Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse Archive

Scope and Content

The archive contains material collected and compiled by Waterhouse throughout his career. The majority pertains to his interest in British art - only a very small amount falls outside this subject.

The main bulk of the archive is arranged into three sequences reflecting the manner in which it was originally organised by Waterhouse:

-research files on artists (organised A-Z by artist)

-research files on portraits of the Royal Family

-research files on collections/collectors (organised A-Z by collection/collector). This series contains material pertaining to non-British art (Baroque and Italian painting in particular).

The files are primarily a visual resource, containing photographs and images collected and annotated by Waterhouse throughout his career. They also include correspondence; research notes; journal articles; press-cuttings, exhibition catalogues etc.

The remainder of the material has been organised into the following series:

-published texts annotated by Waterhouse

-draft text for publications authored by Waterhouse

-engravings by Gainsborough.

Administrative / Biographical History

Waterhouse, Sir Ellis Kirkham (1905-1985), an art historian and administrator, was born in Lynwood Avenue, Epsom, Surrey, on 16 February 1905, the only child of (Percy) Leslie Waterhouse, architect, and his wife, Eleanor (d. 1905), daughter of William Margetson of Streatham.

Waterhouse attended Marlborough College where he won a scholarship in classics to New College, Oxford; he took a first class in classical honour moderations (1925) and a second in literae humaniores (1927). Already his interests had focused irrevocably on art, and as Commonwealth Fund fellow at Princeton University (1927-9) he was rigorously trained as an art historian and, under the direction of Frank J. Mather Jr., made a special study of El Greco. As an assistant at the National Gallery, London, from 1929, he was shocked by the amateurish approach of his colleagues and, being now economically independent, he resigned in 1933. He became librarian at the British School in Rome (until 1936), where he sought out neglected baroque paintings; his publications 'Baroque Painting in Rome: the Seventeenth Century' (1937; rev., 1976) and 'Italian Baroque Painting' (1962; rev., 1969) were major pioneering achievements. In England, from 1936 to 1939, he worked on British art and for the Royal Academy on the exhibition held in 1938 of seventeenth-century art in Europe.

A research fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford (1938-47), was interrupted by the Second World War, which Waterhouse spent in Greece working first for the British legation, the intelligence corps, and finally seconded to the British ambassador. In 1945, now a monuments and fine arts officer serving with the army and the Foreign Office, he was agreeably employed in the Netherlands and Germany, supervising the return of stolen works of art and defending buildings of merit from military vandalism. His activities also contributed to the exposure of the forger of Vermeer, Han van Meegeren.

In 1946 Waterhouse was briefly editor of the Burlington Magazine and in 1947-8 reader in art history at Manchester University, but in 1949 he accepted the important directorship of the National Galleries of Scotland. On 29 June of that year he married Helen Thomas; they had two daughters. In Edinburgh, although he made some memorable acquisitions, he endured with difficulty the bureaucracy of the Scottish Office, and in 1952 he resigned to become director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in the University of Birmingham. There, among congenial colleagues, Waterhouse blossomed unexpectedly in academic administration (he was dean of arts for three years). He deployed quite generous funds to maximum advantage in acquisitions especially of the British and seventeenth-century Italian schools. Another special care was the creation of the library, and the Birmingham School of Byzantine Studies also owed much to his fostering. From Birmingham he was able to lecture widely, notably as Slade professor of fine art at Oxford in 1953-5. After retiring from Birmingham in 1970, he became Director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art at a critical period in the centre's evolution (1970-73).

Throughout the post-war years Waterhouse accepted various visiting professorships or consultancies in America. His work on British art-in particular his publications: 'Sir Joshua Reynolds' (1941), 'Painting in Britain, 1530-1790' (1953 and subsequent revisions), and 'Gainsborough' (1958)-and on his beloved Italian school constituted a lasting achievement. Among other writings there were numerous catalogues, articles, and reviews. His writing, apparently effortless in its classic economy and directness of expression, proceeded always from careful research and first-hand observation.

