- The Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration
Many readers of the Journal of Victorian Culture will know about the 'Database of Mid-Victorian Wood-Engraved Illustration' (hereafter DVMI) largely because Julia Thomas, David Skilton and the team at the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research at Cardiff, who have worked on the project since 2004, have been assiduous in their attendance at conferences and academic events, and ever eager to consult, discuss and demonstrate their work. An AHRC funded project, DVMI has sought not just to assemble a particular but comprehensive body of a certain kind of illustration and make it available in the most helpful and refined way possible using current electronic and digital technology, but also to ask scholars a number of key questions about the nature of 'illustration' as a mode endlessly negotiating between textuality and visuality. Clearly there is also an implied polemic here about 'subordination', a riposte to the crudely evidential uses to which images are still frequently subjected by textually focussed academics, and a plea for the visuality of Victorian texts to be emphatically re-instated.
Put simply, which, in the light of the above is a difficult thing to do, the DVMI might seem a worthwhile but small-scale project – a data base of nearly 900 wood engraved illustrations taken from periodicals and books published in 1862, seeking comprehensiveness within the terms of its own definitions of 'literary illustration', but acknowledging that, even for a single year's output of this kind, profusion reigns. The assembled images have been drawn mainly a number of repositories, including Cardiff University Library, the Ashmolean Museum and a fortuitously identified collection of illustrations held in Aberystwyth. At the meekest level, then, DVMI has established a useful repository of images, reproduced at high resolution in an invitingly usable form, and drawn variously by well known artists such as Millais, by specialist illustrators like Arthur Boyd Houghton or Frederick Walker, and by relatively obscure, or even nameless, artists and engravers drawn into the jobbing marketplace by the development of, especially, monthly [End Page 108] fiction bearing magazines aimed at what might be called the 'serious leisure' market. The sources are predominantly periodicals but also include illustrated novels, like Wilkie Collins's After Dark, gift books and anthologies. It seems likely that, if for no other reason, DVMI will become familiar to many teachers as a reliable source of module handbook covers and illustrations for other scholarly purposes.
But, of course, projects like this cannot be described simply as repositories or 'resources', and beyond its intention to provide a searchable and easily navigable source of images, DVMI has been conceived as an ambitious attempt to think through and articulate those descriptive categories and modes of approach that scholars might want to bring to images in order to assemble research material and enhance interpretative potential. Working through the implications of this task has been central to the construction of the data-base. The immediate issue was, of course, the onerous but essential task of describing the contents of each image in ways that can then be organised into searchable categories. The difficulty here is the need for both accuracy and objectivity. If one of the scholarly outcomes of DVMI is likely to be an increased level of interpretative sophistication in the reading and understanding of images within, alongside or independent from texts, it is nonetheless crucial that the data-base offers no interpretative mechanisms of its own, or else it becomes, disastrously, a map of misreading. It is up to the users of the data-base, and not its compilers, to formulate their own misinterpretations of what they see. Julia Thomas herself tells a wonderful story of sending out a number of images to lay and academic readers both to help form a descriptive method for the data-base and to gauge some of the ways in which misreading occurs. One image showed a scene at a race meeting, (Walter Crane's 'The London Carnival' from London...