Five of the best London archives

Published 25 November 2016

The RA archive is a treasure trove of stories, memories and recordings about art and artists from the past 250 years. In honour of Explore Your Archive week, we introduce some of its highlights and four more London archives to explore, holding everything from American performance art footage to rare Japanese prints.

  • The Royal Academy of Arts archive

    Our archive has been collecting the documents and ephemera of the institution since its birth in 1768. In addition to complete registers, documenting the grades and attendance of celebrated students such as JMW Turner, John Everett Millais and – more recently – Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the archive contains personal letters and other memorabilia from the Academicians of the past. One particularly moving item is a letter that Thomas Gainsborough wrote on his deathbed to Sir Joshua Reynolds, seeking reconciliation after years of ill-will between the two Academicians.

    Several precious manuscripts from the archive are currently exhibited along with sculptures from the collection in the Tennant Gallery, as part of our exhibition celebrating the neo-classical sculptor John Gibson. You’ll need an appointment to visit the archive in person, but the RA Collection, featuring works from Academicians throughout history, is available to explore online.

  • , A Letter from Sir Francis Grant PRA, to E.M. Barry RA

    A Letter from Sir Francis Grant PRA, to E.M. Barry RA, 1867.

    A Letter from Sir Francis Grant PRA, to E.M. Barry RA, architect of the new Burlington House buildings, with his suggestion for a design for the entrance archway.

    © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

  • The Warburg Institute's Photographic Collection

    Started by German art historian and cultural theorist Aby Warburg in the late 1880s, The Warburg Institute’s Photographic Collection is an immense gathering of physical photographs and slides portraying artefacts ranging from sculptures to prints. In addition to giving a complete overview of European iconography, it also includes in its vast holdings evidence of non-European art.

    The archive is organised into 18,000 folders, determined by subject – such as ritual, gestures and social life – rather than period or artist. This unique filing system allows researchers to explore their topics from a different perspective and make connections across a broader thematic spectrum.

  • Antonio Tempesta, Daedalus and Icarus

    Antonio Tempesta, Daedalus and Icarus, 1606.

    Daedalus and Icarus, from Ovid, Metamorphoseon, Antwerp.

    © The Warburg Institute's.

  • LUX Artists’ Moving Image Archive

    With over 4,000 films and videos dating from 1920 onwards, produced by artists from all over the world – the LUX collection is a cinephile’s dream. In their catalogue you’ll find works by legendary American performance artist Vito Acconci, eclectic New York filmmaker Jack Smith and London contemporary artist John Akomfrah, together with many more outstanding names.

    Far from being a static archive, the works in their catalogue are available for screenings and exhibitions, and the collection continuously expands by acquiring new films as well as classics. LUX gathers together often inaccessible artworks, some of which are also available to watch directly on their website.

  • Normal Love

    Normal Love

    Film still, Jack Smith, 1963-65

    © LUX

  • Black Cultural Archives

    The Black Cultural Archives’ purpose is to tell the stories and histories of African-Caribbean people in Britain. The BCA has been collecting a vast and diverse range of materials since the 1980s, addressing the gap in the representation of black communities in the historical, cultural and visual narratives of Britain.

    Covering everything from family portraits to institutional documents, the collection is often used for educational purposes and presented through exhibitions. The current archive display, Rights of Passage: A Century of People Power (until 21 December), reveals untold stories of resistance in this country, including the 1919 race riots between white and ethnic-minority sailors.

  • Portrait image of Caroline Barbour-James, c. 1898

    Portrait image of Caroline Barbour-James, c. 1898

    Portrait image of Caroline Barbour-James from Black Cultural Archives’ Black Edwardian collection

    Reproduced with kind permission of Jeffrey Green / Black Cultural Archives.

  • Central Saint Martins, Museum and Study Collection

    Central Saint Martins’ dynamic history of art and design is comprehensively catalogued in its museum and study collection. In addition to garments, embroideries, jewellery and innovative textiles, the archive includes numerous art works produced by both the staff and the students. It also preserves an art-and-design teaching collection, with materials that can be traced back to the 13th century. This last section includes extremely precious Japanese prints dating from the mid-18th to the late-19th centuries, woodcuts by Dürer, and works by Norman Ackroyd RA.

  • Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man's Plaything

    Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man's Plaything, 1972.

    © Central Saint Martins, Museum and Study Collection.