Cottonian Collection history

Of national and international importance the collection as it exists today emerged through two hundred years of collecting, from the mid 17th century to the mid 19th century.

The history of the Cottonian Collection begins with the core of the library which was formed by Robert Townson (1640 to 1707) who bequeathed it to his son William (1682 to 1740). His main interest, beyond his career in the Custom House, had been to collect prints, drawings and books. It was these he added before leaving the collection to his friend and protégé Charles Rogers (1711 to 1784). Rogers built on this modest assemblage over the main decades of the 18th century, between the 1730s and 80s. During these years his wealth, social contacts and interest in the Pursuit allowed him to amass a quite remarkable collection reflecting his interests, taste and patronage.

Image of a man and woman sitting in a large library room

Rogers’ great passion was prints and drawings, and coupled with his knowledge, discerning eye and acquaintance with many of the leading artists, printmakers and dealers of his day allowed him to collect works of high quality. His connoisseurship gained him considerable standing amongst his contemporaries, his collection duly recognised as one of the finest in England. On his death the collection passed through three generations of the Cotton family. The first William Cotton left the collection largely unchanged, but the second, Rogers’ nephew, depleted the collection by around two thirds. By the time it passed to William Cotton III (1794 to 1863) it was easier to contain in one home. During this custodianship a number of books were added to the library as well as a number of later prints. The major addition to the collection by William Cotton III centred around the acquisition of paintings and material relating to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

William Cotton III gave the collection to the three towns in 1853 ‘for the purpose of Amusement and instruction by the inhabitants of the Towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport and their vicinity’.

The majority of the collection was given during his lifetime. The remaining items which he had retained for his own enjoyment were bequeathed after his death in 1863. The Collection was deposited with the Plymouth Proprietary Library then located in Cornwall Street, Plymouth. A new room had to be built to house the collection at a cost of £1,000, where it remained until 1916 when it was transferred to the new main City Museum and Art Gallery founded in 1910.

In 1915 the collection was formally acquired by the Corporation of Plymouth under the Plymouth Corporation Act and under terms agreed with the Committee of the Plymouth Proprietary Library, the former guardians. The central purpose was that the public should enjoy as fully as possible the benefaction of the collection. The permanent display was finally opened in 1918 and it remained in this form until the Second World War when it was removed to a place of safety outside of Plymouth.

It was partially returned for the centenary in 1953, but it was not until some three years later that the collection was returned in its entirety. At this time two galleries on the ground floor of the main building were devoted to the Cottonian Collection. It remained there until 1990, when it was moved to the modern gallery on the first floor of the main building.

In 1983 a fire nearly destroyed the collection, though luck played its part here too, and damage was limited. One of the major effects was smoke damage resulting in a long programme of conservation, including repair to the spines and covers of the books.