Skip to main content

The Illustration Archive

31 March 2015

Scene of gentlemen from Jane Eyre novel
Illustration from Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, from the Illustration Archive.

Global treasure revealed: World's largest searchable archive of book illustrations opens up more than a million images for free

A new global treasure - The Illustration Archive - is to enable anyone to search more than a million images held in the British Library for free thanks to a Cardiff University project launching today [31 March 2015].

The research project is the work of academics at Cardiff University, making accessible 68,000 volumes of books held for the nation in the British Library from travel writing to history, philosophy to botany, and all genres in between.

Professor of English Literature Julia Thomas, who forged the project in just one year, says: "This labour of love by our small dedicated team incorporating experts in English Literature and Computer Science is not only giving life again to thousands of neglected images but also giving back our visual culture, which might otherwise have been lost to the public forever."

Explaining the background to the project, Professor Thomas said: "We have focused on illustrations from books spanning the eighteenth to the twentieth century, a period that is arguably the most important in British book illustration. This was a time when rapid changes in reproductive techniques were paralleled by changes in the meanings of art and its reception. Art was democratised and book illustrations became more widely collectable and mobile than ever before. In the same spirit, our work advances this leap further into the modern digital age.

"Now as The Illustration Archive – the world's biggest searchable archive of book illustrations - becomes free to the public, it has the potential to revolutionise how illustration is understood and the importance accorded to it, to supply an image-hungry commercial world with illustrative material, and to lead to ever more accurate ways of classifying and analysing images in large databases. We encourage all to explore it by heading to"

Commenting on the project, illustrator Quentin Blake said: "The printed pages of the 19th century are full of remarkable images, if we can find them. The Illustration Archive puts a million of them within reach. Amazing."