Archives & Library

The Paul Oppé Library and Archive

Adolphus Paul Oppé (1878-1957) was an art historian and collector with a particular interest in British drawings and watercolours from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Overview

This collection is made up of 320 individual files containing letters, exhibition and auction catalogues, images, research notes, unpublished texts and 212 diaries, journals and notebooks.

The largest and most complex group of materials are Oppé’s core research papers, documenting his work on individual artists, much of which was used in the creation of his published work. The files contain a broad range of research, often collected in notebooks and on scraps of paper, and reveal Oppé’s fascination with all aspects of an artist’s life and work, and with the history of works of art as objects of interest for collectors and enthusiasts.

For each artist, a set of files has been established and organised according to the kind of material they contain. This method loosely follows Oppé’s own system for organising his notes, which has been supplemented by a gentle nudge from our cataloguer to make material easier to discover. Principal among this material is his correspondence with fellow art historians, institutions and collectors. These letters cover the attribution, provenance, description and exhibition of individual works by the filed artists. They also critically engage with the existing scholarship on these artists and provide biographical detail on their lives.

page with handwritten notes.

Notes on Randall Davis’ collection of works by Alexander Cozens, dated between 1936-1948, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/1/5/5

There is also a vast amount of material situated outside of these research files and which relates to Oppé’s work as an art historian more generally. This material includes notebooks documenting British drawings and other works of art, and a further set of letters which cover more general themes relating to art and artists. These letters are a rich resource, offering a glimpse into the attitudes and culture that shaped the study and collecting of art in the early twentieth century. For instance, Oppé’s correspondence with Charles F. Bell (APO/3/2), fellow art historian and keeper of fine art at the Ashmolean Museum, reveals a great deal about their practice as scholars and the politics around publishing and presenting this work within their community. Elsewhere, there is a correspondence with a young American collector, Ray Murphy (APO/3/6), which, through Murphy’s eloquent prose, gives voice and character to an alternative, non-British appreciation of British art.

There is also a great deal of material that documents Oppé’s activities as a collector: he was a meticulous note taker, and kept a careful record of the works he bought, sold or traded. He also compiled basic catalogue records for each item. The material here shows this process in detail across several notebooks, indexes and associated research materials. The lines blur between these records and those he used for academic research. It may well be that, for Oppé, the pursuit of collecting and cataloguing works of art was as much about building a private collection as it was about articulating a field of scholarship. As such, these documents are as pertinent to understanding Oppé’s personal collection as they are to understanding the history of the works themselves.

Finally, a large part of this collection documents Oppé’s personal life. Much of this material reveals his passions and opinions on art, but we also see how this interest develops through his formative engagement with poetry, creative writing and classical culture (APO/2). Oppé is also revealed as a family man, a member of society, a civil servant, and, above all, an independent thinker who liked nothing more than a long walk ensconced within the sanctuary of nature.

All of this material combines to create an archive which will provide an invaluable resource for art historians and those interested in the social and cultural worlds in which Oppé lived and worked.

The Oppé Archive has been fully catalogued and is available for consultation.  Please contact Archive & Library staff with details of the material you would like to consult.