Free Old Images and Photos: 11 Best Sites for Free Vintage Photos and Artworks

From Shakespeare to the history of the US, find the perfect high-res image for you next project.


Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive

The newest of the copyright-free image archives in this story, the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, was launched in November last year by English Literature PhD graduate Michael Goodman.

See also: Best stock photos & best stock images

The online archive site gives anyone access to 3,000 digitalised line drawings from four major illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works in the Victoria era.

Artists can use the illustrations in their own work and share on social media freely thanks to a Creative Commons license – and all the illustrations are free.

Use an extensive search cloud to search the drawings by motif, category or by type - such as tragedy, comedy or history.

Michael used Photoshop to isolate the illustrations, scanning the hard copies single-handedly and tagging each image. 

As you can imagine this process was long and laborious, but Michael says the archive lets us appreciate how the plays are “like a hall of mirrors – they reflect certain ideas back to each other”. 

Check out our full story on the archive here.

Image: The Tempest, John Gilbert edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.

2800, Pam Debenham; Tin Sheds, politicalgraphics.org

Center for the Study of Political Graphics

This online collection of political posters from all over the world is free for you to browse, with artworks dating back to the 19th century and posters from the present.

The Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) aims for international artists to educate and inspire with this collection of more than 90,000 poster records – with everything from World War II poster to Nuclear protests in the Pacific.

CSPG’s growing collection of resources come from people who donate the posters from North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. Posters can range from silkscreen to stencil, woodcut and digital output.

In many cases, posters are the only record of certain events – both historical and current – that would otherwise go untold, says the CSPG.

The posters found on the website are made available for use without permission, only for limited non-commercial personal or educational use, or for fair use as define in the US copyright laws. Users need to cite the author, artists and source of the posters as they would material from any printer or other work, and the citation must include the politicalgraphics.org URL.


Getting Out One of the Large Buoys for Launching, August 2nd, 1865, no known copyright

The Watercolour World

A wealth of historical watercolours from across the globe will soon be available for you to use in your own projects, through a digital library backed by Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

The watercolours will be available for your use simply through an online catalogue by March next year. The Watercolour World means you can choose from thousands of digitised documentary watercolours dating before 1900, in what has been described as "a fascinating but largely ignored visual record". 

More than three centuries’ worth of watercolours have been digitally salvaged, depicting subjects of topography, anthropology, botany, historic events, people and places. The watercolours represent cultures and countries from the Age of Enlightenment through to a modern era – and many more are sure to be discovered during the course of the project as anyone can contribute to the growing library.

When the website is up and running, the images will be geolocated on a world atlas for anyone to explore both familiar and unknown locations from past centuries, and you’ll be able to help identify unknown locations. 

It’s not yet known how much each painting will cost, or what the copyright details are.

Read the full story here.

Image: Getting Out One of the Large Buoys for Launching, August 2nd, 1865, from The Watercolour World

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Van Gogh Museum’s French Printmaking collection

Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has an impressive digital collection of French prints from 1890 to 1905 available to download for non-commercial purposes. 

The posters were displayed in both elitist high art and everyday circles, with a range of work from Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, among other world-famous posters such as Le Chat Noir and Le Moulin Rouge

Be inspired by high-res colour lithography and black-and-white woodcuttings, bright colours, large letters and silhouettes. 

Be sure to read the museum’s terms and conditions when downloading an image.

Image: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s December 1891 poster for the Dance Hall Le Moulin Rouge. Three thousand copies of this advertisement where displayed in the streets of Paris, making Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec famous overnight, and seen as one of the greatest print designers of all time.


British Library

The British Library’s archive on Flickr has over a million free images and illustrations to browse through.

The images are drawn from 17th-, 18th- and 19th-Century books in the Library’s collection – which are based in its main building opposite the Digital Arts offices and next to St Pancras train station in London, and its archive in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.

Catalogued by dedicated volunteers, the archive is divided into themes including book covers, cycling, illustrated lettering, comic art, ships or children's book illustration

If you’re in a hurry, start with the Highlights collection.

Image: Illustration by Stanley Llewellyn Wood from Doctor Nikola, etc by Guy Newell Boothby.


Calisphere

Calisphere collects over 400,000 photos and the occasional illustration from across California – including large bodies such as the University of California down to local libraries.

The site is a great resource of California’s famous architecture such as San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison and Golden Gate Bridge – including some amazing shots of its construction. It also provides a visual record of historic events from the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake to the 1965 Watts riots.

However, drawing from such a wide range of sources – which haven’t had the same resources or facilities to capture their materials – there’s a lot of low-res images in Calisphere’s collection.

Image: Nucleus Bear Brand

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J. Paul Getty Trust

Jean Paul Getty was the richest person in the US in the middle of the 20th Century, and founded the J. Paul Getty Museum just before he died. The Getty family has put a lot of money into acquiring artworks including Vincent van Gogh's Irises and works by Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Manet and Renoir – and has digitised many of these at extremely high-resolution for download at the getty.edu site.


There’s also one of the finest collections of illustrated manuscripts on the planet – and excellent photography collection (including by and of Andy Warhol) , but many of these are still in copyright so can’t be downloaded.

Fun fact: Getty’s grandson Mark co-founded Getty Images, which also owns iStock.


Library of Congress

The Washington-based Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, and has a digitised copyright-free archive of tens of thousands of images.

As you’d expect, there’s a focus on the history of the USA – but alongside photos of Civil War soldiers you’ll also find baseball cards, cartoons, posters and other great example of graphic design. Outside the obvious, there’s also fine art from the likes of Rembrandt and even reference drawings for stained glass windows.

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NASA

NASA’s archive of images at nasaimages.gov used to a brilliant source of images whether you needed a photo of a specific Apollo mission, a view of the Earth by night or just a beautiful shot of the moon. That site now redirects to the US Defense Department’s image library, where what appears to be a subset of the images are badly organised next to photos of warships and the like.


NASA’s full collection seems to be split across multiple sites including its own media gallery, Flickr and Instagram – which makes searching tricky. The best sources – especially if you want the iconic images – are this gallery on Flickr and this independent site by the developer of the Luna image collection management software to show off its chops. Start with this gallery of the most popular NASA images.

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National Gallery of Art

Like the Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art is in Washington DC and has over 45,000 well- and lesser-known artworks from old (and new) masters that it’s had digitised: from Cezanne and Degas to Rembrandt and Van Gogh.


As well as the artworks, there’s a particularly fine collection of sketches and drawings.

Start with these famous artworks.


Wellcome Images

As well as running the Wellcome Centre museum/gallery just down the road from our offices, the Wellcome Trust also has it’s own online collection of both modern and vintage images.

The historical collections cover everything from AIDS posters and Olympic sports to tattoo designs – and there are excellent sets of ‘favourite images' for those who prefer to browse rather than search. There’s a huge range of images available for free through a Creative Commons licence – as well as some rights-managed ones (though you can exclude these from searches).

Image: Six butterflies, including a swallowtail, fritillary and northern brown. Coloured lithograph.

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