Tag Archives: Sir Robert Taylor

Michael Angelo Taylor and the Taylor Institution: Legacies, Politics, Modern Languages

When the noted architect Sir Robert Taylor died on 27 September 1788, he left behind a codicil to his will which stipulated that, after specific allocations had gone to his wife and others, the residue of his considerable fortune (which at his death stood at some £180,000), be left in the first instance to his son and, in the event of his dying without issue, to the University of Oxford.[1] This bequest, the codicil stated, was to be used for buying freehold land in Oxford and constructing upon it an institution ‘for the teaching and improving the European languages’.

Fig. 1: Foundation stone, Taylor Institution (Photo: Thomas Roberts)

These words, engraved in stone, dominate the grand staircase which leads to the Main Reading Room of the Taylor Institution Library, the establishment ultimately founded as a result of Sir Robert’s generous donation. The phrase, therefore, is likely to have penetrated the consciousness of frequent visitors to the Taylorian. Readers are much less likely, however, to have heard of Sir Robert’s son, Michael Angelo Taylor. Little do they know that, had his position, following his father’s death, prevailed the Taylor Institution and its library might never have been realised – at least, not in the form that it exists today.

Fig. 2: Portrait of Michael Angelo Taylor by S. W. Reynolds. Published by and after J. Lonsdale. 1822 © National Portrait Gallery (NPG D15054). CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Born in 1757, Michael Angelo Taylor was the only child of Sir Robert Taylor and his wife, Lady Taylor. After spending time at Westminster School, he received legal training at the Inner Temple and at Lincoln’s Inn, and in late 1774 he was admitted to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Seemingly headed for a career in the law, he was called to the bar three weeks later. He completed his BA in 1778, and subsequently received his MA from St John’s College, leaving in 1781. By then, it seems, his interest in the legal profession had waned, and he had cultivated an ambition to make his way in politics. In 1784 he became MP for Poole, embarking on what would be a long, noteworthy, and quite successful career in Parliament.[2]

His life after leaving Oxford, however, was not to be without difficulty or controversy. Significantly, after Sir Robert died in 1788, Michael Angelo set himself on a collision course with the institution at which he had studied. Apparently not content with the £50,000 that his father had left to him specifically, he chose to contest the will, as well as the codicil to it which set out the bequest to the University. Thus, the University found itself embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle which was to rumble on until after Michael Angelo himself died in 1834. Papers deposited with the University Archives tell the story.

Despite the University’s vigorous assertion of the ‘force and validity’[3] of the crucial codicil, whilst Michael Angelo remained alive no settlement was reached between the two parties regarding Sir Robert’s bequest. Initially, a judge in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury pronounced against the validity of the codicil establishing Sir Robert’s intention to leave part of his fortune to the University. This was largely, it seems, due to the fact that Sir Robert had never actually attached his signature to the codicil.[4] (It appears that a considerable portion of the University’s case centred around attempting to prove that Sir Robert had intended to do so, and was prevented only by the failures of his solicitors.[5]) Although the High Court of Delegates reversed this decision following an appeal by the University, letters of administration with the will and codicil annexed were granted to Michael Angelo in 1795.[6] Michael Angelo thus ‘possessed himself of all the real and personal estate of his father’ and ‘intermixed’ it with his own monies and property.[7] In 1817 he offered to settle the University’s claim on his father’s estate for £50,000 Irish currency (the majority of the estate was in property in Ireland), but the University seems to have declined this proposal.[8]

Fig. 3: Extract from a University document headed ‘2nd Session of Michaelmas Term, to wit, Friday the 14th day of November 1788’. The author writes: ‘the party proponent prays […] that the Right Worshipful the Judge of this court would pronounce for the force and validity of the aforesaid papers’. One of the papers in question was the codicil establishing the bequest to the University. University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/2b

The fact that Michael Angelo could draw upon the entirety of his father’s estate granted him a considerable degree of financial security, and no doubt allowed him to focus his energies more completely on his political career – a career which was to gain him much public notoriety. Having begun his time in Parliament as a follower of Pitt, he later allied himself with the radical Whig Charles Fox and favoured parliamentary reform. Over time he repeatedly found himself the subject of controversy, and became one of the preferred subjects of the satirical printmakers of the day, the most notable of whom being James Gillray.[9] Often referred to as the ‘chicken of the law’ (a title he had inadvertently bestowed upon himself when, during a debate in February 1785, he described himself as ‘but a chicken’ in his profession,[10]) he was frequently depicted as a diminutive figure with treacherous tendencies. One print published in May 1797 (Fig. 3) – a satire on the decision of Charles Fox and several of his followers among the opposition Whigs (of whom Michael Angelo was one) to secede from Parliament in 1797 after calling for reform – provides a colourful example. Here he appears in the form of a small rat – one of several seen scampering from the Opposition benches and out through the doors of the House of Commons.

