Rare Books in the Sir Denis Mahon Library at the National Gallery of Ireland

Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011) was one of the foremost art historians and collectors of his generation. Born in London of Anglo-Irish descent, he studied at Eton and Oxford before embarking on a life of collecting, writing and campaigning for the arts. In 2010 Sir Denis presented his entire personal library and archive to the National Gallery of Ireland, a collection which represents decades of research and scholarship.

Sir Denis Mahon
Sir Denis Mahon

The library collection consisting of over 16,000 volumes is currently being processed. Items include reference works, monographs on artists, exhibition and sales catalogues, periodicals and pamphlets. The material ranges in date from 1549 to 2011 covering art from classical times onwards with a strong emphasis on Italian Baroque art – reflecting Sir Denis’s scholarly interests. To date more than 500 rare and antiquarian volumes have been identified and catalogued, many of which were not previously available in Ireland.

Rare book spines

The oldest book in the Sir Denis Mahon Library is Anton Francesco Doni’s Disegno del Doni, printed in 1549 in Venice by Gabriele Giolito de’ Ferrari. This small volume discusses the merits of painting and sculpture and is a valuable document of workshop practices in 16th century Italy.

There are many landmark publications in the history of art present in the collection. Perhaps the most notable of these is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, a series of artist biographies also considered the first critical history of artistic style. The library has a first edition of the work published in Florence in 1550 as Le vite de più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori … This copy is from the library of the painter, collector and connoisseur Hugh Howard (1675-1737), bought on behalf of Sir Denis at an auction of books from Shelton Abbey in 1950. The revised and enlarged second edition (Florence, 1568), on which later editions and translations are based, is also in the collection. This is the first illustrated edition with woodcut portraits of the artists designed by Vasari and cut by various engravers.

Vasari's Le Vite 1568
Vasari’s Le vite de piu eccelenti

Other notable biographies of artists in the collection include the first edition of Carlo Cesare Malvasia’s Felsina pittrice (Bologna, 1678), a history of painting in Bologna presented through biographies of Bolognese artists; and Giovanni Pietro Bellori’s collection of biographies, Le vite de’ pittori, scultori et architetti moderni (2nd ed., Rome, 1728).

As well as early volumes on art and artists, Sir Denis acquired approximately 50 travel books which illustrate the art and architecture of major European cities. These excellent resources of description and provenance were popular during the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of the ‘Grand Tour’ undertaken by the upper classes. Highlights include The Vogage of Italy by Richard Lassels (Paris, 1670) which introduced the term ‘Grand Tour’ to the English language, and Voyage pittoresque de Paris (2nd ed., Paris, 1757) a valuable guide that describes the main objects of architectural and artistic interest in Paris, including private collections.

Voyage Pittoresque de Paris 1757
Voyage pittoresque de Paris

The Sir Denis Mahon Library holds many impressive illustrated books including some wonderful volumes of 17th century prints. Diverse figure al numero di ottanta (Rome, 1646) comprises eighty plates of figures drawn by Annibale Carracci and etched by Simon Guillain II. Each of the plates depicts an individual street vendor with the various accoutrements of his trade. The copy held in the library is a rare first edition of 1646, the only edition with a preface by the editor Giovanni Atanasio Mosini, in which the story of this book of drawings was first related. Il claustro di S. Michele in Bosco di Bologna (Bologna, 1694) describes the frescoes painted by Ludovico Carracci and his followers in the cloister of the convent of S. Michele in Bosco, Bologna, in 1604-5. This volume is of particular value as it illustrates the frescoes which are now in a ruinous condition.

Catalogue records for both rare and modern items from the Sir Denis Mahon Library may be found on the National Gallery of Ireland’s library catalogue http://portico.nationalgallery.ie. Access to the collection is by appointment only – please email library@ngi.ie for further information.

Nicola O’Shea
Assistant Librarian
Sir Denis Mahon Collection
Library & Archives
National Gallery of Ireland


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