Art History and Artists' Papers: Western Manuscripts, 1600 to present

A page from Christina Rossetti's notebook showing handwritten text with the title 'In an Artist's Studio'
Christina Rossetti, 'In an Artist's Studio'. Notebook dated 18 Dec 1856-29 Jun 1858. Ashley MS 1364 (2), f. 2v.

Archives and manuscripts relating to the history of Western art from the early 1600s onwards, including personal papers, catalogues, sitter books, and treatises on art history, aesthetics and artistic practices.

About the collection

The British Library holds a large collection of archives and manuscripts relating to the history of British and European art, as well as the private papers and correspondence of many artists, patrons, and critics. For details on our Visual Art collections, see our guide to Visual Arts at the British Library.

Artists' Papers

Our autograph letter collections (Add MS 37772 A-U, Add MS 21514, Add MS 33964) contain correspondence by notable artists from the 16th century onwards including Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), and two of the seven known letters penned by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669). The Charnwood Autographs (Add MS 70948-70951) contain correspondence by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), George Romney (1734-1802), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), and many others. We also hold papers relating to the posthumous affairs of Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680) (Add MS 16174), the diaries and sitter books of George Romney (Add MS 38081-38087), the papers of brothers Thomas and Paul Sandby (1721-1798 / 1731- 1809) (Add MS 36994), and the manuscript of James Northcote’s autobiography (Add MS 47790-47793).  Other important artists represented include William Hogarth (1697-1764), the wood engraver and illustrator Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), John Flaxman (1755-1826), James Gillray (1756-1815) William Blake (1757-1827), J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), John Constable (1776-1837) and William Charles Ross (1794-1860).

19th-century artists who straddle both art and literature are especially well represented, including Branwell Brontë (1817-1848), Edward Lear (1812-1888), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The family papers of artist, designer, and writer William Morris (1834-1896) (Add MS 45338-45353) are also a key resource for the study of 19th-century art and design. Other notable collections include the letters of architect Sydney Smirke (Add MS 60745) containing correspondence with British artists and Royal Academy members, and the correspondence of Sir Alfred Fripp (Add MS 46445) relating to his time as Secretary of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour.

Our contemporary collections contain relevant papers from the mid-20th century, including the archive of artist, poet, and illustrator Mervyn Peake (Add MS 88931), containing personal papers, correspondence and illustrations. Material relating to American artist Leonard Baskin can be found in a number of collections including the Hughes-Baskin Papers (Add MSS 83684-83698), and the Edward Hughes archive (Add MS 88918).

For papers relating to notable architectural draughtsmen and topographical artists, such as Edward Blore and the Buckler family, see our collection guide on Architects and Architectural Collections, and for photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) see our guide on photography collections.

Patronage and Collecting

We hold manuscripts documenting various private art collections, including that of King Charles I (Lansdowne MS 1050, Add MS 10112, Kings MS 391, and Add MS 24625), a catalogue of Queen Anne’s Pictures at Kensington House (Add MS 17917), and an inventory of James II pictures at Whitehall, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle (Harley MS 1890). The Althorp Papers (Add MS 75301-78155) contain records of the Spencer family’s art collections held at Althorp, Wimbledon House, and Marlborough. Information of Sir Hans Sloane’s extensive collections of pictures, coins, and medals can be found throughout his papers, including Sloane MS 1985 - for more information about Sir Hans Sloane's  manuscript collection, see our guide to the Sloane Manuscripts. Papers relating to other notable private collections and patrons, such as Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) and Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797), can be found amongst relevant family and estate archives.

The Turner Manuscripts (Add MS 22878-23125) comprise manuscripts purchased at the sale of Banker, Antiquarian, and art patron Dawson Turner’s Library. The collection includes diaries and notebooks of 18th-century engraver and antiquarian George Vertue, considered one of the most significant sources on British and European art of the period, and journals by portrait painter Ozias Humphry, containing his observations on 18th-century paintings. 