Fig. 4: James Gillray, Parliamentary-reform,-or-opposition-rats, leaving the house they had undermined. 1797 © Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

In another print, published later that year (Fig. 4), he appears in a procession of ‘truants’ (that is, opposition Whigs who had seceded from the Commons) who are seen trudging reluctantly towards an angry-looking Pitt as they return to Parliament. Michael Angelo (second from the left) is here depicted as a miniscule figure, and one who has been humiliated – he is clearly embarrassed (he covers his face with his hand) – and a hen and her chicks can be seen at his feet. In depicting him in this way, the anonymous maker of this print perhaps sought to pierce through Taylor’s apparently pompous demeanour. Also noteworthy is the fact that all of the ‘truants’ wear bonnets-rouges, the implication being that they have revolutionary ambitions. Clearly, Michael Angelo was a divisive character whose behaviour inspired discussion and frustration in a number of different quarters, of which the University of Oxford was only one.

Fig. 5: Anon., Truant school-boys returning to their duty!! 1797 © Copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

It was only after Michael Angelo’s long career in public life was brought to a close by his death in 1834 that the battle over his father’s fortune was finally concluded. Michael Angelo’s proposal of settling the University’s claim on Sir Robert’s estate for a sum of £50,000 appeared again in his will, and was again rejected by the University, which sought a greater amount. However, as Michael Angelo had intermixed his father’s estate with his own monies, it was now impossible to ascertain exactly how much of it had been left in residue after payment of his debts and legacies. In the end, an agreement between the University and John Vane (a relation of Michael Angelo’s late wife) was reached in November 1835, whereby the University of Oxford received the sum of £65,000.[11]

Several documents held in the University Archives shed some light on the lengths that senior figures within the University went to in order to finally obtain these funds. One particularly interesting document (UD/23/1/5), which lists monies paid by the University in 1837 to a solicitor named Baker Morrell,[12] reveals how legal proceedings relating to Michael Angelo and his father’s bequest in the years prior cost the University large sums of money in lawyers’ fees. The first page of this document alone lists £4 8s 8d paid to Morrell for, among other things, ‘Perusing and considering Mr M.A. Taylor’s codicil and the codicil to Sir R. Taylor’s will containing the bequest to the University and also the papers in the cause upon the establishment of Sir R. Taylor’s will and codicils in 1795’ (see Fig. 5).

Fig. 6: Extract from a University document headed ‘The University to Baker Morrell (Sir Robert Taylor’s Bequest)’. 1837. University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/5

The document runs to several pages in length, and on the final page the total sum paid is given as £342 3s 4d – a not inconsiderable amount, being equal to around £28,500 in today’s currency.[13] The list is seemingly exhaustive, even including £3 3s for ‘Postages and carriage of parcels for 2 years’.

Fig. 7: A note, signed by Frederick Joseph Morrell (1811–1882), the son and partner of the solicitor Baker Morrell, attached to UD/23/1/5 (see Fig. 5), University of Oxford Archives. The note acknowledges receipt of payment from the University ‘for business relative to Sir Robert Taylor’s bequest’.

The foundation of the Taylor Institution, then, was a messy business. Thanks to Michael Angelo, the University had already expended a considerable amount of time and money before any meaningful plans for its construction could be made, let alone those for its character or constitution. When the necessary funds had finally been received, they were put towards a project whereby land was acquired from Worcester College, and a building which combined a modern languages institution and a University art gallery (later to become the Ashmolean Museum) was erected on the site, designed by C.R. Cockerell (son of Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who had been a pupil of Sir Robert).[14] The Taylor Institution Library opened, at long last, in early 1849, sixty-one years after the founder’s death.

