Oral histories of visual arts and crafts

Mary Restieaux, Ikat woven silk textile, 1982. Image courtesy of Andra Nelki
Mary Restieaux, Ikat woven silk textile, 1982. Image courtesy of Andra Nelki

We hold large collections of oral history interviews with artists, sculptors, craftspeople, theatre designers, photographers, and fashion designers.

About the collection

The British Library holds 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.   

What is available online?

Artists' Lives is a major National Life Stories project run in conjunction with the Tate Archive and with support from The Henry Moore Foundation and The Rootstein Hopkins Foundation. The aim of the project is to record a series of life story interviews with British artists and sculptors. Over 200 interviews from Artists' Lives are available on the British Library Sounds website.

Oral History of British Photography is an ongoing project charting the development of photography in Britain. Interviews include Magnum members Ian Berry, Stuart Franklin, David Hurn, Martin Parr and George Rodger, photojournalists like Philip Jones Griffiths and Tom Stoddart, curators like Mark Haworth Booth, Zelda Cheatle and David A. Bailey, all the directors of The Photographers Gallery, collectors like Helmut Gernsheim and Eric Franck, picture editors like Bryn Campbell and David King and fashion photographers like Nick Knight and John Swannell. Interviewees include rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky, arctic photographer Martin Hartley, the ‘godfather’ of Black British photography Vanley Burke, community photographers like Judy Harrison and Wendy Ewald as well as Helen Chadwick, Wolfgang Tillmans, Anna Fox, Nick Waplington. Sam Taylor-Wood, Simon Norfolk, Gavin Turk and Paul Graham. Over 100 interviews from An Oral History of British Photography are available online (most recordings accessible by higher/further education institutions only; full collection available in our reading rooms).

Crafts Lives, a major National Life Stories project, documents the lives of Britain’s leading craft practitioners and complements the Artists' Lives and Architects' Lives collections. Crafts Lives collects the memories and experiences of independent makers working in British studio crafts. It includes those working in ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, jewellery, textiles and book arts, as well as curators and exhibition organisers working across these disciplines. The collection also maps the influences, friendships and collaborations between individual practitioners and across different generations of craftspeople, as well as the role of organisations such as the Crafts Council. Over 90 of the Crafts Lives interviews are available online.

An Oral History of British Fashion, 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.

An Oral History of British Theatre Design, 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.


What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Art

The Elizabeth Scott-Moore interview comprises three cassette tapes of recordings with watercolour artist Elizabeth Scott-Moore.

Those involved in the art world also feature in the NSA: General collection, the Cathy Courtney Oral History Collection and the Royal Academy of Arts recordings.

The Charleston Trust  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 is a collection of 15 interviews conducted by staff at Middlesex University centring on the events of the 1968 student sit-in.

The Andrew Lambirth Interviews 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

The Tanya Harrod Crafts Interviews 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 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 National Sound Archive General collection includes an interview with bookbinder John Mercer.

The National Life Stories General collection includes interviews with Henry Rothschild, founder of Primavera Gallery of Contemporary Arts and Crafts.

Fashion, design and theatre design

The National Sound Archive General 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 collection.

Photography

The BBC World Service Photography Interviews 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, and the Photographers Gallery Talks.

Arts broadcasting and funding

The Judith Bumpus Radio Interviews 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 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.

Further information

See the collection guide to Oral History and webpages for National Life Stories: the oral history charitable trust based at the British Library.

Search the online Sound and Moving Image catalogue to retrieve detailed information for every oral history interview.  For more information on how to search the catalogue and listen to oral history recordings see our 'How to' guide. 

Contact us

Oral History
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom
oralhistory@bl.uk

How to guides

Search the catalogues for oral history recordings

A guide to seaching the catalogues for oral history recordings

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