Shakespeare in Pictures: A Victorian Archive

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, then Dr Michael John Goodman’s latest project is like a dictionary.

The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, or VISA, collects thousands of Shakespeare illustrations into one online database. It’s lovingly crafted, it’s easy-to-use, and it’s all completely free.

Dr Goodman, who’s based at Cardiff University, says the idea for the database stemmed from a discussion with his PhD supervisor.

“My original idea was going to be looking generally at Shakespeare illustration in the Victorian Period. I’ve got a film and drama background, so the visual part of the project really appealed to me.”

“But my supervisor, Julia Thomas, had previously worked on a project with her colleague Anthony Mandal: the DMVI, or Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration.”


Edgar leading his blind father in 'King Lear'.
Edgar leading his blind father in ‘King Lear’, illustrated by H. C. Selous in the 1860s.

He says the DMVI inspired him to attempt a similar project with Victorian illustations of Shakespeare.

“It feels like I’ve discovered a treasure trove. We’ve got these amazing images, and they’re all public domain, free to everyone – but they’re hidden away in library archives up and down the country.”

Once he’d decided on his final goal, Dr Goodman was faced with the daunting task of converting thousands of Victorian engravings into digital images.

He says he didn’t really know what he was letting himself in for.

“The editions which make up the archive are the four most significant illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s work from that period.”

“To get one play uploaded, tidied up, treated in photoshopped, tagged with metadata… that takes five to six hours. And for each of the four editions we’ve got between 35 and 37 plays.”

He began with an 1843 edition of the Complete Works illustrated by Welshman Kenny Meadows, who was born in Cardigan.

Malvolio from 'Twelfth Night', drawn by Kenny Medows.
Malvolio from ‘Twelfth Night’, as imagined by Welsh illustrator Kenny Meadows in his 1843 edition.

“Everything’s been scanned in as high a resolution as possible, so you can zoom in and really see these images in a way they’ve never been seen before.”

“I treat each image individually in Photoshop to make it look clean and fresh, in a way which they would never have looked before but in a way which speaks to us today. It helps people, if they want to use the images, to repurpose them and do with them whatever they like.”

“It’s a long, laborious process but it’s worth it. I was just worried that someone else would do it first!”


For the second part of our interview with Dr Goodman, click here.

Why not explore the database yourself and let us know what you find? You can access it here.

You can follow Dr Goodman on Twitter @mikeygoodman1, and don’t forget we’re there too @ShakesCymru.


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