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National Art Library Forster Collection

Jonathan Swift, 'Gulliver's Travels', London, 1726. Pressmark: Forster 8vo 8553. Printed for Benjamin Motte, at the Middle Temple-Gate, in Fleet Street

Title page from 'Gulliver's Travels', by Johnathan Swift. Printed for Benj. Motte, Fleet Street, London, 1726. Pressmark: Forster 8vo 8553

John Forster (1812–76) was a noted biographer, critic, essayist and historian, probably best remembered for his biography of his close friend, the novelist Charles Dickens (1812–70). In the course of his life Forster collected a vast library, mainly, but not exclusively, of books and pamphlets. He bequeathed this collection to his wife until her death; whereupon it would pass to what was then the South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1899), so that it could be used by the nation. She generously waived her rights in order to fulfil his wishes more quickly.

The Forster Collection is one of two very large and distinct collections within the National Art Library, the other being the Dyce Collection, bequeathed to the nation by the Reverend Alexander Dyce (1798–1869). The respective donors were close friends and the transfer of the Dyce Collection to the Museum was overseen by Forster, who was Alexander Dyce's executor. The Forster Collection is the larger of the two, containing over 18,000 books, and took nearly a year and a half to be delivered to the Museum in its entirety. The following is only a brief summary of its contents.

English literature: Augustan to Victorian

Forster was literary editor of the weekly 'Examiner' from 1833 to 1847, and then its editor from 1847 to 1855. He arrived early enough in the literary world to know some of the later Romantic writers, such as Leigh Hunt (1784–1859); and remained long enough to see some of the first of the later Victorian novelists, such as
George Meredith (1828–1909). The collection contains many 19th-century novels which were given to him as review or presentation copies, usually with an affectionate inscription from the author. One such example is Sartor Resartus (1838) by Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881). In addition to befriending some of the most famous writers of his day, Forster was also an influential critic who helped to establish younger literary figures, such as the poet Robert Browning (1812–89). There is a copy of Browning's first successful poem 'Paracelsus' (1835), which was given a favourable review in the 'Examiner'.

Forster acquired many items by Augustan writers as well, including two volumes of proof-sheets of Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (1779–81) by Samuel Johnson (1709–84); a work known more famously to us as the Lives of the English Poets. There is also a copy of the first edition of Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731).

However, what Forster regarded as 'the most rare of all my acquisitions' is a large paper copy of the first edition of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver (1726) by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). It is of interest because it was the copy sent to the printers with Swift's own corrections and insertions. Shortly before his death, Forster had published the first volume of his Life of Jonathan Swift (1875), covering the years from 1667 to 1711, and he was well-qualified to publish his biography since the collection includes other items relating to Swift. For instance, there are twelve volumes of essays and pamphlets written either by, or about him. This makes the Forster Collection a valuable source for the study of Irish history in the early 18th century. There is also a copy of Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1705) by Joseph Addison, which was owned by Swift and bears an inscription to him by Addison on the fly-leaf.

Of Romantic writers, the collection holds a copy of the earliest work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1824), namely the Fall of Robespierre (1794), a verse drama which he jointly composed with Robert Southey (1774–1843). There is also a manuscript of a poem 'On the Grasshopper and the Cricket', dated 1816, by John Keats (1795–1821) and written in his own hand. Among other manuscripts is An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Political Justice (1793) by William Godwin (1756–1836). Although incomplete, it does reveal the sympathy towards the French Revolution felt by many writers at that time. Romantic writers such as Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb (1775–1834) are also included in the collection. As well, there is a copy of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) by Lord Byron (1788–1824), containing savage criticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth (1770–1850), with corrections in Byron's own handwriting.

Finally, Forster received or amassed a great deal from the Victorian era. There is the first published work of Alfred Tennyson (1809–92) entitled Poems by Two Brothers (1827); and many of the works of that prolific writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–73), inscribed to Forster. Another item of interest is a copy of the first significant novel written by George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), with which he enjoyed critical, though not commercial, success. Wilkie Collins (1824–89) presented him with copies of the new editions of his novels, such as The Woman in White (1861), again with inscriptions.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, 'Bleak House', London, Bradbury Evans, 1853. Pressmark: Forster 48.A.4

Charles Dickens, 'Bleak House', London, Bradbury Evans, 1853. Pressmark: Forster 48.A.4

Perhaps the most famous part of this Collection is the material relating to the life and work of Charles Dickens, who met Forster in 1836 while both worked as young journalists for the 'True Sun'. Forster was to become one of Dickens' closest friends and trusted advisers, and was shown the manuscripts of nearly all the novels before they were published. Dickens appointed him his literary executor and, after the novelist's death, Forster published a biography in three volumes (1872–4).

Forster inherited the original manuscripts still in Dickens' possession, including nearly all of his novels, such as Dombey and Son (1848) and Little Dorrit American Notes (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846). In addition, Forster had the corrected proofs of novels such as Bleak House (1853). These two sets together provide a fascinating picture of Dickens' output: his ideas and methods; the development of his plots and characters; and his skill as a craftsman and stylist. The works were published in numerous editions during his lifetime, such as the Library Edition of 1858–9; and there are copies of these too, usually inscribed by him.

