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.


The Oppé library includes around 150 early printed books. These volumes were set, printed, and bound entirely by hand, using processes that changed little between the time of Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century and the beginning of the industrial era in the early nineteenth century. Many of the earliest books in the collection show the provenance markings of earlier owners and include interesting binding features.

Below we highlight two early printed books of particular interest from Oppé’s collection. Further details regarding two unusual bindings from the library, a “sombre” binding and an embroidered binding, are available here.

An early treatise on painting

The oldest book in the Oppé library is a 1540 Basel edition of Leon Battista Alberti’s De pictura, an instructive treatise on the theory of painting originally published in 1450. Alberti (1404–1472) was an Italian polymath with talents in multiple fields including painting, architecture, philosophy and cryptography. In De pictura, he considers ideas of mathematical harmony in nature, the principles of perspective, and practical instruction for those studying painting.

Oppé’s copy of the text [Ref: OPPE-1540-1] is bound in contemporary limp parchment with holes visible where fore-edge ties would have been; an early ownership inscription has been crossed out.

Oppé also owned numerous collective biographies of artists, many of which give further details of Alberti and his life. Roger de Piles, in The Art of Painting, and the Lives of the Painters (of which Oppé held two separate editions, dated 1706 and 1744), remarked that Alberti “had a Soul of great Extent … and understood Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture perfectly well.” [Ref: OPPE-1706-2 and OPPE-1744-2]

Woodcut of man's face in profile.

Woodcut of Leon Battista Alberti from Giorgio Vasari’s Le vite de' piu eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568), Paul Oppé Library, OPPE-1568-1

William Gilpin and the picturesque

William Gilpin (1724–1804) was an English artist who introduced the aesthetic ideal of the picturesque and authored numerous works on travel and natural beauty. In Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, &c., relative chiefly to picturesque beauty (1782), Gilpin combines descriptions of his travels with recommendations on selecting an ideal view: ‘Different lights make so great a change even in the composition of landscape—at least in the apparent composition of it, that they create a scene perfectly new.’ Oppé’s copy of the text [Ref: OPPE-1782-2] is bound in tree calf, with simple gold tooling and marbled endpapers. Tree marbling is a decorative style in which the leather has been marbled with stains that approximate the shape of a branching tree.

The Oppé library includes fourteen works by Gilpin, the majority of which also bear the ownership markings of Arthur Joseph Munby (1828–1910). Munby was a barrister, diarist and portrait photographer. Oppé likely acquired the Gilpin volumes after Munby’s death in 1910. Three of the books previously owned by Munby also bear the inscription of a nineteenth-century female owner: “Eleonora Dalrymple”.