Category Archives: History of the Library

Unpacking Sir Robert Taylor’s Library

Most readers at the Taylor Institution Library, where the study of Modern European Literatures and Languages began in Oxford, are unaware that they owe the founding of their discipline at the University, as well as that discipline’s Library and the beginnings of its extensive research resources, to a prominent 18th century architect. Still less do they realise that this architect’s own library has survived, and that it is housed in the very building that bears his name: Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788).

Left: Taylor Institution Library, Bookplate, Sir Robert Taylor’s Library Collection (after 1849)

Similarly, many an architectural historian – with the notable exception of Sir Howard Colvin (1919-2007), in A biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600-1840 – has been unaware of the survival of Sir Robert’s library in Oxford. Indeed, one recent viewer of the collection surmised that the collection’s generally good state of preservation might have been due to its negligible exposure. It seems likely that, up to 2014, the 300th anniversary of Taylor’s birth, his books had seldom been consulted since (and possibly before) their presumed arrival at the newly built Taylorian in the mid-19th century. Walter Benjamin described unpacking his books after two years of darkness; the darkness that befell Sir Robert Taylor’s books lasted around two centuries. Clearly, in 2014 it was time for the collection to receive greater attention. In Sir Robert’s anniversary year, therefore, a selection of works from his collection was shown in a temporary exhibition organised and discussed by architectural historian Dr. Matthew Walker. (For podcast, click here [takes several seconds to load].)

S(c) Taylor Institution; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationir Robert Taylor (1714-1788), architect of the Bank of England as well as designer of many fine town and country houses, died a very rich man, leaving some £180,000 of which £65,000 was ultimately allocated to the University of Oxford “for erecting a proper Edifice … for establishing a Foundation for the teaching & improving the European Languages”.

Right: William Miller(?), Sir Robert Taylor (ca. 1782/1783) (Taylor Institution]

A legal dispute regarding this bequest delayed the foundation of the Taylor Institution and ensured that its building was completed, by C.R. Cockerell (born the year of Taylor’s death — 1788-1863), only in 1844. The Library opened early in 1849.

2014-09-TayBldg-C19thImateAbove: The Taylor Institution, University of Oxford (Architect C.R. Cockerell, 1841-45)

Sir Robert’s decision to bequeath such a large sum to establish a centre for the study and teaching of European languages has never been satisfactorily explained but it seems likely that he was influenced by his journey to Rome in 1742. There, and en route to that city, he would have needed to negotiate the various languages spoken and read by the many artists, architects, patrons and others he encountered. Certainly, the books Taylor owned were not just in English.

It is not known whether Taylor acquired his foreign language books (mostly in French or Italian, with a few in German or Latin) while travelling or, rather, acquired them after he had established his architectural practice in London. With some notable exceptions, his library (comprising some 70 volumes) is a typical example of a mid-18th century English architect’s library representing, like its owner, the transition from Palladianism to Neo-Classicism. The earliest work in the collection is an Italian Renaissance architectural treatise (Scamozzi 1615 [see image below]) by the architect who completed a number of Andrea Palladio’s unfinished projects.

Fairly standard works in Taylor’s collection include those on Classical architecture (Vitruvius, trans. Perrault 1673 [see image above]; Stuart & Revett 1762 [see images above and below); on Italian Renaissance architecture (e.g. Palladio, translated by Isaac Ware 1738 [not illustrated: Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.35]); and on 17th and 18th century English architecture (e.g. Isaac Ware, The Designs of Inigo Jones and Others (London, 1735) [not illustrated: Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.70]), including the only text to include a design of Taylor’s (Campbell 1715-1725 [see image below]).


Above: James Stuart and Nicholas Revett, The Antiquities of Athens, Measured and Delineated, Vol. 1 (London, 1762) [Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.68] (One of the large format, fold-out pages)

Yet the collection also contains some publications that would have been slightly less representative of the typical 18th century architect’s library. Most notable is the magnificent, large format 17 volume set, in remarkably good condition, of works by the Italian architect and printmaker, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778). The set includes his Le Antichità Romane (1756 [see image below]) as well as the compelling Carceri d’invenzione (begun 1745, first published 1750 [see image below]).


