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The National Portrait Gallery’s Archive of Private Papers includes a small but significant collection of private papers and manuscripts relating specifically to British portraiture and, in particular, to portraits in the Gallery’s Collection.

The Archive of Private Papers includes:

  • artists' diaries, account books, studio ledgers and sitter books from the 17th century to the present
  • the papers and photographic archives of a number of important portrait painters and researchers
  • a collection of autograph letters.

The Private Papers provide primary source material and documentary evidence for the study of British portraiture. Artists' diaries, account books, studio ledgers, sitter books and correspondence provide insights into the studio practices of artists and the social, commercial and historical context within which they have worked.

The Private Papers aid the identification of portraits, through records of sittings, receipts for payment, studio inventories and the papers of executors of artists' and collectors' estates. In some instances they represent the only surviving source of evidence of the existence of portraits that have disappeared, lost their identity, or been destroyed.

Early Papers
The Private Papers include a number of important historical manuscripts, the earliest of which is the 1681 diary and notebook of Charles Beale, husband of the 17th-century portrait painter Mary Beale. In the diary Beale records the daily operations of his wife's painting studio, including details of accounts and the names of sitters. Another very early group of papers is that of the Tonson family. Publisher Jacob Tonson (1655–1736) was the secretary of the Kit-Cat Club, whose members are represented in the Gallery’s Collection (NPG 3193–3235). The Tonson family papers include a box of material concerning the Kit-Cat Club portraits.

Account Books
Account books are well represented in the Private Papers.

Notable examples include:

  • the accounts of Dublin-based miniature painter John Comerford for the years 1810–28
  • George Romney’s ledger for 1786–96
  • Joseph Wright of Derby’s account book for 1760–97, in which he listed portraits painted during his tours of Midland towns, with prices paid.

Other examples include volumes that belonged to:

  • Robert Home, who travelled to India in 1790 and established a successful portrait painting practice in Madras, Calcutta and Lucknow
  • James Northcote, who travelled to Italy before eventually settling in London in 1781
  • Glasgow-born John Partridge, who established himself in London and received much patronage from Scottish aristocrats.

Sitter Books
In the late 19th century a number of sitter books or sitter lists were borrowed and copied for the Archive of Private Papers.

Included are: Assistant Keeper James Milner’s transcriptions of a notebook kept by Thomas Phillips, in which the artist listed portraits he painted between 1791 and 1843; and a list of portraits painted by Margaret Sarah Carpenter between 1812 and 1864.

In 1906 Milner copied an index catalogue of works by Victorian painter George Richmond (including a table of prices). The original catalogue – probably compiled by a descendent of the artist – was purchased by the Gallery in 2001, along with Richmond's account book for 1853–1893.

Photographers’ Papers
Photographers are represented in the Private Papers by a number of studio ledgers and other papers.

Notable among these are: an album of letters to Charles and John Watkins, successful photographers based in London during the second half of the 19th century; and the studio ledgers and daybooks of fashionable photographer Dorothy Wilding, who was active in London and New York between 1915 and 1958.

Other holdings include: an early sitter book relating to the National Photographic Record, which ran from 1917–1970 and which is housed at the Gallery; and the sitter books of photographer Howard Coster, covering the years 1926–1959.

Artists’ Correspondence
The Private Papers include several important collections of artists’ correspondence, notably that of George Frederic Watts, Philip de László and Frank Owen Salisbury. Watts’s correspondence was assembled by his widow, Mary Seton Watts. The papers of de László include personal and business correspondence, together with photograph albums of the artist’s portraits. The Salisbury archive comprises albums of correspondence, including 2 volumes of letters from his sitters, a volume of correspondence relating to his 1937 coronation pictures, and his studio photograph albums.

Research Papers
The most significant collections of research papers in the Private Papers are those of Lionel Cust, Richard Jeffree and Dr Kenneth Garlick. Cust was appointed Director of the Gallery in 1895; among his papers are 29 notebooks, interleaved with correspondence and other material, relating to articles he wrote for the Dictionary of National Biography between 1886 and 1900. Jeffree’s archive includes notes, lectures, photographs, slides, card indexes and correspondence concerning 17th-century portrait painter Mary Beale. The Garlick papers contain correspondence, notes and photographs relating to the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Artists who receive commissions from the Gallery are encouraged to keep a diary, in a format of their choice, to document the process of making the portraits and record something of the experience of the sittings. The diaries are acquired with finished works. Examples include notes, papers, photographs and slides relating to Stephen Farthing's group portrait Historians of Past and Present (NPG 6518) and Andrew Tift's diary, notes, preparatory drawings, photographs and videos relating to his portrait of politicians Neil and Glenys Kinnock (NPG 6583).

Further information

Handlist of Private Papers
Watts Collection

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