Thomas Roberts
Graduate Library Trainee
Taylor Institution Library


Simon Bailey, Keeper of the University Archives, for permission to reproduce extracts relating to Sir Robert Taylor’s Last Will and Testament.

References and Further Reading

[1] Jill Hughes, ‘Taylor Institution Library’, in B. Fabian (ed.), Handbuch der historischen Buchbestände in Deutschland, Österreich und Europa, Hildesheim, 2003 [Online ed., http://www.b2i.de/fabian?Taylor_Institution_Library].

[2] Roland Thorne, “Taylor, Michael Angelo (bap. 1757–1834)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [online ed., Jan 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27067, accessed 22 Nov 2017].
‘TAYLOR, Michael Angelo (1757-1834), of Cantley Hall, nr. Doncaster, Yorks. and Whitehall Yard, Mdx.’ The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher (CUP, 2009) [Online ed.: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/taylor-michael-1757-1834, accessed 16 Mar 2018].

[3] ‘2nd Session of Michaelmas Term, to wit, Friday the 14th day of November 1788’. University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/2b – see Fig. 2.

[4] John Harris & Malcolm Baker, “Taylor, Sir Robert (1714–1788)” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [Online ed., Jan 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27077].

[5] In UD/23/1/2b it is stated, for example, that ‘it was his intention to sign [the codicil] […] and was accordingly by his own desire raised up in his bed in order to sign the same’.

[6] These and other details relating to the legal dispute are set out in a University document headed ‘Sir Robert Taylor’s Bequest to the University of Oxford’, University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/1-6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] This detail is noted by former Taylor librarian Giles Barber, who provides a succinct overview of the foundation of the library in his chapter entitled ‘The Taylor Institution’, in M.G. Brock & M.C. Curthoys (eds.), The History of the University of Oxford. Volume VI, Nineteenth-Century Oxford, Part 1 (OU), 1997), pp. 632-4.

[9] For an overview of Gillray’s work and significance, see, for example, Richard T. Godfrey & Mark Hallett (eds.), James Gillray: The Art of Caricature, Tate Publishing, 2001, and Draper Hill, Mr Gillray, the Caricaturist (London: Phaidon), 1965.

[10] Thorne, ‘Taylor, Michael Angelo’ (see note 2).

[11] This is recounted in the document entitled ‘Sir Robert Taylor’s Bequest to the University of Oxford’, University of Oxford Archives, UD/23/1/1-6.

[12] The Bodleian Library holds papers relating to Baker Morrell, as well as his father, James Morrell (also an Oxford solicitor). See http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/wmss/online/1500-1900/morrell-enclosures/morrell-enclosures.html.

[13] See MeasuringWorth.com: https://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/.

[14] Barber, ‘The Taylor Institution’, p. 633 (see n. 8).

See also: Thomas Roberts Satirical prints and national identity in England, c.1760-c.1830 (B.A. Thesis, London School of Economics, 2017)

LGBT History Month: Piranesi Special Seminar

A personal view: Yourcenar, Piranesi and Egypt
By Richard Bruce Parkinson

In the early 1960s, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote an essay on ‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse (The dark brain of Piranesi)’. Earlier, in 1941, she and her American life-partner Grace Frick had bought four engravings in New York which remained with them for the rest of their lives, and one of them played a part in inspiring what remains her most famous work, Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian 1951). The novel is a poetic evocation of the life of the Roman emperor, including his relationship with the handsome Antinous, who died on an imperial progress in middle Egypt in AD 130. The novel has always had particular resonance for LGBT readers as a profoundly ‘queer’ imagining of the ancient past, but it has also been inspirational for some Egyptologists, notably the great Philippe Derchain (1926–2012), who even composed a fictional account, in an intertextual dialogue with Yourcenar’s novel, of the Barberini obelisk that Hadrian had erected in Antinous’ honour.