Amongst other noteworthy items are over 100 letters by Dickens to Forster, stretching over nearly 30 years; some manuscripts and revisions of his contributions to the 'Daily News' and 'Household Words'; and the remnants of a diary that Dickens kept between 1838 and 1841.

For a description of the project to conserve the manuscripts, see Annette Lowe, The conservation of Charles Dickens' manuscripts. V&A Conservation Journal, no.9, October 1993, pp. 4-7. (ISSN 0967-2273).

History of the Theatre

Dickens and Forster shared a common interest in the theatre and a love of amateur theatricals. Forster collected a large quantity of theatrical material, including playbills, several different published editions of numerous dramatic works, and literary manuscripts by famous actors. As a pupil in his local grammar school in Newcastle, Forster had written a drama set in the English Civil War, as well as A Few Thoughts in Vindication of the Stage (1827). During the 1840s, along with Dickens, he had taken part in some amateur productions, such as Every Man in his Humour and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The Collection contains Forster's own copy of Every Man by Ben Jonson (1572/3–1637), annotated in his own handwriting. There is another copy also, used by the celebrated 18th-century actor David Garrick (1717–91), and with manuscript additions by him.

A copy of the Dramatic Works (1827) of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was used by the famous 19th-century actor W.C. Macready (1793–1873). Other works of Shakespeare are also represented in the Collection, including a copy of the first collected edition of his works, known as the First Folio edition of 1623. It is the only folio edition of any real textual integrity, containing an engraved portrait of Shakespeare on the title-page by Martin Droeshout (1601–50), one of the few authentic images we have of the playwright. The Collection also includes the Garrick Correspondence, comprising some 1600 letters to and from David Garrick.

Finally, attention should be drawn to the number of published editions of dramatic works, many of which were produced in the 18th and 19th centuries by people such as Mrs Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821). There are 25 volumes of Inchbald's British Theatre as well as other sets. This period saw a revival of book illustration in England, thanks to the influence of artists such as Hubert François Gravelot (1699–1773) who helped to establish the French Rococo style in English publishing. It seems that he worked in England between 1723 and 1745, opening a drawing school on the Strand which counted Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) among its pupils. He was one of the most celebrated illustrators of his age, and an example of his work can be seen in the third volume of The Dramatick Works (1763) by John Dryden (1631–1700). It is a frontispiece depicting a scene from Almaunzor and Almahide, engraved by the Dutch artist Gerard van der Gucht (1695/6–1776). The Collection also includes work by one of Gravelot's successors, the draughtsman and engraver Anthony Walker (1726–65). There is a frontispiece by him in The Way to Keep Him (1760) by Arthur Murphy (1727–1805). The comedy The Mayor of Garratt (1831, originally published 1764) contains a frontispiece and a vignette on the title-page by Robert Seymour (1800–36), who later became the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers (1837).

Rare and illustrated books

The items mentioned above are not the only examples of illustrated books in the Collection. Forster did not set out to collect this genre in particular, yet he gathered a number of books that are of intrinsic interest to both the art historian and the bibliographer. His holdings often parallel those in the National Art Library's General Collection, but his copies are likely to be in superior condition, and in their original bindings.

The 16 volumes reprinted from the Typographical Society of Newcastle (1817–57) contain woodcuts by Thomas Bewick (1755–1828), one of the most famous illustrators of his day. His work can also be seen along with that of his younger brother John (1760–96) in the 1802 edition of the poem 'The Chase' by William Somerville (1672–1742). Since John Bewick died soon after producing these illustrations, they form a valuable record of his last work.

There are also examples of Romanticism in English book illustration, such as the Irish Melodies (1846) by Thomas More, with their illustrations by Daniel Maclise (1806–70). The 1835 edition of the Poetical Works by John Milton (1608–74) contains some imaginative illustrations by the artist JMW Turner (1775–1851). Milton also provided the inspiration for Birket Foster (1825–99) who produced the steel etchings for L'Allegro and Il Penseroso in 1855. Steel etching was one of the technical advances of the early 19th century, and these haunting illustrations add a great deal to Milton's text. Among the other Victorian illustrated works is William Allingham's (1824–89) The Music Master which contains woodcuts by, among others, John Millais (1829–96) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82).

Illustrated books from the 18th century are also included in the collection, most notably Richard Bentley's Designs for Six Poems (1753) by Thomas Gray (1716–71). Combining Rococo illustrations with those which look forward to the Gothic Revival in England, it has been described by John Harthan in his study The History of the Illustrated Book (1981) as '... the finest English illustrated book of the century'. There is also one of the early books produced by Horace Walpole (1717–97) at his private press at Strawberry Hill, Fugitive Pieces in Verse and Prose (1758), which is interesting for being the copy of Thomas Gray, with an inscription by him on the title-page.

Finally, the Collection holds three notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), covering the years 1493 to 1505. These contain pencil and chalk drawings, sketches for paintings, sculptures, and human figures along with many other items of interest. To the art historian these are perhaps the most spectacular items in the whole Collection. The Forster Collection, therefore, need not be seen as purely a literary collection for it does contain many books and manuscripts of a distinctive artistic value.

