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Oral history: visual arts and crafts

We hold oral history collections covering a cross-section of those involved in visual arts. They cover artists, sculptors, craftspeople, theatre designers, photographers, and fashion designers. Hear the life stories of British artists in their own words.

Art

  • Artists' Lives (C466) is a major National Life Stories project run in conjunction with the Tate Archive. The aim of the project is to record a series of life story interviews with British artists and sculptors.  Selected interviews from Artists' Lives are available for higher education users on the British Library Sounds website.
  • The Elizabeth Scott-Moore interview (catalogue no: C744) comprises three cassette tapes of recordings with watercolour artist Elizabeth Scott-Moore.
  • Those involved in the art world also feature in the National Life Stories: General (C464) collection; the NSA: General (catalogue no: C465) collection; the Cathy Courtney Oral History Collection (catalogue no: C768) and the Royal Academy of Arts recordings (catalogue no: C539)
  • The Charleston Trust (catalogue no: C1180) collection comprises recordings of Duncan Grant in conversation with Quentin Bell about his connection with Charleston, made while filming 'Duncan Grant at Charleston', directed by Iain Bruce, circa 1969. Angelica Garnett (née Bell) and Grace Higgens, former housekeeper at Charleston, also speak on three of the recordings.
  • The Hornsey College of Art Oral History Project (catalogue no: C1374) is a collection of 15 interviews conducted by staff at Middlesex University centring on the events of 1968 student sit-in.
  • The Andrew Lambirth Interviews (collection no.: C1378) comprises of 129 recordings with artists, painters and sculptors, conducted by Andrew Lambirth between 1984 and 2007 in preparation for a variety of his books and published articles.

Crafts

  • Crafts Lives (C960), a major National Life Stories project, documents the lives of Britain’s leading craft practitioners and complements the Artists' Lives and Architects' Lives collections.
  • The Tanya Harrod Crafts Interviews (catalogue no: C1355) collection comprises nearly 60 interviews with craft practitioners, such as Janet Leach, Ann Sutton, Michael Casson, Patrick Heron and Gillian Lowndes. Almost half of the recordings were made for Tanya Harrod’s book – ‘The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century’, Yale University Press, 1999 - whilst the remaining interviews were research for exhibition and catalogue essays as well as for a number of articles.
  • Potters of the Bernard Leach Legacy (catalogue no: C1330) is a collection that resulted from a project to record interviews with potters who had either spent time at the Leach Pottery or whose work exhibited aspects of potting in the Leach Tradition.  The project ('Preserving The Oral History of Bernard Leach's Pupils') was co-ordinated by Pro-Natura UK and was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  As well as the twenty-four interviews recorded for the project, the collection also includes interviews with Bernard Leach, William Marshall and Sybil Hanson, which were conducted by Canadian filmmaker Marty Gross in the 1970s.
  • The NSA: General (catalogue no: C465) collection includes an interview with bookbinder John Mercer.
  • The National life Stories: General (C464) collection includes interviews with Henry Rothschild, founder of Primavera Gallery of Contemporary Arts and Crafts.

Fashion, design and theatre design

  • Oral History of British Fashion (C1046), a collaborative project between National Life Stories and London College of Fashion (University of the Arts London), is a collection of in-depth life story interviews. The fascinating reflections of each of the contributors highlight the importance of recording the craft skills and business techniques of the ever-changing British fashion industries.
  • Oral History of British Theatre Design (C1173), a collaborative project between National Life Stories and Wimbledon College of Art (University of the Arts London) charts the developments in post-war British theatre design.
  • The NSA: General (C465) collection includes interviews with theatre designers Jocelyn Herbert and Tanya Moiseiwitsch.
  • Interviews with members of the Pentagram design group and other leading designers such as Terence Conran are included in the National Life Stories: General (C464).

Photography

  • Oral History of British Photography (catalogue no: C459), is an on-going project charting the development of photography in Britain. Interviews include Magnum members Martin Parr and George Rodger, photojournalists like Mike Goldwater curators like Mark Haworth Booth art photographers like Helen Chadwick, collectors like Helmut Gernsheim, young independents such as Anna Fox and Nick Waplington. New interviewees included Sam Taylor-Wood, Simon Norfolk, Gavin Turk, David Hurn, Paul Graham, Ian Berry and David A. Bailey. Selected interviews from An Oral History of British Photography are available for higher education users on the British Library Sounds website.
  • The BBC World Service Photography Interviews (catalogue no: C847) includes interviews with Derek Seagram, Martin Parr, Hilary Roberts, Val Williams, Michael Collins, Paul Wombell, Leslie Macintyre, Stephen Dalton. The thesis of the programme was to discover in what ways the invention of photography has altered the way in which we see the world.
  • Other collections include Val Williams photography interviews (catalogue no: C696), and the Photographers Gallery Talks (catalogue no: C621).

Related recordings

  • The Judith Bumpus Radio Interviews (catalogue no: C798) includes broadcast and unedited talks and interviews with artists, architects, photographers and writers, produced by Judith Bumpus for BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4 between the late 1970s and 1995. Includes BBC Radio 3's Third Ear; During the Interval; Writers Under Fire: British Writing in the Thirties; Bill: A Portrait of the Artist William Coldstream; Artists and the Landscape; Recollections: Herbert Read; Ben Nicholson; Jean Cocteau. For other radio collections, visit the Writing, Publishing & Broadcast theme page.
  • The British Council Oral History collection (catalogue no: C1083) is a collection funded by the British Council and co-ordinated by the British Council Association Oral History Project, covers the careers of prominent employees of the British Council.
  • For collections relating to the theatre, opera, the circus, and jazz, visit the performing arts and music page.

Accessing the collections

To access oral history material:

  • Search for oral history recordings held at the British Library using the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue (see useful advice on searching the oral history collections).
  • Onsite access to oral history recordings: The Listening and Viewing Service in St Pancras provides free public access to the oral history collections on an appointment basis. Many digital recordings are also available via SoundServer, a computerised listening facility located in the Humanities Reading Rooms.  SoundServer is also available at the British Library’s site in Boston Spa in Yorkshire.
  • Internet access to selected oral history recordings: The British Library Sounds website gives remote access to a selection of interviews from the Library’s oral history collections. Some recordings are currently only licensed to Higher and Further Education users in the UK, others are available for full public access.

Further information

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

T +44 (0)20 7412 7405 (Rob Perks, Lead Curator, Oral History  / Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7406 (Mary Stewart, Curator, Oral History / Deputy Director of National Life Stories)
T +44 (0)20 7412 7404 (Elspeth Millar, Archivist, Oral History)
E oralhistory@bl.uk