Criticism and History

Our collection holds essays and critiques of artistic works including general notes by Sir Joshua Reynolds on painting and his criticism of Rubens (Add MS 37053), and correspondence and writing by artist, critic and patron John Ruskin, including a draft of chapter 6 from The Laws of Fésole: A familiar treatise on the elementary principles and practice of drawing and painting as determined by the Tuscan Masters (Egerton MS 2887). The archive of writer and art critic John Berger (Add MS 88964) includes material relating to many of Berger’s works including A Painter of our Time.
Our extensive collection of travel journals and diaries are an important resource for exploring global art history and practice beyond Britain from the 17th century. These include notes on paintings held in the Vatican, Farnese, and Barbarini Palaces in Rome, c.1696 (Add MS 8489);  observations of paintings at the Luxemburg Palace and the Palace of Versaille from 1767 (Add MS 19212); and 49 19th-century illustrative volumes documenting monuments and murals in Egypt (Add MS 29812-29860). 

Other important collections relating to the history of art include the Lord Macmillan papers (Add MS 54577-54578) containing papers relating to the restitution of works of art (archives and other material) in enemy hands from 1943-1946, and the Golgonooza Press archive (Add MS 89131), which published books on a wide range of subjects including art, philosophy, literature and religion. The archives of the dealer and publisher Henry Graves & Co and the London Art Union are among the collections of material relating to production and dissemination of 19th-century art.

Practice and Theory

The collection has a large number of treatises and essays on artistic practice and history. This includes early texts on Limning (Sloane MS 227 and Add MS 34120), drawing, portrait painting, and painting in oil; and on the production of oil paints, varnishes, and glazes, including Sir Theodore de Mayerne’s 17th-century Pictoria, sculptoria et quae subalternarum artium (the 'Mayerne manuscript', Sloane MS 2052). We also hold works on printmaking, including Samuel Palmer’s 'The Practical Part of Printing', 1729 (Add MS 4386). 

Contained within the collection are portions of the original draft manuscript of William Hogarth’s 1753 treatise The Analysis of Beauty (Add MS 27992), a key work in the study of art history and aesthetics, and two notebooks containing three earlier incomplete drafts (Egerton MS 3011-3016) demonstrating the development of this seminal text.

This guide is not exhaustive, and many other artists, movements, patrons, and clubs from the 17th century onward are represented throughout our collections. The best way to find them is to search our catalogue for names, movements, or associated keywords.

Related British Library Collections

The Library holds an extensive collection of historic art sales catalogues. For more information, see our Sale catalogues collection guide.

The India Office Private Papers contain material relating to Indian art during the period of British rule in India. This includes the Archer collection (Mss Eur F236), comprising the personal papers of Dr William Archer (1907-79) and his wife Dr Mildred Archer (1911-2005), created over the course of their careers as art historians specialising in India, and the papers of Ernest Havell (1861-1934), Keeper of the Government Art Gallery in India (Mss Eur D736), and founding member of the India Society, set up in 1910 to promote Indian art. We hold the papers of the Society and those of its antecedent and successor bodies (Mss Eur F147) dating from 1865 to 1984.

The Library’s Sound Archive holds many interviews with 20th- and 21st-century artists including the long-running 'Artists' Lives' project, which can be accessed online through British Library Sounds. For more details see the collection guide for oral histories of visual arts and crafts guide and the Voices of art educational web resource.

What is available online?

Further information about these collections can be found in the Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. A selection of manuscripts and personal papers have been digitised in full or in part on the Digitised Manuscripts and Discovering Literature websites.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Archives and manuscripts can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading RoomIn some cases you may need to provide a letter of introduction or further information in order to access manuscripts and archives. Use the online catalogue to find out whether access conditions apply. It is advisable to contact the Manuscripts Reference Team before travelling to the Library. Up to 5 working days' notice is required to process applications to consult restricted collection items.

We also provide onsite access to a range of relevant subscription resources, including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Nineteenth-Century Collections Online, and the British Newspaper Archive. 

What is available in other organisations?

The Artist's Papers Register contains details of archival resources for artists.