Interconnected archives: cataloguing the Rossetti family letters at Leeds University Special Collections

Archives Hub feature for June 2020

Special Collections holds over 700 letters written by members of the Rossetti family. The collection includes letters from nearly all members of this storied family, with the bulk written by Dante Gabriel ( and William Michael (, and a significant tranche from Christina Rossetti (  The letters are only a fraction of the full Rossetti family correspondence, which can be found in libraries and archives across the world.

The Rossetti Family by Lewis Carroll, albumen print, 7 October 1863 (Christina Georgina Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Frances Mary Lavinia Rossetti (née Polidori) and William Michael Rossetti). NPG P56. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Creative Commons 3.0 licence (

Many of the letters have been in Special Collections since the 1930s but were not catalogued in any detail. Some were represented by very brief index records, which did not convey the scope or context of the full collection, others were entirely uncatalogued. Although much of the Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti correspondence had been published in their respective Collected Letters ((The Correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ed. William E. Fredeman, 2015 and The Letters of Christina Rossetti,, but the letters themselves remained inaccessible for research.

A 2019 project funded by the Strachey Trust enabled us to repackage and create item-level records for each letter in the collection. Catalogue records included basic ISAD(G) metadata, a brief synopsis of the letter’s contents, links to authority files for both sender and addressee and a reference for the published version of the letter, where one exists. The finished catalogue now describes the full extent of the Rossetti Collection at Leeds, ensuring that material is identifiable, accessible for research and secure in our holdings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Cataloguing gave us fascinating insight into the lives of the Rossettis. The largest group of letters in the collection were written by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and cover both the beginning and end of his career. Early letters reveal a humorous correspondent. One, written from a deluged Kent, describes him sketching ‘with my umbrella tied over my head to my buttonhole – a position which you will oblige me by remembering, I expressly desired should be selected for my statue. (N.B. Trousers turned up.)’

These are in direct contrast to later letters to Theodore Watts-Dunton ( who acted as Rossetti’s advisor. The volume and regularity of Rossetti’s letters to Watts-Dunton, their paranoia and requests for advice show Rossetti’s great dependence on his close friends in later years.

The collection includes 30 letters written by Christina Rossetti. Project work uncovered a previously unknown letter, written to her sister-in-law, Lucy Maddox Brown Rossetti ( This brief letter gives Rossetti’s assessment of an unnamed poem: ‘The fact is I think it diabolical. Its degree of serene skill and finesse intensifies to me its horror…’

William Michael Rossetti

150 letters by William Michael Rossetti were also catalogued during this project, the majority of which are unpublished. His letters include a long series addressed to John Lucas Tupper (, a close associate and contributor to ‘The Germ’, the journal of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The letters to Tupper, whose writing and career he promoted, highlight professional opportunities and networks of editors and journals available during this period. They give an interesting glimpse of the kind of life afforded to a literary Victorian gentleman employed by the Civil Service. During certain periods of his life, Rossetti travelled abroad, visiting the continent and even Australia. Having been robbed on one occasion in Italy, he discusses the advisability of carrying a pistol with Tupper, who travelled with him in 1869. Other letters cover wide-ranging topics, from discussions of Ruskin and Browning to the politics of the day, spiritualism, and lycanthropy.

Alongside revealing individual letters, the catalogue records now allow researchers to explore Rossetti family networks in some detail.  A good example of this is correspondence relating to the artist Frederic Shields (, who was a regular subject of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s letters to Watts-Dunton. Later letters from William Michael Rossetti to Shields describe the hours before his brother’s death with great tenderness, passing on a last message to Shields. Subsequent letters from Christina Rossetti are concerned with Shields’ work on a memorial for Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These intertwined relationships would not be easily discoverable from published letters alone but can be usefully explored through this catalogue.

Cataloguing also gave us the chance to research the provenance of groups of letters in the collection. This revealed connections between material previously considered separate: the Swinburne manuscript collection ( and substantial correspondence relating to Swinburne and Watts-Dunton (including Rossetti correspondence) were all acquired from the same source, Watts-Dunton’s estate. These letters and manuscripts had historically been treated as distinct collections, and the connections between them were not clear from catalogue records.

Image taken from one of the Rossetti family letters.

Cataloguing work on this small collection has emphasised the many levels of interconnectedness in which archives exist. Letters can show relationships between individuals, collections of letters show their wider networks, and collections themselves speak to other material both within a repository and in many other locations across the world.

The Rossetti family letters collection is now available for research (  This project would not have been possible without the support of the Strachey Trust, and Special Collections is grateful to it for its generosity in funding work on this significant collection.

Sarah Prescott
Literary Archivist
University of Leeds Special Collections


Rossetti Family correspondence, 1843-1909

Browse all University of Leeds Special Collections descriptions on the Archives Hub

Explore more collections relating to the Rossetti family on the Archives Hub

Previous features on University of Leeds Special Collections:

“Gather them in” – the musical treasures of W.T. Freemantle

Sentimental Journey: a focus on travel in the archives

Recipes through the ages 

World War One

All images copyright University of Leeds Special Collections and National Portrait Gallery, London. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.


Online Resources: Explore archives in different ways

Archives Hub feature for May 2020

The Archives Hub includes descriptions called Online Resources.  These sit alongside Archive Collection descriptions and Repository descriptions.

screenshot hit list showing online resources on health
Online Resources on health

Online Resources are collections of resources, typically digitised content. They are often created as part of a project, and usually based on a specific theme. But the definition is purposely very loose. They are essentially any web sites that offer any kind of introduction, interpretation, or way into archives, other than the more traditional archival descriptions for individual collections.

All Online Resources point to a website, but that doesn’t mean that they only represent digital materials. The website may provide narrative and context for physical collections.  A good example of this is War Child. The site is a story about the Evacuee Archive – how it came into being, the man who created it, what he has experienced.

screenshot of War Child site homepage
War Child

It aims to explore and document the life of this archive. The archive is largely paper-based, and includes some recordings and artefacts.  War Child provides a wonderful, creative experience, thinking about how people engage with archives and how individuals are shaped by archives.

Many Online Resources do represent digital collections, and frequently they showcase collaborations. Windows on Genius is a project by the University of Cambridge and University of Sussex that spans two digital collections, giving access to the works of Sir Isaac Newton.  Other Online Resources are materials within one institution, brought together by topic, such as Selected Sources on Healthcare, at the University of Warwick. This is a selection of primary sources relating to British healthcare before the foundation of the National Health Service.

screenshot of map showing endangered languages
Map showing endangered languages

Some Resources are ‘artificial collections’ that have been brought together to aid researchers, such as Endangered Languages – a digital repository created by SOAS, specialising in preserving and publishing endangered language documentation materials from around the world.



