History of Art Collections

Find out more about History of Art Collections in the IHR Wohl Library. Our collections are particularly strong on the wider social, economic and political contexts of art, and include sources for patronage and collecting, fashions, attitudes, and access to art. 


The IHR collections have much to offer historians of art and design. Although we don't actively collect History of Art (selected specialist collections are listed at the end of this guide), we have much material for the wider social, economic and political contexts of art. Sources for patronage, collecting and the art trade are well represented, as well as fashions, taste, attitudes, and access to art. The collection focuses on Western Europe and its colonial history but art in other parts of the world can be seen through the eyes of travellers. This guide covers the history of art and design in its widest sense. It covers art history as a subject and also the use of art as a historical source. See also related guides to Garden historyFashion historyArchitectural history and Museum and Heritage studies.

Useful subject headings in the catalogue include: art, art patronage, artisans, artists, decorative arts, engravers, house furnishings, material culture, painters, photographers, printmakers, sculptors, sculpture. As will be seen from the examples that follow, many of the works containing useful material are not in themselves about art, and research across a wide variety of sources will be fruitful.

Highlights from the Collections: Primary Sources

Travel Writing

The large collection of travel writing ranges from explorers' accounts to tourists' travel accounts and covers all parts of the world. Items are scattered across the collections according to location of the writer or the place described, but there is a concentrated section at CG.17 including the Hakluyt Society series. See also the Travel history collection guide.

Examples include:

A range of government and parliamentary sources is held for different countries, including Parliamentary Debates and Proceedings, Petitions and Reports and Acts of Parliament. Examples covering the subject include:

  • Archive catalogueMinisterium für Kultur.

  • Copyright: Petition by William Hogarth and other artists and engravers for legislation to prevent others from copying their work, Journals of the House of Commons, 9 Feb 1734.

  • Patents on art materials: For example Act of Parliament George III 15 ch 52 1775, patent on use of materials for making porcelain.

  • Collection and acquisition of art; new organisations:

    • Elgin Marbles: Report from the Select Committee on The Earl of Elgin's Collection of Sculptured Marbles, 25 March 1816, House of Commons Sessional Papers accessed via ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers. This includes an Appendix with detailed catalogue of the collection.

    • New museums: Bill to provide Site for National Portrait Gallery 1889.

    • Arts council: Arts Council of Great Britain; Nineteenth Report; 1948-49.

  • Access to art:

    • For the 'industrial classes': Letters and Memorials on Admission of Public in Evening to Turner and Vernon Galleries of Pictures, 1859 House of Commons Sessional Papers, accessed via ProQuest UK Parliamentary Papers: "earnest hope that the national museums and galleries may be lighted artificially, so that the members of the industrial classes may have opportunity of visiting them in the evening, which is their only time for such recreation and instruction."

    • For schoolchildren: discussion of purchase of artworks by local education authorities, Original Paintings and Prints (Class Rooms), Written answers (Commons) of Thursday, 4th April 1946.

    • Museum attendance and access: Annual reports giving visitor numbers, opening times and costs for attending, e.g. South Kensington Museum 1857-8.

Newspapers, Magazines and Annual Reviews

Online newspaper collections (onsite only) - both fully searchable:

Nineteenth century periodicals:

Annual reviews such as the Dominion Annual RegisterHandbook of JamaicaWhitaker's Almanack include details such as public art collections, gallery staff, art schools.

Selected Themes


There is material spanning the collections for different periods and parts of the world, including Latin America, Northern Europe, Byzantine collection, Ecclesiastical and Religious Collection. Types of sources include:

  • Writings of reformers, for example Luther, Zwingli, Cranmer, Knox.
  • Legislation, for example: Edward VI's Act "for the abolishing and putting away of divers books and images" (3 & 4 Ed. 6 c.10) and its subsequent repeal by Mary I (1 Mary 2 c.2); Records of the Council of Trent.
  • Records for iconoclasm and replacement of images, as can be found in for example The Voices of Morebath and The journal of William Dowsing.

Art and Politics

Examples include:

Highlights from the Collections: Reference and Secondary Works


The most recent years of most of our journals are on open access in the Current Periodicals room on the ground floor. Earlier issues can be ordered from the stack. Many are also available online within the building via the links on the catalogue. Bibliography of British and Irish History and JSTOR are examples of the online databases that can be used to locate journal articles. Some other relevant periodicals include:

Further Help

Contact us if you would like help on finding or using our collections, or if you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide. We are happy to help.

You can also book a tour or training session.