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National Life Stories: Artists' Lives

Artists' Lives was initiated in collaboration with the Tate Archive 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 nineteenth 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. Recent additions to Artists' Lives include curators, dealers and critics whose life stories have helped to build a more complete picture of the art world and its interwoven relationships.

Further information about Artists’ Lives can be found in the NLS Annual Reports, particularly in the articles Artists’ Lives 1990 – 2005 (PDF format, 46KB) and Twenty Years of Artists’ Lives (PDF format, 173KB).  An Interviewer’s Perspective (PDF format, 119KB) and A Listener’s Perspective (PDF format, 385KB) provide further insight into oral history methodology and the value of in-depth life story interviews with artists and art professionals.

Selected interviews from Artists' Lives are available for higher education users on the British Library Sounds website.

Artists' Lives Advisory Committee

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

Project Director: Cathy Courtney

Partners and sponsors

Accessing the collection

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