Quite often Online Resources provide help with interpretation and using sources for teaching, such as the Pre-Raphaelite resource, which provides teaching materials and allows for personal collections to be created.

screenshot showing link to teaching resources on the Pre-Raphaelite website
Pre-Raphaelite Illustrations learning resource

Something like this is a wonderful introduction to a subject for a new researcher.

Some of the resources are simply digital collections. Potentially they could also be described simply as Archive Collections.

screenshot of BT digital archive website
The BT Digital Archive

For example the BT Digital Archives Online Resource is an archive collection, and indeed, we do have this collection listed as The BT Digital Archives collection. However, the Online Resource takes the user to the full catalogue, and it provides further context and showcases highlights from the collection.

Our rationale for having Online Resources is more about servicing the end user than the strict definition of what an archive collection is and whether it can be described as an online resource. We want to make sure people find the materials, and we also want to promote any added value that they can get through narrative, context and interpretation that the holding institution provides.

We aim to increase the descriptions of Online Resources – we create them ourselves when we find good resources, and our current contributors can also create them quickly and easily. If an Online Resource is offered by a non-contributor, we can create it for them, or provide a specific type of access to our cataloguing tool, to allow them to create the entry.  It provides another discovery channel, so for the short amount of time it takes to write a short entry, it may be found by a researcher who would otherwise never have known about it.

These digital collections and physical archives and websites for learning, teaching, and research include a wealth of materials from many institutions across the UK. From fashion to photography, dance to Darwin, soldiers to Shakespeare, these websites represent a whole range of archival resources, often with strong visual themes that can be used for research, learning and teaching.  Explore the Online Resources, and do get in touch if you have any suggestions for additions to our catalogue!



Planes, pilots and politics: National Aerospace Library’s collections fly onto Archives Hub

Archives Hub feature for April 2020

The human race has always wanted to fly, and the National Aerospace Library’s collection shows how we have pursued those dreams to conquer and then perfect flight; from aeroplanes to hovercraft, air travel to satellites, and missiles to man carrying kites. Our earliest book, from 1515, looks at how objects travel through the air and we are still collecting material on cutting edge aero engineering.

The NAL is unusual for an institute collection. Rather than specialising in a single profession, the library follows its parent organisation, the Royal Aeronautical Society, by covering all the sciences and arts connected to travel above the ground. From designing aircraft to insurance and law, from flying eighteenth-century balloons to airport operations and from aero medicine to aerial warfare.

Flying Countess before a flight in 1918.
Flying Countess before a flight in 1918.

Social historians can find a wealth of information within our four walls. For example, we have three interesting collections from women who were captivated by flight during the interwar period, with the collections of The Flying Countess, Cathleen Countess or Drogheda, and two pioneering women who tried to fly across Africa, Delphine Reynolds , who reached as far as Sierra Leone in early 1931, and Peggy Salaman who reached Cape Town later that year. The collection of Wilfred Parke gives an insight into the pre-World War I world of air racing.

Flying has always captured the imagination and has been recorded in prints, posters, photographs and paintings. We care for over 100,000 Images showing early balloon lithographs from the eighteenth century, the stylish design that accompanied air travel in the 1930s, glass slides explaining scientific concepts, plus tens of thousands of images showing aeroplanes. Many of these images are available via the Mary Evan Picture Library’s corporate licencing and merchandise sites.


Lithograph of George Biggin, Letitia Sage and Vincenzo Lunardi ascending from St George's Fields, London, 29 June 1785.
Lithograph of George Biggin, Letitia Sage and Vincenzo Lunardi ascending from St George’s Fields, London, 29 June 1785.

Aeronautics is also a business and our collections cover how the world of science, government, warfare and business collide. This is best shown through the records of Britain’s aviation trade organisation – the Society of British Aircraft Constructors , also known as the SBAC. Starting during the First World War, these minute books chronicle seventy years of thinking of those high up in industry. We also have the wartime records of the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company with its digitised minute book appearing on our Heritage website and the Broke-Smith Archive contains some interesting material on military aviation before the First World War.

Instructions on re-assembling the Wright Flyer by Orville Wright, 1928.
Instructions on re-assembling the Wright Flyer by Orville Wright, 1928.

The Royal Aeronautical Society was created decades before the Wright Brothers became the first men to fly a powered aircraft, and archive of the Royal Aeronautical Society is strong on how the great minds of the time worked out how to design the machines that enabled us to fly. One of our main treasures are the scientific papers of Sir George Cayley, the man dubbed the father of aeronautics, who established many of the principles flight, such as establishing that gaining lift should be separated from the propulsion system, as well as discoveries well away from aeronautics, such as designing prosthetics and geared bicycles. Other early collections include the Baden-Powell ballooning cuttings collection, Percy Pilcher’s work on gliders and Lawrence Hargrave’s photograph albums. We have digitised the Cayley Notebooks, Pilcher Drawings and Hargrave albums and they can all be viewed on our heritage website.

Sir George Caley's notebook on
Sir George Caley’s notebook on

We also have an extensive letters collection, which includes correspondence from the Society and its leading members. The collections are especially strong in the early days of flight, with letters from the pioneers of flight, such as the Wright Brothers, Samuel Cody, Samuel Langley, Octave Chanute, Lawrence Hargrave, J.W. Dunne, A.V Roe, Lord Rayleigh, Sir Frederick Handley Page, Alberto Santos-Dumont, Gustav Lilienthal, F.W. Lanchester, James Glaisher and Sir Geoffrey de Havilland. Though we have not yet listed each letter on Archives Hub, a list of files can be found on the online and we can then use our paper indexes to find out more about each item of correspondence. Interaction with the great names in aeronautics politics and the services between 1910 and 1953 can be found in the correspondence files of the acid-tonged editor of Aeroplane magazine, C. G. Grey.

From a publicity brochure c. 1911.
From a publicity brochure c. 1911.

Our aero engineering archive collections move from the pioneering days into the aircraft designers and producers. The British & Colonial Aeroplane Company Collection includes design work for many post-war Bristol Aircraft, Second World War propeller developments can be found in the collection of de Havilland’s A. V. Cleaver, W. O. Manning’s work at English Electric and aeronautical papers of George William Saynor show design work at Blackburn Aircraft and Canadian Vickers, together with the designs of he and his partner, which came together in the Saynor & Bell Canadian Cub & Canadian Cub II.

