Detail from Latin MS 164 with peacock, toad and flower decorations

History of Art and Architecture Collections

The Library holds a wealth of material across all collections relevant to the study of both the history of art and architecture.

Wood Street Elevation of the John Rylands Library
Basil Champneys, drawing of Wood Street elevation of the John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester, 1890.

The richly illuminated manuscript collections are of international significance; our archives contain the papers of many artists, art critics and architects; and the Rylands Library Archive holds information about the design of the Library itself.

In addition, the Library’s holdings of printed materials relating to art and architecture are outstanding; they range from early 15th-century block-books to finely illustrated books and designer bookbindings of the late 20th century. The Rylands also has exceptional visual collections that comprise photography collections, fine art works, decorative art works and objects.

Manuscript and archive material

The Rylands possesses excellent collections of Western (European), Jewish, Near Eastern and Asian manuscripts. Most of these collections include fine examples of calligraphy and book art, either in the form of illustrated and illuminated manuscripts, or of material culture in exquisite original bindings, medieval jewelled book covers, and ivory carvings.

The Library also has numerous manuscript and archival collections relating to 19th-century art history, and especially to the Pre-Raphaelite circle, holding papers of the artist William Holman Hunt, the artist and collector Charles Fairfax Murray, the writer and critic John Ruskin, the critic and connoisseur Marion Harry Spielmann, and the Manchester artist Robert Crozier. The papers contain substantial exchanges of correspondence between figures that include Edward Burne-Jones, D.G. Rossetti, W.M Rossetti, William Morris, George F. Watts, Frederic Lord Leighton, and Charles Eastlake, the first Director of the National Gallery. In addition, the extensive archive of Walter Crane, illustrator, designer and artist, is a significant resource for students of 19th-century art and design.

Amongst the 20th-century material, we count the papers of the artist Frank Owen Salisbury, who specialized in portraiture and in historical and religious subjects; Margaret Pilkington, wood-engraver and Honorary Director of the Whitworth Art Gallery; the art writer and educator Alan Freer; commercial artist and calligrapher Alan Tabor; and Stephen Raw, contemporary letter artist. Other material of potential interest to art historians occurs in drama- and film-related collections such as the papers of Basil Dean, Robert Donat and Stephen Joseph, which contain original artwork, photographs, and set and costume designs.

Also well represented in the collections are post-World War II avant garde international art and ‘counter cultural’ movements. Art works, ’zines and artists books survive in the collections of dom sylvester houńďdard, Li Yuan-chia and Jeff Nuttall. These archives are rich resources that link visual and literary cultures, which offer opportunities for interdisciplinary study.

The papers of distinguished art historian Professor Marcia Pointon are an important source for studies of the historiography of art history in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, documenting the development of the academic discipline of art history and the changing nature of scholarly communications during this period.

The Library holds several architectural archives including the Manchester Society of Architects, the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain and the University of Manchester’s School of Architecture Archive. We also hold personal papers relating to distinguished architects and town planners, including the papers of: Manchester-based architect Sir Hubert Worthington; Raymond Unwin, one of the leading architects and town planners of the first half of the 20th century; and Alfred Darbyshire, best known for his work on theatres. The Edward Freeman Papers contain thousands of drawings of churches and correspondence with Sir George Gilbert Scott and other architects.

Finally, the archives of the John Rylands Library contain information on the design and construction of this internationally important Grade I listed building. Students of country-house architecture, landscape design and garden history will also find useful material among the Muniment and Charter Collections. For the example, the Legh of Lyme Muniments contain architectural drawings of Lyme Hall by Giacomo Leoni. 

Printed resources

The Incunabula Collection contains block-books and pre-1500 publications, which combine woodcuts with movable type. However, the Library’s holdings of illustrated books range through the whole history of printing, representing the work of hundreds of artists and illustrators.

European prints and visual print culture are excellently represented in the Rylands collections. Covering a spectrum of subjects, our prints provide examples of a range of different techniques including relief, intaglio, planographic and screen printing. They date from the 15th century to the present and include works by Nicolas Poussin, Claude Mellan, William Hogarth, William Blake and Ian Hamilton Finlay. The Holtorp Collection, assembled by the 19th-century collector and designer Hiero von Holtorp, is an especially rich source for the study of Renaissance prints and contains works by Northern and Italian masters including, Albrecht Durer, Hans Burgkmair, and Andrea Mantegna.

The golden age of the English Private Press Movement in the 1890s corresponded with the building and foundation of The John Rylands Library. This enabled the establishment of a rich collection of the earliest and most important presses, including all fifty-three publications of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Many private press books are illustrated, and the collection provides a complete conspectus 20th-century wood-engraving in Britain, including work by artists such as Eric Gill, Enid Marx, Agnes Miller Parker and Eric Ravilious.

In addition, the library holdsmany facsimile editions and standard reference works on antiquities, fine art, engravings, numismatics, furniture, stained glass, ceramics, textiles and costume.

Students of architecture will find a large collection of historic surveys and treatises, both English and Continental, including works on the Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Georgian and Victorian periods. Authors include Vitruvius, Alberti, Palladio, Adam, Soane and Repton. In addition to works on ‘bricks and mortar’ architecture, there are texts of interest for studies in landscape history and land use, garden history, death and the afterlife, the functioning of cities and concepts of space and ritual. The Temple Collection is particularly rich in books on landscape and garden history.

Urban design and development, particularly of Manchester and the North West of England, is well documented in our Map Collection. Included in the collection are large-scale historical town plans by William Green and Joseph Adshead, as well as detailed Ordnance Survey plans dating from 1848 to the present day.