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UW-Madison libraries launch decorative arts site

May 31, 2001 By Donald Johnson

American decorative arts have taken up digital residence in the UW–Madison Libraries this week as part of a partnership with the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee.

The first material to roll out in the Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture is a landmark two-volume natural history published in 1754 by Mark Catesby. “The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands” contains figures of birds, fish, insects and plants.

Based on two extended trips to America between 1712 and 1726, the work may be the first accurate depiction of the flora and fauna of the New World. Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark were among those in America who sought out The Natural History for their personal libraries.

Users of the Web site can browse more than 500 digital facsimiles of color plates and text, or they may search for specific terms and pages. The graphics are accessible in three sizes: one for quick browsing, another for printing, and a high-resolution third for examining fine details.

The volumes from which the digital version was created are held by the UW–Madison Department of Special Collections; another set is owned by the Chipstone Foundation.

“One possibility for the future would be generating enough material for the site to create a virtual encyclopedia of the decorative arts,” says Kenneth Frazier, director of the UW-Madison Libraries.

The Web project will continue converting information from a variety of sources and will provide access to texts and images that often could be seen only in rare book rooms or museums, Frazier says.

Jon Prown, executive director of the Chipstone Foundation, says the foundation is pursuing its educational mission through partnerships with academic institutions such as UW–Madison. In 1996, the foundation created an endowed professorship in decorative arts at the university.

“We encourage scholarly cooperation by making the materials accessible to everyone,” Prown says. “Some institutions might make a sampling of material available. We want to provide the complete work, which promotes sharing and collaboration.”

As an example of that sharing, Frazier says that the next digital piece will be William Pain‚s Practical House Carpenter, published in 1792, held by Chipstone. The book of patterns includes unique information on design as well as on carpentry and supply prices.

Catherine Cooney, digital projects librarian, coordinates the project. Consultation is provided by Ann Smart Martin, Chipstone Professor of American Decorative Arts at UW–Madison, and Kohler Art Library director Lyn Korenic.

Decorative arts represent what is used to furnish and decorate homes, set tables and commemorate special occasions. According to Cooney, the Catesby book is considered an example of decorative art like the mirrors and stoneware collected in the eighteenth century that demonstrate a growing interest in the larger world and the desire to catalog it.

Some of the most famous artisans in the decorative arts include John and Christopher Townsend, Paul Revere, Charles Wilson Peale, William Hogarth, and Thomas Rowlandson.

The Chipstone Foundation was created by Polly and Stanley Stone of Milwaukee, who began their collection of American decorative arts in 1946.

Tags: arts