Last but not least, the NAL holds the records of our parent organisation, the Royal Aeronautical Society. As well as membership records of the great and the good of the industry and day-by-day administration of a learned society, it also contains audio recordings of over four hundred of its lectures and conferences, primarily from the 1960s and 1990s onwards. The NAL has digitised most of the collection and has been slowly podcasting some of the gems over the last two or three years, including from the great names in British aero industry, such as Sir Frederick Handley Page describing the launch of Britain’s first big aircraft, Sir Geoffrey de Havilland talking about the his first few years in aeronautics, military topics such as the history of the nuclear delivery aircraft, the V-bombers, and scientific lectures such as the first 50 years of aeroelasticity.

Handley Page podcast.
Handley Page podcast.

So far, the National Aerospace Library has placed high level descriptions of just over thirty of our main collections on Archives Hub. We will be now working to fill in some of the lower level information and details that is currently stored in paper index files plus or hidden away on our library catalogue,  plus add details of some of our other collections to the site.

Zepplin poster order.
Zepplin poster order.

In the meantime, we always welcome enquiries, either by phone 01252 701038/60 or email. Further to the UK Government’s guidance, the National Aerospace Library is currently closed to external visitors to ensure the health and wellbeing of staff, members, and volunteers but online services remain available.

Tony Pilmer, Librarian
National Aerospace Library


Browse all National Aerospace Library collection descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub

All images copyright National Aerospace Library. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

Women’s History Month 2020: Celebrating the archives of Pioneering and Inspiring Women

To mark Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some fascinating features, fantastic collections and online resources relating to women, their achievements and influence.

Archives Hub features

We have a wide range of Archives Hub monthly features focusing on women, including:

Black Georgians: Phillis Wheatley

Photocopy of a Phillis Wheatley Portrait
PHOTOS/25 Photocopy of a Phillis Wheatley Portrait. Colour photocopy (undated) of artwork by Scipio Moorhead portraying Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) for her book ‘Poems on Various Subjects’ (unknown source).

Phyllis was sold as a child servant to the all-white Wheatley family in 1761.

Susanna Wheatley, the mistress of the Wheatley family, recognised her extraordinary flair of intuitive intelligence, fostering the intellectual development of Phillis by allowing her to learn to read and write, learn Latin and to read the Bible.

She later became the first African-American woman to publish poetry.

Read the feature, provided by the Black Cultural Archives:




The Imogen Holst archive: papers of a passionate and open-minded woman musician

Holst conducting a military band, 1948, photographer: Nicholas Horne (ref no. HOL/2/11/4/6)
Holst conducting a military band, 1948, photographer: Nicholas Horne (ref no. HOL/2/11/4/6), Britten-Pears Foundation Archive.

Imogen Holst (1907-1984) was the daughter of composer Gustav Holst, best-known for The Planets.

Holst, herself a composer, is perhaps best-known today as Benjamin Britten’s musical assistant, but she also had an exceptional, wide-ranging but lesser known career as, amongst other things, educator, conductor and music traveller.

Read the feature, provided by the Britten-Pears Foundation Archive:



The Legacy of Ahmed Archive and the Courage and Inspiration of his Mother

Family photograph, Ahmed third from left (GB3228.19.6.1)
Family photograph, Ahmed third from left (GB3228.19.6.1), Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre.

In 1986 Ahmed Iqbal Ullah was murdered by a fellow pupil in the grounds of his high school in Manchester. Very quickly, Ahmed the boy disappeared behind the story of his tragic death.

The story of his family and of his mother’s bravery and fortitude similarly became obscured.

Read the feature, provided by Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre:



Pioneering women’s education at Bedford College

Elizabeth Jesser Reid, n.d.
Elizabeth Jesser Reid, n.d., Royal Holloway Archives and Special Collections, University of London.

170 years ago Bedford College was opened in central London, becoming the first higher education college for women of its kind in the country.

It was the brainchild of Elizabeth Jesser Reid, who said it had been her dream since childhood to found a college for women.

Read the feature, provided by Royal Holloway Archives and Special Collections, University of London:



*** Explore more features focusing on women via our new subject category: ***  

Pioneering and Inspirational Women

Equal suffrage demonstration in Lowestoft, Suffolk, 1914. NUWT Collection ref UWT/G/2/54. © Institute of Education Archives.

Collection highlights

Photograph of ‘Phyllis Bedells’ c. 1911. Rotary Photographic Series, Royal Academy of Dance.
‘Phyllis Bedells’ c. 1911. Rotary Photographic Series, Royal Academy of Dance.

The Anita White Foundation International Women and Sport Archive, c1936- [ongoing]

In 2010 the University of Chichester decided to establish an archive on the international women and sport movement. This decision was based on the potential donation of documents from Dr Anita White and Professor Celia Brackenridge, two individuals associated with the university who had been centrally involved in the leadership and development of the movement since 1990.

Material held by: University of Chichester Special Collections
Full description:

Papers of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806)

Georgiana Cavendish (née Spencer), Duchess of Devonshire (1757–1806) is well-known as a style icon and also for her personal life. However, she was also actively involved in the Whig party. Following the resignation of William Pitt in 1801, she was instrumental in getting Fox and the Prince to settle their differences, as well as reuniting the different Whig factions into a force that could be co-ordinated. Whilst Pitt returned as Prime Minister in 1804, following his death in 1806, the new government – the ‘ministry of all the talents’ – largely consisted of the coalition that Georgiana had helped to build.

Material held by: The Devonshire Collection Archives, Chatsworth
Full description:

Elouise Edwards Collection, 1970-1999

Elouise was born in 1932 in Guyana, South America. She travelled to England in 1961 to join her husband Beresford Edwards. They settled in Manchester and soon became active in the struggle against inequality and racism that existed at that time. They challenged racist attitudes and campaigned for the needs of people from overseas. This developed into a lifelong fight for equality. Elouise Edwards was instrumental in celebrating Black culture, battling racism and developing vital community resources in Moss Side. She was awarded an MBE for her amazing contribution. Elouise also has an African Chieftaincy. She was nominated for her work with African people in Manchester and the honour was bestowed by the Nigerian organisation at the British Council.

Material held by:  Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre
Full description:

Papers of Emily Wilding Davison, 1905-1989

As a campaigner for Women’s Suffrage, Emily is arguably most famous for her death. She joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1906, soon becoming involved in a long series of arrests, imprisonments and releases after force-feeding. She managed to enter and hide in the House of Commons three times between 1910 and 1911, and was the first to embark on a campaign of setting fire to pillar-boxes. On the 4th June 1913, she tried to seize the bridle of the King’s horse running at the Derby. She received head injuries and never recovered consciousness, dying on the 8th June. Her funeral was preceded by a large funeral cortege that became one of the iconic events of the campaign for Women’s Suffrage.

