Historic images of buildings in the British Isles

This guide to the use of old images in researching historic buildings looks at the types of images available and how to interpret them. For image catalogues, indexes and online databases of images and maps by region and period see image finding aids. See archives for online catalogues of major collections, particularly those of museums and art galleries: there are several combined image databases listed there.

Early images

Westminster Abbey from the Bayeux TapestryThe search for historic images is vital. They could provide a visual history of Bosham Church from the Bayeux Tapestry the building. But beware - they are not always what they seem. Early images need careful interpretation. These are taken from the Bayeux Tapestry. The newly-built Westminster Abbey (left) is shown with attempted realism: notice the precariously-perched man putting the finishing touches to the weathercock. Yet the church at Bosham where Harold prayed (right) is simply an artist's convention. The designer had probably never seen the original. In the same way the illustrators of medieval manuscripts might have to imagine the churches that figured in the story.

Seals used by monasteries, cathedral chapters and hospitals quite often have portrayals of the building no doubt intended to be recognizable, however crude. Occasionally a medieval stained glass window, tomb or manuscript shows the founder holding a simplified model of the church. Tudor manuscript illuminations could be far more sophisticated, as Renaissance art reached a few wealthy and discerning patrons. Early maps were bird's eye views.

Paintings and drawings

High Street, Putney, Surrey, by George S. Shepherd (British Library) From the 17th century the art of topographical drawing began to be absorbed into the British Isles via the Low Countries. (Bruce MacEvoy gives an overview of this development, with bibliography.) The accuracy of the image will vary, depending on its purpose and the ability of the artist. Those made by a capable artist specifically to record, for example those by Grimm, are the most trustworthy. Turner could record superbly if required, but might shift the scenery to improve the composition in other paintings. Professionals aiming to charm, like Allingham, may portray the building as they imagine it was earlier, for instance with a thatched roof and lattice windows, rather than the tiles and sashes of their own day. See the Archives section of this site and image finding aids for links to online, illustrated catalogues of collections.

Woodcuts and engravings

Before photography, images were published by woodcut and engraving. Many prints of castles, churches, monastic ruins and country houses will be found in the publications listed by Anderson, such as county histories, antiquarian works and traveller's guides. Other good sources are the Gentleman's Magazine and popular journals such as Pictorial Times and The Illustrated London News (included in the Mary Evans Picture Library.) A host of topographical engravings are illustrated online by print-sellers: for details see image finding aids.

Engraved plans and elevations by architects and surveyors are particularly helpful, but may not be as straightforward as they appear. Architects could include unrealised projects in their books of designs. Accurate surveys of some major churches were commissioned from John Carter in the late 18th century by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Both Carter and previous artists might ignore buildings attached to the church or make other alterations to clarify the image, but Carter did explain his changes in his accompanying text.

Architects' plans

Plans for semi-detached houses in Aberystwyth by G.T.Bassett 1904 (National Library of Wales)Plans may survive in the office of the architect or his professional successor. The largest collection of historic architects' plans was collected by RIBA and is now housed in the Victorian and Albert Museum. (There is an online catalogue.) From the 18th century leases or other deeds may include ground plans and even occasionally elevations.

Building control plans: from the mid-19th century plans for urban building and alteration often had to be submitted to the local authority and will now be in the relevant record office. In Scotland the burgh Dean of Guild Court exercised building control functions. A few are included in burgh records in the National Archives of Scotland; most are in local record offices. More recent planning applications for listed buildings will be in the local planning department. Someplans are online - see image indexes or the history of building regulations.


From the late 19th century photographs gradually supplanted engravings as illustrations. Local studies libraries hold local photographs and prints. The county Sites and Monuments Record also holds photographs, though the coverage of historic buildings varies from county to county. Large national collections of photographs are held by the National Monuments Record Centres for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, by the Irish Architectural Archive and the National Library of Ireland for Eire. There are two large commercial historical photograph collections: The Irish Historical Picture Company covers the whole of Ireland andFrancis Frith covers the whole of the British Isles.

For modern photographs of listed buildings in England see Images of England. Anybuilding in the British Isles may appear onGeograph Britain and Ireland or its sister site Geograph Ireland or Panoramio (which is world-wide). For modern aerial views see modern maps.