Waterhouse was of an independent temperament, equipped with formidable intellectual powers, supported by a remarkable certainty of principle and of purpose, and driven by inexhaustible energy. He dressed primarily for comfort (though owning a collection of startling neckties) and was no respecter of pretentiousness or pomposity. He could be wilful, and nurtured some idiosyncratic prejudices. His tongue was sharp, and the instrument of a nimble wit unmatched in his profession. He delighted in good company as in good music. Deeper than any critical acerbity, and the wit, were an affection for those whom he liked and respected (if not always for their scholarship), and an unstinting generosity with which he drew, in response to any serious enquiry, on his phenomenal memory supported by the superb resources in his own library and archive, which he shared liberally. His notebooks and papers are now in the collection of the Mellon Foundation in London, at the Getty Museum archives in Los Angeles, and at the Barber Institute in Birmingham. He did not personally collect works of art, judging that that might be inimical to a proper scholarly objectivity.

Waterhouse was made FBA in 1955, MBE in 1943, and CBE in 1956. He became an honorary fellow of New College in 1975 and was knighted the same year. Nottingham (1968), Leicester (1970), Birmingham (1973), and Oxford (1976) conferred honorary degrees upon him, and he was honoured by the Dutch and Italian governments. Through Waterhouse's last decade the distillation and dissemination of his knowledge continued. The companion (seventeenth-century) volume for his 'Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters' (1981) was ready for press when he died, on 7 September 1985, at his home, Overshot, Badger Lane, on Hinksey Hill above Oxford.

Please note - this description is taken from David Piper, 'Waterhouse, Sir Ellis Kirkham (1905-1985), rev. David Cast, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

[http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/3106, accessed 9 May 2016]

Access Information

This collection is open for research. Readers must fill in an 'Reader Agreement Form' which outlines the reading room rules and conditions concerning privacy and Data Protection

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Charlotte Brunskill, Archivist & Records Manager, 2016

Custodial History

When Ellis Waterhouse took up post as Director of the Paul Mellon Centre in 1970, he brought with him various research resources. When he resigned in 1973, this material remained at the Centre where it continued to be made available to staff and interested researchers. Waterhouse himself also continued to file into the main series of material - a sequence of research files on British Artists - visiting the Centre once a week for this purpose.

On Waterhouse's death in 1985, and following discussion with his widow, the majority of the material was formally donated to the Paul Mellon Centre. At this time, a letter from Christopher White to Waterhouse's widow describes the material as follows: a series of Christie's sale catalogues running from 1891-1898; a series of general English sale catalogues running from 1896-1897; Waterhouse's annotated copy of Graves and Cronin's catalogue of Reynolds paintings and a large collection of photographs of British paintings. (see acquisition file, PMC50/8). Correspondence in the acquisition file also reveals that Francis Haskell was responsible for sorting Waterhouse's papers after his death and that in November 1985 an additional file of mixed photographs and letters identified by Haskell was passed to the Centre. In December 1985, Brian Allen (then Assistant Director and Librarian) wrote to Helen Waterhouse to request that any material on Francis Cotes and Romney subsequently identified by Haskell might be transferred to the Centre. Although there is no paperwork officially recording that this happened, the photograph sequence at the Centre contains several boxes of material relating to these artists.

The sale catalogues are managed as part of the Paul Mellon Centre's Library [see: http://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/collections/library-collections/auction-catalogues]. The inserts filed or pasted into the catalogues are managed as part of the Archive [see: http://www.paul-mellon-centre.ac.uk/collections/archive-collections/william-roberts]

Until 2010, the photographs were managed as part of the Centre's Photographic Archive holdings and as such were available on open access to interested researchers. During this period they appear to have been re-organised roughly in accordance with the standard filing order of Paul Mellon Centre Photographic Archive material: the titles on the outside of files are not in Waterhouse's hand. In 2010, following the appointment of the Centre's first Archivist, the boxes of photographs were reviewed and - found to contain a considerable amount of original correspondence and research notes - re-classified as an archive collection. Since this date the material has been on closed access and is supervised. Several readers familiar with the collection have reported that they believe material is missing.


None expected

Related Material

Ellis Kirkham Waterhouse's notebooks and research files are held at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles; Letters from Ellis Waterhouse to Basil Gray are held at the National Gallery, London.