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.

Introduction

Black and white photograph of Paul Oppe leaning on a fence. Adolphus Paul Oppé (22 September 1878–29 March 1957) was an art historian and collector with a particular interest in British drawings and watercolours from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His scholarly work, like his collecting, focused on figures such as John Sell Cotman, Alexander Cozens, Francis Towne, Paul and Thomas Sandby and Thomas Rowlandson, and contributed considerably to establishing their reputations as major British artists.

Oppé was educated at Charterhouse, the University of St. Andrews, and New College, Oxford, achieving a degree in classics. After graduation, he took posts lecturing on Greek history and art, first at St. Andrews (1902–1904) and then at Edinburgh University (1904–1905). In 1904, he published a seminal work entitled, ‘The Chasm at Delphi’, which substantially debunked earlier theories about the practice of Greek oracles and remained highly influential for most of the twentieth century.

However, teaching never fully satisfied him, and his academic interests shifted increasingly toward Renaissance art. In 1905, he accepted a job at the Board of Education and took the opportunity to move to London. Here, he began to build on his already significant interest in art and developed two early research projects which resulted in monographs on Raphael (1909) and Botticelli (1911). Yet, as his collecting began to take shape, his growing interest and expertise in British art became the primary focus in his academic work. His own love of nature and Romantic poetry found expression in the atmospheric landscapes of artists such as J.M.W. Turner and John Sell Cotman.

In time, his collecting interests and scholarship fed into one another, ensuring his lasting legacy in both areas. One of the best examples of this is in his discovery of the then obscure, Exeter-based artist, Francis Towne. He purchased seventeen drawings by the artist in a single lot at an auction held by Foster's on 27 July 1910. His subsequent research led him to the Merivale family, descendants of Towne’s student and friend, John Merivale. A large body of Towne’s work was bequeathed to Merivale and had remained in the family, unseen by the broader public. Oppé met with the family, cataloguing drawings kept at their homes in Devon and Oxford, and published an article in the journal of the Walpole Society in 1919 which introduced Towne’s work to the art community.

During his career, Oppé became acquainted with many of the key art historians and collectors in the field. Charles Francis Bell, Kenneth Clark, Laurence Binyon, Iolo Williams, Martin Hardie and Campbell Dodgson were all among his regular correspondents. He frequented major exhibitions and auctions throughout the 1920s–1950s, always with a notebook in hand, building an archive of information and observations on a wide range of works. Similarly, he would inspect works in private collections and also worked extensively on catalogues for the Royal Collection at Windsor. He became known as an authority on British art and worked with larger museum collections in an advisory capacity. Most prominent among these institutions was the National Gallery of Canada, for whom he helped secure several key British and European works.