British 17th-century history

Besides his literary work, Forster was a noted historian of the 17th century and the English Civil War. As a young man of 18 he had already outlined a projected biography of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). During the 1830s he contributed to the Cabinet Cyclopaedia, established in 1829 by Dionysius Lardner (1793–1859). These contributions were later republished by Forster under the title Lives of the Statesmen of the Commonwealth (1840).

Forster collected a large amount of original source material in order to facilitate his research into this field. The system of censorship had collapsed by 1640, amid the turbulence of the rebellion against Charles I (reigned 1625–49) and was only effectively restored by Cromwell in 1655. Into this chaotic vacuum poured thousands of broadsides, pamphlets, sermons and tracts. They represented every shade of opinion and belief, including the many religious and political groups such as the Diggers and the Levellers.

One of the leaders of the radical Levellers was John Lilburne (1614–57) and the Collection holds four volumes of pamphlets by, or about him, covering the years 1638 to 1653. There are about 60 tracts relating to Parliament, mainly from the early 1640s; and ten volumes of Sermons before the Long Parliament (1641–48), which are valuable for the light they throw on the religious ideas circulating at the time. Forster also purchased 160 Proclamations for the period 1629–60, covering aspects of the daily life of the period. Finally, notice should be made of the tracts relating to events in Ireland, about 400 in all. The bulk of them cover the years 1641–50 but there are a significant number for the Restoration period as well, with the latest dated 1701.

Other material in the collection

So large was Forster's library that it is difficult to do justice to the range of material that he collected. It includes many of the publications of learned societies, such as a complete set of the 'Archaeologia' (1770–1873) published by the Society of Antiquaries, and 54 volumes of geographical material from the Hakluyt Society, spanning the years 1847 to 1876. There are many autographed letters, with many of the famous names of the early 19th century represented, including Bentham; Canning; Grey; Napoleon; Nelson; O'Connell; Stanley; Wellington and Wilberforce.

Finally, included in the bequest were Forster's collection of paintings and drawings, which are now part of the Museum's Word and Image department. Amongst them are over 60 pencil sketches by George Cruikshank (1792–1878) for Dickens' early works such as Sketches by Boz (1836). There are 48 oil paintings by artists such as Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92); and 74 watercolours by Maclise and Turner. Some of these paintings are on public display in the Museum's Paintings Galleries.

Catalogues of the Collection

With the recent completion of the National Art Library Heritage Project, all entries from the published catalogue of the Forster Collection are now available on the Library Catalogue, retrievable by a Name search on 'National Art Library (Great Britain). Forster Collection'.

Annotated copies of the published catalogue of the printed books in the Forster Collection, alongside the separate catalogue of the paintings and manuscripts, are still available to consult in the Reading Room.


A Special Reader's ticket is required by members of the public. For more information, see Using the National Art Library.

An alternative copy, if available, will normally be used in preference to the Forster Collection copy, unless of course the book is required for copy-specific information.

Information about the Forster collection in the V&A Archive

MA/1/D2023/1-8: Nominal file – Rev Alexander Dyce and John Foster, Esq (bequests)

MA/49/2/46: Press cuttings

ED 84/36: Precis of the Board Minutes of the Department of Science and Art, 8 July 1863 to 31 December 1877

ED84/96/3: Dyce and Forster Libraries, scheme for storage of; 'Cambridge cupboard system'

A0277: copy of Forster’s will

Report on the bequest in the Twenty-fourth Report of the Science and Art Department. London: George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for HMSO, 1877

Henry Cole: diaries: typed transcripts, 1822-1882

Note: Forster’s own correspondence is held in the National Art Library, FD.5.Box

Other archival sources: see the National Register of Archives

Selected printed works

List of the bequests and donations to the South Kensington Museum, now called The Victoria and Albert Museum: completed, to 31st December 1900. London: Printed by HMSO, 1901. NAL pressmark: VA.1901.0001

Forster collection: a catalogue of the paintings, manuscripts, autograph letters, pamphlets, etc., bequeathed by John Forster. London: HMSO, 1893. NAL pressmark: 603.AD.1091

Forster collection: a catalogue of the printed books bequeathed by John Forster, Esq., LL.D., with index. London: HMSO, 1888. NAL pressmark: 603.AD.1092

Davies, James A. ‘Forster, John (1812–1876).’ In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. NAL pressmark: 920.041 DIC

For general background to the Collection, and a further idea of its contents:
Handbook of the Dyce and Forster Collections in the South Kensington Museum
(1880), which contains a biographical sketch of Forster by Henry Morley (1822–94).

For the significance of the Dickens material:
Burton, Anthony. 'The Forster Library as a Dickens Collection' in Dickens Studies Newsletter, no. 9, 1978.

Burton, Anthony. Aspects of the Book, a series of photocopied labels from an exhibition of the Collection organised by the Museum 1972–4

To locate material in the National Art Library, please search the Library Catalogue.

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