Take a look around the RA's hidden library

Tucked away in the heart of the Royal Academy is a room of thousands of art books (and a few artworks) collected over more than 250 years. Come peruse the shelves...

By Royal Academy of Arts

The Royal Academy of Arts Library was established along with the rest of the academy in 1768, more than 250 years ago.

It's the oldest institutional fine arts library in the United Kingdom.

The library was established to serve the needs of the artist-members of the Royal Academy, and the students in the RA Schools.

Spread over two floors, the library houses significant collections of books and other material relating to British art since the mid-18th century, as well as the history of the Royal Academy, its members, exhibitions and collection, and its art school.

The library has a historic book collection of more than 12,000 volumes published before 1920. It includes many rare titles reproducing the masterpieces of medieval and post-Renaissance European art and architecture; detailed archaeological surveys of the civilisations of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt; volumes of engravings recording civil, military and religious festivals, ceremonies and costume; and original editions of almost all early treatises on painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, printmaking, anatomy, perspective, colour theory, art collecting and connoisseurship.

The library's British art reference collection has around 30,000 monographs, exhibition catalogues and reference books on British art and artists, with particular concentration on the life and work of members of the Royal Academy.

And the library room is home to some other treasures too – in the centre is John Gibson RA's marble sculpture, Wounded Warrior (details), made in the 1860s.

In the glass case here is a miniature plaster cast of Laocoön and his Sons, which is itself a Roman copy of the lost Greek original.

The sculpture tells part of the story of the Trojan horse: when the Greeks presented the Trojans with their huge wooden horse, the Trojan priest Laocoön warned fellow citizens against bringing the gift into their city. (He was right to be suspicious – the horse was actually filled with Greek warriors ready to storm the place). Laocoön's warning aroused the anger of the god Poseidon (who favoured the Greeks) so he sent sea serpents to strangle Laocoön and his sons, which is what you see here.

You can see a full-size version of this sculpture in the RA Collection Gallery.

Upstairs you can find this 1779 painting, Theory (details) by Joshua Reynolds – one of the Academy's founders and its first President.

Reynolds expounded the idea that adhering to precise theories of art-making would produce the best work. In one of his many lectures on the topic, he claimed that "Theory is the knowledge of what is truly Nature".

Here, "theory" is personified as a pensive person holding a scroll (perhaps filled with art theory), dressed to recall styles from ancient Greek and Rome, since they were upheld as the pinnacles of cultured society in the 18th century.

You can also find custom-decorated chairs from the RA's history.

The library is open to the public by appointment – find out more about visiting.

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