Photographic Collection

tel:  0207 862 8928

The Warburg Institute's Photographic Collection contains ca 350,000 photographs of sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints, tapestries and other forms of imagery. The Collection was begun by Aby Warburg in the late 1880s, and includes tens of thousands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs and slides, together with hundreds of thousands of images added since the Institute came to London in 1933. The Collection is currently being digitized: for details of this project, see the Iconographic Database. Most of the works depicted are European, and range in date from classical antiquity to circa 1800. There are also small, expanding sections on various forms of non-European art.  

The collection is organised iconographically: photographs are ordered not by artist or by period, but by subject. So, for example, Dürer’s Melencolia I is filed under magic & science – Four Temperaments – Melancholy – Female figure with putto(s) etc. Next to it in the folder there are photographs of other images of melancholy: manuscript illuminations, book plates, woodcuts, drawings, engravings and paintings, some high art, most low art, from all over Europe, produced during a period of about 500 years.

This unique filing system helps users to:

·         identify the subjects of obscure works

·         locate images whose artist is unknown

·         understand the frequency with which stories were depicted

·         analyze the relationship of images to textual sources

·         trace iconographic developments through time

·         test theories about the social functions of images

The system was devised in the 1930s by Rudolf Wittkower. Towards the end of his life Aby Warburg suggested a thematic structure based around the concepts which can also be found in his Mnemosyne Atlas, but Wittkower decided instead to develop a more neutral taxonomy based on iconographic types. His system has proved very flexible and adaptable, and has been much expanded in the years since. One of its unique features is precisely its flexibility, which allows for constant modification and hence an unrivalled range of iconographic categories.

In the Photographic Collection as a whole there are at present around 18,000 subject folders, providing a detailed picture of European iconography, and summary overviews of Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Islamic, Indian, Far Eastern and non-Eurasian iconographies. The structure and order of the iconographic categories are listed in the Subject Index.

The members of staff in the Collection, all of whom are academics who publish in the field of iconography, help visitors to find their way around the filing system, and answer enquiries from scholars and the general public.