Above: G.B. Piranesi, Le antichità romane (Rome, 1756) [Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.44-47]

Ostensibly antiquarian explorations of Rome’s classical remains, Piranesi’s images are not based on the faithful observation and precise measurements found in other such studies (e.g. Desgodetz 1682 [see image below]).
Left: Antoine Desgodets, Les edifices antiques de Rome (Paris, 1682) [Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.24]

Rather, they are almost an anticipation of the Romantic, Gothic or even Post-Modern imagination, showing dramatic, sometimes disturbing scenes comprising heavily overgrown ruins; or gigantic subterranean vaults dominating tiny human figures, with terrifying machines and staircases leading nowhere. While Piranesi was extensively collected by the English, including architects, Taylor’s library shows his predilection for this artist-architect.

The history of the collection between Sir Robert’s death and the opening of the Taylor Institution Library 61 years later remains unclear. One book in the collection – the 3rd edition of William Chambers’ A treatise on the decorative part of civil architecture (London, 1791 [not illustated: Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.14]) – was published three years after he died and it’s possible that his son, Michael Angelo (1757-1834), acquired it; certainly, its presence indicates that some attention continued to be paid to the collection. Sir Robert seems not to have had his own bookplate and the only evidence of the collection’s origin is an early Taylor Institution Library bookplate, “Ex legato Roberti Taylor, Militis, Fundatoris”, added to each volume.

It’s also clear that the architect’s entire collection did not survive 100% intact. In terms of his book collection, the library of his near contemporary, the architect Sir William Chambers (1723-1796), comprised 140 items, twice the size of Sir Robert’s collection as it arrived at the Taylorian. More indicative of the collections’ limited survival is the fact that very few of Taylor’s own designs survived, and none of the three volumes now at the Taylorian that do contain designs includes architectural plans or elevations in his hand.

2014-09-RobertTaylor-ChimneypieceThe Taylorian possesses one small volume comprising decorative designs, some hand coloured, of rococo chimney pieces (in rather poor condition); one very large volume of mounted drawings, most of them for funerary monuments and not necessarily in Taylor’s hand or of works by him; and one manuscript “textbook” on geometry, “mensuration” and perspective.

Left: Robert Taylor Chimneypiece n. 8, Sir R. Taylor’s Designs (bound ms., 1750s?) [Shelfmark ARCH.TAY.2]


Clare Hills-Nova, Italian Literature and Language Librarian, Taylor Institution Library, Bodleian Libraries

Further reading

Daniel M. Abramson, Building the Bank of England: money, architecture, society, 1694-1942 (London, 2005) [Sackler: Shelfmark NA6245.G72 L633 ABR 2005]

Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking my library” (first published in Die literarische Welt,1931) Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, 1969) [Sackler: Shelfmark PN75.B25 BEN 1992]

Marcus Binney, Sir Robert Taylor: from rococo to neoclassicism (London, 1984) [Taylorian: Shelfmark TAY.2.A.1]

“The European languages”: a selection of books from the Taylor Institution in commemoration of the death of Sir Robert Taylor, 27 September 1788 (Oxford, 1988) [Taylorian: Shelfmark TAY.3.D]

Howard Colvin, A biographical dictionary of British architects, 1600-1840 (London, 1978); 4th ed. (New Haven & London, 2008) [Sackler: Shelfmark NA996.C6 COL 2008]

J. Gilson, Books from the Library of Sir Robert Taylor in the Library of the Taylor Institution, Oxford: a checklist (Oxford, 1973) [Taylorian: Shelfmark TAY.3.C]

John Harris & Malcolm Baker, “Taylor, Sir Robert (1714–1788)” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004) [Bodleian: Shelfmarks B3.101 (LRR) and S.DNB (U. Cam.) Online ed., Jan 2013 [; Sir Robert Taylor (1714–1788): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/27077]

