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Valuing Victorians: sharing 19th Century illustrations

Using research-based metadata to entertain a modern audience of millions.

Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle
Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle, appears in "The May Queen" by Lord Alfred Tennyson.

In the modern digital age, illustrations accompanying nineteenth-century literary texts had been largely forgotten. No structured way existed to search for them as images. We have sought to create a database that is free to search and view online to help designers, publishers and broadcasters gain access to Victorian images.

What really left an impression was the way the illustrations from the database can be used to enhance understanding of a difficult text.

Feedback from a 2011 workshop

Marking the past

Our researchers developed the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration (DMVI), which uses bespoke software tools to harness literary research and create a tagged 'image bank'. 

Its content and searchability have made it the resource of choice for designers, publishers, and heritage organisations worldwide when presenting images of nineteenth-century life. 

The database was developed on a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in which the team's groundbreaking work in Illustration Studies was used to add valuable 'mark ups' to the images, such as geographical location, historical context and relationships between pictured characters.

Importance of illustration

Walter Crane described it as the 'hand-glass' of the nation. Lewis Carroll's Alice could not see the point of reading a book without it. Illustration was everywhere in the Victorian period.

Reaching a modern audience

The significance of DMVI lies in its unique capacity to furnish new audiences with cultural and social images from the past, without losing the information about their provenance and original connotation.

Database images have been used around the world, and have reached audiences of many millions through television broadcasts. 

Images from the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration were used in a documentary about William and Catherine Booth by Radiant Films in 2009, the BBC's One Show and on primetime ITV and S4C, and in print publications including books and magazines, including the New York Times Book Review.

Meet our experts

Professor Julia Thomas

Professor Julia Thomas


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