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.

Highlight: Black Books

One of the great treasures of this archive is Oppé’s extensive set of notebooks, referred to by those around him as his ‘black books’. These books were kept by Oppé throughout his life and served as a highly personal journal. The collection contains over one hundred volumes ranging from 1894-1955. In them he recorded candid thoughts and feelings about everyday life, politics, family and friends, his travels and, of course, his attitudes toward art. He writes as easily on the mundane as he does on the profound.

Paul Oppé’s black books arranged ready for cataloguing, 2019

Certainly, there is information to be gleaned for researchers of particular artists. There are passing mentions of purchases, or works belonging to fellow collectors, and there are occasional descriptions of exhibitions and sales rooms. There are also vivid appreciations of works by Turner or Cotman which offer us new ways of appreciating their art. Yet, these books offer us so much more. They show us the other side of Oppé’s rigorous, scholarly voice, so familiar from his published writings. Here we see the passionate formulation of his aesthetic sensibility. He takes instruction as much from the contemplation of the complexity of colours in nature as from the palette of works of art. Although he was a regular at London’s gentleman’s clubs and well connected in the art scene, he was not averse to lampooning privileged collectors buying works at auction. He offers energetic critiques of pompous scholarly texts that fail to empathise with the artist’s intent, and brings us back to the simple pleasures of looking. Through his gaze, we see the subtle beauty of nature in ways the artists themselves may have seen it. A poetry only hinted at in Oppé’s published work, shimmers in these private volumes.

Beyond the insights into his views on the nature of art, artists, and the world of collectors, dealers and scholars, the black books offer rich research materials on many other topics, relating to society, politics and war, all of which are discussed throughout their pages. Oppe’s is only a particular perspective, of course, but the candid nature of his writing and his innate literary skill make it an engrossing one.

As well as the black books themselves, there is also a large volume containing a transcription of much of their contents. This was compiled by Aydua Scott-Elliot, and Oppé’s daughter, Armide, possibly even with some assistance from Oppé himself. Its existence suggests that there may have been a potential interest in publishing the material. While this remains uncertain, for our archive readers the volume provides an immediate point of access to the black books and is highly recommended as an introduction to their contents.

Below are some art historical selections from this transcription:

Oppé on colour

Typed segment from Black Books discussing colour.

Transcription from the Black Books, p. 177, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/8/2/0

Oppé on characteristics of good drawings

Typed segment from Black Books discussing the characteristics of good drawings.

Transcription from the Black Books, p. 185, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/8/2/0

Oppé on Constable

Typed segment from Black Books discussing the innate qualities of art.

Transcription from the Black Books, p.292, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/8/2/0

Oppé on the innate qualities of art

Typed segment from the Black Books discussing the innate qualities of art.

Transcription from the Black Books, p. 386, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/8/2/0