Contributors Library Hub Discover

Royal Academy of Arts Library

Library of the Week: 17th October: Our featured library this week is the incredible Royal Academy of Arts Library. Find out more about the history of the library and the amazing collections available in this brilliant piece by Adam Waterton (Head of Library Services at the RA.) Thank you very much to the Royal Academy of Arts Library for taking part.

© Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: Francis Ware.

The Royal Academy of Arts Library is the oldest institutional fine arts library in the UK. We have been acquiring books since the Academy began in the mid-18th Century, primarily in support of the artist and architects studying in the Royal Academy Schools.

The Royal Academy of Arts (RA) was founded in 1768 by a group of eminent artists and architects who petitioned the king, George III with a proposal to form an Academy of Arts in London, the main aims of which were to raise the status of artists and improve the production of art in Great Britain. Core to this aim was the establishment of the Royal Academy Schools, the first formal art school in London. Students admitted to the Schools would first be required to draw from an extensive collection of plaster casts after antique sculpture. When proficient at this they would be admitted to the `Life School’ where they would draw from the naked model. However, teaching at the Academy Schools was never solely about training the hand and the eye. The early Academicians felt it was vital that students were able to learn about the theory as well as the practice of art and so set about building a library to support the students in their studies.

Over the past 254 years the library has built up substantial collections of books and archives relating to the history, practice and theory of art, and also on the role that the RA, its Schools and its Members, (known as Royal Academicians), have played in the development of art in the UK since the mid-18th Century.

The library book collection falls into three main categories:

The Historic Book Collection: The Historic Book Collection contains some 12,000 volumes published between 1500 and 1920 and reflects the teaching philosophy of the Academy Schools from their foundation to the end of the 19th century. It includes many rare titles reproducing the masterpieces of medieval and post-Renaissance European art and architecture; detailed archaeological surveys of the civilisations of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt; volumes of engravings recording civil, military and religious festivals, ceremonies and costume; and original editions of virtually all the early treatises on painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, printmaking, anatomy, perspective, colour theory, art collecting and connoisseurship.

Moses Harris’s Natural Systems of Colour:

Undoubtedly the rarest and most important volume in our colour theory collection is a copy of the 1st edition of Moses Harris’s Natural Systems of Colour. One of only four known extant copies of this beautiful book it includes the first known depiction of the colour wheel to show the relationship between the primary colours.

Modern Book Collection: Comprising of approximately 70,000 books published from 1921 to the present on the history of art and architecture with a particular focus on the life and practice of past and present Members of the Roya Academy. We aim to hold a copy of every book published on anyone who was or is a Royal Academician, from Joshua Reynolds, Angelica Kauffman and J.M.W. Turner through to Grayson Perry, Norman Foster, Tracey Emin and Sonia Boyce.

“Off with her head!” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, London: Macmillan & Co., 1867 (Chapter VIII, p. 117)

Illustrated Book Collection: A great many British artists, including numerous Royal Academicians, have worked at some point in their careers as as book illustrators and/or designers. Our special collection of 9,000 illustrated books highlights their contribution to this genre. This collection ranges from an early edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland illustrated by John Tenniel published in 1867 to an edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, beautifully illustrated by Paula Rego, published in 2003.

From the RA Archives: Diagrams of the arrangement of the books in the Royal Academy of Arts Library: Shelf A-3 and A-4. Page from an early library `finding aid’ drawn in 1814 by the Academy’s then librarian, Thomas Stothard RA.

Archives: The RA Library is also home to an extensive archive collection. As well as the Academy’s own institutional records, covering more than 250 years of British cultural life, the archive holds papers of the 18th Century Society of Artists and the Graphic Society, an informal Bloomsbury-based society which flourished in the mid-19th Century, as well as many important archives of artists’ personal papers dating from 1757 to the late twentieth century.

Digitisation Projects: Every year since 1769 the RA has staged an open-submission exhibition of contemporary art, known as the Summer Exhibition. We recently digitised the complete run of the RA Summer exhibition catalogues from 1769 to 2022 and made them available to search and browse via the RA Website.

Cover of the catalogue of the first exhibition at the Royal Academy held in 1769.
Cover of the 1874 exhibition catalogue.
Cover of the catalogue of the most recent exhibition held in the Summer of 2022.








Illustrated souvenir catalogue of the exhibition of Dutch art held at the RA in 1929.

From 1870 the RA a began staging a second exhibition each year which it called the Winter Exhibition. For the first 50 years these exhibitions were comprised mostly of Old Master Paintings borrowed from private collections. From the 1920s onwards they developed into more thematic ‘blockbuster’ shows focusing on the art of one country, such as Chinese, Italian, French or Dutch art.

We have digitised the Winter loan exhibitions from their inception in 1870 through to 1939 and made these available via the RA website.

Our illustrated book collection includes many interesting 19th century publishers’ bindings and so we have recently digitised a selection of these and published them on the RA website, with hyper-links back to the bibliographic records for the related books:

Leigh Hunt, A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla … illustrated by Richard Doyle. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1848. Upper cover designed by Owen Jones (1809-1874)
James Thomsom, The poetical works … illustrated [with colour plates printed by Kronheim & Co.]. – Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1869. Upper cover of publishers binding.
Captain Marryat, Japhet, in search of a father … illustrated by Henry M. Brock … . – London and New York: Macmillan & Co., 1895. Upper cover and spine of publisher’s binding by Albert Angus Turbayne (1866-1940)









The RA Library is situated on the top floor of Burlington House in Piccadilly, central London. Housed in a room that was originally built as a Victorian sculpture gallery, it was re-designed as the Academy’s library in 1986 by the architect H.T. Cadbury-Brown. The library continues to grow and develop its collections to support the research needs of the Academicians, RA Schools students and staff, but we are, and always have been open to external researchers by appointment.  We welcome around 1000 external visitors each year, ranging from post-graduate students and academics, to artists and family history researchers. If you would like to visit the RA Library please contact the Library team:

The Royal Academy was originally based at Somerset House in the Strand, (now the home of the Courtauld Gallery). Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the RA, painted his only known ceiling painting to adorn the room there in which the library was housed. Titled Theory, it epitomised Reynold’s attitude to the training of artists in the RA Schools. The painting now hangs once again, high up on the wall of the RA Library, a reminder perhaps to readers, as they look up from their books, of how and why this wonderful library came into being.

Royal Academy of Arts Library

Adam Waterton – Head of Library Services at the Royal Academy of Arts

All images copyright of the Royal Academy of Arts, reproduced with kind permission of the copyright holder.

You can explore the library’s collections on Discover and find further contact details on their Discover information page.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *