Reviewed April 2018
Kelly K. Davis
Metadata Specialist I, Getty Provenance Index
The newly released and free to access Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne (1739-1816) fills a gap in the scholarship on the artist, identifying more than double the amount of works previously known. In addition to identifying new works, this accessible by web resource includes hundreds of high quality images, many specially commissioned by the Paul Mellon Centre, the publisher and host of this catalogue. Beyond the extensive new research, the images themselves are a boon. The high-resolution, visually attractive images feature prominently on the landing page, creating an image-forward display that could provide an engaging way for unfamiliar visitors to become interested in Towne’s work. Beyond their visual quality, the Mellon- commissioned images are presented with Creative Commons licenses and can be used for a variety of scholarly purposes. With so many new representations of unknown or formerly lost objects, the Catalogue Raisonne creates a treasure trove for any researcher of Towne’s work.
The catalogue’s author, established Towne scholar Richard Stephens, expands on the “pioneering research” of art historian Paul Oppé, particularly with the provenance of objects and biography of the artist. The scholarly essays accompanying each section are comprehensive, well-researched,and well-organized. The indices are also a good access point to the content, particularly from a provenance standpoint. The bibliography is extensive, though it could be improved by linking the listed resources to their WorldCat record. Given the flexibility of the digital interface, perhaps this could be added later. The catalogue also parses out roles for collectors and institutions, which makes the resource more than a simply digitized book, instead creating a tool for exploring relationships between objects and their provenances. To a metadata specialist, the problem the catalogue creators must have encountered in attempting to assign these roles will be familiar. While “owner/dealer” and “dealer?” are not the most ideal designations, these terms represent a strong attempt and provide enough organization for the current set of around 500 names. Another built-in feature for users is the ability to create an account to save images. It’s a very simple sign up with a low barrier, and is all a project such as this needs to provide.
As a whole, the design of the catalogue is successful, with only a few complaints. The lengthy essays in the “Section” pages are in a large type that could confuse a user who expects to immediately find images. In a way, the essays bury the associated images at the bottom of the page. The single bar search in “List of Works” serves as a general access point, but the advanced search has some flaws rendering it difficult to use. The grey font displays so finely that it i’s hard to see, and the search boxes are transparent, rendering them almost impossible to see. The large font size is helpful for a finite set of works, but once the project starts expanding (part of the creators’ justification for using the digital format), pages like “People and Organizations” may become unwieldy. Otherwise, the bold style is pleasant for a digital catalogue such as this, and the sections are smartly divided. Besides the possible downside of overwhelming the design, choosing a digital format as opposed to print makes a lot of sense in light of the information contained in the “About” page that outlines how many of Towne’s works have yet to be traced.
For viewers familiar with Towne’s work and newcomers alike, the Catalogue Raisonné of Francis Towne inspires users to browse for the joy of discovery and the excellent images. It is a welcome addition to the pioneering world of digital catalogues raisonnés.