Material held by: Women’s Library Archives
Full description:


Online Resources

Image of women factory workers during WW1
Press photograph of women factory workers during WW1,  Institution of Mechanical Engineers Archive.

The North’s Forgotten Female Reformers: Women’s suffrage and fight for reform and change throughout the UK, provided by Newcastle University Special Collections and Archives.

History to Herstory, provided by West Yorkshire Archive Service, Wakefield.

The Zandra Rhodes Digital Study Collection, provided by the University for the Creative Arts Archives & Special Collections.

Florence Nightingale Digitisation Project,  the collected letters of Florence Nightingale are held by several partner organisations in the UK and USA.

Discover more collections 

Mary Katharine Bell, 1903 (CPT/PA/1)
Mary Katharine Bell, 1903 (CPT/PA/1), Special Collections, Newcastle University.

There are many ways to locate collections about women using the Archives Hub. Searches you could try include:

For help on searching, see our tips and examples.

Student hockey team at City of Portsmouth Training College
EDUC/15/3.10.21 Student hockey team at City of Portsmouth Training College [early 1940s]. University of Portsmouth Archive.

Unearthing Family Treasures: The Layard and Blenkinsopp Coulson Archives

Archives Hub feature for March 2020

In 1839 a young lawyer left behind his London office for a post in the Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Civil Service, thus beginning a series of travels, adventures and discoveries which would result in him achieving world renown for uncovering and shining a light on the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, in particularly Assyrian culture. That young man was Austen Henry Layard. This month Newcastle University’s Special Collections makes the catalogue to the Layard (Austen Henry) Archive available to researchers via the Archives Hub, along with that of another collection which shares a family provenance with the Layard Archive, the Blenkinsopp Coulson (William) Archive.

The Layard (Austen Henry) Archive

A typical Victorian polymath, Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894) was an archaeologist, politician, and diplomat. The latter two of these roles he settled into in his later years; amongst his many achievements in the spheres of politics and diplomacy, he championed the cause of administrative reform in the Ottoman Empire and held ambassadorships to both Madrid (1869–1877) and Constantinople (1877–1880). Letters in the Layard Archive written by Layard’s wife Enid contain descriptions of his activities during those ambassadorships, including some dramatic descriptions of scenes witnessed by Enid during the Third Carlist War (1872–1876) and the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), and one of Layard’s passports held in the archive serves as a physical representation of his busy and dynamic career in this period.

Austen Henry Layard’s passport (1) (LAY/1/4/8)
Austen Henry Layard’s passport (1) (LAY/1/4/8)
Austen Henry Layard’s passport (2) (LAY/1/4/8).
Austen Henry Layard’s passport (2) (LAY/1/4/8).

But in the 1840s and 1850s, Layard’s great achievements were in the archaeological and cultural sphere, and it is this period of his life which is most greatly illuminated by the Layard Archive, as well as by the Layard book collection which is held alongside the archive.

Having abandoned his plan to take up work in Ceylon and instead having been engaged by the British ambassador in Istanbul to carry out unofficial diplomatic missions, Layard became interested in locating and unearthing the great cities of biblical renown after spending time near Mosul, Ottoman Mesopotamia (now in Iraq). Mistaking Nimrud, site of the Assyrian capital of Calah, for Nineveh, he excavated there (1845–51) and discovered the remains of palaces of 9th– and 7th-century-BC kings and many important artworks. These included sculptures from the reign of King Ashurnasirpal II and a huge winged bull that remain among the most valued treasures of the British Museum. Layard published his discoveries in his book The Monuments of Nineveh (1849) and the later volume A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh (1853) and was hailed for shedding light on an ancient culture which hitherto had been completely lost.

Portrait of Austen Henry Layard in 1850 during his archaeological campaigns. From The Monuments of Nineveh (Layard 935.2 LAY).
Portrait of Austen Henry Layard in 1850 during his archaeological campaigns. From The Monuments of Nineveh (Layard 935.2 LAY).

During his earlier travels and the excavations, Layard made detailed pencil sketches, many of which he used to create the engravings in his publications. One of the remarkable aspects of the Layard Archive is that it contains a huge number of these original sketches, often dog-eared and stained with dirt or ink, giving a vivid sense of their having been created on-site as working papers by Layard. There are detailed maps and plans of excavated buildings and temples, and annotated drawings of architectural and iconographic details, such as this sketch annotated by Layard as being “From the ruined Palace- Al Hadhr”.

Layard’s pencil sketch of details from the Palace at Al Hadhr, Mesopotamia (LAY/1/5).
Layard’s pencil sketch of details from the Palace at Al Hadhr, Mesopotamia (LAY/1/5).

Another wonderful sketch contained in the archive is the original version of arguably the most famous drawing to have been featured in Layard’s publications, that of the aforementioned great winged bull or lion, as Layard terms it in his annotation, from Nimrud.

Layard’s pencil sketch of the Winged Bull/ Lion from Nimrud (LAY/1/5).
Layard’s pencil sketch of the Winged Bull/ Lion from Nimrud (LAY/1/5).

Evidence elsewhere in the Layard Archive confirms that the Layard family once possessed Layard’s original sketch of the moving of the winged bull from Nimrud; the evidence is held in the form of a letter from the British Museum to a family member who donated the sketch to the Museum in 1960. In the letter (LAY/1/2/21) it is confirmed that the original sketch given to the Museum was the basis for another of Layard’s famous published engravings depicting the very same scene, although in its published form Layard has included himself, giving directions from the top of the ruins!

Engraving depicting the removal of the Great Winged Bull at Nimrud, the original sketch of which previously formed part of the Layard Archive but is now held in the British Museum. From Nineveh and Its Remains, vol. 1 (Layard 915.67 LAY).
Engraving depicting the removal of the Great Winged Bull at Nimrud, the original sketch of which previously formed part of the Layard Archive but is now held in the British Museum. From Nineveh and Its Remains, vol. 1 (Layard 915.67 LAY).

The Layard Archive also contains a number of objects, the most enigmatic and unusual of which is a shard of Assyrian pottery. Layard is known to have amassed his own private collection of archaeological objects, some of which he brought home himself, others of which were given to him, and many of which he eventually passed on to friends and relatives. This particular item was a gift to Layard from his fellow archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam who continued excavation work in Mesopotamia after Layard had ended his own work there. The label on its reverse shows that it came from a temple at Nimrud and historian Stefania Ermidoro has concluded that it is likely to form part of a larger vessel also excavated by Rassam and now in the British Museum.