Fig. 1. G. B. Piranesi: ‘Exterior of the so-called “Tempio del Dio Canopo” at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli’, in Vedute di Roma, vol. 5 (ca. 1769)

The above print, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from around 1769, shows the exterior of the so-called ‘Tempio del Dio Canopo’ at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli from the series entitled Vedute di Roma, which forms volume 5 in Taylorian founder Sir Robert Taylor’s own set of Piranesi volumes, now housed in the Taylor Institution Library (see http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylorian/2014/12/19/unpacking-sir-robert-taylors-library/). The villa was central to Yourcenar’s inspiration, and this is the one image she described in detail in her reflective notes on composing the novel. From ancient descriptions of the villa as containing a ‘Canopus’, the building at its centre was thought to represent the town of Canopus in Egypt, and it was traditionally regarded as the find spot for many Egyptianising works of art from the villa. In the novel, ‘cette chapelle de Canope où son culte se célèbre à l’égyptienne (that chapel of Canopus where his cult is celebrated in Egyptian fashion)’ is evoked as Hadrian attempts to summon up the ghost of his lost beloved. Piranesi’s print is a carefully captioned view of the structure, reflecting his concerns to document the ‘speaking ruins’ of ancient Rome, but it also possesses a romantic quality that appealed to Yourcenar. She described the etching as showing ‘structure ronde, éclatée come un crâne, d’où de vagues broussailles pendent comme des mèches de cheveux. Le génie presque médiumnique de Piranèse a flairé là l’hallucination, les longues routines du souvenir, l’architecture tragique d’un monde intérieur (a round structure, burst open like a skull, from which fallen trees and brush hang vaguely down, like strands of hair. The genius of Piranesi, almost mediumistic, has truly caught the element of hallucination here: he has sensed the long-continued rituals of mourning, the tragic architecture of an inner world)’.  The domed building is skull-like, with two fallen masses of the vault placed symmetrically in the foreground like jaws; they still lie in the area today.

Fig. 2. The vault and fallen blocks of the ‘Canopus’ (photograph: R. B. Parkinson)

As Nigel Saint has noted, the view down the central axis of the etching allows the viewer to look from the outside into as it were the inner parts of the emperor’s private world, as Yourcenar attempted. The strikingly symmetrical composition creates a sense of mystery: what are the three tiny figures doing in the centre of the monumental arena – are they reading palms?

Fig. 3. G. B. Piranesi: ‘Exterior of the so-called “Tempio del Dio Canopo” at Hadrian’s Villa,Tivoli’ (detail), in Vedute di Roma, vol. 5 (ca. 1769)

As Yourcenar’s emperor says of his villa, ‘chaque édifice était le plan d’un songe (each structure was the chart of a dream)’. The tree on the left seems playfully to echo the gesturing figure on the right, as if monument, nature and humans are all parts of a single grandiose ruin: such contemporaneous figures appealed to Yourcenar’s desire to explore ways to mediate between the living present and the past, through ‘[les] milliers de vies silencieuses, furtives comme celles des bêtes … qui se sont succédé ici entre Hadrien et nous (the thousands of lives, silent and furtive as those of wild beasts … who have followed in our succession here between Hadrian’s time and ours)’. For her, the depiction of a ruin becomes ‘une méditation à la fois visuelle et métaphysique sur la vie et la mort des formes (a meditation both visual and metaphysical on the life and death of forms)’.

To modern archaeological eyes, the print also shows that any historical certainty is remarkably uncertain, as excavations and reconstructions of the building continually change the picture in every sense: the traditional idea that this building was connected with Egyptianising art-works and cult has been disputed, and its identification as Hadrian’s ‘Canopus’ is far from certain, with architectural historians arguing that it was probably only a scenic triclinium for the summer months.

Fig. 4. The ‘Canopus’ with a restored pool and re-erected columns (photograph: R. B. Parkinson)

The architecture is no longer considered in any way ‘tragic’. New layers of interpretation gather around the image, but I retain a fondness for it, partly as a symbol of Yourcenar’s vision of a queer ‘monde intérieur’. And partly because a print of it hung (and still hangs) over the fireplace of the sitting room in Petite Plaisance, the house that she shared with Grace Frick in Northeast Harbor, Maine.

Fig. 5. Yousuf Karsh: Marguerite Yourcenar at Petite Plaisance in 1987 (© Estate of Yousuf Karsh)

The print thus not only evokes the ancient past of Hadrian and Antinous, but also the modern personal, domestic world of Yourcenar and Frick. For me, as a gay Egyptologist, it has become an image of what historians do in trying to recapture a sense of ancient lived experiences—not only with precision, but also with imagination and empathy.

