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"Here is our love and best wishes for you all": Detail of a etter from William Nicholson to his son Ben and Barbara Hepworth, 1938 (image courtesy of Tate Digital Archives)

“My dear Ben and Barbara . . . Thick snow here until today,” wrote the painter Sir William Nicholson from the French seaside town of La Rochelle. “The first for forty years. Many of the Rochellaise had never seen it before. All went to bed to keep warm.

“We can’t send presents from here, besides there was a mad dog in a toyshop who bit a maid who is still barking in Paris. Nothing much to do here, cannot work and fingers too cold for that and inspiration nipped in the bud.”

On the first page of the letter, written on December 29, 1938, Sir William has sketched La Rochelle’s round harbour towers and a cheery New Year sun.

“Ben and Barbara” were Sir William’s son Ben Nicholson, also a painter, and Ben’s wife Barbara Hepworth, a sculptor. Sir William’s trip to the toyshop, stopped short by the mad dog, would have been with Ben and Barbara’s four-year-old triplets in mind.

Until a few months ago, if I had wanted to read this letter with Sir William’s blunt-pencil script and his sketch of a Rochellaise fisherman in clogs and a thick-knit jersey, I would have had to register with the Tate Britain archives in Pimlico, central London, request an appointment to visit (only between 11am and 5pm), make travel arrangements, and wait for the right box to be brought up.

Instead, on the first sunny Sunday in March, I read Sir William’s letters to his son at my kitchen table with a cup of tea. If I had spilled it, only my laptop, and not Sir William’s letters, would have been ruined.

At the end of last year, Tate made 6,000 items from its archive—the largest relating to British art in the world—available online. There are letters from William Nicholson to Ben and Barbara (“picturesque—a bloody label which often poisons lovely things”). There are love letters from the First World War artist Paul Nash to his wife Margaret (“my little rosy Beauty”) and a picture of Nash cuddling his protesting cat Pooh while smoking a cigarette. There are 45 volumes of Barbara Hepworth’s handwritten sculpture records and a photograph she took of Ben Nicholson in skimpy swimming shorts on the beach at Dieppe.

Half the current online archive—around 3,000 items—consists of black-and-white photographs by documentary artist Nigel Henderson. One image, part of a series on the East End in the 1950s, shows two boys—one in short trousers, the other in long—standing in front of a goal they have chalked on the wall. Next to it is the legend, “Down the Spurs. Up West Ham.”

Material relating to a further 40 artists will be put online this summer as part of a continuing effort to digitise the Tate collections. It is the most wonderful resource and you can click from exhibit to exhibit long after your tea has gone cold.

The success of the Tate’s enterprise strikes particularly forcefully at a time when there has been much breast-beating and brouhaha about the dangers of the internet. In the polemical The Internet is Not The Answer (Atlantic Books, £16.99), published earlier this year, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and businessman Andrew Keen makes the persuasive argument that far from being a force for good, the internet has had a detrimental overall effect on our lives.

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