Jill Hughes, “Taylor Institution Library” Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland, Österreich und Europa. Ed. by B. Fabian (Hildesheim, 2003) [Online ed.,]

J. Watkin, ed., Sale catalogues of libraries of eminent persons, v. 4: Architects (London, 1972) [Sackler: Shelfmark Z988 SAL 1971]


BBC-Your Paintings (Public Catalogue Foundation)
Vicky Brown, Visual Resources Curator, History of Art Department, University of Oxford
Nick Hearn, French & Russian Subject Consultant, Taylor Institution Library
James Legg, Taylor Librarian, Taylor Institution Library
Other Taylor Institution Library staff members

History of the Taylor Institution Library and its Collections

The Taylor Institution is the centre for the study of medieval and modern European languages, except English, and was Oxford’s first specialist centre to combine library, teaching and administration in one building.

2014-09-TayBldg-C19thImateAbove: The Taylor Institution, University of Oxford (Architect C.R. Cockerell, 1841-45)

It owes its name and its existence to the highly successful London architect Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788), sometime Surveyor to the Bank of England, Architect of the King’s Works and Sheriff of London.

(c) Taylor Institution; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Left: William Miller(?) Sir Robert Taylor (ca. 1782/1783)

In a codicil to his will Sir Robert left the residue of his large fortune (£180,000), in the first instance to his son and, in the event of his dying without issue, to the Chancellor and Scholars of the University of Oxford for buying freehold land and ‘erecting a proper edifice thereon, and for establishing a foundation for the teaching and improving the European languages’. After various legal complications and the death of Sir Robert’s son, Michael Angelo, in 1834, the University inherited the sum of £65,000. It was then decided to combine this project with the plan to build a University art gallery, now the Ashmolean Museum. An architectural competition to design two buildings entirely distinct in their internal arrangements but to form ‘parts of an architectural design which is required to be of a Grecian character’ was announced in 1839. The winning design by C. R. Cockerell resulted in a handsome neoclassical building, completed in 1844.

The nature and constitution of the Taylorian were not decided without some controversy. The dominance of classical studies and the influence of High Church religion resulted in an environment hostile to the introduction of this new area of teaching. Regulations for the Institution were approved in part in April 1845, a board of nine curators from within the senior ranks of the University being then appointed. It was a further two years before full agreement was reached and the Taylorian statute finally passed on 4 March 1847. The aim was to teach those languages ‘essential to Diplomatic or commercial pursuits’ and possessing a ‘sufficient’ literature. French and German were first priority, followed later by Italian, Spanish, Slavonic languages, Byzantine and modern Greek and Portuguese and, briefly in the late 19th century, Scandinavian languages. In the first decades teaching was at an elementary level and it was not until 1903 that an Honour School of Modern Languages was at last established.

The purpose of the library has always been to provide a working collection to support the study of European languages rather than to be a rare books collection, although inevitably early publications were acquired by the library, often as gifts.

2014-09-TayRareBooksAbove: Taylor Institution Library: Rare Book Room volumes

In the 19th century the collecting policy was eclectic. Although philology and European belles-lettres were the main areas covered, other subjects such as history, theology and even jurisprudence are indicated in the locator lists. The focus of collecting in the 20th and 21st centuries has been increasingly restricted to the core subject matter, i.e. all the languages and literatures of continental Europe (plus the Celtic languages), especially those studied at Oxford.

During the early period of the library’s existence books for purchase were suggested by the teachers and decided on by the Library Committee of the Curators at their weekly meetings. The first librarian, John Macray (1796-1878), was appointed on 23 March 1847, the first books bought in May 1848, but from the Curators’ minutes it seems that the library did not open until early in 1849. Books were not on open shelves except to senior members of the University, and until 1856 no borrowing was allowed. The early years saw only a slow growth of the book stock since the Institution’s income was largely taken up with repayments of the building costs.


