History of Art and Design in the Institute of Historical Research Library

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 history, Fashion history, Architectural 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.

        Hans Memling

Hans Memling, Triptych of Willem Moreel:
left wing, The founder Willem Moreel, his sons and St. William of Maleval
right wing, The founder Barbara van Vlaenderbergh, wife of Willem Moreel, her daughters and St. Barbara


Highlights of the collection: sources

Letters, diaries and memoirs

The library's extensive holdings of published letters and diaries contain much commentary on fashions and taste. The writings of patrons and collectors feature heavily, and there are also editions of letters and diaries of artists and designers. Examples include:


Social commentary, patrons

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 writing collection guide.

Examples include:

Household, estate and administrative records

Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester, by Peter Cross, watercolour on vellum, circa 1685-1690, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The library has a vast and eclectic range of this type of material, including many in the record series holdings. Examples include:

Business and trade records

Mortimer Universal Director 1763

Mortimer, The Universal Director 1763

The collections include:

Parliamentary and legal sources

Hogarth's Petition
Journals House of Commons, 9 Feb 1734



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 catalogue: Ministerium 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, annual reviews

Dominion Annual Register, Review of Literature, Science and Art, 1883

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

Nineteenth century periodicals

Annual Reviews such as the Dominion Annual Register, Handbook of JamaicaWhitaker's almanack include details such as public art collections, gallery staff, art schools.

Visual material and catalogues

Although we don't specialise in visual material, many examples can be found in the library. The collections includes many illustrated antiquarian histories and travel writing. Other examples include:

Exhibition catalogues

Highlights of the collection: reference and secondary works

Biographical sources

The rich biographical collections will help to identify artists, patrons and social commentators. The collection includes biographical reference works both subject specific and general, examples include:

The collection also contains some detailed biographical works.


There is a range of works about visual material as a historical source. Examples include:

Secondary and reference works

The library contains a range of reference works, including those that can help with understanding artistic iconography, such as Saints' Lives, Heraldry and editions and histories of religious texts. Another strength is survey works such as the Inventories of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England.

Secondary works

For example:


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. Examples include:

Electronic resources

See full list. Some specific examples:

  • Early English Books online (EEBO)
  • Victorian Popular Culture
  • Making of the Modern World: Goldsmiths'-Kress Library of Economic Literature 1450-1850
  • UK Parliamentary Papers
  • Several newspaper databases.

Selected themes

War and art

Examples include:



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

Entartete Kunst poster, Berlin, 1938, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H02648 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Examples include:

Collecting and Display

Hubert Robert - Projet d'aménagement de la Grande Galerie du Louvre (1796), via Wikimedia Commons

Examples include:


Other libraries, archives, organisations

If you have any comments or suggestions about the content of this guide please contact us | Back to the top