Shard of Assyrian pottery gifted to Layard by fellow archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam (1) (LAY/1/4/14)
Shard of Assyrian pottery gifted to Layard by fellow archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam (1) (LAY/1/4/14)
Shard of Assyrian pottery gifted to Layard by fellow archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam (2) (LAY/1/4/14)
Shard of Assyrian pottery gifted to Layard by fellow archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam (2) (LAY/1/4/14)

The Layard (Austen Henry) Layard Archive, along with its associated book collection, shines much light onto 19th Century archaeology and discovery, and the dissemination of the knowledge of Assyrian culture in this period, whilst providing vivid insights into Layard’s archaeological research and methods, as well as other aspects of his illustrious career.

More can be read about the Layard Archive in Stefania Ermidoro’s article, The Latest Layard Archive: New Documents from Newcastle University published in Iraq (2019) 81 127-144.

The Blenkinsopp Coulson (William) Archive

The Blenkinsopp Coulson (William) Archive is linked with the Layard by a shared family provenance, although there the similarities end.

William Lisle Blenkinsopp Coulson (1841-1911) was a prominent figure in Newcastle upon Tyne, having established the Newcastle Dog and Cat shelter and been an early champion of animal rights. The Blenkinsopp Coulson Archive is his family collection; as well as a small amount of correspondence and printed matter relating to William himself, the archive also contains items which were passed down through his family, to William himself and then beyond him to his current descendants.

One item of particular interest is a recipe book compiled by Jane Blenkinsopp Coulson of Jesmond, now in Newcastle, dated 1733. The book contains a huge range of culinary and medicinal recipes which Jane likely acquired through her social networks in the local community. The title page reads: “Choice and Experienced Receipts of Cookery, Preserves, Conserves, Pickles, etc. together with a Collection of Valuable Receipts for Physick collected from Mr John Spearman of Hetton and other able and Eminent Physicians,” The example here, for Lady Allen’s cordial water, includes an amazing array of flowers, herbs and roots, from leaves of Meadow Sweet to roots of Snake Wort.

Recipe for Lady Allen’s Cordial Water from Jane Blenkinsopp Coulson’s recipe book (WBC/3).
Recipe for Lady Allen’s Cordial Water from Jane Blenkinsopp Coulson’s recipe book (WBC/3).

Also of note in the Blenkinsopp Coulson Archive is a General Pardon granted by King Edward IV to Elizabeth Blenkinsopp, dated 23rd April 1469. It is a fabulous example of Letters Patent bearing the Great Seal of Edward IV, densely packed with information in the form of archaic legal wording and terminology. Written in medieval Latin, the document offers fascinating glimpses into the medieval mindset and legal system as well as insights into a crucial chapter in the Wars of the Roses in England, the Siege of Harlech Castle (1461-1468), famous as the longest siege in British history.

General Pardon granted by King Edward IV to Elizabeth Blenkinsopp (WBC/4).
General Pardon granted by King Edward IV to Elizabeth Blenkinsopp (WBC/4).

Geraldine Hunwick
Senior Archivist
Special Collections, Newcastle University


Layard (Austen Henry) Archive, 1817-1970

Blenkinsopp Coulson (William) Archive, 1469-1975

Browse all University of Newcastle Special Collections and Archives descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub.

Previous features on University of Newcastle Special Collections and Archives:

The Archives of the Trevelyans of Wallington

All images copyright University of Newcastle. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

“Those wonderful women in black” – the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry

Archives Hub feature for February 2020

Established in 1971, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry was a pressure group set up to assist members of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union wishing to leave the country but denied permission. The term “refusnik” was coined to describe these individuals. On hearing the news that thirty five-year-old librarian Raisa Palatnik from Odessa has been arrested for distributing samizdat, banned literature, a small group of women decided to hold a protest outside the Soviet embassy in London. From these modest beginnings grew the campaign on behalf of the refusniks.

MS 254 A980/5/4/1 A selection of badges: large ones with the text “Campaign for Soviet Jewry 35's”; small ones with the text “35s".
MS 254 A980/5/4/1 A selection of badges: large ones with the text “Campaign for Soviet Jewry 35’s”; small ones with the text “35s”.

Whilst other groups also campaigned on this issue, the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry (affectionately known as the 35s due to the average age of the group) was the only one set up and led exclusively by women. Many of the founder members were middle-class, Jewish housewives from North West London who had no previous experience of activism or campaigns. They nevertheless proved themselves to be a formidable force, conducting a tireless campaign to heighten public awareness of their cause.

The group existed in the era before social media and it was a campaign that used the medium of the letter. It organised mass letter writing campaigns to garner support for the cause and also engaged in correspondence with the refusniks whose cases it supported. The archive contains, for instance, an extensive series of correspondence to Members of Parliament from the mid 1970s until the late 1990s, ranging alphabetically from Diane Abbott to George Young, with others such as Betty Boothroyd, Harriet Harman and Margaret Thatcher in between. An equally extensive parallel series of correspondence exists for Members of the House of Lords. The MP Greville Janner was a major supporter of the cause, acting as chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Committee for the Release of Soviet Jewry and later as President of the National Council for Soviet Jewry. The Women’s Campaign archive contains much material relating to his work.

MS 254 A980/1/4/12 Souvenir menu for a banquet to celebrate the formation of the All Party Committee for Soviet Jewry at the House of Commons, 1972.
MS 254 A980/1/4/12 Souvenir menu for a banquet to celebrate the formation of the All Party Committee for Soviet Jewry at the House of Commons, 1972.

Whilst Raisa Palatnik was the catalyst for the group’s inception — and it was to assist many refusniks over the course of its existence — probably the most well-known individual on whose behalf it campaigned was Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky. At an event in 2018 Sharansky paid tribute to the efforts of both the Women’s Campaign and to Greville Janner in the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

MS 254 A980/1/4/12 Natan Sharansky with Rita Eker, Martin Gilbert and Lynn Singer, 1980s.
MS 254 A980/1/4/12 Natan Sharansky with Rita Eker, Martin Gilbert and Lynn Singer, 1980s.

Effective at utilising publicity, the Women’s Campaign produced considerable quantities of material that highlighted the cases of the individual refusniks. There were biographical profiles for each refusnik that publicised and detailed their treatment by the Soviet Union often in graphic detail. Campaigners and supporters also wrote to individuals and their families in the Soviet Union and the archive contains many of the letters sent or received in return. This is supplemented by personal photographs and related material of visits made to the Soviet Union by members of the group to meet with refusniks.

MS 254 A980/4/22/178/3 Demonstration outside Wembley Arena, 1980.
MS 254 A980/4/22/178/3 Demonstration outside Wembley Arena, 1980.

