Past Talks

Picture Oxon

Date: 17th February 2020
Speaker: Mark Lawrence

Picture Oxon – Mark Lawrence 17 February 2020

Oxfordshire History Centre’s photographic archive, Picture Oxon, traces its origins to the Oxford City Library in St Aldates.  The library opened in the old town hall in 1854 and included a local history collection.  The new town hall, when it opened in 1896, benefitted from extended library facilities. 

The archive rapidly expanded through the 20th century acquisitions of the Taunt, Packer and Thomas collections, affording substantial coverage of the region, from Cotswolds to Chilterns and right through the Thames Valley.  

William Henry Taunt’s collection was acquired in 1924 at a cost of £98 10s 0d.  Lack of storage space postponed further collecting until after WW2 and, indeed, Taunt’s negatives were stored in Swindon for this reason.  Taunt rose from poor beginnings in St Ebbe’s, Oxford to be a professional photographer, author, publisher and entertainer.  In 1868 he established a shop in Cornmarket, Oxford and focussed on photographs of Oxford city and the Thames Valley.  These were sold as souvenirs and, later, as postcards, totalling 60,000 images, of which 14,000 survive. 
He wrote local histories and guide books, and recorded local customs and recreation such as St Giles Fair and the beating of the bounds.  When rival photographer, Frederick Ault of Stanford-in-the-Vale, died in 1914, Taunt bought his negatives and added them to his own collection, a sure sign that he appreciated their quality.
1964 saw the escalation of post-war collecting and expansion based around the newly-established Oxford City & County Museum, and the city library service.  At this time, Harold Crawley was commissioned to photograph every street in Oxford and Picture Oxon includes 2,500 of his images. 

The influence of Dr Malcolm Graham, who arrived in the city to be the first full-time local history librarian in 1970, cannot be underestimated.  His programme of collecting, copying and photographing culminated in 10,000 images recording historic buildings and change in Oxford and Oxfordshire up to 2009. 

After the reorganisation of local government in 1974, the county council took over the archive collections, although the library service and the museum service continued to collect independently.  This came to a head when the Packer collection came up for sale and, ultimately, resources were transferred to the Oxfordshire Photographic Archive.                                                                      

In 1989, English Heritage brought together the whole of the Taunt collection and digitisation commenced. 

Heritage Lottery funding enabled the purchase of J W Thomas’s collection of 100,000 images.  He had set up as a photographer in Oxford after the Second World War and became famous for his images of Oxford’s historic buildings, being awarded an honorary M.A. by the University of Oxford in 1963.  His photographs, taken over a fifty-year period, had been poorly stored and although now all conserved, only 10% have been digitised due to lack of time and funds.

Gaining its first online presence via the Heritage Search website in 2007, the photographic archive now looks to Picture Oxon to provide a catalogue of 400,000 images of local people, places and buildings.  Picture Oxon’s resources include not only photographs, but engravings, drawings and maps.  From 2014, the Picture Oxon website has been run by House of Images, a responsive company who ensure that the accessibility guidelines are met. 

The historic maps collection consists of high-resolution images of maps of the county, city, towns and villages.  Also included are aerial photographs from 1961, in addition to over 5,000 oral history recordings (which can be accessed free-of-charge in libraries). 

Among on-going work is the linking of the Percy Elford images to catalogue material.  Elford was appointed Oxfordshire's chief education officer in 1903 when the county council took over the county's elementary schools.  An early motorist and a keen photographer, he took over 3,000 photographs of the schools under his care.   

Mark guided us through the comprehensive search facility on Picture Oxon found at