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Library of the Month: Barber Fine Art Library

Posted By Administration, 29 August 2019

Library of the Month: Barber Fine Art Library

Barber Fine Art Library

We start 2013 with a virtual trip to the Barber Fine Art Library, based in the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham, which is currently in the midst of its 80th birthday celebrations. Thanks to David Pulford for providing the article and the photograph.


The Libraries of The Barber Institute of Fine Arts at The University of Birmingham
On December 13th 1932 Dame Martha Constance Hattie Barber (1869-1933) signed the Deed of Settlement which founded the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in memory of her late husband Sir William Henry Barber, a Birmingham solicitor and property developer, who had died in 1927. The Barbers were childless, and Lady Barber left the residue of their estate to the University of Birmingham to pay for a purpose-built gallery and concert hall, to develop the art collection and libraries, and to fund regular public concerts.

There is little evidence that Sir Henry had any interest in the arts, but Lady Barber was considered a good pianist and frequently sat for portraits painted by the Belgian painter Nestor Cambier (1879-1957) who was a frequent long-stay visitor at the Barber’s Berkshire home Culham Court.

According to the Deed, the Barber was to house a collection of ‘works of art or beauty of exceptional and outstanding merit’ including pictures painted not later than the end of the nineteenth century, furniture, tapestries, needlework, lace, medieval manuscripts, finely printed books, but excluding pottery or china. In 1967 the Deed was legally re-interpreted and altered to make possible the purchase of more recent works, provided that they are at least 30 years old. The terms of the Deed has strongly influenced the collecting policy of the art library.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts officially opened in 1939 in premises designed by Robert Atkinson (1883-1952). Libraries for the study of art history and music were incorporated from the start. In the 1960s the Music Library moved into a purpose built extension.

During the 1990s the Art Library and Music Library both became part of Information Services, now Library Services. The study of art history was widened from being a purely postgraduate subject to include undergraduates and the art library expanded into the room formerly used by the Institute’s Director who relocated to a smaller room along the corridor.

The Art Library is formed of two distinct but complementary collections, each housed in its own reading room. One is a reference collection purchased from funds provided by the Henry Barber Trust and directly relevant to the works in the Barber Institute’s galleries, the other is the loan collection of books on art history which are purchased from Library Services funds.

The Art Library houses a notable collection of exhibition catalogues. Its collection of sales catalogues, many acquired by Sir Ellis Waterhouse (1905–1985) the second Director of the Barber Institute, is one of the largest in the UK and includes rare items. The Music Library has recently acquired a major collection of music and monographs on twentieth century Italian music. Both libraries hold impressive runs of some older periodicals, including nineteenth-century German and French titles not available elsewhere in the region.

The holdings of the two Barber libraries are complemented by material held in the other University of Birmingham libraries and the Cadbury Research Library, home to the University’s Special Collections. The Cadbury Research Library includes material formerly held in the Barber Libraries and the diaries of Sir Edward Elgar, first Professor of Music at the University.

The Barber Institute also houses a Coin Study Room and Library which is not administered by Library Services. A major retrospective conversion project is currently underway which will see all the music and art library stock, except for the sales catalogues, catalogued online through FindIt, the Resource Discovery Service, by early 2013.

A more detailed article ‘The Library of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham’ by David Pulford can be found in Art Libraries Journal vol. 35, no. 4 (2010), 24-28

David Pulford



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