Locks of hair from Mozart and Beethoven, a signed edition of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley—these items are some of the most well known in Special Collections at the University of Leeds. Despite their status and historical interest, the collection from which they came has been less widely visible. The Novello Cowden Clarke Collection was donated to the University by descendants of the family in 1953 and a handlist of part of the collection was complied two years later. Through the support of private funding, the whole collection is in the process of being comprehensively catalogued to enable research on the activities of this extraordinary family of nineteenth-century artists, musicians, writers, publishers and actors.

An oil painting of the Novello family, with figures standing and seated around a person playing the organ
Edward Petre Novello, ‘The Novello Family’, oil on canvas, c. 1830, 1460 mm x 1847 mm. Bequeathed by Clara Novello’s granddaughter, Contessa Bona Gigliucci, 1983. NPG 5686 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The most visual way to introduce the family is through a group portrait painted by Edward Petre Novello (1813-36) in around 1830, which is now in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The collection here in Leeds holds a preparatory sketch for this painting, which records the process of composition and different spatial relationships between the sitters. The central figure in both the sketch and final work is the artist’s father, the musician, composer and music publisher Vincent Novello (1781-1861). Although only his head is visible, it is clear that he is the focus of the group’s attention as the patriarch of the family. In this picture Edward Novello followed the long tradition of artists inserting themselves into group portraits; he can be seen in profile to the right of his father, with the musician Charles Stokes seated between them.

A pencil sketch on paper showing the rough outlines of a family seated around a central figure playing the organ
Edward Petre Novello, sketch for ‘The Novello Family’, c. 1830. Image credit: Leeds University Library.

Edward Novello produced a number of self-portraits over the course of his short life—he died from tuberculosis at the age of only 22—the most striking of which will shortly be displayed in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery. In the oil sketch featured at the top of the page we can see him experimenting with the representation of different facial expressions, most likely as an exercise that would help him better express human emotions through paint. Self-portraits are not always intended to reveal something of the artist’s interior life; often the artist’s own face is the most readily available model and all that is required is a mirror.

The initial sift of the whole collection has presented a rich and intriguing range of records and materials, which will be of tremendous research interest across a number of disciplines: from musicologists to Victorianists, to historians of art, literature, theatre, business, travel and social class. I look forward to sharing our discoveries over the next year, towards making the collection more accessible to all.