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Archives and Special Collections: Music, Literature and the Arts: Arts

Our collections

Portraits are everywhere in our collections. Jan van Eersel's seventeenth-century portrait roundels above the bookcases in Cosin's Library are said to reflect the original thematic shelving order of the books. Most portraits are found within the collections themselves, for example among the drawings of Joseph Bouet (Add.MS. 17) and Edward Bradley, or the prints of social and political satire in the Baker Baker collection.

Medieval manuscripts also often contain portraits. Some are identifiable, such as Lawrence of Durham in Cosin MS V.3.1 or the Holy Family in Add.MS. 1993, a late medieval French Book of Hours.

Aside from illuminations in medieval manuscripts, there are many more images of individuals, such as kings, bishops, nobles, and saints, in the extensive collection of seals attached to many of the medieval documents of the Durham Cathedral Archive. Some of these are more stylistic than others, and they are often decorated with other features such as structures, animals and flora, all representing the art of the medieval seal engraver. Another medieval artist creating images of individuals, usually kings, was the coin die cutter; there are many examples of their art accessible at PGL in the coin collection of the Durham Palatinate Mint

The Baker Baker collection has an extensive range of prints - caricatures, personal and political satires -  covering events between 1729 and 1874.

A genre that had some popularity in the Victorian and Edwardian eras was the album of watercolour sketches and drawings with some pieces of verse, perhaps contributed by a variety of individuals as a memento for a friend.

A number of these albums can be found in the archive of St Hild's, the Women's Diocesan Teacher Training College in Durham, for the years before WW1. A rather earlier example is that of Martha Howlett who was given her album by her father in 1831. She added new drawings over a number of subsequent years (Add.MS. 2144).

Another form was the journal recording images of perhaps a voyage, as in Theodore West's case, travelling to Australia from England 1854/5, depicting the ships, storms, coastlines and ports he saw on the way (Add.MS. 2019). Captain McMurdo did something similar on campaign in the Sindh province of India in 1844/5 recording the local scenes in watercolour (FLE MS.80), and Viscount Cantelupe managed to depict, amongst others, the Battle of Brandywine on campaign in America in 1777 in his journal (GRE A.2239a). Closer to home, Emma Matthews recorded in watercolour domestic and local scenes in Kent and Devon in 1876-1881 (Add.MS. 2052). 

Amongst perhaps more recognised artists, the collections contain a volume of charcoal sketches of Durham scenes of c.1900 by John Shirley-Fox (Add.MS. 1430). Robert Surtees the Elder (1737-1802) has left us what might be regarded as more of an artist's sketchbook with his images of various figures, animals and scenes in a variety of media (Add.MS. 1937).

The pencil sketches and lithographs of Durham figures of around 1825-1835 by Joseph Bouet in Add.MS. 17 and 1300 are a remarkable body of artistic material, giving much life and character to Durham's personalities of the first half of the 19th century. Of similar significance for 19th century Durham life is the collection of drawings, sketches, watercolours, along with his stories, of Edward Bradley, Durham University graduate of 1848; working under the name of Cuthbert Bede, he has provided us with some of the now iconic if possibly apocryphal images of the early days of the university.

There are many photographs (prints, negatives, slides and albums) among our collections, many of them images of local individuals and scenes. The Edis and Gibby collections depict all manner of scenes in and around Durham from the later nineteenth century onwards. The University archive has images of groups of students dating back to the University College regatta winning rowing four of 1860.

Perhaps the largest group of nineteenth-century photographic material is the Greatorex collection of photographs of mainly ecclesiastical architecture. Angus Macfarlane-Grieve photographed almost every college and university crew that rowed on the Wear from around 1910 to 1925 in a  series of photograph albums. A more extensive collection of photographs is that held in the Sudan Archive, depicting all manner of structures and individuals in that part of Africa during the first two thirds of the 20th century.

The photographs and slides by the local ornithologist and mountaineer Bentley Beetham (1886 - 1963) have been digitised. The subjects include natural history, a record of an expedition to Mount Everest in 1924, and other mountaineering activities.

The collections include a number of those of architects, some working on buildings in and around Durham. Among them Dennis Jones, who worked on a number of university projects featuring especially its colleges, such as University College (based in Durham Castle), and Roy Gazzard, who worked on the Peterlee and Killingworth projects in Co Durham. Furthermore, the archives of both Durham University and Durham Cathedral contain many plans and reports about architecture and plans for developments of their highly significant buildings, supported in addition by a discrete collection of material about the projects to shore up and restore Durham Castle. 

If you are interested in ecclesiastical architecture, check out this page.

Our medieval manuscripts are part of a major study into the pigments used in illumination which combines the skills and forces from both the History and Chemistry departments.


Availability online (digital images)

These collections have not been digitised, so that only the catalogues are currently available online, with the exception of some drawings and watercolours by Joseph Bouet and Edward Bradley, and the photographs by Bentley Beetham. These can be accessed via our catalogue.

If you would like to purchase digital copies of specific items from any of our collections, please get in touch.

If you are a member of teaching staff at Durham University and would like to use material from Archives and Special Collections within your lectures or seminars, we may be able to scan or photograph items for this purpose.  Please contact us as early as possible with any teaching digitisation requests.

See also our guide to Digitised Collections Online for further information on our digital resources.

Access to original sources

Our collections are at one of two sites.

  • Palace Green Library: open Monday to Friday (appointments recommended - required during April and May, see below), 10am to 4:30pm
  • Ushaw College Library:  access is currently limited. Please submit an enquiry form for further details.

For further details, see our guide to Visiting us in person.  To make an appointment, please use our enquiry form.  Please give three working days notice for appointments and include a full list of document references or shelfmarks so that we can best enable your research access.

See information on Using Our Collections for further information on accessing our collections and on our facilities and services.

Details of opening times can be found in our Library Sites guide.

Where to start