Western drawings

Drawing of Hampstead
Drawing of Hampstead and Highgate, from Devonshire Street, London 1793, from Grimm's Topographical Drawings. Shelfmark: Add. 15542.

The British Library has a vast number of drawings in Rare Books, Manuscripts and Maps.

About the collection

The British Library’s western drawings were originally held within the British Museum. After 1808, drawings judged to be particularly ‘fine’ were removed from Printed Books, Manuscripts and Maps and placed in the new Department of Prints and Drawings at the Museum. The drawings which remained with the Library collections tended to be those which have been classified from the early nineteenth century as ‘evidence’ rather than ‘art’.

We retain very extensive but often under-researched collections on subjects such as topography and antiquarianism, exploration, architecture, fortification, archaeology, costume, medicine, magic, religion, heraldry, alchemy, anatomy, science, engineering, natural history, botany and garden design. The drawings represent various techniques: pen, pencil, chalk, watercolour, and are found as single sheets, in assembled albums, as extra-illustrations, in sketchbooks, letters and notebooks.

Highlights include Tudor drawings collected by Sir Robert Cotton, notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, Durer and William Blake, natural history and botanical drawings assembled by and for Hans Sloane, architectural drawings including works by Hawksmoor and Wren, and many extra-illustrated books such as an edition of Hasted’s Kent with 3,710 drawings and 5,000 engravings. The collections also include significant drawings by non-Western artists such as Persian, Chinese and Japanese drawings from Sloane’s collections.

The collections of topographical drawings are particularly extensive and fine. They include George III’s King’s Topographical Collection in Maps, incorporating drawings by Paul and Thomas Sandby and views by William Alexander from the first embassy to China, with other significant collections relating to the British Isles, Iceland, the Netherlands, Italy, Egypt, China, Japan and India in Manuscripts and Rare Books.

The Philatelic Collections at the British Library also incorporate the Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive and the Landmark Trust Lundy Island Philatelic Archive, both of which incorporate original artwork for stamp designs.

What is available online?

The British Library has digitised a selection of its drawings, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook and Codex Arundel, William Blake’s notebook, early British maps and views in The Unveiling of Britain, other Maps and views, Topographical drawings by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm and the Bucklers, highlights of the King’s Topographical Collection, Deptford plans and drawings and Kensington Turnpike Trust drawings. Others are available on Images Online and Europeana.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Drawings from the Western Heritage Collections are distributed across the Library’s collection areas and can be found using Explore the British Library and Search Our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts.

The King’s Topographical Collection is currently being catalogued and digitised: its records can be found on the Explore catalogue by searching ‘George III’ and ‘maps’ or ‘views’ with the place you are interested in. Records from the 1844-1861 Catalogue of the Manuscript Maps, Charts, and Plans, and of the Topographical Drawings in the British Museum have been exported to Explore, giving brief descriptions for around 22,000 drawings. Other drawings are found on both the Explore catalogue and Search our Archives and Manuscripts, but generally listed only at collection level. The Sloane drawings are mainly not listed online, but in a handlist available in the Manuscripts Reading Room.

What is available in other organisations?

There are extensive drawings collections in various other institutions including the British Museum, Royal Collection, Museum of London, Tate,  Guildhall, Society of Antiquaries, Linnean Society,  Royal Society, Royal Academy of Art, Royal Institute of British Architects, National Army Museum, National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, Ashmolean, Bodleian, Worcester College, Oxford, National Portrait Gallery, Wellcome Collection , Victoria and Albert Museum, Rijksmuseum, Getty Research Institute, Lewis Walpole Library,  Folger Shakespeare Library, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, Library of Congress, and Yale.

Further information

For topographical drawings see the Catalogue of the manuscript maps, charts and plans, and of the topographical drawings in the British Museum and Maurice Barley’s A guide to British topographical collections

Some individual collections have their own catalogues, such as The Art of Captain Cook's Voyages, vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3., and Northamptonshire in the Early 18th Century: the Drawings of Peter Tillemans and Others.

How to guides

Get a Reader Pass

A guide to how to obtain a British Library Reader Pass to use our Reading Rooms