The British Printed Images to 1700 Second International Conference, 12-13 September 2008, held at the V&A

The British Printed Images to 1700 project (http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/index.html) has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council from 2006-09 to provide a searchable internet database of over 10,000 printed images from early modern Britain.  The majority of these images will come from the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, with material introduced from other collections such as the National Art Library and the V&A too.  This enormous project is directed by Professor Michael Hunter, who has organised two project conferences, the second of which has just been held.  It was an international event, with a total of approximately eighty scholars, students, collectors and other interested people attending from Britain, Europe and the USA.  The two day programme comprised eleven papers, a demonstration of the trial interface, a special display of books from the National Art Library, and a new researchers’ session.

My overall impression of the event is excellent: if anything, it was even better than last year’s conference.  It was well organised, the papers were all of a very high standard and the IT worked well.  It was good to see art historians and historians that are interested in images talking to each other and sharing information.  Indeed, as we all know, sometimes at conferences it is the break times that prove to be the biggest challenge, when striking up a conversation can feel excruciating, but not so at this event – people really did mix and quite a few ended up at the local pub at the end of the first day!

The papers that deserve special mention are as follows.

Alex Walsham (Exeter), ‘ “Like Fragments of a Ship Wreck”: Printed Images and Religious Antiquarianism in Early Modern Britain’: this was a fascinating discussion of the creation of religious ruins during the Reformation and their effects on early modern attitudes towards landscapes.

Malcolm Jones (Sheffield), The Common Weales Canker Wormes: this talk addressed one print (named in the title) and teased out its complex message concerning the duplicity of certain early modern stock types, and its use of emblems.  It was very interesting to focus upon one image only, and Malcolm Jones’ ability to speak lucidly without notes was impressive.

Kevin Sharpe (Queen Mary), ‘Images of Oliver Cromwell’: a lively paper that argued that Cromwell and/or his followers appropriated much of Charles I’s imagery in order to establish the Protector’s authority.  I wasn’t completely convinced and felt that we could have heard more about the ambiguous nature of certain images, but it was a slick and thought provoking session nonetheless.

Justin Champion (Royal Holloway), ‘Decoding the Leviathan: Doing the History of Ideas Through Images 1651-1700’.  This paper discussed the highly engaging title pages of Hobbes’ Leviathan and Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Justin Champion explained how Shaftesbury’s detailed instructions to his engraver were part of an attempt to provide a pictorial version of his text within the frontispiece, to the point that at certain places the frontispiece even featured page number references inserted within the illustration.

The new researchers’ session was lively and stimulating, and praised at the round table discussion at the end of the conference– but I can’t say too much about this as I was one of the new researchers that gave a paper.  However, it was certainly a good innovation to have a session set aside specifically for research students to divulge their findings.

The project database is scheduled to go live in March 2009, and promises to be a valuable resource for researchers and staff of all stripes.  The two conferences have helped to establish the project and to provide a sense of community for those interested in the British printed image pre 1700.  I hope that further funding is made available to the project after March 2009 in order than the website can be updated and reviewed periodically, and so that further conferences can happen.