Word & Image department
The Word & Image department (WID) is responsible for the Museum’s collections of prints, drawings, paintings, photographs, designs, computer art, books and archives, including 8 of the V&A’s 18 national collections. WID also leads on both the V&A and RIBA Architecture Partnership and the annual V&A Illustration Awards.
Staff in the department ensure that the collections are displayed and stored in optimum conditions to preserve them for current and future generations to enjoy; in addition, they conduct research into the collections so that they can document them as fully and accurately as possible in catalogue records, gallery labels and publications.
A proportion of WID collections can be seen both in our permanent galleries and on display in temporary exhibitions. Other parts of the collection are accessible through our 3 study rooms. Increasingly, information about the collections, including images of many of the objects, is available through Search the Collections on the Museum’s website and the National Art Library catalogue. The Museum’s own institutional archives, providing a historical record of the daily business of the V&A, are also managed by WID.
Word & Image department unites curators, librarians and archivists who look after the art, book and archive collections. There are over 2 million items in WID collections overall, ranging from some of the world’s most valued works of art to examples of the most ephemeral designed objects.
WID Collections are divided into these groups:
- NAL Collections
- Computer Art
The National Art Library contains literature on all the subjects covered by the Museum’s collections. The department is administratively managed in 2 sections: Collections and Information Services.
Books in the collection, with the exception of children’s books, including the Renier Collection and the Beatrix Potter collections, are freely accessible to visitors in the National Art Library reading rooms. The NAL catalogue provides information about the books, periodicals, manuscripts and other material in the collection.
Art works available on request in the Prints & Drawings Study Room include designs for all the arts, watercolours, Old Master drawings, photographs, fine art prints, commercial graphics, greeting cards, fashion plates, posters, wallpapers and icons. Information about all of these is available through Search the Collections and the older catalogues.
The Archive of Art and Design, the Beatrix Potter Collections, and the V&A Archive are all available at the Blythe House Reading Room through an appointment system.
The Information Services section manages the department’s 3 study rooms and the service delivery of the collections held there to onsite visitors. Staff are also responsible for providing information about our collections and services through the telephone, letter and email enquiry services and website content.
- The National Art Library is located on Level 3 of the main building and is accessed via Stair L [see V&A Map]
- The Prints & Drawings Study Room is located on Level 4 of the Henry Cole Wing [see V&A map]
- The Blythe House Reading Room is located on a different site, in Olympia [map and details available here]
Main contact details
National Art Library
Enquiry desk (Tues–Thurs. 10-17:30, Fri. 10-18:30): +44(0)20 7942 2400
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Prints & Drawings Study Room
Enquiry desk (Tues–Fri. 10-17:00): +44(0)20 7942 2563
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Blythe House Reading Room
Archive of Art and Design: +44(0)20 7603 7493
Contact us online
Beatrix Potter Collections and Children’s Book collections: +44(0)20 7602 0281
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V&A Archive & Registry: +44(0)20 7602 8832
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Word & image department collecting
The National Art Library (NAL) (including the Archive of Art and Design) together with the Museum Archives, and the Prints, Drawings, and Paintings Department were merged in 2001 to form the Word & Image Department (WID). The merged Department’s collections encompass a wide range of Museum objects and literature on all the subjects covered by the Museum's collections: more than two million items overall.
The NAL’s collections began with the Schools of Design set up at Somerset House in 1837 to help improve the teaching of design. They moved to Marlborough House in 1852 and into the current suite of Reading Rooms on their completion in 1884 after occupying various locations in the Museum at South Kensington. The title ‘National Art Library’ first appeared around 1860 in the Universal catalogue of books on art, an early expression of the Library’s ambition to provide a national centre for art documentation.
From the outset the NAL included prints and drawings, and by 1856 photographs. In 1909 prints and drawings were transferred to the curatorial Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design. Photographs followed much later, in 1977, when the Department’s title became Prints, Drawings & Photographs. A separate Paintings Department was set up when the Museum opened at South Kensington in 1857. The Archive of Art and Design was established as part of the NAL in 1978 to assemble material already in the Museum, and to acquire archives associated with the production, marketing, promotion and study of British art and design.
