- 30 October 2023 to 23 February 2024
- Paul Mellon Centre
This Drawing Room Display explores the life and work of the art historian, collector and civil servant Paul Oppé (1878–1957). It presents correspondence with key art historians and collectors in the field, notebooks, research notes and drafts, and revealing annotations to books and catalogues from his archive and library, held by the Paul Mellon Centre.
Oppé studied classics and literature at St. Andrews and Oxford, and initially taught ancient art and history in Scotland before taking up an appointment at the Board of Education in London in 1905. After publishing on Raphael (1909) and Botticelli (1911), he focused on British art, particularly landscape watercolours and drawings of around 1750–1850. He was never a salaried art historian but became an influential collector, critic and advisor. Through his scholarly publications, collecting and advisory work, Oppé achieved eminence in the field of British art history.
Researched by Hans C. Hönes, Helen Glaister and Martin Myrone, the display reflects on Oppé’s life and career, showing his intellectual aspirations and the methodical character of his research and collecting. As well as introducing his life and work on British art, the display focuses on two lesser-known topics: his engagement with Chinese art, stimulated by youthful travel to Asia, and late in life a confrontation with a younger scholar of British art, David Loshak. It also points to ways in which his legacy might be appraised. In 1952, an admirer declared that “a review from his pen can make or break a book”. But by that date, there were already developments in the field of British art studies that would challenge his authority, and the potential for conflict between his gentlemanly outlook and new forms of academic art history.