The Women’s Campaign throughout its years of activity was to prove itself to be both highly effective and highly imaginative in its demonstrations and publicity. One such publicity gimmick was sweeping outside the Soviet embassy in London on behalf of the refusniks. As well as organising protests outside venues where Soviet groups — such as visiting athletics teams or ballet companies — were appearing, they became adept at disrupting audiences within the venues. Members secretly wearing campaign t-shirts were strategically placed in the auditorium of a ballet performance, for instance, and would stand as part of a coordinated protest displaying the t-shirts or waving banners. The group have noted that they were viewed as unlikely activists and so were able to circumvent security at venues and smuggle in campaign t-shirts under their clothing.

MS 254 A980/5/1/3 Red t-shirt with the text “USSR Free Federov, Mendelevich, Murzhenko” on the front.
MS 254 A980/5/1/3 Red t-shirt with the text “USSR Free Federov, Mendelevich, Murzhenko” on the front.

The demonstrations that the group organised also displayed a dramatic flair: Sylvia Becker, who was one of the founder members, recalls dressing as a ghost when she took part in a protest at Highgate Cemetery in 1974 against a visit by Soviet dignitaries to Karl Marx’s tomb. Costumes such as pyjamas that looked like a gulag uniform and shackles or handcuffs — the latter sometimes used by an activist to chain themselves to railings — were items utilised at various rallies. It is said that after attending one of their demonstrations the Prime Minister Harold Wilson urged them to continue their activities.

MS 254 A980/5/4/3 Handcuffs used at demonstrations.
MS 254 A980/5/4/3 Handcuffs used at demonstrations.

The spring exhibition in the Special Collections gallery at Southampton on the subject of protest and protest groups features material of the Women’s Campaign, including t-shirts, a large banner, handcuffs and badges. The exhibition opens on 17 February and will run until May. Further information can be found on the Special Collections website.

Karen Robson
Head of Archives
Hartley Library
University of Southampton


Papers of the Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, 1970-1993

Browse all University of Southampton Special Collections descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub.

Previous features on University of Southampton Special Collections:

100 years at Highfield: stories from Southampton’s University Archives and Special Collections

The Basque Child Refugee Archive

60 years of faith and conflict

All images copyright University of Southampton Special Collections. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

The Herschel archive at the Royal Astronomical Society

Archives Hub feature for January 2020

On the evening of 12 January 1820, a group of men dined together at the Freemason’s Tavern in London, and resolved to establish the Astronomical Society of London, now known as the Royal Astronomical Society.  One of its founding members was John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871). His father, William Herschel (1738-1822), was the Society’s first president, and his aunt, Caroline Herschel, (1750-1848) was one of the first women whose scientific achievements were recognised by the Society.  Thanks to the generous donations of the Herschel family in the 20th century, the Royal Astronomical Society is the custodian of a significant collection of the astronomy-related papers of William, Caroline and John Herschel.  At the beginning of the bicentenary year, we reflect on the Herschels’ relationship with the Royal Astronomical Society and the family’s contributions to astronomy.

Caroline Herschel.
Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848), German- born British astronomer, in 1847, pointing at the orbit of a comet on a map of the solar system. The map shows all the planets out to Saturn. Uranus had been discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, but was at first thought to be a comet. Neptune was discovered in 1846. The map also shows the asteroids Ceres (discovered in 1801), Pallas (1802), Juno (1804) and Vesta (1807). Caroline was the sister of William Herschel, and worked with him in England. She discovered eight new comets between 1786 and 1797. After her brother’s death in 1822, Caroline returned to Hanover, where she died at the age of 98. This artwork shows Herschel in Hanover in 1847, the year before she died.

William grew up in Hanover in Germany and followed his father and older brother Jacob by joining the band of the Hanoverian Guards.  When Hanover was occupied by French soldiers in 1757, William and Jacob were sent by their father to England as refugees from war. William settled in England and made a living as an itinerant musician in the North of England, before taking a post of organist in Bath in 1766. From the late 1760s he developed a serious interest in astronomy, eventually constructing his own telescopes in order to achieve the precision he desired for his observations. The largest of his telescopes was 40 feet in length, supported by a large wooden apparatus. A self-taught astronomer, he did not regard the stars as a mere fixed backdrop to the orbits of the planets like most of his peers. He was fascinated by the stellar universe and devised a systematic observation programme. Because he methodically observed every star of a certain magnitude, on 13 March 1781 he noticed a bluish disc-like object which did not look like an ordinary star. At first he identified this new object as a comet, but once enough data was available to calculate its orbit, it became clear that William Herschel had discovered a new planet. Originally named Georgium Sidus after George III, the planet is now known as Uranus. William was appointed astronomer to the King and continued his astronomical work, not only making new discoveries such as the moons of Saturn now known as Enceladus and Mimas, but also contributing to understanding of the structure of the heavens. His expertise spanned observation, instrument making, and theoretical astronomy.

William Herschel’s discovery of Enceladus on 28 August 1789
William Herschel’s discovery of Enceladus on 28 August 1789 (RAS MSS Herschel W. 3/1.8).

William Herschel’s achievements depended in large part on the assistance of his sister Caroline. The youngest of the ten Herschel siblings, she appeared destined to providing domestic assistance to her mother in Hanover, until William offered her the choice of moving to Bath in 1772 to train as a singer and manage his household.  Caroline Herschel’s musical career as a soloist showed early promise, but by this time William was becoming preoccupied with astronomical work and increasingly relied on his sister for assistance with his observations. However, Caroline Herschel developed as an astronomer in her own right, as well, making numerous discoveries of comets and nebulae. From 1787, she received an income from the King, making her one of the first women to be paid for scientific work. She was the first woman to receive the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 in recognition of the enormous contribution she had made by completing a catalogue of 2,500 nebulae. She became one of the first female honorary members of the RAS, at the same time as Mary Somerville in 1835.

Caroline Herschel’s 1789 observations of the comet now known as Comet Herschel-Rigollet
Caroline Herschel’s 1789 observations of the comet now known as Comet Herschel-Rigollet (RAS MSS Herschel C. 1/1.2).

John F. W.  Herschel initially pursued a career in law, but followed in the footsteps of his father, and was also strongly influenced by his aunt Caroline. He was a polymath who carried out significant work in other subjects such as mathematics and chemistry. As an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge he made friends with Charles Babbage, and both of them were among the founders of the Astronomical Society of London in 1820. One obstacle during the early days of the Society occurred when the Duke of Somerset was dissuaded by from taking on the Presidency of the Society by Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. In the end, William Herschel agreed to be the first President, on the understanding that he should not be called upon for active service due to his advanced years. His son John Herschel would go on to serve as President of the Society three times. He dedicated himself to continuing and expanding upon his father’s programme of observations. From 1834 to 1838, he lived in South Africa with his family and catalogued the stars, nebulae and other celestial bodies of the southern skies, publishing his observations in Results of astronomical observations made during the years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope […](1847).