Collecting, within the remit of this document, is carried out by five sections detailed below. British work is prioritised in all areas. The collections overlap with and complement many other collections nationally and internationally but are given distinctive meaning by their context. UK partnerships include the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate, and the National Media Museum with which we have entered into loan arrangements to maximise the value of the collections to the nation, and the National Archives which, as well as overseeing the management of public records at the V&A, disseminates information on its collections via the National Register of Archives. We also work with numerous smaller bodies with complementary collections, and outreach organisations. The Department has responsibility for eight collections which have ‘individual national status’ (as defined by the provision of expertise and authoritative information, as well as the extent and/or significance of the collections themselves; see the V&A Collections Management Policy, 2009). These national collections are:
- Architectural Drawings
- Art of Photography
- British Watercolours and Drawings
- Commercial Graphics (including Posters)
- Computer Art
- National Art Library (the literature of art, craft and design/history and arts of the book)
- Portrait Miniatures
We continue to acquire historic material (especially in those areas where we have national responsibility), but in practice much of the Department’s collecting activity is now focused on the ‘contemporary’ - that is, work by living artists and designers (often young or at an early stage in their careers), and with an emphasis on new media and technologies, new conceptual categories, and new object types, as well as topical material in traditional formats. The acquisition policy is essentially forward-looking, but it nevertheless builds on and extends the strengths of the existing collections in a manner appropriate to recent developments in art and design. The V&A’s aim is to promote, support and develop the UK creative economy by inspiring designers and makers, and this is reflected in our collecting.
The contemporary field necessitates a joined-up approach to identifying, assessing and taking decisions on acquisitions, given the spread of expertise on things contemporary within the Department, and also the ‘hybrid’ or mixed media character of so much contemporary work which falls within the Department’s remit. This joined-up thinking extends to other Collections. In the fields of photography, for example, Asia curators advise on and support relevant acquisitions by the Word & Image Department. We also work closely with the Theatre & Performance Collections, coordinating our approach to the acquisition of design material, graphics and so on. The post-1900 Period Expertise Group is a useful forum for developing a co- ordinated approach to collecting and for identifying those areas (such as digital art, product design, film) which we aim to represent coherently.
We collect to represent processes and techniques in all media. In terms of subject matter we seek to acquire work which reflects contemporary culture, including material which addresses political, cultural and social issues such as climate change; health; identity. By following the established patterns and purposes in collecting we are better able to collect effectively and systematically and also to co-ordinate our acquisition policy with the other national museums with whom we might otherwise appear to overlap or compete. At the same time we are alert to new areas of art and design practice which may relate only tangentially to existing collection strengths, but are nevertheless pertinent to the V&A’s role and remit. We also aim to continue building the collections in ways which reflect the cultural diversity of London and the UK.
Collecting priorities are also linked to plans for new permanent galleries (and to the rotation of light-sensitive objects in such galleries) and to major exhibition projects, as well as departmental displays. It is often cheaper and more cost-effective to acquire works for such projects than to borrow. Our current priorities in this area include finding substitutes for British Museum prints currently on loan to the British Galleries and works in all media for major forthcoming exhibitions. Collecting priorities can be summarised in several broad categories, but within each of those categories there are more specific priorities which may be object types, work by individual named artists, or work from particular groups or geographic areas.
Design and the Archive of Art and Design (AAD)
These collections which are jointly managed, comprise some 300 archives and over 80,000 drawings. They aim to represent the design process from conception to consumption and together provide a preeminent point of access to primary source material for the study of design. They include records of individual artists and designers, businesses and institutions involved in the production, marketing, promotion and study of art and design, including order books, correspondence, accounts, diaries, photographs, and promotional material; and European and American drawings for architecture, the applied and industrial arts, product design, fashion, and also sculptors’ drawings.
The collection has some international rivals for major historical material, but no national rivals except in terms of architectural drawings, where the holdings complement those of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Since 2004 the RIBA collection has been housed at the V&A. The RIBA collection is very large (ca. 1,000,000 items) but remains the property of its membership. WID's collection differs from the RIBA in that it includes designs for building by type, as well as by architect. Architects’ archives are, where appropriate, directed to the RIBA and fine arts archives to Tate; in other areas the V&A is as anxious to ensure that archives find an appropriate home as to add them to the V&A's collection. Since its foundation the British Museum has occasionally acquired design drawings, but as works of art, rather than as examples of a design process.
