ARLIS Visit to the National Portrait Gallery Heinz Archive

ARLIS visit, Heinz Archive and Library, National Portrait Gallery, Monday 9 November 2015.

We were introduced to the Library by the Librarian Joseph Ripp. Joseph explained that the Library was founded in 1857 by Sir George Scharf, the first Director of the National Portrait Gallery. When the Gallery assesses a portrait for possible acquisition, the decision is made on the basis of the significance of the sitter and whether it is a good likeness. The Library’s core aim is to support the biographical and iconographic research necessary to make such a decision. In addition, the Library is also open to other researchers from Tuesday to Friday, from 10-5, by appointment, and sees a variety of customers come through its doors, from picture researchers to family historians.

Joseph explained that the Library is a reference collection, comprising in the region of 40,000 bibliographic units and 70 periodical titles, with roughly 70% of holdings appearing on the online catalogue. Online periodicals can be accessed within the library at a dedicated terminal. Initially catalogued in a card index, the Library catalogue is now on EOS, (with prints catalogued on MIMSY and archive material on CALM). Volunteers are an important part of the cataloguing team. The acquisition of new books is driven by staff requests, with many books being received in exchange for the use of NPG images within them.

We were shown the important (and intriguing) green files known as ‘Sitter boxes’, containing portraits organised by sitter name; and the red ‘Artist files’, which researchers can delve into when researching an artist’s body of work. Joseph also showed us one of the Library’s most precious resources: the astonishing central index of over 1 million slips containing references to all known portraits of certain figures. Now frozen, the paper index is presently being transferred onto electronic systems, with the staff working surgically and focusing first on the most searched-for individuals.

Paul Cox, Associate Curator, then gave us an insight into the Reference Collection, an iconographic collection which is comprised of historical images, 95% of which are prints. The NPG began collecting prints in 1895, recognising the importance of having a range of portraits of important individuals, to create good judgement in the acquisition process.

Paul explained the ‘book breaking’ trend of the 18th and 19th centuries, whereby books were broken up for their illustrations, the illustrations then being used in other volumes; a process which is also known as ‘grangerising’ after James Granger, who popularised it. We were shown some examples of grangerised books, including an illustrated version of Fanny Burney’s diary compiled by Frederick Leverton Harris in 1904. Other exhibits included a book of mezzotints by John Smith, who worked with Godfrey Kneller; and a beautiful album of vividly-coloured James Gillray caricatures. Paul also demonstrated how the collection supports the acquisition of portraits by the Gallery, using the case of Sir Henry Englefield by Thomas Phillips. This painting was discovered in an auction, where it was catalogued as a portrait of an anonymous gentleman, and was identified using the print collection.

Finally, Bryony Millan, Archivist, spoke to us about the Archive, which comprises the Gallery’s institutional archives up to the present day along with the ‘collected archives’ which the Gallery has obtained more passively, such as artists’ papers. Bryony took us through a range of documents, including letters, photographs and staff lists, which she had looked at as part of a specific cataloguing project relating to the First World War. The documents – and Bryony’s explanation – created a fascinating narrative of the Gallery’s life during the War, including some of the personalities working there at the time, the use of the Gallery by the Government, and the storage of artworks off-site to protect them from aerial bombardment. Most movingly, Briony had also discovered letters from the front to the Gallery’s Director, James Milner, including one from his brother, who was later killed in action.

All three members of staff gave us a fascinating insight into this unique resource. Many thanks to Joseph, Paul and Bryony, and also to Julia Bell for organising the trip.

Sophia Tobin, Assistant Librarian, The Goldsmiths’ Company