Computer art takes on an unusual perspective at The National Museum of Computing this month as two huge and colourful paintings created three decades apart are displayed near their original inspiration – the WITCH, the world’s oldest working digital computer.
The Three Witches – two paintings and a computer – will be under one roof for the month of February, with a special viewing and talk on 15 February by the computer historian who rediscovered the computer, the restorer whose team brought it back to life and the artist who was twice inspired by it 35 years apart. In the afternoon, there will also be a half-term painting activity for youngsters.
Long before the term computer art had become mainstream, the Harwell Dekatron / WITCH computer was built at Harwell in Oxfordshire in 1951. It was then one of about twelve computers in the world and unlike other machines of that vintage, led a charmed life, dodging the scrapheap on three occasions.
In one of its reincarnations, as a static museum exhibit in 1983, it inspired the creation of the almost life-size Portrait of a Dead WITCH by artist John Yeadon. The painting was a subversive and ironic view of computer-generated art that was then becoming fashionable.
As the decades passed, both the computer and the artwork disappeared from public view. The computer was rediscovered by Kevin Murrell in pieces in a store room in 2009. He arranged for it to be brought to The National Museum of Computing where a team led by Delwyn Holroyd skilfully restored to full working order in 2012.
Then the existence of the extraordinary 1983 Portrait of a Dead WITCH came to light – but it had gone missing. A nationwide search by the museum and the artist led to its rediscovery in a café-bar in Manchester in 2016.
Thrilled by its re-emergence and by the sight of the ‘dead’ WITCH working, Yeadon was inspired to create another painting: It’s Alive! Harwell Dekatron WITCH.
Today the world’s oldest working digital computer and its two paintings can be seen together for the first time – and for one month only.
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