National Libraries Day: Researching the History of the National Art Library


Did you know that the Library is older than the V&A itself? Or that one of its early Keepers, the irascible W. H. James Weale, once chased an unwary bookseller through the reading room for trying to sell him a collection of ‘obscene prints’? Or that it counts not one but three copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio  among its treasures?

Today (Saturday, 6 February) is National Libraries Day, so to mark the occasion, and to help you uncover more about these and many other fascinating stories from its past, I’ve put together this research guide to documents relating to the history of the National Art Library (NAL) held in the V&A Archive.

Entrance to The National Art Library

Entrance to The National Art Library. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Researching the history of the NAL, including exhibitions
The NAL, whose origins can be traced back to the establishment of the Government School of Design at Somerset House in 1837, boasts a rich and fascinating history, and was the subject of two displays in the mid-1990s:

• The first years of the National Art Library 1837-1853: from the School of Design to the Department of practical Art, 21 Sep – 27 Nov 1994
• The National Art Library and its buildings from 1837 to the year 2000, 1 Feb – 23 Apr 1995

Both displays were accompanied by informative catalogues by Eva White and Chiara Barontini, copies of which, along with other papers relating to their curation, are held in the V&A Archive (ask for the MA/28 series). You can find out what other displays and exhibitions the library has curated in The Victoria and Albert Museum: A Bibliography and Exhibition Chronology, 1852-1996, compiled by Elizabeth James (London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998). You can find listings since the 1998 on the Past Exhibitions and Displays subject hub.

Perhaps the V&A’s earliest exhibition on a library-related theme was the Illuminated Manuscripts exhibition (1896), which borrowed manuscripts from William Morris (already on exhibit at the Society of Antiquaries, London), the Duke of Devonshire and the Earl of Crawford.

Illuminated manuscripts exhibition

Draft letter to potential lenders to the Illuminated Manuscripts exhibition, 1896. V&A Archive, MA/28/9. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other sources of information about the NAL’s history and collections include:

• Annual Reports of the Department of Science and Art, 1854-1899, which contain reports by the Keeper of the Art Library (including remarks on library accommodation, noteworthy acquisitions and donations) and statistics on acquisitions and library usage
• Review of the Principal Acquisitions, 1911-1939
• S.K.M. history VIII, which includes research materials on various subjects, particularly the National Art Library, including photocopies of journal articles and various 19th-century documents (archive ref. AAD/2014/14/4/2/25)
• Anthony Burton, ‘The History of the Victoria and Albert Museum Library’, an unpublished lecture given on the occasion of a visit by members of ASLIB on 27 September 1974
• Rowan Watson, Elizabeth James and Julius Bryant, eds., Word & image: art, books and design from the National Art Library (London: V&A Publishing, 2015)
• Julius Bryant, ed., Art and design for all: the Victoria and Albert Museum (London: V&A Publishing, 2011)

Researching the provenance of books and manuscripts
This is invariably a challenge and you are more likely to be successful in tracing the provenance of nineteenth-century acquisitions. The best place to start is the Library Receiving Room diaries, 1852-1936 (archive ref. MA/34), which record the arrival of books, manuscripts, prints (until 1909) and photographs: details that were meticulously logged include the date received, title, price (if relevant) and the name of person who sent or presented it.

Wornum's memorandum of books

Ralph Wornum, ‘Mem. of Books recommended by me to be purchased for the department’, 1852-53, in Library Receiving Room Diary No. 1, 1853-1856. V&A Archive, MA/34/1. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you’re really lucky there may be a correspondence file that holds further details about the acquisition. For example, in 1886 the library purchased for £25 an editio princeps of Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice, 1499): the volume is on display in Room 64 (Medieval & Renaissance). In his justification, Robert Soden Smith, Keeper of the Library, observed that the ‘art library does not possess a complete copy of the 1st edition & I have for years endeavoured to buy one – but the very high price at wh it has been usually sold prevented me its acquisition – This copy is very cheap’.

Hypnerotomachi Poliphili

Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Venice: Aldus Manutius, Romanus, Dec. 1499). National Art Library pressmark: 87.F.27. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I found this minute paper on the correspondence file for the bookseller E. Parsons & Sons (archive ref. MA/1/P460). There are files for other booksellers including Maggs Bros Ltd (MA/1/M333), Bernard Quaritch Ltd (MA/1/Q8) and Charles J. Sawyer (MA/1/S608), and for auction houses that are known for their sales of rare books and manuscripts, such as Sotheby’s (MA/1/S2595).

The V&A Archive holds correspondence files for significant benefactors to the NAL, such as Alexander Dyce  and John Forster (MA/1/D2023) , George Reid (MA/1/R537), Anne and Fernand Renier (MA/1/R617)  and Chauncy Hare Townsend (MA/1/T1191)

A series of Library inventories, 1853-1985 (archive ref. MA/36), includes information on the provenance of some illuminated manuscripts and book-bindings, particularly for the period 1853 to 1922. Likewise the J.C. Robinson/Art Referee reports (MA/3), whose authors reveal a penchant for ornamental book covers and flashy bindings.

