Unlocking the History of British Art: Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive Goes Online

  • 8 November 2021

An open-access archive of more than 100,000 digitised photographs of British art and architecture is now available to search and download.

Photo archive website on computer screen Between 1964 and 1969 the Paul Mellon Foundation began to collate an internationally important collection of reference photographs of British paintings, sculpture, architecture, and the decorative arts, as well as images of sketchbooks and exhibitions.

The photographic archive provided access to art that was often locked behind the closed doors of Britain’s private country houses and collections. This activity was continued when the Foundation was re-established as the Paul Mellon Centre (PMC) in 1970, and maintained until 2013, at which point the collection contained more than 100,000 reference images.

This historically important and visually rich collection has now been digitised, with typed and handwritten descriptive notations transcribed for searchability, and is available, free, online.

Visitors to the online resource, can learn about the nation’s heritage through images collated from the exhibition, publication and sale of British works of art.

Users are able to download, compare, and contrast the works using digital tools. More than 44,000 images are available for reuse, offered with a Creative Commons licence for non-commercial purposes. In doing so the PMC joins major international institutions like the Rijksmuseum, whose open access image collections have become significant resources for new artistic and research projects.

Four people peer over table A series of short essays on the archive platform outline the continued relevance of this historical resource. Bendor Grosvenor writes on the uses of the collection in the identification and reattribution of works of art; Paris Spies-Gans (Harvard University) discusses the historical gender biases and omissions intrinsic in the collection; Martin Postle (PMC) outlines how images can be helpful in the preservation and restoration of damaged works; and Anjalie Dalal-Clayton (UAL) and Ananda Rutherford (Tate/UCL) consider the historical implications of Eurocentric, racist, outmoded, and other problematic terminology used in cataloguing historic collections.

There is also a series of short films which demonstrate the archive in use from the point of view of an artist, an archivist, a curator, a dealer, a photographer, and a conservator.

Visit the Photographic Archive online catalogue.