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History of British Art: Rare Books & Manuscripts

Collection Highlights

Naval Woolwork, 1891. embroidered panel incorporating a tintype, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

John Constable, Autograph letter from Constable to John Thomas Smith dated between 16 January and 23 March 1797, inlaid to size and bound in Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, by Charles Robert Leslie, London, James Carpenter, 1843. Manuscript, in pen and ink, Yale Center for British Art,
Paul Mellon Collection

YCBA Rare Books and Manuscripts Department

The Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts holds approximately 35,000 volumes. The collection represents a broad range of material relating to the visual arts and cultural life in the United Kingdom and the former British Empire, dating from the fifteenth century to the present. Particular strengths include illustrated “color-plate” books from the renowned J. R. Abbey collection, drawing manuals, sporting books and manuscripts, early maps and atlases, early printed books by William Caxton and his contemporaries, private press and contemporary artists’ books, as well as archival and manuscript material relating to British artists, writers, and travelers of all periods. 

Computerized cataloging of the Center's rare books and manuscripts is in progress. Access to records of works in the department is available in a number of resources: the Center’s collections search provides access to material from all of its departments, while Orbis—the Yale Libraries online catalog—enables a researcher to also explore the holdings of other special collections at Yale. The Yale Finding Aid Database provides detailed descriptions of the department’s archival collections, along with other archives at Yale.

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Department can be contacted directly to speak with a curator:

Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel Street
P.O. Box 208280
New Haven, CT 06520-8280

+1 203 432 2815
+1 203 432 9613 fax

Elisabeth Fairman
Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts
+1 203 432 2814


Finding  Information about Objects in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Department staff can provide information on the works in the collection of the YCBA, and the Reference Library can assist with any secondary resources pertaining to the Center's collections. Look at the Reference Library resources below for hints on finding information about objects in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection.

Orbis: The Yale Library's online catalogue is the database of record for the Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Center's collections. Orbis is free and accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Books in the Center's collection will have a "British Art Center" location in the online record. 

The YCBA Collections Search: The Center's Rare Books can now be searched or in conjunction with the art and reference collections of the YCBA.

Rare Book Card Catalogue: A card catalogue in the Reference Library Reading Room provides access to portions of the collection not available in Orbis: serials, rare auction catalogues, and catalogued manuscripts.

YCBA Printed publications:
The YCBA Reference Library holds a complete collection of the Center's exhibition and collection catalogues dating from 1977 to today. Many of these publications include objects from the YCBA Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection.


Selected Paintings Drawings and Books, YCBA, 1977.

Baskett, John, et al. Paul Mellon's Legacy: A Passion for British Art. Masterpieces from the Yale Center for British Art,YCBA, 2007.

Abbey, J. R. Life in England in Aquatint and Lithography, 1770-1860, Folkstone, 1972. 

YCBA Study Room: Rare books can be requested in the Center's Study Room after filling out a call slip. No appointment is necessary. Study Room Hours: Tuesday - Friday, 10 am - 4:30 pm