one of the most popular destinations for cultural tourists on the region’s ‘Piero trail’. The frescos are thought to have been made between 1452 and 1466, and this photograph shows their condition before restoration. Dr Schultz notes: ‘As this image indicates, the frescos were not only subject to natural deterioration including earthquakes, pollution and climate change; French troops living in the church during Napoleon's occupation of the region in the early 19th century left manmade marks too, as can be seen in the many scratches on the surface of the wall.’
The caption for this painting by Georges Seurat, White Horse and Black Horse in the Water, c. 1883, states that it is held in a private collection. It has since entered the Courtauld Gallery, London, where it’s easily accessible, both in reproduction and for viewing. But a large number of the works in Oxford’s photo archive remain in private collections – so the archive provides a valuable source for researchers and students to study the full range of an artist’s work, including works not in the public domain.
‘Photography makes details of works of art more visible. A detail that may easily be overlooked becomes the main focus of a photograph, acquiring greater significance,’ observes Dr Schultz. For art historian Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891), photography enabled the study of what he considered unintentional ‘signatures’. Morelli argued that hands, ears, garment folds and other often overlooked details highlighted distinctive features of an artist’s work. Isolating such features and then comparing them in individual photographs could prove the attribution of a work of art more accurately.
‘Morelli’s method was widely valued by connoisseurs and auction houses, for whom the provenance of a work of art was of the highest importance,’ says Dr Schultz, ‘while other art historians, who have since doubted the objectivity of photography, have argued that, by focusing more on the originals than photographs, Morelli’s attributions would have been more accurate.’
The University’s Visual Resources Centre also houses a number of photo albums from anonymous sources. At present very little is known about the albums, but research is being carried out to uncover more about them.
Dr Schultz says: ‘These albums freely mix images by renowned early photographers like Francis Frith and Francis Bedford, as well as more informal studies of family and friends by unknown people. The more recent albums are akin to the records of travellers on a twentieth century Grand Tour, who use their Kodak camera to document both key cultural landmarks as well as more personal holiday moments.’
All images courtesy of Dr Deborah Schultz and the Visual Resources Centre, Department of History of Art, University of Oxford.