A major new project will make some 500 mid-Victorian wood engraved illustrations available as a searchable digital web database.
Dr Julia Thomas, of the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, has won a Resource Enhancement Award of more than £198,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Board for the three-year project.
"A significant number of books published in the mid-Victorian period were illustrated," she explained. "People would even illustrate their diaries, so it really was a way of life. This means there is a huge amount of material which we could look at, but for practical purposes, we are focusing on a single year - 1862, which is appropriate because it was particularly productive, and will include books by significant authors, such as Trollope.
"The illustrations are often works of art in their own right, and they provide a fascinating historical insight. We will literally search through boxes of these illustrations in the main repositories in Oxford and Aberystwyth, and will then undertake a major selection exercise."
Even then, it will not simply be a case of scanning in the illustrations and putting them on the web, for each picture will be painstakingly described, using key words which can be used to operate a search, once the database is complete.
The key words will include everything from the setting of the scenes (interior, exterior, dining room, garden etc) and the number, posture and sex of the figures, to fashion details (such as crinoline or bowler hats) and Victorian household objects (such as cooking ranges). "The idea is to itemise everything that the image contains," explained Dr Thomas. "This will allow for an analysis of 19th-century cultural history as well as specific artistic styles, for example."
Alongside Dr Thomas, the research team includes Professor David Skilton, Dr Anthony Mandal, and a post-doctoral research associate, to be appointed.
"Once completed, this database will be a valuable resource to researchers from many disciplines," said Dr Thomas. "Students and academics in the areas of art history, cultural criticism, English literature, gender studies, sociology, history, graphic design and other areas will all find it useful."