Two collections antedated the library and were moved there in the first year, namely the architectural books of the founder and the large collection of books and works of art bequeathed to the University by Robert Finch.

Left: James Northcote, Robert Poole Finch (1791)

The library also provided a temporary home for two other unrelated collections (the Hope Entomological from 1849 and the Strickland Ornithological from 1854) until they were moved to the newly built University Museum in 1860.

The library’s first published catalogue, in 1861, listed some 6,000 book titles, two thirds of which represented works in the Finch collection. From 1858 to the end of the 19th century about £250 per annum was spent on acquisitions with a further £80-£100 for bindings. From time to time special supplementary grants would be made.

(c) Taylor Institution; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
In 1874, at the suggestion of Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), the Taylorian’s second Professor of Modern European Languages and for many years a most active Curator and supporter of the library, the sum of £500 was provided for filling gaps in the collection particularly in the early period of literature. Consequently most of the library’s incunables and Reformation pamphlets were acquired in the 1870s and 1880s.

Left: George Sauter, Friedrich Max Müller (date unknown)

The last quarter of the 19th century was a period of particular activity and growth. On the retirement of the first Librarian in 1871 the Curators resolved to elect ‘a competent Librarian and not simply a Library Clerk’. Accordingly, Dr Heinrich Krebs (1844-1921), was appointed on 12 May 1871 and was to remain in post for the next 50 years. In the early 1870s the collections, then numbering c. 13,000 items, were entirely reorganised and recatalogued by an assistant librarian from the Bodleian Library, George Parker. In 1895 the library was augmented by more than 1,000 vols mainly of early Spanish and Portuguese works bequeathed by Miss Williamina Mary Martin (1819-1895). By the end of the century some 350 titles were being acquired annually and the library subscribed to 114 periodicals and newspapers. The collection was said to number 40,000 vols in 1900.

In the 20th century the library was greatly enhanced by bequests from teaching staff associated with the Institution such as Professor Hermann Georg Fiedler, (1862-1945) and by Oxford colleges depositing specialist collections, Oriel College being the first to do so in 1921.

Left: Hermann Georg Fiedler

Major events in the library’s history must include the opening of a substantial extension to the building in 1932, which facilitated wholesale reclassification of the modern stock in the 1960s and 1970s and provision of open shelf access for graduates.

Above: Taylor Institution: 1930s extension

From 1964, following the Parry report on Latin American studies, the library began to build up substantial Latin American collections.

In 1968, because of pressure on space, the Slavonic and Modern Greek collections were removed from the main building, and separately housed and organised at 67 St Giles’. In the late 1970s, these collections transferred to new quarters, at 41-47 Wellington Square, as did the Institution’s administrative and academic staff.

2014-09-TABSAbove: Taylor Institution Library, Wellington Square, housing Slavonic and Modern Greek collections

Left: Taylor Institution Library, Voltaire Room

1975 saw two far-reaching changes in the library, namely the opening of the Voltaire Room, established to promote study on the Enlightenment, and the creation of the University’s first out-of-town book repository in Nuneham Courtenay (now superseded by the Book Storage Facility (BSF) in Swindon, which opened in October 2010 and is capable of holding 8.4 million volumes on 153 miles of shelving).

In 1985 the library’s Germanic holdings took a new direction when the nearly 3,000 vols of Whitechapel Public Library’s Yiddish collection, containing many uncommon books from the first half of the 20th century, were acquired. In the present day the Taylorian continues to benefit from bequests such as the recent donation from the estate of distinguished medieval scholar Dr Olive Sayce, which contains rare books from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Jill Hughes, former German Subject Librarian and Librarian-in-Charge, Taylor Institution Library

Further reading
The above text has been adapted from a detailed description of the Library’s history and historic collections, published by Jill Hughes in the Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland. Hrsg. von Bernhard Fabian. Hildesheim: Olms Neue Medien, 2003.

Photo credits
BBC-Your Paintings (Public Catalogue Foundation)
James Legg, Taylor Librarian, and others, Taylor Institution Library