News Issue No.14 Autumn 2002
John Sunderland, Witt Librarian
John, Witt Librarian since 1966, retired in July
2002. After graduating at Oxford, he studied for the Courtauld Diploma,
and then, in succession to Michael Rinehart, was appointed Witt Librarian.
The core principle of the Witt (to collect art reproductions ‘as found’, without editorial correction of given attributions, titles, dates, and so on, so offering researchers a rich raw material) was one totally congenial to John; his interests are wide, and his attitudes tolerant and undogmatic. His direction of the Witt has ensured the continuation of that central activity over more than thirty years. Much could be built on it and John was behind many initiatives intended to enhance the usefulness and accessibility of the collection.
He organized photographic campaigns in under-represented UK public collections (Birmingham, Leeds and others); and the Witt’s contents, by virtue of the Microfiche Project, became available to outside purchasers in whole or in part (Peter Lasko invaluably solved the copyright problem). For visitors in person, the Royal Academy Index gave systematic access to images of work shown at the RA in its early decades.
By the late 70’s the new information technology clearly offered new possibilities for humanities information handling. The Witt Computer Index (started in 1982, Getty-funded, with software from On-Line Computer Systems) was to give flexible and systematic access not only to textual data on Witt mounts, but also (by subject analysis) to much of the contents of each image.
Initial planning on the Index involved John deeply, as would that for the Van Eyck Project: Cathy Gordon in both cases undertook daily management and further development.
Van Eyck (early 1990’s, EEC - funded) was computer-based and examined (with the Netherlands RKD, Trinity College Dublin and Utrecht University) the feasibility of simultaneously sending several image collections.
In parallel with in-house computer developments, John was closely involved with the outside organization CHART (Computers and History of Art), editing its journal since 1990.
All the above presents John solely as manager and ‘technocrat’. But those who have known him, worked with him, or used the Witt, will credit him and his colleagues with the positive and welcoming atmosphere of the Witt itself; a friendly department, where informed support is always available to users and visitors.
John himself has remained a practising art historian. He wrote and published, on Constable, Chardin, Hogarth and Watteau, and recently contributed to the catalogue of the Art on The Line exhibition. His specialist and abiding interest however, is John Hamilton Mortimer; a life, and a catalogue of Mortimer’s work were published in 1986 by the Walpole Society.
John’s scholarly interests will certainly be maintained and extended in the future (he is already planning for this). All who have known him, or have used the Witt during his time there, will wish him an active and happy retirement.
MICHAEL DORAN – Book Librarian (retired)