Exclusive - Discover the RA archives
Archive The ground floor of the Dame Jillian Sackler Archive Room (2002) A little-known treasure is perched in the upper reaches of Burlington House; the Archives, repository for the written memory of nearly two hundred and fifty years of British Art production. Now titled the Dame Jillian Sackler Archive Room the space was designed by the Royal Academy surveyor's office and opened in 2001. It is reached via an almost hidden door, tucked among the bookshelves of the Academy's formidable Library. Once inside the room feels spacious, although modest in size, and is lit by a large studio-style window which overlooks the Keeper's House, Albany and the distant arc of Regent Street. Examples from the Academy's fine antique cast collection watch over researchers as they work at spacious leather trimmed benches. Ranks of bespoke cabinets securely store evidence of the birth and growth of the British school of art from Hogarth to the present day, material of such importance that it attracts scholars from all over the world.
The papers of the Royal Academy itself form the heart of the Archives. From impassioned letters of protest to warm words of congratulation, ambitious plans for national monuments to desperate schemes warding off bankruptcy, the official records of the Academy tell us of much more than merely the institutional goings-on within Burlington House and its predecessors. The minute books of Council alone provide a continuous narrative of British art affairs running through the enlightenment, romanticism, neo-classicism, pre-raphaelitism, symbolism and modernism to the present day.
The Academy has also been fortunate in the gifts and acquisitions that have, over the years, grown to form an impressive collection of artists' papers and personal archives. Thousands of letters and dozens of diaries provide us with the more private side of life and work as an artist. This collection continues to increase as the Academy still accepts donations of material from the membership, ensuring that the current age is memorialised along with the past.
Stanley Spencer, R.A., page two of his letter of resignation from the Academy, 1935
Scholars visit in ever growing numbers. One reason for this is very clear, in the autumn of 2008 a button was pressed that, at a stroke, placed the catalogue for a large proportion of the Archives on-line. For the first time researchers are able to navigate through an immensity of evidence to find what they want, no matter where they are in the world. Without too much trouble they can turn up nuggets such as Thomas Lawrence's impassioned reaction to news of Lord Nelson's death, "this Immortal Man who will live to all Ages, the admiration of the universe!! When the Reptile of France is remember'd in its execrations", Thomas Gainsborough railing against the style of painting advocated by Reynolds, "I did not know that you admired those tragi-comic pictures", or Elizabeth Banks, gossiping in Rome in 1776, " Mrs. Ennis is with child again, hers also is a poor dwindling Child, they are all above Nursing ‘em themselves, & you see the Consequences".
The Archives is open to bona fide researchers by appointment.
Catalogue: Search the collections
Telephone: 020 7300 5737 (line open Tues. to Frid. 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm).
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