This #AskAnArchivistDay, we sat down with Archivist Carys Lewis, who works at The Heinz Archive & Library here at the Gallery. Alongside archives of the history of our Collection, we’re proud to hold archives relating to British portrait artists, art historians of portraiture and significant portrait collections. Carys gave us a sneak peek at what you’d find in the records and also shared with us what a day’s like in the archive…
The Heinz Archive & Library is a centre for the study of and research into portraiture. Can you introduce us to the archives and what sort of items would we find there?
The National Portrait Gallery archives fall into two areas: Gallery Records and Collected Archives. Gallery Records concern the history of the Gallery from our foundation in 1856 to the present day. All manner of Gallery activity is captured in the records from Trustee meetings to acquisition of portraits, and even the organisation of exhibitions. We also hold drawings and photographs which are an amazing resource when studying how portraits were displayed – some former homes of the Gallery were very small and staff had to be creative with space!
Preparatory sketches by Sir George Scharf for the arrangement of portraits at South Kensington, 1870
Then Collected Archives mainly documents the careers of portrait artists, although we do have some papers of art historians too. The archives of portrait artists range from sitter books detailing names of sitters and prices charged, including those of George Romney and George Richmond, to correspondence such as those to and from George Frederic Watts concerning his art practice. You’ll also find sketchbooks – with those of Lucian Freud being a particular highlight!
Letter from Sir Hubert von Herkomer to G. F. Watts, 13 January 1878
As one of the Gallery's archivists, what would a typical day for you look like?
Every day is different! I might come in to work with the best intentions of getting on with some cataloguing of records and then come the end of the day find I didn’t get a chance to catalogue any as I’ve been rushing around doing other things. We have a lot of enquiries from both the public and staff and hunting for information can take time. Enquirers often have quite specific information they are looking for and I want to make sure I am supplying them with the most accurate details I can find.
We also provide an on-site service to members of the public, and colleagues and I take it in turn to manage the enquiry desk and assist researchers. My favourite days at work though are when we host group visits, it’s really fun to share highlights of the archive and the Gallery’s history to new audiences and I often find out new information or gain a new insight on collections from attendees. Unfortunately group visits haven’t been possible for over a year now but hopefully we will be able to host some again soon.
What was the first item added to the archive, and which item is the most recent?
This is a tough question! Gallery Records began as the working records of the Gallery which makes it hard to identify the first record added to the archive. The Gallery did not get a professional Archivist until the mid-2000s but staff had carefully looked after records since the time of our very first Director, Sir George Scharf. The first records which were chosen to be catalogued by archive staff were the Board of Trustee Minutes, which document top level decisions made relating to the running of the Gallery and the acquisition of portraits. The archive regularly receives records to add to the archive; the most recent item I catalogued was 2020 press releases.
The first Collected Archive the Gallery acquired however was as early as 1860, only four years after our foundation. It was two notebooks of William Stevenson Fitch comprising of a catalogue of portraits associated with Suffolk and a catalogue of engraved portraits with prices. The Gallery has always been very interested in portraits outside our collections and the collections in the Archive and Library act as a resource for researchers in British portraiture as a whole, not just those portraits in the Gallery’s Collection.
If someone had a day in the archives, what would you recommend they look at?
I love records documenting the different locations the Gallery has had since our foundation and the story of how we finally got our own permanent home at our current location on St Martin’s Lane. The archive has some wonderful drawings and photographs documenting the different buildings we have occupied and the archive of Sir George Scharf adds to the story through his diaries and sketchbooks.
Sketch of first floor hall and landing of NPG, St Martin’s Lane, by H.W. Brewer
In 40 years the Gallery had four different homes – Great George Street (too small), South Kensington (competing for space with other), Bethnal Green (too cold in winter, too hot in summer) and finally the St Martin’s Lane building we all know. Since moving to St Martin’s Lane, portraits have only been off display three times, during both the First and Second World Wars (when they were evacuated to Aberystwyth and Buckinghamshire respectively for safety) and now when we are closed for refurbishment.
Telegram received confirming safe arrival of portraits at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1918
Are there any items in the archives a visitor might find surprising?
The strangest items we have in the archive are a small box of relics from the grave of King Richard II. Sir George Scharf, collected these when he was invited to attend the opening of the former King’s grave at Westminster Abbey in 1871. The box contains fragments of wood and leather – the later likely from gloves found in the grave. Scharf also drew the exhumed contents in his personal sketchbook, including the skull of Richard II, and wrote the following in his diary: “The skull of Richard [II] I had in my hand and pressed to my lips, a small spongy compact substance came from inside the skull, is very light, it had no taste nor smell.” Whilst we wouldn’t collect mementos from graves today, it was seen as an acceptable thing for a Victorian gentleman to do!
Sir George Scharf sketch of the skull of Richard I, 1871
What's the process behind becoming an archivist and do you have any advice for someone looking to work in an archive?
Many people start off in a career in archives by doing some voluntary work, both in order to get a feel for the profession and to build up experience. Some organisations have Archive Trainee positions which are specifically designed to give new entrants into the profession experience in the different areas of archive work. A few universities offer an MA or postgraduate diploma in Archives and Records Management, some can be done part time and via distance learning, with this diploma helping you to qualify as an Archivist.
For those looking to start a career in archives, I’d recommend trying to get as much experience with different archives and records types as possible – it’s great to learn how different archives operate. I’d also say when applying for entry level jobs to think of what experience you already have and how that can be translated to archives - nearly all archive jobs interact with the public through providing access to records so any customer service experience whether it is in a shop or a restaurant is worth highlighting.
The Heinz Archive & Library is now open to the public on Tuesdays 10.00-17.00, by appointment only.