Archives held at the Hamilton Kerr Institute
In 1819 Charles Roberson opened his first shop in Long Acre, London, selling artists’ materials. Among his initial customers, comprising mainly amateurs and businesses related to the art trade, the name of Sir Thomas Lawrence, President of the Royal Academy, stands out. His custom is an early indication of the important position Roberson was to occupy in the nineteenth-century art world. Today, the company is less well known than its contemporaries Reeves, Rowney, and Winsor & Newton, but in previous centuries it was one of the most influential colour houses in London, its customers spanning the social spectrum from Queen Victoria to theatrical scene painters. Although London based, Roberson's goods were sold throughout the United Kingdom and were carried to many parts of the British Empire by architects, surveyors, soldiers and colonial administrators, were used on Shackleton's Antarctic expeditions and by Sir Howard Carter in Egypt. The company also had both personal and trade customers in all five continents. Despite the growing importance of the amateur market in the nineteenth century, professional artists, many of whom worked in London, were the company's most valued customers. Roberson were proud of the number of Royal Academicians on their account books and their customers included Lord Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Turner, Burne-Jones, Tissot, Whistler, Sargent and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the St John's Wood Clique and the Cranbrook Colony as well as some of the great designers of the period including William Morris, William de Morgan, Gertrude Jekyll and Walter Crane.
Roberson’s activities are known in detail because of the survival of their archive, now housed at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, Cambridge, as part of the Fitzwilliam Museum's manuscript collection. With recipe books, catalogues, letters, colour charts, pigments, paint boxes and over three hundred and sixty account ledgers dating from 1820 to 1944, they form the largest artists’ colourman's archive in Britain. Many aspects of the history of the Victorian and Edwardian period can be traced in the Roberson Archive, but most importantly it provides a record of the materials and techniques of many leading nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and designers.
Roberson Archive Digitisation
The archives are fragile by their nature, yet form an important collection of documents for research. Funding is currently being sought to produce a web-accessible database of the most important documents in the Roberson Archive. This will allow scholars and researchers to consult the personal and trade account ledgers and catalogues remotely and to zoom in on detailed account entries, using the catalogue pages as a glossary where required; a demonstration page illustrates our intended approach. The database will comprise over 20,000 facsimile pages covering the period 1820 to 1939 and will make the Roberson Archive available to a worldwide audience, creating a major multi-disciplinary research resource for the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.