University Art Collection

Karen Attar has already told us about the Rare Books Collection of SAS and Senate House. However, not all special collections mainly consist of written texts. Did you know that we have an extensive University Art Collection?!

Karen, you are also curator for University Art. What do you need to do for this job in particular?

The main ongoing task is keeping tabs on what we have and overseeing the quinquennial valuations. This year I’ve been privileged to do some major one-off activities: planning to hang art all around Senate House and writing descriptive captions to accompany it, and reporting all the paintings and drawings to ArtUK. That is the main union database for art in Great Britain and the best way to make it known, though we do have entries for artworks on our catalogue too.

The website states that the University Art collection is held at the different institutes of SAS and at SHL. Do you work closely with the institutes to maintain and work on the collection?

Fairly closely, and the SAS Institutes are all very helpful. Mostly it’s a question of getting access to SAS pictures for some reason or recording recent acquisitions, but together with the IALS Librarian I wrote captions for pictures of IALS Directors, and I’ve been encouraging SAS generally and particular Institutes within SAS to hang up more artworks. It’s far better off on the walls than in storage.

There are always discussions on how museums, galleries, and the like acquire their art and exhibits, often even criticising these practices. What can you tell us about the process of acquiring the artworks of the SH collection?

The University of London does not routinely acquire artworks. Many of its artworks have been commissioned and form part of the University’s history and heritage, primarily portraits of former Vice-Chancellors and other worthies. Some have been donated by University worthies: for example, Lord Macmillan, of the Macmillan Hall, is commemorated not only by a portrait of him, but by two portraits that he donated. Or they have been given as part of broader collections, typically of books (Senate House Library) or archives (IMLR). There is one large gift of mostly abstract artworks from around the 1970s which it was felt would look good at Senate House.

Are there any research projects that focus on the University Art collection?

Not yet, as far as I know: it’s only very recently that we were in a position to make the collection physically and intellectually available enough. Some portraits have been reproduced in scholarly monographs. Given the small size of the collection, I suspect research projects will incorporate material from our collection rather than being based on the collections – rather like scholars moving around using archives from several repositories. I wonder scholars might use art in conjunction with other primary sources, for example to explore themes of exile.

Are there any hidden treasures in the collection and what is your personal collection highlight?

It’s my job to expose the treasures, so I’d like to say, no! Right now, a hidden treasure is John Millais’s portrait of former Vice-Chancellor George Grote, which is currently away being restored. My favourite item at present is a copy of one of Winterhalter’s portraits of Queen Victoria. How we acquired it, I don’t yet know, and hope to find out. The picture is not special, being merely a copy. I like it because it’s been familiar to me since childhood, owing to a longstanding interest in Victoria.


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