The origins of the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum can be traced to the collection of books provided for the students at the School of Design which opened in Somerset House in 1837 to provide the ‘manufacturing population’ with an appreciation for the arts and principles of design. Following the Great Exhibition of 1851 the Library moved with the School of Design and its associated Museum of Ornamental Art (a teaching collection of manufactured objects including many purchases from the Great Exhibition) to Marlborough House in St. James’s, and from there to South Kensington in 1857. The School of Design coexisted alongside the new South Kensington Museum (first as the National Art Training School, and then as the Royal College of Art) until 1991 when it moved to new premises in nearby Kensington Gore. In the early days the Library occupied a space near the entrance on Cromwell Road, and it became central to Sir Henry Cole’s vision for the Museum which was to be like a ‘book with its pages always open’. In 1865 it acquired the ambitious title ‘National Art Library’ and its collections grew at an astonishing rate, largely as the result of several notable gifts and bequests. In 1869 the literary historian, Alexander Dyce, gave the Library a collection of some 14,000 books, drawings and manuscripts; in 1876 John Forster, biographer and friend of Charles Dickens, bequeathed his collection of some 18,000 books and manuscripts, including five notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and the manuscripts to nearly all of Dickens’s novels.
In 1884 the Library relocated to its current premises within the Museum – a suite of three handsome rooms overlooking the John Madejski Garden. The west room housed the Library’s collections of photographs, prints and drawings (from which emerged in 1909 a new Department of Engraving, Illustration and Design, later the Department of Prints, Drawings and Paintings); the east room, now the Reading Room, was reserved for readers of the Forster and Dyce collections. This division of collections marked a new direction for the Library in the twentieth century and in 1997, when the British Library eventually vacated the British Museum to a new site on Euston Road, the V&A considered finding a similar new home for the National Art Library. Fortunately the Library remained, and in 2003 a new Word and Image Department reunited the Library with the Department of Prints, Drawings and Paintings, thus bringing back together the Library’s original collections of books, prints, drawings and photographs.
Today the National Art Library has a dual role. First, as a major public reference library for the fine and decorative arts it supports a broad range of researchers from the general museum visitor to art students and teachers, practising artists, and professionals working in the heritage sector, including the V&A’s own curatorial staff. The Library’s fundamental strength lies in the range and depth of its holdings of documentary material. It holds exhibition catalogues from museums and galleries of all sizes, and long runs of sales catalogues from major auction houses. It actively collects contemporary trade literature and ephemeral documentation about contemporary artists and its manuscript collections include letters, account books and other records relating to individual artists and the production and marketing of decorative objects. Second, the National Art Library is the Museum’s curatorial department for the art and design of the book with remarkable collections of fine and noteworthy bindings, calligraphy and fine printing, illuminated manuscripts, illustrated books, children’s books, comics and graphic novels, and 20th-century artists’ books and book art.
Image ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The art of the book: from medieval manuscript to graphic novel, ed. by James Bettley. London: V&A Publications, 2001
Barontini, Chiara, The National Art Library and its buildings: from Somerset House to South Kensington. London: National Art Library, 1995
Burton, Anthony, Vision and accident: the story of the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V&A Publications, 1999
James, Elizabeth, The Victoria and Albert Museum: a bibliography and exhibition chronology, 1852–1996. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998
Physick, John, The Victoria and Albert Museum, the history of its building. London: V&A, 1982
White, Eva, From the School of Design to the Department of Practical Art: the first years of the National Art Library. London: National Art Library, 1994
Word & Image: art, books and design from the National Art Library, edited by Julius Bryant, Rowan Watson and Elizabeth James. London: V&A Publications, 2014