National Life Stories: Artists' Lives

Materials, studio of Trevor Bell. Photograph © Steve Tanner

Artists' Lives was initiated in 1990 by National Life Stories.

Published date:
Artists' Lives was initiated in 1990 by National Life Stories, the charitable trust based in the oral history section of the British Library, in collaboration with Tate Archive. It's aim is to enable British artists to create a record of their experiences in their own words to complement, enlarge and sometimes challenge accounts by other commentators.
Whilst the recordings in this collection concentrate in depth on each individual's working practice, it is important that they are life stories, rooting the speakers in the society which formed them rather than isolating them solely within the art world.  

The first recordings were made in 1990 in time to include Eileen Agar, who was born in the 19th century, and the on-going project has grown steadily ever since to embrace artists born in different decades and circumstances and whose experience has been widely differing. The majority attended art school and many returned to teach, enabling the project to capture a wealth of material about the shifts in emphasis in British art education as well as unrivalled accounts of individual careers.  Artists' Lives also includes interviews with curators, dealers and critics whose life stories have helped to build a more complete picture of the art world and its interwoven relationships.

To explore the collection in detail, please search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. The catalogue reference used for all the recordings in the project is C466. Selected interviews from Artists' Lives are available for higher education users on the British Library Sounds website.  A list of artists recorded from 1990-2015 is available. The Henry Moore Institute Essays on Sculpture no.69 (January 2014) available from The Henry Moore Institute is also a good source of information and the journal includes a list of artists recorded up to the publication date.

Goodison Fellowships

In 2016 two National Life Stories Goodison Fellowships will be awarded, generously sponsored by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation, both focused particularly on Artists’ Lives recordings. Examples of recipients of the Fellowship might be a journalist, radio producer, writer, oral historian, an academic using oral history or a museum, library or archive professional. Possible outcomes might include a series of national newspaper or magazine articles, an in-depth radio programme or series, a book, journal article, exhibition, online or printed educational resource or a series of podcasts.

The first 2016 Goodison Fellowship award of £5,000 is open to anyone resident in the United Kingdom who wishes to use NLS oral history collections, with a focus on Artists’ Lives, to research and produce work that will be published or broadcast in the public domain. An additional 2016 Goodison Fellowship award of £5,000 is open specifically to current and past staff and students of The Courtauld Institute of Art to support research with the same or similar outcomes; applicants for this award may also apply for the NLS Fellowship. See the Goodison Fellowships application information (PDF format) for further details.

Artists' Lives Advisory Committee

  • Sir Alan Bowness
  • Sonia Boyce
  • Dr Penelope Curtis
  • Caroline Cuthbert
  • Adrian Glew
  • Professor Mel Gooding (Chair)
  • Lisa Le Feuvre
  • Richard Morphet CBE
  • Clive Phillpot
  • Margaret B. Thornton
  • Dr Andrew Wilson

Project Director: Cathy Courtney

Current interviewers: Frances Cornford, Cathy Courtney, Kirstie Gregory, Andrew Lambirth, Victoria Lane, Ann Sproat, Dr Hester Westley, Dr Jon Wood

Partners and sponsors

See also

Sound projects

Save our Sounds

Save our Sounds is our programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage

Directory of UK Sound Collections

The British Library has created a directory of UK sound collections

Edison Fellowships

We offer fellowships to encourage the study of classical music sound recordings

Opening Up Speech Archives

An AHRC-funded project that studied the use of speech recognition technologies



Sound and video recordings from all over the world