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The new Dictionary of National Biography is much more comprehensive than the Victorian original it replaces

More artists, more women, more sex

In sheer scale, the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (New DNB) is an astonishing achievement. It has 55,000 entries, comprising 62 million words. Published by Oxford University Press, the set comes in 60 volumes, weighing 280 pounds and requiring 12 feet of shelving.

The £25 million project, assisted by 10,000 contributors, took 14 years to complete. It is arguably the largest reference work ever published in English (just beating the Oxford English Dictionary in length). All this is yours for £7,500 ($13,000).

The New DNB’s publication on 23 September was the book event of the year in the English-speaking world, but readers of The Art Newspaper may be left wondering how it will serve the art historian. The short answer is that it is an invaluable asset, particularly for those with an interest in British art. It includes biographies of 5,107 artists (including architects), so all the important figures are there, as well as thousands of lesser significance. Artists therefore represent around 10% of the entries in the New DNB. But its use for the art historian is wider, since it also covers patrons, dealers and portrait sitters (and even the occasional art historian, including Anthony Blunt, the Poussin-scholar-turned-Soviet-spy).

Obviously one can never properly review a work of this scale, but, dipping into entries written by specialists, the authority of the publication is evident. The biographies are readable, and are certainly not overly dry. Each is concluded with reference material: a bibliography, main archival sources, a list of portraits and (this may come as a surprise) the value of the individual’s estate on their death. For 10,000 of the biographies, there are portrait illustrations, effectively forming a compendium of British portraiture. These images were selected by the National Portrait Gallery, from their own and a wide variety of other collections.

Old and new

The Dictionary of national biography has long been a British institution, and it is fascinating to compare the new edition with the original, which was published between 1885 and 1901 (with 10- or five-yearly volumes to record those who died in the 20th century). The original has served as an important reference source up to the present.

No one has been dropped from the original DNB, although those who are now considered less important get shorter entries. A considerable number of new names has been added, so the number of artists has risen from 3,587 to 5,107. The changes reflect, in part, the media used by artists. For example, the original DNB devoted considerable space to Victorian reproductive printmakers, while the new version reflects the development of photography.

A concerted attempt has been made to include more women, who, to contemporary eyes, are under-represented in the original DNB. The New DNB has 515 women artists, compared with 4,530 men. Women now represent 10% of the total number of artists, up from 3.5% in the original DNB. In addition, there are group entries on pre-Raphaelite women artists, and women artists in Ruskin’s circle.

It is fascinating to compare the two DNBs to trace changing reputations. Turner, for instance, now merits 17,000 words, almost the length of a slim book. This is twice what he was given in the late Victorian era, an indication of his rising status as a precursor of modern art. Another example is Augustus and Gwen John. Augustus got a better press in the 1961-70 supplementary volume of the DNB, but the New DNB admits that his reputation “deteriorated after his death”. His sister, Gwen, however, is on the up, and the New DNB states that she has now become “one of the most deeply loved of British artists”—arguably an exaggeration.

The original DNB tended to be overly London-orientated, whereas the New DNB strives to be more national—with greater representation from the English regions, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (the New DNB continues to include what became the Irish Republic). As before, the volumes also cover foreign artists working in Britain, such as Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck and Canaletto (Sisley gets in because he held British nationality).

Not surprisingly, the New DNB is considerably more forthright than its Victorian predecessor, particularly over sexual matters. It is noticeable, however, that references to homosexuality tend to pertain to 20th-century artists—presumably information on the sexual proclivities of earlier artists is often simply not available.

It is also interesting to compare the coverage of artists in the New DNB with that of The Dictionary of Art, published by Macmillan in 1996, now by Oxford University Press. In general, the average length of entries is similar, although the emphasis is slightly different: the New DNB focuses on biography, whereas The Dictionary of Art stresses artistic output.

Finally, it should be noted that the New DNB is available online. This not only saves bookshelf space (and is considerably less expensive), but it also makes it possible to search the work in a way that no index can do. The electronic version should therefore be invaluable.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'More artists, more women, more sex'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 151 October 2004