John Herschel’s drawing of 30 Doradûs, also known as the Tarantula Nebula
John Herschel’s drawing of 30 Doradûs, also known as the Tarantula Nebula (RAS MSS Herschel J. 3/6. Monographs. 30 Doradûs.)

On John Herschel’s return to England, he became involved in photography, not only coining the name of this new technology (as well as the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’), but by inventing processes such as the cyanotype process, and providing leadership and support to other practitioners in the field. The RAS archives holds a positive print of one of his experimental photographs of his father’s 40-foot telescope, taken shortly before it was decommissioned in 1839; the structure of this instrument lives on in the Royal Astronomical Society’s gold medal and seal.

John Herschel’s photograph of his father’s 40-foot telescope.
Herschel’s 40-foot telescope, circular glass plate photograph. The telescope’s wooden scaffolding is seen here on 9 September 1839, at Observatory House in Slough, England. It was photographed by the astronomer John Herschel (1792-1871) before its demolition. The telescope was designed by John’s father, the German-born British astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822). The tube was 40 feet (12 metres) long. The first observations with this telescope were carried out 50 years earlier on 28 August 1789, when two new moons of Saturn (Enceladus and Mimas) were discovered. 50 years later, by 1839, John Herschel and W H Fox Talbot had invented the process we now know as photography. This is one of the earliest surviving glass plate photographs.

The Royal Astronomical Society is not the only repository of Herschel family archives; other holding institutions are signposted by the William Herschel Society As part of the celebrations of the Royal Astronomical Society bicentenary,  from February to December 2020 an exhibition focused on John Herschel’s observations of nebulae will take place at the Herschel Museum in Bath, the former home of John Herschel’s father and aunt.

Dr Sian Prosser
Librarian and Archivist
Royal Astronomical Society


Browse all Royal Astronomical Society Archives descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub.

All images copyright Royal Astronomical Society Archives. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

The Dorset House Archive

Archives Hub feature for December 2019

Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, the first School of Occupational Therapy in the UK, opened on New Year’s Day 1930, but the inspiration for the School can be traced back to a festive morning in a hospital ward.  Dr Elizabeth Casson (1881-1954), the School’s founder, was working in a psychiatric hospital when she realised the therapeutic benefits enjoyed by patients who were presented with tasks and activities rather than mere convalescence:

“When I first qualified as a doctor …I found it very difficult to get used to the atmosphere of bored idleness in the day rooms of the hospital. Then, one Monday morning, when I arrived at the women’s wards, I found the atmosphere had completely changed and realised that preparations for Christmas decorations had begun. The ward sisters had produced coloured tissue paper and bare branches, and all the patients were working happily in groups making flowers and leaves and using all their artistic talents with real interest and pleasure. I knew from that moment that such occupation was an integral part of treatment and must be provided.”

Quoted in The story of Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy 1930 – 1986

Elizabeth Casson, aged 21
Elizabeth Casson, aged 21

This Road to Damascus experience was reinforced by Dr Casson’s dealings with Dr David Henderson, who had established a small Occupational Therapy department at Gartnaval Hospital, Glasgow and visits to American hospitals – notably Bloomingdale Hospital, New York and the Boston School of Occupational Therapy – in the mid-1920s.

Dorset House, Bristol
Dorset House, Bristol

With the seed sown, Dr Casson requested and received a loan of £1,000 from her actor brother, Sir Lewis Casson, and bought the first Dorset House in Clifton, Bristol.  The School began life as part of a nursing home for the treatment of patients suffering from neurotic and psychotic disorders. Consequently, for the first three years the bulk of the clinical experience offered to the students was psychological. Dr Casson, though, never lost sight of the physical aspects of OT and by 1939 she was able to open an Occupational Therapy Department at Bristol General Hospital, offering ward work and treatment for patients with cardiac conditions. For the students, clinical practice was obtained largely with Dr Casson’s own patients. Therapy at this time would invariably cover such diverse activities as netball, country dancing, theatre, gardening and picnics, alongside the more traditional crafts so often associated with OT, such as weaving and needlework.

Weaving exercise for a stiff knee
Weaving exercise for a stiff knee

Then came the War.  Bristol became the target for German bombers and the School was forced to literally go underground, with classes moving into the cellars. Finally, it became impossible for the School to carry on in its present location, and the School moved to Barnsley Hall Hospital, Bromsgrove, which had been created as part of the Wartime Emergency Medical Service.  One major development at this time was the establishment of Auxiliary courses. The Ministry of Health was keen that the School should run training courses to ensure a rapid supply of workers for other hospitals. Some training was offered to established professionals (nurses, teachers, physiotherapists). Other candidates without qualifications were offered brief courses to enable them to act as Auxiliaries to better-qualified colleagues. One of the highlights of the Bromsgrove years was the visit of the Princess Royal, who met with Dr Shepherd, Medical Superintendent of Barnsley Hall, and the students. With the end of the War, so came the end of Dorset House at Bromsgrove. The EMS Hospital was to close and the expanded School had outgrown its old Bristol premises. Once again, Dorset House was on the move.

HRH the Princess Royal, Dr Shepherd, and guard of honour
HRH the Princess Royal, Dr Shepherd, and guard of honour

In 1946 Dorset House moved into hutted premises situated in the grounds of the Churchill Hospital, Oxford.  The move to the Churchill site was far from easy. With the War only recently ended there was no labour available to carry out the necessary refurbishment of the huts, which had until recently been used to house Italian Prisoners of War. Removing pin-ups and graffiti was all part of the moving process! Because OT had more than proved its worth during the War, the need for therapists continued to grow and demand out-stripped supply, so the School restructured its courses to allow for two intakes per year.  Further changes took place in the curriculum when the Association of Occupational Therapists revised the syllabus to provide a new qualification in 1954.

Nissen huts in the grounds of the Churchill Hospital, Oxford
Nissen huts in the grounds of the Churchill Hospital, Oxford

By the end of the ‘fifties it was obvious that the School could not continue with its current accommodation. Cracks were appearing in the (temporary) huts and weather-proofing was starting to prove impossible.  Then, in 1961, a property on the London Road, Oxford, came onto the market and the School purchased it for £25,000. The money for this (and the necessary alterations) was raised by an appeal which saw donations from past students, local industry and the local public, who flocked to fund-raising events such as a poetry reading by Sir Lewis and Lady Casson (Dame Sybil Thorndike).  The new School was officially opened in 1965 by HRH The Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.

