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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

8 polaroid photographs lying on a table

Shelf Life: Exploring the Wilson Archive

Vicki Cowan

[ Library and Archive, Stories )

Our Library Volunteer, Vicki Cowan, writes about her work archiving the Colin St John Wilson Archive.

One of the more extensive archives held at the Pallant House Gallery Library and Archives comes from Colin St John Wilson. It contains many boxes of letters, postcards and papers between Wilson and most of the artists he collected. This includes Eduardo Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, R. B. Kitaj and Michael Andrews. The correspondence shows the unique relationships and friendships that developed between Wilson and the artists. Every item in the boxes is archived and listed, creating an invaluable resource for research.


The Artist at Work, On the Working Methods of William Coldstream and Michael Andrews, (Lund Humphries, London. 1999)

The Artist at Work book cover
Black and white photo showing a man sitting at a large desk holding a metal pipe. In front of him on the desk is a small scale model of a building.

Who was Colin St. John Wilson?

Professor Sir Colin St. John Wilson RA (1922 – 2007) was a British architect, who is perhaps best known for designing the British Library, London, together with his wife, MJ Long, also an architect. The couple also designed the New Wing of Pallant House Gallery in 2006.

Together with Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi, Wilson had been a member of the radical ‘Independent Group’, a precursor to the development of British  Pop art, which met at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the 1950s to discuss architecture, art, design and advertising.

Wilson became a prolific art collector and was close friends with many of the artists he collected. This included R. B. Kitaj, William Coldstream and Michael Andrews. His second wife, MJ Long, was also a keen collector and together they built one of the important collections of post-war British art. Part of this collection and the linked archive material was generously donated to Pallant House Gallery. In 2021 the MJ Long acquisition brought a further 175 works to the Gallery from their collection.

 Find out more


One particularly exciting addition to the Wilson Archive came in 2019, after his wife M.J. Long passed away. Pallant House Gallery Library and Archives received a few boxes from her estate of material relating to Colin St John Wilson’s book, published in 1999, The Artist at Work, On the Working Methods of William Coldstream and Michael Andrews. This is a study of the working methods of two of the artists he knew and whose works he collected, William Coldstream and Michael Andrews. Both painted portraits of Wilson and through direct observation Wilson used the experience of his sittings for the portraits to produce a comparative analysis of their working processes, approaches and methods. He used photographs of the artists at work and of the works in progress, as well as notes and sketches made while with the artists.



William Coldstream, Colin St John Wilson. 1982-83.

Painting by William Coldstream depicting a man in a grey suit seated in a black armchair. Behind him is a picture of different coloured squares hanging on teh wall, and a pile of books on the left

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Wilson Family Loan, 2006) © The Estate of Sir William Coldstream

Page from The Artist at Work showing Michael Andrews’s portrait of Wilson.

Portrait of Colin St. John Wilson as an older man in a blue shirt with white and grey hair parted to the right


It was exciting to find within the boxes we received a bag of the original Polaroids photos Colin St John Wilson took while sitting for his portrait by William Coldstream. Coldstream took his time painting the portrait between 1981 and 1983 with Colin St John Wilson ending up doing 96 sittings! After each sitting, Wilson took a Polaroid image to record the progress of the painting, numbering and dating them, and made handwritten notes, sketches and comments while he sat for Coldstream.


A selection of Polaroids of the portrait in progress. Wilson Archive, Pallant House Gallery Library and Archives.

8 polaroid photographs lying on a table

In The Artist at Work Wilson writes: ‘When sitting for my portrait by Coldstream I was able to jot down (very furtively, since the slightest movement elicited a reprimand) a great many notes and diagrams’ (p.11).



Two of several sheets of notes written by Colin St John Wilson while sitting for Coldstream’s portrait. Wilson Archive, Pallant House Gallery Library and Archives.

2 handwritten letters by Colin St. John Wilson

In the portrait, set in Colin St John Wilson’s office, Wilson sits in an armchair with his legs crossed. He is writing or sketching in a notepad, with a pile of books beside the chair. Hanging on the wall behind Wilson is R.B. Kitaj’s Specimen Musings of a Democrat (1961). Both these paintings are currently on display in Room 4 in the gallery, side by side.


R.B. Kitaj, Specimen Musings of a Democrat. 1961.

Oil painting and collage with many squares of different colours with small sketches or writing within them

R. B. Kitaj, Specimen Musings of a Democrat, 1961, Oil and collage on canvas, Wilson Gift through Art Fund (2006), © R.B. Kitaj Estate

We are delighted to have the original Polaroids in the Wilson Archive at Pallant House Library and Archives, safely archived and stored along with Wilson’s notes.

Researchers are welcome to make an appointment to view this and our other Library and Archive collections. Please contact our librarian Jane Holt for further details.

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