Researching the organisation and management of the NAL
The following selection of files, which are largely historical in focus, is a good place to start:

• Library: general correspondence, 1860-1935 (archive ref. ED 84/129-33)
These files contain correspondence about the administration of the Art Library including staff appointments, acquisitions, cataloguing and binding, regulations and procedures. There are also reports on the Art Library for 1859 and 1862 by J.C. Robinson, details of salaries and other statistics for 1892-1895, library admission rules for 1909 and changes to the Book Production Gallery, including a plan of the cases, ‘Regulations for the use by the public of the Library Reading Rooms’, 1910, 1924 and 1926, and papers about the acquisition of German publications during World War One. They’re handily indexed to help you find your way around.
• 1, 429 Library administration files, 1912-1986 (archive ref. MA/37)
These files relate to the acquisition and management of the collections of the NAL, the development of library policy and financial management.
• Library. Correspondence and minutes, 1936-1942 (archive ref. ED 84/280)
• Reports on the Library presented to the College of Keepers, 1984-85 (archive ref. MA/47/16 & 23)
• Minutes of the Committee of Re-arrangement with memoranda, reports and associated papers, 1908 (archive ref. ED 84/45)
• Library re-organisation, 1935-1939 (archive ref. ED 84/278)
Papers relating to shelf listing, stocktaking, missing books and redecoration; a memorandum on library reorganisation by Mr James and minutes of the committee on library reorganisation.

The Book Production Gallery
Following the report of the Committee of Re-arrangement in 1908, the Library was assigned space for an exhibition gallery in which to display ‘the best examples of lettering, writing, illumination, types, type-ornaments … and book bindings’. The ‘Gallery for the Art of the Book’ or ‘Book Production Gallery’ (room 74) was operated by the Library until 1983 when it was replaced by the Twentieth Century Gallery.

Book Production Gallery

Art of the Book Gallery, showing section on typography and book illustration, 1979. V&A Archive, A0212 box 3. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

For further information, see:
Report for the years 1909 and 1910 on the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Bethnal Green Museum (1911)
• Case Inventory: Room 74, Book Production Gallery, 1911, 1913 (archive ref. MA/38/1/10)
• Case inventory of manuscripts and printed books on display in rooms 74, 25, 91, 106, 108, 1911, 1913, 1920 (archive ref. MA/38/2/1)
• Library: general correspondence, 1900–1909 (archive ref. ED84/131)
• Minutes of the Committee of Re-arrangement with memoranda, reports and associated papers, 1908 (archive ref. ED 84/45)

Researching the NAL during the War Years, 1914-1945
To protect the collection from air raids, star library items were moved to the ground and basement levels of the Museum, which afforded greater protection, for the duration of World War 1. Acquisitions, exhibitions and reader services continued largely uninterrupted, although on a reduced scale. The one major inconvenience was the requisition of Room 74 by the Board of Education, which resulted in the displacement of the Book Production Gallery, through which readers had previously accessed the central reading room, to the north end of the Textiles gallery (Room 118); it returned to its original space in 1920.

Before the outbreak of World War 2, the NAL’s most important manuscripts and expensive modern art books (c. 3,500 volumes) were evacuated to Montacute House. In 1940, the entire Dyce Library (apart from those Dyce books already sent to Montacute House) were given storage space in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (c. 12,000 volumes). A desire to keep the library open and the impracticalities of off-loading the remaining books onto other country houses meant that a decision was made in 1941 to disperse 45,000 volume thinly round the Museum, housed in wall cases normally reserved for ceramics and other exhibits, where possible. In all, over 60,000 books, or one third of the contents of the library, were moved.

Room 77 during the pre-World War Two preparation of objects for evacuation or protection

Room 77 during the pre-World War Two preparation of objects for evacuation or protection. Books being packed up. V&A Archive, MA/32/842, neg. JD1871. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Further information can be found in:
• Storage and protection of objects against enemy air raids, Museum accommodation, etc. 1917-1935 (archive red. ED84/101)
• Air Raid Precautions: Protection of Art Treasures, 1936 – 1941 (archive ref. ED84/264), includes records concerning the removal of the Dyce Library
• Air Raid Precautions: Montacute House, Somerset 1938-1944 (archive ref. ED 84/267)
• Library Air Raid Precautions (archive refs. A0003 and A0359)
• The National Art Library and its buildings from 1837 to the year 2000, 1 Feb – 23 Apr 1995 (archive ref. MA/28)

Finding photographs and press cuttings
Historical photographs of the NAL’s interiors – mostly of the public spaces but also of some back-of-house spaces (offices and book stacks) – are spread across several records series including the photographic guardbooks (MA/32) and archive accessions A0151 and A0290. For convenience, photocopies of all known images have been filed together according to room number (the NAL occupies rooms 76-78). A selection of photographs have been digitized and can be viewed online.

Library West Room

Library Centre Room looking west towards doors to Gallery 74 showing presses for large-scale items, 1899. V&A Archive, MA/32/842, neg. JD1858. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There is only one press cuttings album dedicated to the library (archive ref. A0498). Covering the period 1930-39, it includes photographs, annual reviews, library-related press cuttings and other miscellaneous items. Additionally, there are folders of loose press cuttings relating to the library covering the years 1946-51, 1952-54, 1957-60 and 1964. There may also be press cuttings relating to specific exhibitions, e.g. Charles Dickens: an exhibition to commemorate the centenary of his death, 9/10 June – 20 September 1970 (archive ref. MA/49/6/39).

You can access our archives by visiting the Blythe House Archive & Library Study Room, which is located at Blythe House, 23 Blythe Road, London, W14 0QX, and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10.00 to 16.30, by appointment.

For further information, call 020 7942 2340 or visit our Archives webpage

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