Richard Bruce Parkinson
Professor of Egyptology & Fellow of The Queen’s College
University of Oxford

Post Script

The opportunity to view this and Piranesi’s other etchings took place during a special seminar, ‘G. B. Piranesi: Sir Robert Taylor’s Collection of Etchings & the Ashmolean Candelabra’, held at the Taylor Institution and the Ashmolean Museum in late 2017. The occasion arose from Oxford’s 2017 Slade Lectures, ‘The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities’ (http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/event/slade-lectures-2017), during which Caroline van Eck (Uni-versity of Cambridge) focused on the works of Piranesi, thus prompting further investigation of the Taylorian’s collection. In remarkable condition and logistically difficult to display, the Library’s full set had rarely (if ever) been shown in its entirety. The Piranesi seminar, led by Professor van Eck, thus enabled an international group of academics and curators from a variety of disciplines to examine and discuss Sir Robert Taylor’s set; and also to hear, from Christoph Frank (U. della Svizzera italiana, Mendrisio), about the discovery of a previously unknown album of Piranesi drawings at Karlsruhe, throwing light on the conservation history of one of the Ashmolean candelabra.

Fig. 6. G.B. Piranesi. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi, tripodi, lucerne ed ornamenti antichi (Rome, 1778)

To many, the most compelling component of the seminar was volume 17. This, an ‘elephant folio’ (79 x 61 cm.), unfolded at one end to a 3.5 metre-long etching of the Colonna Traiana (Trajan’s Column, fig. 9); and, at the other, to an equally long Colonna Antonina (also known as the Colonna di Marco Aurelio or Colonna Aureliana).

Clare Hills-Nova
Italian Literature & Language Librarian
Taylor Institution Library

Further reading

Marguerite Yourcenar:

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoires d’Hadrien (Paris: Plon, 1951). English translation by Grace Frick: Memoirs of Hadrian (London : Readers Union, 1955).

Marguerite Yourcenar, ‘‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse’ in Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1962). English translation by Richard Howard in The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Henley-on-Thames: Ellis, 1985), 88–128.

Véronique Beirnaert-Mary and Achmy Halley (ed.), Marguerite Yourcenar et l’empereur Hadrien: Une réécriture de l’antiquité (Gand: Snoeck, 2015).

Thorsten Opper, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (London: British Museum, 2008).

R. B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World (London: British Museum, 2013), 118-121.

Nigel Saint, Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual (Oxford: Legenda, 2000).

Fig. 9. G.B. Piranesi. Veduta del prospotto principale della Colonna Trajana (Ghent University Library)

G. B. Piranesi:

Ghent University Library/Universiteits Bibliotheek Gent. Prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778): http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/tel4/collection/a1004 (viewed 03/02/2018).

Georg Kabierske, “A Cache of Newly Identified Drawings by Piranesi and His Studio at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe”, Master Drawings LIII/2 (2015), 147-179.

Georg Kabierske, “Vasi, urne, cinerarie, altari e candelabri: Newly Identified Drawings for Piranesi’s Antiquities and Sculptural Comporsisions at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe” in Francesco Nevola (ed.), Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Predecessori, contemporanei e successori: Studi in onore di John Wilton-Ely  (Rome: Quasar, 2016), 245-262.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, [Opera Piranesi]. Rome, [1748-1779]: v.1-4. Le antichità romane. — v.5-6. Vedute di Roma. — v.7. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum. — Osservazioni. — v.8. Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo. –Antichità di Cora. -v.9. Alcune vedute di archi trionfali. — Opere varie di architettura prospettive grotteschi antichità. — Le rouine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia. — Trofei di Ottaviano Avgvsto. — v.10. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum regiae. — v.11, 12. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi. — v.13. Descrizione e disegno dell’emissario del Lago Albano. — I. B. Piranesii Lapides capitolini. — v.14. Raccolta de tempj antichi. — Diversi maniere d’adornare i cammini. — v.15. Différentes vues de quelques restes de trois grands édifices. — v.16. Raccolta di alcuni disegni del Barberi da Cento. — Carceri d’invenzione. — Il teatro d’Ercolano alla maestra di Gustavo III. — v.17. Trofeo o sia magnifica colonna. — Colonna Antonina come si vede oggidi. — Colonna eretta in memoria dell’apoteosi di Antonino Pio.

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 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/27077; 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., http://www.b2i.de/fabian?Taylor_Institution_Library]

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