Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive goes online

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Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive goes online
Still of art conservators at KSH Conservation Ltd. examining records relating to Hans Holbein the younger’s portrait of Thomas le Strange.

LONDON.- Paintings, sculpture, and decorative artworks that are often locked behind the closed doors of Britain’s private country houses and collections and not normally seen by the public can now be accessed, thanks to a huge new online archive created by the Paul Mellon Centre.

Featuring more than 100,000 digitised photographs of British art and architecture, as well as images of sketchbooks and past exhibitions, the new resource is available to search and download online at for free.

What might be revealed in glimpses of long-lost works? The archive contains pictures of artworks captured before their destruction: an 18th-century painting by Richard Wilson destroyed by enemy bombing at the National Gallery in 1944, the Rothes portraits decimated by warehouse fire in 1991, grand wall and ceiling panels torn from their surroundings as Britain’s stately homes were carved up, modernised, or demolished.

We are now also able to examine works up close and make our own judgements: is it time to reconsider artworks once dismissed as copies in a new light? In a specially commissioned film, conservator Emma Boyce makes the argument for reattributing a portrait to Hans Holbein the Younger. Are there other hidden ‘sleepers’ among the thousands of unidentified works? In new texts Bendor Grosvenor and Philip Mould explain their methodologies and hint at the untold possibilities buried in this dormant resource.

The roots of the project go back five decades, when from 1964-1969 the (then) Paul Mellon Foundation began to collate an internationally important collection of reference photographs, with the aim of providing researchers, academics, and curious members of the public access to art that cannot normally be seen.

This pioneering work 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. More recently, this historically important and visually rich collection has been digitised – a process that has taken 4 years - with typed and hand-written descriptive notations transcribed for searchability.

Visitors to the online resource will be able to learn about the nation’s heritage through images collated from a variety of sources, including exhibitions, publications and sales of artworks and search by type, artist, subject, material, and date. Additionally, innovative technologies are employed to allow deep-zooming and side-by-side comparison of the images.

The value of the archive was demonstrated by Fiona Bruce during a recent episode of Fake or Fortune whilst researching the provenance of a preparatory oil sketch for a version of the Last Supper.

The presenter visited the Paul Mellon Centre looking for evidence that the painting could be a long-lost work by Benjamin West, as part of a commission from King George III. The Centre was able to provide Bruce with a copy of an original sale catalogue from 1829, in which West’s two sons held a three-day auction of 180 paintings made by their now deceased father. As the show reveals, Lot 21 is The Last Supper and is described as “The study for the admired picture, placed over the table of the Altar of the choir of St. George’s chapel, Windsor.”

People will be able to access this huge wealth of images and documents from the comfort of their own home, office, or mobile device. Users can download, compare, and contrast all 100,000 works, while more than 44,000 of the images are also available to download and reuse, courtesy of a Creative Commons licence for non-commercial purposes. In doing this, the Paul Mellon Centre joins major international institutions, such as Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, whose open access image collections have become significant resources for new artistic and research projects.

A number of newly commissioned short essays will provide fresh perspectives on the collection. These include Harvard University’s Paris Spies-Gans discussing the historical gender biases and omissions intrinsic to the collection, and the PMC’s Martin Postle outlining how images can be helpful in the preservation and restoration of damaged works, while Anjalie Dalal-Clayton (University of the Arts London) and Ananda Rutherford (Tate / University College London) consider the historical implications of outmoded and other problematic terminology used in cataloguing historic collections. A series of short films further demonstrate how the archive can be used, from the point of view of an artist, an archivist, a conservator, a curator, an art dealer, and a photographer.

Mark Hallett, Director at the PMC says: “Our photo archive tells the story of the British art from around 1500 to 1900, or at least that story as it was seen by art historians in the late 20th-century. The archive has been an essential foundation for the study of British art history, and we look forward to seeing it being used in new ways for decades to come. Containing work by canonical and obscure figures, the archive’s contents, structure, biases and absences are uniquely reflective of the history of taste, scholarship, and the market. We are thrilled that the digitised collection will now be available beyond our public study room: there is so much to explore!’.”

As a founding member of PHAROS, an international consortium of fourteen photo archive repositories, the PMC has ensured that the photographic archive will also be available through a freely available common digital platform, hosting an estimated 30 million images, which is due for launch in 2022.

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