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Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

Library of the Week: 26/02/2024: the amazing Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art! This week we speak to Gaetano Ardito (Assistant Librarian) to find out more about the library and the incredible collections available – thank you for taking part!

The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art is an educational charity and research institute based in London’s Bedford Square. Founded in 1970, it champions new ways of understanding British art history and culture and is part of Yale University. To fulfil its remit, it organises events and lecture courses, publishes academic books and an online journal, supports professional networks and provides grants and fellowships to researchers and professionals active in the field. It also hosts the Yale in London programme and curates displays in our Drawing Room, featuring material from our Archives and Library.

The Public Study Room, 16 Bedford Square. Martine La Roche.

The Archives & Library are a crucial part of the activities of the Centre and are staffed by six members of staff: a Librarian, an Assistant Librarian (myself), an Archivist, Records & Data Protection Manager and an Assistant Archivist (post currently vacant),  a Digital Preservation and Records Manager and a Graduate Trainee post, first offered in 2022. We are are free to use and open to everyone with an interest in British art. Our facilities are mostly used by postgraduate students, museum professionals, art historians, members of the art trade and family historians.

Over the years the reference library has grown considerably and now holds around 36,000 books and exhibition catalogues, 15,000 auction catalogues and around 250 journal titles. All our holdings are catalogued and our records are uploaded on Library Hub Discover every month. We keep acquiring new material via purchase and donation.

Country house guides in the Paul Mellon Centre Library’s collection. Digital image courtesy of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Photography by Emile Holba

Our strengths are British art and architecture from the Middle ages to the present, including decorative arts, photography and garden history. Our holdings on British artists and architects and the history of the country house are particularly comprehensive. Over the last decade we have expanded our remit and started collecting material on contemporary artists.

Most of our books are on open shelves, available for readers to browse. We only keep journals, auction catalogues, oversize material and rare items behind the scenes.

Our Library Special Collections of just under 2,000 items include rare and out of print books and pamphlets on the subject of British art, including painting and watercolours, the Grand Tour, European art and stained glass. The earliest item in our library is ‘De pictura praestantissima’ by Leon Battista Alberti, published in 1540.

Our collection of auction catalogues is very popular with researchers, as we hold a large number of items annotated with prices, attributions and names of buyers, photographs of the objects and letters and newspapers clippings related to the sale. We often hold multiple copies of a specific sale catalogue with different annotations and additional information.

Auction catalogues in the Paul Mellon Centre Library’s collection. Digital image courtesy of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art. Photography by Emile Holba

The Paul Mellon Centre also holds archive material. It is an actively acquiring repository charged with collecting the papers of art historians, museum directors, curators, dealers, art critics and other individuals working in the field during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Our Library & Archive collections are closely inter-related and many donations include material in both categories.

The library collection is continually transformed by generous donations that we have received over the years. The substantial donations of Peter and Renate Nahum have added more than 2,000 items to the library collection from 2012 onwards, allowing us to strengthen our holdings on Victorian and early 20th century art, Modernism and Surrealism. We also received numerous exhibition catalogues, including a rare run of the Leicester Gallery publications. The Paul Oppé collection was acquired in 2016 together with the Oppé archive thanks to the Acceptance in Lieu scheme and greatly enhanced our rare books collection and our holdings of early material on the history of British Art, painting and watercolour. The archive and library of Brian Sewell was acquired in the same year and transformed our holdings on modern British artists and exhibitions. More recent donations like the Nicholas Goodison (2022) and Michael Kerney (2023) libraries have considerably strengthened our decorative arts and stained glass collections. We try to add all newly donated material to our catalogue as soon as possible to make it available to researchers, and I am currently in the process of cataloguing a collection of over 500 church guides, most of which are not available in any other library in the UK.

Researchers can also access the Paul Mellon Centre Photo Archive, fully digitised and available online for free. This is a collection of approximately 100,000 reference photographs of British paintings, decorative painting, sculpture, drawings and prints covering the period 1500-1900 created by the Centre to support its research and publications.

The Archive and Library collections support all the other strands of activity of the Paul Mellon Centre, including our programme of changing displays, research projects and teaching.

Our Public Study Room is open Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm, more details are available from our website. We ask all readers to book a place in advance by contacting us at All new users have to register as readers and have a short induction on the day.

We also offer a remote enquiry and digital copies service, which was revamped during the pandemic and has proved very popular with readers from all over the world.

We are also in the early stages of joining a new Discovery service developed by Yale University, called LUX. Launched in 2023 to cover the New Haven campus, this new tool provides a unified gateway to the holdings of Yale’s museums, archives, and libraries. We are currently working behind the scenes to ensure that our data is ready to be included in the next stage of the LUX project.

Moving forward, we will continue to focus on expanding our collecting policy to cover a broader definition of British art, encompass a wide range of topics related to the artistic and cultural histories of Britain, past and present and include under-represented voices in the field.

Gaetano Ardito – Assistant Librarian

All images copyright of Paul Mellon Centre, 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.

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