In 1992, the School became part of Oxford Polytechnic (located just down the road from Dorset House), which was conferred with university status later the same year – and renamed Oxford Brookes University.  With the School came the Dorset House Archive, which is now held in the University’s Special Collections and Archives.

The Dorset House Archive includes papers relating to Dr Casson and the Dorset House Principals, administrative and exam papers, photographs, ciné films, and scrap books created by those who taught and studied at the School.  The Archive has been made accessible thanks to a generous grant from the Elizabeth Casson Trust, which has enabled book stock to be catalogued, the scrapbooks to be conserved, and primary sources to be digitised.  2020 marks the 90th anniversary of the School and we look forward to celebrating Elizabeth Casson’s legacy through the archival record.

Special Collections Team
Special Collections and Archives
Oxford Brookes University


Papers of the Dorset House School of Occupational Therapy, 1919-2005
Held by: Oxford Brookes University Special Collections and Archives

Records of Gartnavel Royal Hospital, Glasgow, Scotland, 1811-2002
Held by: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Archives

Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson Archive, 1865-1971
Held by: V&A Theatre and Performance Collections

Browse all Oxford Brookes University Special Collections and Archives descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub

All images copyright Oxford Brookes University Special Collections and Archives. Reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

The Archive of Paul Oppé: A Pioneer in the Field of Art History

Archives Hub feature for November 2019

The Paul Oppé Archive is the most significant acquisition in the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art’s history.  It was allocated to the Centre under the government’s Acceptance in Lieu (AiL) scheme in 2017 and therefore – as part of the AiL process – has been assessed by a panel of experts and identified as having both national importance and pre-eminence in its field.  The Centre began collecting Archive material in 1970 and today is the leading UK repository for Art Historian’s papers: the Paul Oppé Archive is an extraordinary resource for study in the field.

Material from the Paul Oppé Archive
Material from the Paul Oppé Archive

Adolf Paul Oppé (1878-1957) was a British art critic, art collector and museum official.  Perhaps most importantly, he was an art historian – a pioneer in the field, working at a time when the discipline was just emerging in the UK.  He wrote many catalogues on English drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor, as well as monographs on key 18th Century artists, including Alexander Cozens, William Hogarth and Paul Sandby.  Most significantly, he was responsible for establishing the study of British drawings as a scholarly pursuit.  Oppé’s collection of over 3,000 drawings (dated 1750-1850) was acquired by Tate in 1996.

Photograph of Paul Oppé, c1950
Photograph of Paul Oppé, c1950

The Oppé Archive documents the professional and private life of one of the most important scholars in the field.  Alongside material that reflects his work as an art historian, critic, museum official and art collector, it also includes a significant volume of correspondence with, and between, family members.

An Archivist was appointed to catalogue the collection in July 2019 and although the project is not due for completion until April 2020, it is already clear that the material will greatly enhance an understanding of the field.  One of the largest sections of the archive comprises Oppé’s research material on individual artists.  This material reveals much about how he developed his expertise: his knowledge was gained through constant correspondence with a large network of scholars and collectors, complemented by regular trips to see works in galleries, private residences and auction houses.  Accordingly, the collection contains a huge volume of letters.  It also includes many exhibition and auction catalogues which Oppé evidently used as notebooks – liberally annotating them with corrections, new findings and his own personal impressions.  Similar notes, hastily jotted down whilst visiting a private collection or exhibition, are also found on scraps of paper.  These include not only the objective, material qualities of the works such as the physical dimensions or techniques used by the artist, but also details of composition, topography and colour palette.  Some include a sketch of the work itself.  All of this incredibly detailed information was used to correctly attribute and document works, and fed into the descriptive prose utilised in his many monographs.

Research Notes written by Paul Oppé concerning work by Thomas Rowlandson (Archive Ref: APO/1/13/5)
Research Notes written by Paul Oppé concerning work by Thomas Rowlandson (Archive Ref: APO/1/13/5)

The Archive reveals some important stories too.  The artist Francis Towne (1739-1816) was largely unknown when Oppé became acquainted with members of the Merivale Family in 1915. The Merivale Family were descendants of John Herman Merivale, a friend and student of Towne. Oppé learned that Towne had left a large body of work to Merivale and that it had remained with the family. Upon visiting them, Oppé uncovered a treasure trove of British art.  As a collector, he must have been thrilled to find unknown works of this quality, but first and foremost he was a scholar and his motivation was to bring these works to the attention of the art-historical community.  This he did in 1919 with an article published in the Walpole Society journal (Oppé, A.P. (1919) Francis Towne, landscape painter. The Walpole Society, 8. The Walpole Society: Oxford, pp. 95-126. Available in the Paul Mellon Centre Library).   We can see all of this story unfold in the archive and the research he carried out – captured in many letters and research notes – still forms the backbone of studies of the works of Towne to this day.

Francis Towne, Entrance to the Grotto at Posilippo, Naples (1781)
Francis Towne, Entrance to the Grotto at Posilippo, Naples (1781)
Letter from Judith Merivale to Oppé dated 4 February 1920 (Archive Ref: APO/1/16/2)
Letter from Judith Merivale to Oppé dated 4 February 1920 (Archive Ref: APO/1/16/2)

The next stage of the project will look at Oppé’s notebooks.  Oppé was a compulsive note-taker writing simultaneously in a pocket diary, a daily diary, and in his “black books” – which contain a strange mixture of personal and professional musings. He also maintained detailed auction notes and inventories of his renowned collection of prints and drawings, many of which are now at Tate.  From this extraordinarily complete set of records it is possible to work out more or less precisely when, where and for how much, he bought all the items in his vast collection.  The material also illuminates how the drawings market operated in London in the first half of the last century.

Finally, the collection contains a large set of personal papers.  The Oppé family were wealthy Jewish immigrants who lived through the most turbulent years of the twentieth century and the material – in particular the extensive correspondence exchanged with various family members – offers an astute perspective of the social history of the period.

The catalogue of this incredible Archive collection is due to be completed in April 2020 and will be launched online shortly afterwards.  The Centre is also planning a series of events which will celebrate Oppé and his legacy.  These include a small display featuring highlights from the Collection. They also include a workshop and conference exploring the study and display of British drawings.   The range and depth of the Oppé Archive offers a perfect starting point for such discussion.  The material gives us an insight into a period in which the work of many British artists was discovered and in which art history was an emerging academic discipline.  Due to the diligent note-taking and letter writing of Oppé and his contemporaries, the Collection offers an unparalleled resource in the field.

Anthony Day, Paul Oppé Project Archivist
Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art


Browse all Paul Mellon Centre collection descriptions available to date on the Archives Hub.

All images copyright Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.