The V&A has a remit to lead public perception and understanding of ‘design’ as a category and as a process, and this must be reflected in our collecting policy. In the field of design drawings we continue to collect contemporary examples in those areas in which we already have strong holdings and which relate directly to the other V&A collections – furniture, textiles, ceramics, and metalwork. Areas of design activity which fall outside these traditional categories are now being targeted: product design, fashion design and illustration, garden design, designs relating to shops and shopping, and graphic design (complementing existing strengths in the print collections).
Though much of the design material we collect relates to the domestic milieu, we also aim to collect designs for public projects, such as monuments and sculpture. Wherever possible we aim to acquire the complete ‘job bag’ (everything from first concept to specification). We are aware of the importance of CAD in the design industry and we are investigating how best to collect or represent this process. 3D models are collected where they play a significant part in demonstrating or elucidating the design process. We continue to collect contemporary architects’ drawings with a focus on global architecture. The RIBA collects the work of British architects only. A further distinction is that the V&A collects designs that represent the art of architecture, whereas the RIBA collects material that represents the processes of architecture.
We do not proactively acquire design for film, which is the province primarily of the British Film Institute. However, where a designer’s career includes film among other design disciplines, or where specific works clearly relate to existing strands of V&A collecting and offer new perspectives on other design disciplines such as architecture, interiors, furniture, graphics and fashion, design for film may be considered suitable for the V&A’s collection.
Priorities for the AAD are dictated by two factors, the first being a moral obligation to accept accruals to our existing archival collections to prevent archives being dispersed unnecessarily, and the second being storage space. The implication of the latter is that, realistically, we do not accept or seek to acquire any large archives, but otherwise we remain interested in high-quality material (i.e. from a significant name; material that documents a career or business concisely; material which represents the design process clearly; or where there will be predictable research interest). Our other priorities are archives which fill a gap (such as ceramics design, or male fashion), or which supplement our strongest existing holdings (e.g. stained glass, silver). Archives with strong links to a particular locality would be directed where possible to a local authority repository, and it is our practice to consider whether there might be a suitable alternative home for an archive before we decide to acquire it for the V&A.
The collection contains over 2000 oil paintings, of which around a third are Continental and two thirds are British; over 2000 portrait miniatures; 6800 watercolours; over 10,000 British drawings, illustrations and sketchbooks; and 2000 Old Master drawings.
The collection began in 1857 with John Sheepshanks’ gift of 233 oil paintings and 289 watercolours, drawings (and etchings) by mainly contemporary British artists, and was known for 50 years as the National Gallery of British Art. Since the foundation of Tate, the collecting of oils has been largely restricted to decorative paintings, works related to decorative schemes, representations of the decorative arts, and portraits of practitioners of art and design. The collection of 19th-century British oil paintings, which includes the principal collection of John Constable, is, nonetheless, second only to that of Tate. The foreign oil paintings are also of national significance.
We continue to have national responsibility for collecting watercolours and also English portrait miniatures, the collection of which is unrivalled, with foreign examples acquired to provide a wider context. In addition it was recently agreed with the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate that we should take on national responsibility for pastels. We also collect drawings and have strength in Italian, Netherlandish and French as well as British examples, and such amateur media as silhouettes and cut-paper work. The collection is outstanding for the range of painting media represented, from late antiquity to the present.
In collecting unique works on paper, we continue the established pattern of acquisition, concentrating on the work of British artists, and artists working in Britain, including recent immigrants and artists from the African and Asian diasporas. We continue to focus on the innovative use of traditional media, and on the processes and techniques of artistic production. Drawings by sculptors and installation artists are particularly desirable. With three recognised ‘National’ collections (portrait miniatures; British watercolours; pastels) we continue to give priority to significant acquisitions in these areas, as opportunities and resources allow.
The collection consists of ca. 300,000 prints. The V&A was the first museum in the world to collect the art of photography. This began in 1856 with the purchase by Sir Henry Cole of ca. 30 exhibits – representing architecture, landscape, figure studies, still life and the nude – from the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of London. As well as building an extensive 'virtual museum' of reproductive photographs illustrative of art, architecture and design, acquisitions were also made direct from major creative photographers. The collection is international and spans the whole history of the subject from 1839 to the present. After its 1977 transfer from the NAL to the re-named Prints, Drawings & Photographs and Paintings Department, holdings of 19th - and more especially 20th -century classic photography expanded rapidly and the collection of contemporary photography became a priority.
