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September 2017

Vol. 159 / No. 1374

Researching the researchers

ON 29TH AUGUST 1945 Oliver Millar visited Audley End, Essex, three years before Lord Braybrooke sold the great Jacobean house to the Ministry of Works. He made notes on its paintings in the first of forty-nine journals that over the next sixty years were to record his travels to public and private collections, exhibitions and auction sales in the United Kingdom and abroad. Seven volumes are dedicated to Van Dyck, a record of the research that resulted in two of the highlights of Millar’s career, the exhibition Van Dyck in England at the National Portrait Gallery in 1982 and his collaboration in the catalogue raisonné that appeared in 2004.1 The catalogue was published by the Paul Mellon Centre, London, where those journals can now be found, part of an archive of Millar’s papers occupying eighty-five boxes. In December last year, digital copies of the two indexes to the journals (the first by collection, the second by artist) were placed online, and a full catalogue of the entire collection was made available in July.2 Researchers into painting in seventeenth-century Britain have an invaluable new resource, but all sorts of lines of inquiry are suggested by the catalogue: why, for example, should Pamela Tudor-Craig, on learning of Millar’s visit to Gorhambury, seat of the Earl of Verulam, have written to him in January 1957 to ask about ‘blue and white giraffes and owls’?

Millar’s papers join a collection of archives that in the past few years has become one of the Paul Mellon Centre’s most impressive achievements. The Centre began collecting the papers of historians of British art and architecture by chance. In 1977 the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven was offered the papers of W.G. Constable (1887–1976), first director of the Courtauld Institute and subsequently curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Since these mostly related to his work on Richard Wilson, it was thought more useful for researchers to have access to them in London. There they joined the substantial archive of notes for the Mellon Foundation’s multi-volume Dictionary of British Artists, a project initiated in 1963 that never came to fruition. The collection of archives contains several other skeletons of unpublished projects – most poignantly, in the papers of Daphne Haldin (1899–1973), notes for a Dictionary of Women Artists, a project that was perhaps simply too far in advance of its time. 

The archive collections were put onto a more professional footing during preparations by its then Director, Brian Allen, for the Centre’s fortieth anniversary in 2010. An archivist, Charlotte Brunskill, was brought in, at first on secondment from the National Portrait Gallery and then, from 2012, in a full-time position. Under her guidance, and that of the present Director, Mark Hallett, the collections have taken their present form, divided between the Centre’s own records (themselves an important resource for the history of the study of British art) and the archives of art and architectural historians. Among the scholars represented are Judy Egerton, Brinsley Ford, John Hayes, Benedict Nicolson (former editor of this Magazine) and Ellis Waterhouse. There are also unexpected treasures, such as the records of the London office of Knoedler & Co., part of the archive of Frank Simpson (1911–2002), who had worked for the firm before he became librarian at the Centre in 1971. The Centre does not collect only the archives of the dead: among the living who have donated papers are Malcolm Baker and Roy Strong. The Centre has also embarked on an oral history project: fittingly, Brian Allen was one of its first subjects.

Many of the papers will be used by researchers wanting details of, for example, the provenance or location of works of art recorded by one of these scholars. As time passes, however, the archives will acquire ever-greater significance as a record of the practice of art history in the days before the internet, when a photograph was a precious object. As the collection grows, it will also become a resource of the highest importance for understanding how the study and appreciation of British art has developed over the past century. This has been strengthened by the expansion of the archives beyond the papers of scholars working on what has traditionally been the Centre’s core interest of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art. Recent acquisitions include, for example, the archives of scholars specialising in Victorian and twentieth-century architecture and those of critics, most notably Brian Sewell. His papers embody another development in collecting policy. Until recently, most acquisitions focused on research material, often relating to a specific project, but the Centre now aims to acquire the complete archives of its subjects, and so researchers can study, for example, the records of Sewell’s school and army career. One of the most recent acquisitions, the papers of Giles Waterfield, who died last year, encompasses his entire life and not just his work as an art historian.3

With these developments, the archive collections are charting the evolution of the study of art history in Britain, from what was for many years a small, highly interconnected coterie into the academic community of today. It is striking that so many of the papers relate to scholars who worked outside institutions of higher education, a characteristic that is shared by related repositories, such as the Wallace Collection’s archive of the papers of scholars who worked on French eighteenth-century art or princely arms and armour. This is in part a result of the slowness with which art history was professionalised in Britain, but it also reflects the fact that the archives of scholars in universities tend to be swallowed up by the institution in which they worked. The growth of the Paul Mellon Centre’s archive collections should encourage a wider recognition that the records of art historians’ lives are going to be of interest to the researchers who come after them.

1 M. Levey: ‘Oliver Millar (1923–2007)’, The Burlington Magazine 149 (2007), pp.554–55.


3 T. Harrod: ‘Giles Waterfield (1949–2016)’, The Burlington Magazine 159 (2017), pp.219–20.