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.

Artists’ texts in the Oppé library

Oppé’s library contains a striking number of theoretical treatises and practical texts relating to artistic techniques and processes. Subjects covered include painting, watercolour, miniatures, engraving, mezzotint, drawing, caricature, perspective and colour.

Many of these instructional materials are early printed books of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The earliest of these is Leon Battista Alberti’s De pictura (1540), described in more detail here. Oppé annotated the older works in his collection less frequently than he did the contemporary books and exhibition catalogues, and so the volumes contain few markings relating to their use in his research. However, it is clear from the number of these works within the collection that Oppé found their subject matter particularly interesting.

Typed page with title of 'The Art of Drawing and Painting in Watercolours'

Oppe’s 1731 edition of The Art of Drawing and Painting in Water-colours; the text has been stab-stitched, Paul Oppé Library, OPPE-1731-2

The practical manuals within the collection often provide detailed instructions relating to choice of materials, details of technical processes, selection of appropriate subjects or landscapes and rules for ‘how to look'. The anonymous The Art of Drawing and Painting in Water-colours, of which Oppé owned both a 1731 and a 1733 edition, launches directly into the practicalities on the first page of text: ‘Take a sheet of the thinnest or whitest brown Paper, and brush it over with Oil of Turpentine, which will immediately render it transparent, and then put the Paper to dry in the Air; when ‘tis dry, strain it upon a Frame’ [Ref: OPPE-1731-2 and OPPE-1733-1].

Page with green colour swatches with labels

Colour swatches from Werner's Nomenclature of Colours (1814), Paul Oppé Library, OPPE-1814-1

One of the most beautiful artists’ texts in the library is an early edition of Werner's Nomenclature of Colours (1814) [Ref: OPPE-1814-1]. This guide to colour was adapted by the painter Patrick Syme from an eighteenth-century system devised by mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner, and includes vivid colour swatches alongside poetic descriptions of where in the natural world each colour might be found.

This attempt at a scientific classification is echoed in Francis Grose’s Rules for Drawing Caricaturas (1791) [Ref: OPPE-1791-3]. Grose recommends that the student of satirical art should begin by acquiring general skill in drawing before attempting to master the caricature. He then goes on to classify the elements of the face: ‘Mouths may be arranged under four different genera or kinds. Of each of these there are several species. The under-hung, fig. 9; the pouting or blubber, fig. 10; the shark’s mouth, fig. 11; and the bone box, fig. 12.’

Examples for the satirical artist from Rules for Drawing Caricaturas (1791), Paul Oppé Library, OPPE-1791-3

These are only a few examples of the many works relating to artistic processes found within the Oppé library. Oppé’s focus on these instructional works invites us to consider how a deeper understanding of artistic processes can inform art historical research.