One of the parts of my job is answering questions from the public, usually enquiries for information about little-known artists, though I have also tracked down catalogues so obscure even the British Library doesn’t have them, and am currently hunting for information about a 19th century engraver. These enquiries are one of the most enjoyable and infuriating parts of my job, and they can also be very time-consuming and involved. I thought it would be interesting to show exactly how I go about finding information, especially as sometimes all I have is a name, not even a nationality or approximate date.
My initial starting point is always the National Art Library’s catalogue, though with most enquiries there is very little information available. One of the times I have found books about the artist I’ve been looking for they were both in Spanish, internet translaters and a Spanish-speaking colleague are both very handy. Then I look in Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon Online , the world’s largest artist’s biographical dictionary. This has made me very good at desciphering information in German, though less obscure artists sometimes have a translated English entry. AKL normally gives fairly accurate birth and death dates, type of artist, country and maybe a city within that country.
For 19th century artists, especially male artists, the records of the Royal Academy are a very resource. I use the book version, by Algernon Graves, which lists all the paintings in the RA’s annual winter and summer exhibitions, giving the painter’s name, address given to the academy, title of painting and year exhibited. However, this this can occasionally be confusing, as exhibiting a picture at the RA was not the same thing as being a member of the RA, a Royal Academian. For that the artist had to be elected by their peers after another member had died or retired. Also, until after 1900 only two women were members of the RA, and most exhibteres were men.
For women artists there are some good separate resources, such as the Dictionary of Women Artists: an international dictionary of women artists born before 1900, as well as several versions covering more contempoary women artists. There also exist several good dictionaries of black artists, including the St James Guide to Black artists. later artists can also often be more easily traced through the internet and the NAL artist information files, I think because of this all artists I have been asked to find information about have been born before 1900.
From here it really depends what sort of information I’m looking for, but one site I use a lot is Free BMD, which has a free database of most church records in England, very useful for finding basic information, especially if the artist being reasearched has an unusual name. In the best cases, it has given me an exact birth and death date, and the county those were registered in. The marriage records also give the woman’s surname, though not first name, useful in family history related enquiries.
Another of my favourite resources are old Post Office and commercial directories. Though the NAL doesn’t have complete runs it does have a large number of directories going back as far as the late 18th century, and covering many areas of Great Britain. If there is an artist’s address in a Royal Academy submission then I can follow it up in the directory, to find out exactly how long the artist lived there. I can also look up artists in the trades section of the directory to find out where they lived, this also applies to arts related professions such as engravers and architects. The directories themselves are absolutely fascinating, full of useful information such as post office rates, train timetables and even descriptions of many of the towns and villages included.
Something I haven’t used much yet but keep meaning to investigate properly is Archives Hub, which brings together archives from England, Scotland and Wales, and looks like a really useful tool for all sort of enquiries, not just artist based ones. These are not all the resources available by any means, however they are the ones I use most often, and are an excellent starting point. Enquiries are an important part of my work, and most of the ones I carry out are of such a specific nature that I thought it might be interesting for other people working with information to see how I go about finding information from many sources to try and build up a detailed picture of an artist’s life.