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Digital Labour: Making Illustration Archives

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Digital Labour: Making Illustration Archives

Julia Thomas is a Professor of English Literature at Cardiff University, with specific interests and expertise in Victorian visual and material culture, word and image studies, and digital humanities. These areas have come together in his work to develop the growing field of Illustration Studies.


The nineteenth-century wood engraver and the twenty-first-century database developer share the objective of erasing their lines of labour, with the aim of rendering their work and craftsmanship invisible. As facsimile copyists, engravers embarked on a labour that the art critic, John Ruskin, compared to slavery. Their job was to copy the artist's drawing on the woodblock, carving out the lines on either side of the drawn lines, leaving the part to be inked in relief. A good engraving was one that was essentially invisible, where the artist's drawing was seen rather than the vehicle of its reproduction. The work of the database and website developer also goes unseen. From the perspective of the user, the content appears almost by magic, at the click of a button. This paper will discuss the creation of two digital archives that attempted to go against the grain and to make visible these lines of labour, revealing the work of wood engravers, illustrators, digital creators and contributors: the Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration ( and The Illustration Archive (




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