Benedict Nicolson Archive Now Fully Catalogued

  • 1 August 2022

We are delighted to announce that the Benedict Nicolson Archive is now fully catalogued and descriptions are searchable online. The archive, which dates from 1925–1977, was compiled and collected by Nicolson largely in a personal capacity and is a remarkable resource, illuminating much about the discipline of art history in the inter- and post-war period. Since Nicolson was the son of wealthy, well-connected, famous parents, and acquainted with some of the most influential individuals of the day, the collection also provides a unique record of some of the people and events that shaped the early to mid-twentieth century.

Lionel Benedict Nicolson (1914–1978), elder son of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, was a British art historian and author. He held the position of Deputy Surveyor of the King’s Pictures from 1939–1947, serving in British Army Intelligence for the duration of the Second World War. He spent the last thirty years of his life as editor of the Burlington Magazine, dying unexpectedly of a coronary thrombosis whilst still in post in 1978.

At the centre of the archive are eighteen journals. Beginning in 1933 just before Nicolson went up to Balliol College, twelve of these journals cover formative years; as well as documenting his time at Oxford they also chronicle his growing interest in art and art history and his endeavours to pursue a career in this field. Key episodes on this journey are recorded, including the foundation of the Florentine Club; extensive visits to exhibitions, public and private collections across Europe and the United States; studying with Bernard Berenson at the Villa I Tatti; working as an unpaid intern under Kenneth Clark at the National Gallery; as well as his appointments, first as Deputy Surveyor of the King’s Pictures and later as editor of the Burlington Magazine. The journals also include details about Nicolson’s work as an author, writing for various magazines and journals. Perhaps most significantly, they record meetings and conversations with a huge network of individuals – curators, directors, conservators, collectors, dealers and fellow art historians predominantly in the UK but also in the US and Europe – many of whom were leaders in the field at the time. Nicolson’s friendships with Anthony Blunt and John Pope-Hennessy feature particularly heavily.

Alongside art-historical content, the archive – which also includes thirty-two files of correspondence that complement the journals – is rich with information about the aristocratic but also bohemian social circles in which Nicolson and his family operated. Across all the material an enormous cast of characters is present. The names read as a roll call of the most noteworthy individuals of the day and include politicians, philosophers, socialites, artists, writers, members of the aristocracy and royalty. As Nicolson himself commented, he regularly attended illustrious events with the “smart set” and through these individuals it is possible to explore the social and cultural preoccupations of the time.

Covering the Second World War period, the material also explores the political landscape of the period: in particular, the rise of communism and fascism and the various events that led up to the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. In diaries from the late 1930s, Nicolson writes about his father’s experiences in government, opposing the appeasement tactics of Eden, as well as his own involvement in preparing the Royal Household collection for war. Two volumes are specifically devoted to Nicolson’s experiences as a serving officer and subsequent journals reference victory celebrations and post-war rebuilding efforts.

Some of the material in the archive is intensely personal in nature exploring universal human themes such as love, loss, friendship and ageing. In addition, as Nicolson and both his parents held a preference for same-sex relationships, the archive contains much discussion of sexuality both prior to, and post, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. The later journals, in particular, are focused on two of his love affairs.

The Nicolson Archive, then, is a rich, multi-faceted resource holding appeal for a wide range of researchers. It has been catalogued in great detail: the names of every individual, event, institution and location for which there is a significant description or reference have been listed. The descriptions for the entire collection can be searched using the online catalogue.

If you would like to consult this archive, please make an appointment or send an enquiry.

Sincere thanks are extended to Vanessa, Nicolson’s daughter, who kindly donated the archive to the Centre in 2017.