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.

Oppé as Collector

Beyond the material which shows us Oppé’s scholarly work there is a considerable amount which reveals to us Oppé’s practices as a collector and connoisseur. In APO/6, for example, there is extensive documentation relating to the cataloguing and indexing of his collection. This process of contextualising works which he purchased gives us insight into an important aspect of the methodology of art history in this period. The role of the collector and cataloguer, that of Oppé and many of his peers, was helping to define an artist’s body of work by seeking out hitherto unknown works and testing attribution and provenance. Such information was shared widely with other researchers, curators and scholars.

handwritten page from a notebook

Page from Oppé’s notebook entitled, 'Miscellaneous notes on drawings, June 1921', Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/6/1/5

Through these notebooks and catalogues, we can gain detailed information on Oppé’s collection; they provide meticulous records of works, including attribution (with references to his research sources), dates, titles (or descriptions), dimensions and the medium used by the artist. In addition, and perhaps even more interesting to us now, there are provenance details, notes on where he purchased a work, which collection it came from, and how much he paid for it. There are similar notes on works he sold from his own collection. So, beyond the data he was collecting on the actual works, often an ongoing process in itself, there are narratives to be uncovered on the sale and history of works. Also, Oppé always kept one eye on the purchases of those around him. He kept records of works sold at auction which go far beyond his own acquisitions, covering a wide range of sales from 1908–1939.

Page of handwritten notes in red and blue ink.

Pages from Oppé’s auction notes (1908-1936), showing 1925 auctions, pp. 46-47, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/6/2/1

This thoroughness led Oppé to compile several, similar versions of his catalogues of drawings. The reason for this activity is not clear, other than it shows, perhaps, the variety of ways in which he may have needed to address his own research queries to his collection. These speculations aside, what we are left with is an intricate web of records, which will prove to be of benefit to researchers for years to come.

As an addition to aforementioned material, there is a fascinating subset of papers which relate to his purchase of works for public collections, as well as his role as a consultant for existing collections. Prominent in this respect is Oppé’s work as buyer of European works (paintings and drawings) for the National Gallery of Canada between 1937–1957. Here, we are offered a thorough insight into his decision-making process though his various reports, while also being afforded an overview of the art market of this period. Additionally, we also have a copy of Oppé’s catalogue notes for everything that he purchased for the National Gallery, articulated with the same rigour as his published work, and providing additional information about the purchases in question.