The Photographs collection overlaps and complements many other collections nationally and internationally. It has national responsibility for collections of the art of photography and is among the most important collections of its kind in the world. It does not include photographic hardware, which is the responsibility of the National Media Museum, Bradford, a branch of the Science Museum (NMSI), London.
The V&A’s collection (which is the National Collection of the Art of Photography) is unique in covering the history of photography as a fine and applied art medium. The history of photography is traditionally centred on Western Europe and the United States, and although we will always seek to improve our holdings of such classic photographs, our priority now is to collect work from the Middle East and Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. We continue to focus on work by emerging British photographers, with Black British photography a particular priority at present (with funds from the HLF Collecting Cultures grant for ‘Staying Power: the story of Black British Identity 1950s-1990s’ to support acquisitions in this field). We also wish to expand our holdings of material relating to the presentation of photographs, such as early framed exhibition prints, and daguerreotypes.
Other priorities include contemporary fashion photography, and photojournalism. We also hope to add to our holdings of camera-less photography. Photo books continue to be an area of interest, but these are collected by the National Art Library with guidance from Photographs curators. We are also concerned to establish a national collecting framework for photographers’ archives and to establish what should be the role, if any, of the V&A.
This section is responsible for collecting printed images created as works of art and to fulfill a practical purpose. The Print collection had its origins in the NAL, and from 1909 prints were part of the Prints, Drawings and Paintings Department in its various guises.
The Prints collection comprises ca. 500,000 items, including fine art prints from the Renaissance to the present; reproductive prints; printed designs for the decorative arts; portraits; topography; social history subjects, religious and pagan symbolism; costume and fashion plates; fan leaves; caricatures; playing cards, packaging, stationery, posters and other commercial graphics, and wallpapers.
Uniquely in Britain, the Prints collection embraces 'fine' prints and commercial production. It also houses the most comprehensive collection of printed designs for the decorative arts in the UK, one of the world's foremost collections, and is the only Museum collection that aims to represent modes in presenting prints. It does not seek to rival the British Museum's collection of Old Master prints, although acquisitions in this field are made to improve representation of printmaking techniques, where the Museum aims to be comprehensive. The V&A is the only national institution to have consistently collected prints by living artists since the mid-19th century.
The V&A is the only national museum to collect across the whole spectrum of ‘print’ from ephemera to fine art. Many of our priority areas for collecting extend or build on established strengths (wallpapers, greetings cards, fine art prints) but focus on manifestations which employ new media or have new applications. For example, it is a continuing priority to acquire wallpapers designed by artists and made specifically for installations and exhibitions; our greetings card acquisitions now include greetings for religious occasions other than Christian, and corporate greetings. In the field of fine-art prints, we are especially interested in examples which employ digital or other new or unconventional media, and the application of print to 3D formats, including unique works as well as multiples. Within fine art printmaking, another of our key priorities is work by artists from Africa and the African diaspora.
Of our traditional collecting strengths, posters (commercial and political) remain a high priority, not least with the aim of targeting specific material for the planned Gallery of Graphic Design and Communication, and to cover significant gaps in our holdings overall. These include work from the Polish Poster School (1950s – 1980s) as our current holdings are not representative of this important area; International Typographic School (largely Swiss in origin); ‘new wave’ graphic design of the 1980s; Chicano posters, which are missing from our otherwise good holdings of 1960s and 70s agit-prop posters. We also wish to acquire more material relating to the design process for posters, since our current holdings are unrepresentative (most of the original poster artwork in the collection is for pre-war London Transport posters). As with the other Sections (Designs, Computer Art) we also want to find ways to ‘collect’ or archive posters and other graphics which exist only in a digital form. Strategies for collecting contemporary material include visiting international poster biennales, and working with the Design and Art Direction awards to get copies of the best of the nominated posters. We are alert to current events which generate posters, such as the Olympic Games, the World Cup, and UK and US elections.
In keeping with the Museum’s founding emphasis on design and making, we are keen to acquire material relating to the processes of printmaking, such as blocks, plates and proofs (with published impressions, if we do not already hold them), subject to the usual criteria with regard to the quality of the work. We also continue to collect printed designs for the decorative arts; likewise, trade cards relating to products in the V&A collections – particularly textiles and dress, furniture and interiors, metalwork, jewellery, ceramics and glass, as well as the printing trade.
