Major image archives at London’s Courtauld Institute under threat

The Art Newspaper 30 July 2009
By Martin Bailey

Witt Library, Conway Library and Photographic Survey due to restrict access from September

The Courtauld Institute in London is considering drastic cuts to its three archives of images, including the Witt Library.  From September, they would only open one day a week and effectively cease to collect. This proposal is causing great concern amongst art historians, as well as the art trade, since it is a major resource.

Cost-cutting lies behind the proposal, and the Courtauld is concerned about the subsidy involved in administering and adding to the collections (Witt Library, Conway Library and Photographic Survey).

More than three million images are kept in London’s Somerset House and are currently open to the public every weekday, for a modest £10 a year (or £2 a day). Although the internet means that much of the recently added material is now available online, web images cannot be searched in such a systematic way.

Courtauld staff who run the three collections are now under threat of redundancy. The plan is that the libraries would open only one day a week (with volunteer assistance) and further images would not be systematically added. An internal consultation with the librarians is underway, and is due to be concluded in August.

The Witt Library holds around two million photographs and reproductions of paintings that are pasted onto thin card and stored in file boxes, classified by national school, then artist, and finally subdivided by iconography. Covering the period from 1200AD to the present, 70,000 artists are represented. The library’s origins go back to the image collection begun by Sir Robert Witt, who bequeathed it to the Courtauld in 1952.

The Conway Library is a similar collection, covering architecture, sculpture and some decorative art. Begun by Lord Conway, it was donated to the Courtauld in 1932 and now comprises around one million images.   

The Photographic Survey records paintings, works on paper and sculptures in private historic collections (mainly those of aristocratic families) in England, Wales and Ireland. It began in the early 1950s, in association with New York’s Frick Art Reference Library, and now covers nearly 600 collections. 

The Courtauld is unwilling to discuss the proposed cuts in any detail until the present consultation is concluded. In a statement issued this week, it said: “We can confirm that the proposals do not include closing either the Witt or Conway Libraries, although times of access may change for external users.”
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