The Tate Digitizes 70,000 Works of Art: Photos, Sketchbooks, Letters & More

Photograph of Nigel Henderson by Nigel Henderson 1917-1985

Pho­to­graph of Nigel Hen­der­son via Nigel Hen­der­son Estate

If you’re like me, one of the first items on your itin­er­ary when you hit a new city is the art muse­ums. Of course one, two, even three or four vis­its to the world’s major col­lec­tions can’t begin to exhaust the wealth of paint­ing, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy, and more con­tained with­in. Rotat­ing and spe­cial exhibits make tak­ing it all in even less fea­si­ble. That’s why we’re so grate­ful for the dig­i­tal archives that insti­tu­tions like the Get­tyLA Coun­ty Muse­um of Art, the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, the Nation­al Gallery, and the British Library make avail­able free online. Now anoth­er muse­um, Britain’s Tate Mod­ern, gets into the dig­i­tal archive are­na with around 70,000 dig­i­tized works of art in their online gallery.

Sketch of the bus stop

“Sketch of the bus stop” from the estate of Josef Her­man

But wait, there’s more. Much more. A sep­a­rate dig­i­tal archive—the Tate’s Archives & Access project—offers up a trove of mate­ri­als you’re unlike­ly to encounter much, if at all, in their phys­i­cal spaces. That’s because this col­lec­tion dig­i­tizes lit­tle-seen “artists’ mate­ri­als, includ­ing pho­tographs, sketch­books, diaries, let­ters and objects, doc­u­ment­ing the lives and work­ing process­es of British born and émi­gré artists, from 1900 to the present.” These include, writes The Guardian, “the love let­ters of painter Paul Nash, the detailed sculp­ture records of Bar­bra Hep­worth, and 3,000 pho­tographs by Nigel Hen­der­son, pro­vid­ing a behind-the-scenes back­stage look at London’s 1950s jazz scene.” Thus far, the Tate has uploaded about 6,000 items, “includ­ing 52 col­lec­tions relat­ing to 79 artists.” At the Tate archive, you’ll find pho­tographs like that of painter and pho­tog­ra­ph­er Nigel Hen­der­son (see top of the post) and also paint­ings by the high­ly regard­ed Pol­ish-British real­ist, Josef Her­man (right above).

Squared-up drawings of soldiers 1920-1921 by David Jones 1895-1974

“Squared-up draw­ings of sol­diers” via The estate of David Jones

You’ll find pre­lim­i­nary sketch­es like the 1920–21 Squared-up draw­ings of sol­diers by painter and poet David Jones, above, one of 109 sketch­es and two sketch­books avail­able by the same artist. You’ll find let­ters like that below, writ­ten by sculp­tor Ken­neth Armitage to his wife Joan Moore in 1951—one of hun­dreds. These are but the tini­est sam­pling of what is now “but a drop in the ocean,” The Guardian writes, “giv­en the more than 1 mil­lion items in the [phys­i­cal] archive.” Archive head Adri­an Glew calls the col­lec­tion “a nation­al archival trea­sure” that is also “for the enrich­ment of the whole world.”

Letter from Kenneth Armitage to Joan Moore [1951] by Kenneth Armitage 1916-2002

Let­ter from Ken­neth Armitage to Joan Moore via the The Ken­neth Armitage Foun­da­tion

The remain­der of the dig­i­tized Archives & Access collection—52, 000 items in total—should be avail­able by the sum­mer of 2015. While view­ing art and arti­facts online is cer­tain­ly no sub­sti­tute for see­ing them in per­son, it’s bet­ter than nev­er see­ing them at all. In any case, mil­lions of pieces are only view­able by cura­tors and spe­cial­ists and nev­er make their way to gallery floors. But with the appear­ance and expan­sion of free online archives like the Tate’s, that sit­u­a­tion will shift dra­mat­i­cal­ly, open­ing up nation­al trea­sures to inde­pen­dent schol­ars and ordi­nary art lovers the world over.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Pub­lic Domain, Mak­ing Them Free to Reuse & Remix

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Puts 400,000 High-Res Images Online & Makes Them Free to Use

The Nation­al Gallery Makes 25,000 Images of Art­work Freely Avail­able Online

LA Coun­ty Muse­um Makes 20,000 Artis­tic Images Avail­able for Free Down­load

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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