The National Art Library holds incomparable collections representing every aspect of the art, craft and design of the book from illuminated manuscripts to paperbacks. Many aspects of the collection are of national significance, including illuminated manuscripts, calligraphy, comics and graphic novels, illustrated books, fine printing, typography and book bindings. In all areas activity is co-ordinated with that of other major national collections such as the British Library, Tate Archive and smaller specialist organizations. Medieval and post-medieval illuminated manuscripts were acquired from the 1850s, in the form of volumes but also cuttings and leaves from complete manuscripts (there are almost 3,000 such fragments). All were intended as a design source for educational purposes, but the collection includes notable examples of miniature painting by celebrated illuminators. Examples of early printing were also collected in this way, both in the form of complete works and single pages or even initials, to provide an encyclopedic account of book design and ornament. The collection of fine bindings similarly aims to provide an overview from the medieval to the present, including numerous European examples, of which the armorial book- bindings are the best in the country. Holdings of illustrated books in trade and deluxe bindings are also extensive. The collection is strong in private press books, writing and lettering books, fine typography, and livres d’artistes. The 20th -century book art collection is unrivalled in Britain. Digital book production and design is also being documented as a 21st – century art form.
The Book Section was established to support the National Art Library which has responsibility for the history of the art and design of the book. The Library co-ordinates its curatorial and documentary collecting policies balancing national obligations to both the documentary collection for readers, and livres d’artistes, book art, and the arts of the book. We remain committed to the latter areas; through the exhibition Blood on Paper (2008) the V&A raised its profile and asserted its commitment to contemporary book art.
Other categories in which we continue to build the collection are illustrated books (the V&A Illustration Awards acts as a driver for collecting in this field, and a means of identifying contemporary acquisitions); photo books (see under Photographs above); comics; typography; book design, all aspects of book production, book packaging and presentation (from traditional private presses to trade series and bookjackets). Our other noteworthy collections of book arts are fine bindings, illumination and calligraphy, and these are also augmented where feasible. In addition we conduct twice-yearly trawls of ephemera, magazines and mass market books, a long-term strategy to document changes in print-based design 'on the high street'.
Until recently, the Museum held relatively few works that illustrate the early years of computer- generated art and design. However, the Department now holds one of the world’s largest collections of computer art, created from the 1950s to the present day. Computer-generated prints began to enter the Department’s collection in the late 1960s, at around the time of the ground-breaking Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Other works were acquired from time to time, but the strength of the Department’s collection today is the result of two major acquisitions in recent years. Following the acquisition of the Patric Prince Collection and the archives of the Computer Arts Society, the V&A now holds an internationally significant collection of computer-generated art from the 1960s to the 1990s and beyond. Together, these major acquisitions form the basis for the V&A’s emerging national collection of computer-generated art.
The bulk of the artworks consist of plotter drawings, screen prints, inkjet prints, posters and photographs, but there are also examples in other media, including 3D images and computer files. The founding-stone of the V&A’s expanding collection is the material assembled by Patric Prince, an art historian and archivist of computer art. Based in California, Prince actively collected computer-assisted art works for many years. In addition to some 200 individual artworks, the Patric Prince collection also contains a huge quantity of books, archival material and ephemera, including monographs, manuals, exhibition catalogues, slides, off-prints and interviews with practising artists. Because the early history of digital culture is still under- documented, the material she accumulated is now of great significance to researchers.
The Museum also holds the archives of the Computer Arts Society (CAS), which amounts to another 200 artworks. As computer artists passed through London, they often gave the Society examples of their work. These were stored until the V&A acquired the collection in 2007, along with the Society’s working records of its own activities. The CAS material complements the Patric Prince collection perfectly. So-called “Algorithmic” works are particularly well represented and the Department already holds significant pieces by major figures such as Harold Cohen, Paul Brown, Roman Verostko, Jean-Pierre Hebert and Mark Wilson.
We plan to build on these core collections, although the logistical problems of preservation and display are yet to be resolved. Priority will be given to digital works, or applications of digital technology, which relate to or extend our holdings in other media (e.g. the book, wallpaper, digital greetings, etc). Areas of practice we wish to research further, and may in future decide to collect, include digital animation, computer games, and the work of artists exploiting gaming technology.