• 01 Jun 2018

To co-incide with the release of the major new digital publication The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 on 30 May 2018, Research Assistant Thomas Powell gives a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the Chronicle, read the first three posts in this series here.

One frosty February day in 1873, Algernon Graves slipped on some icy cobbles and badly hurt his knee trying to save the bottles of wine he was carrying across London. He later wrote that during his recuperation, ‘[as] I had the first volume of the Royal Academy catalogues at home for the purposes of my Reynolds book, the idea suddenly occurred to me that to arrange the painters alphabetically would be a valuable work.’ Without delay, ‘blue foolscap paper was procured’ and Graves optimistically began his thirty-year labour on The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and their Work from its Foundation in 1769 to 1904.

Since their publication in 1905, the eight volumes of Graves’ Dictionary—and later additions to the series—have proved indispensable to those researching the history of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and works exhibited there. However, Graves’ Dictionary does have its limitations and sometimes consulting the original catalogues opens up unexpected avenues for further research.

With this in mind, as part of The Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018, the PMC has worked with Digerati and the Royal Academy to digitise and publish open-access facsimiles of every single Summer Exhibition catalogue. Although not quite a thirty-year project, it was certainly no mean feat.

The catalogues were first transferred from the Royal Academy’s library to the imaging company who photographed each page individually. Then, optical character recognition (OCR) software was used to identify various categories of information printed in the catalogues—such as the artists’ name, the title of the work they exhibited and its number in the catalogue—which were then mapped back onto the images so that the digitised files are, in effect, fully searchable.

There are several ways users can access these digital facsimiles. The first is through each Chronicle entry, where a link will enable you to browse that year’s catalogue. There is also an index that works in a similar way to Graves’ Dictionary, where users can specify an artist and then find every single work they ever exhibited at the Summer Exhibition. Crucially, unlike in Graves’ Dictionary, researchers accessing the digitised catalogues will be able to see any given work listed alongside the other paintings and sculptures that would have surrounded it at the exhibition. Finally, every digitised file will also be made available to download and reuse under a creative commons licence with a view to generating further opportunities for digital research projects that might make use of the facsimile catalogues. 

You can view the catalogues now at chronicle250.com

About the author

  • Tom Powell

    Independent Researcher