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.

Art Historical Research

Aside from the content of his research material, catalogues and books, this collection also reveals to us aspects of Oppé’s approach to the study of art history. We can see the process in action through the means of correspondence, visits to auction houses, exhibitions and private collections, the exchange of photographs and the examination of scholarly texts. There are a range of other expressions of Oppé’s art-historical activity, however, including annotations and inserts.


One such insight is the accumulation of notes on works, found in the form of extensive annotation, an important practice employed by Oppé to augment and respond to existing information in exhibition and auction catalogues, and various other published works. These annotations can be slight, often quite modest amendments, or can be overflowing with detail. They are not always corrections of information on provenance, date or attribution, but also take the form of reflections on the quality or effect of a work.

Two-page spread watercolour drawing catalogue annotated with blue ink.

Oppé’s annotated catalogue for the loan exhibition of water-colour drawings by Francis Towne, held at the City of York Art Gallery in January 1950, Paul Oppé Archive, Ref: APO/1/21/5

The brief notes added to this catalogue from an exhibition of works by Towne at the York Art Gallery in 1950 offer us insight into Oppé’s thought process. These are works that we know he has seen before – indeed, he catalogued many of these at Barton Place in the 1910s. Yet, Oppé’s notes remark on stylistic elements of the works, and on the aesthetic impressions he received from them. To what purpose he was using these notes is open to interpretation. Despite having catalogued them previously, this exhibition may have been a rare chance to see the works again, as they were now in the collection of Sir William Wolsey. Noting reflections on composition, particularly striking uses of colour and line, may suggest a desire on Oppé’s part to build up a repertoire of descriptive notes for use in a future publication.


Oppé also frequently used his library for filing purposes: correspondence, research notes, illustrations and other relevant materials have been found inserted between the pages of the books. Upon acquisition by the Paul Mellon Centre, around 8% of the volumes in the collection contained at least one of these inserts, and many held multiple items. A few had been tipped in, though the majority were to be found loose within the pages.

In many instances, the choices behind the placement of the inserted material are immediately apparent: for example, Luca Beltrami’s Disegni di Raffaello Sanzio nella Biblioteca Ambrosiana was found to contain a letter from the author to Oppé, along with a newspaper article on the subject of Raphael. Oppé’s working processes are made explicit in the links between the printed text, the loose inserts and his careful marginal annotations and handwritten indexes.

The library inserts have been removed and catalogued separately as archival material. This process has allowed these fragile items to be stored appropriately and described in the broader context of Oppé’s archive. At the same time, links have been created between the library and archive catalogues, allowing researchers to explore and virtually reunite Oppé’s inserts with their texts.