Glyn Philpot, R.A., Lady Witt, 1925
Glyn Philpot, R.A., Lady Witt, 1925

 

The Witt Library started, as it was to continue, as a joint venture between Robert Witt and his wife-to-be Mary. Both were at Oxford in the 1890s, studying History and specialising in the Italian Renaissance. He was at New College, she, one of the early generation of female students, at Somerville. Both also started to collect photographs of works of art. The story is taken up by Lady Witt (as she became in 1922 when her husband was knighted) in an article in The Queen magazine for August 3, 1927. 'While my husband started his collection in his college rooms, mine began during a spring spent in Italy, when after a marvellous round of the great galleries I brought back even more than the usual quantity of photographs! We compared our respective collections when we met again, and our friends declared we married to put the two together!’

It is fairly well-known that their collection grew so quickly and in such numbers that it soon invaded and then dominated their home. Sir Robert Witt wrote in 1928 (in 'The Graphic’, 25 February ), 'In the fullness of time the collection that was contained in a large cupboard in the sitting room of our first flat overflowed into a small room; the small room needed a second and a larger one; the larger room in time needed a larger house; and the present library, grown from a first nucleus of some 500 photographs and now comprising well over 300,000, is again overunning its new home and filling the dining-room, hall, and even the kitchen basement with its overwhelming flood.’

Mary Witt’s role in the growth of the Witt Library is often assumed to have been secondary to that of her husband, but this does not appear to have been the case. In her article in The Queen, mentioned above, she said, 'We’ve always worked at the Library together. Sometimes one has had a 'bright idea’, sometimes the other — my husband has a more creative brain, and so the initiative has been chiefly his. For the first eight or nine years we did all the work ourselves...and for many years gave up most of our evenings, Sundays and week-ends...’. In an obituary notice written on Lady Witt by Charles Bell, a former Director of the Ashmolean Museum, this writer went further to stress her contribution to the library, 'Although he (Sir Robert Witt) provided the large sums necessary and a good half of the motive enthusiasm, Sir Robert’s active professional life inhibited him from furnishing the inexhaustible experimental ingenuity demanded in planning the arrangement and cataloguing; that was all hers.’ (The Times, 1 January, 1953).

Beyond the confines of the Witt Library, Sir Robert did lead an extremely active life. In 1896 he was a war correspondent with Cecil Rhodes in the Matabele war. He became a solicitor by profession and was a senior partner in the firm of Stephenson Harwood and Tatham. He was certainly a formidable figure in the art establishment. One of the main founders of the National Art Collections Fund (1903) he was for many years its Chairman (1920-1945). He was a Trustee of the National Gallery for many years and Chairman of the Trustees in 1930. In addition, he wrote numerous articles on art in journals and newspapers and made major contributions to two books, How to Look at Pictures, 1902 and One Hundred Masterpieces of Painting, 1910.


Thomas Cantrell Dugdale, Sir Robert Witt in his Library, 1931
Thomas Cantrell Dugdale, Sir Robert Witt in his Library, 1931
 
There is, of course, no doubt as to the leading and essential role played by Sir Robert and Lady Witt as individuals in the creation and building up of the library. It may, though, also be worth speculating as to why the library started when it did and why it became increasingly important. At the end of the 19th century photography had been established for a long time. Photographic firms and publishers, such as Alinari, Anderson, Braun and Hanfstaengl were specialising in the photography of works of art and architecture and had also achieved a very high degree of accuracy and fine resolution in their prints. More and more people were acquiring photographs, not only for portrait likenesses but for landscapes, architecture and paintings. It was common to make an album from travels to the continent. Art history as a subject for study was still in its infancy in this country but in Germany and Italy it was developing as a serious academic discipline. The art of connoiseurship, particularly associated with the Italian art historian, Giovanni Morelli (1819 — 1891), depended on the attribution of paintings by the comparison of styles and techniques within paintings. Therefore, the more paintings, or photographs of paintings, that could be studied, the better. This view was put at the start of an article by Gladys Clifford Smith, 'The Witt Reference Library of Pictures for the Critical and Comparative Study of Pictures’ in World Today, September, 1927, 'The critical comparative study of pictures inaugurated by Morelli some fifty years ago has since grown so increasingly important as to make some comprehensive central storehouse of reproductions of paintings and drawings absolutely esential for the serious student of art, from whose ranks the future generations of collectors, connoisseurs, lecturers and critics, and the curators and guardians of the national treasures must spring’. The writer goes on to say that this vital need was being provided for by the Witt Library.

After the initial ten years or so the library took on some volunteers to help with the work, including Robert and Mary Witt’s son John. Later, in 1947, a young man, John Croft, worked in the library as one of these volunteers. He wrote a memoir of his time in the library when it was at the Witt’s London home, 32 Portman Square. 'In addition to Sir Robert, the household consisted of Lady Witt, a woman of great charm, character and beauty — as her portrait in the drawing room testified — but by that date almost blind: her personal maid, cook and a cat. Sir Robert’s secretary, chauffeur and mistress, Miss Creyke-Clark — a former teacher at Roedean, the girl’s public school — lived nearby. There was one other voluntary worker: Major Kemp, a retired Guard’s Officer, a bachelor who collected English water-colours…Sir Robert did not address us by our first names, but by our surnames as was then the custom.’

When Lady Witt wrote her article in The Queen in 1927 the Witt Library was said to be 'destined for the National Gallery’. But in 1932 it was announced in the press (The Times, 8 March) that Sir Robert and Lady Witt had decided to bequeath their library to the Courtauld Institute. This bequest must have been made because of the recent foundation of the Institute and because Sir Robert had been very much involved with its beginning; also because the Institute seemed to be a more appropriate recipient than any other place. However, the Deed of Gift confirming this was not made until 1944. Sir Robert died in 1952, following which the library was carried across Portman Square and deposited in no. 19 where it remained until its move to Somerset House in 1989.

John Sunderland
Witt Librarian