An insight into the Helen Lowenthal Collection of Historic Buildings guidebooks within the West Dean College Library

By Teresa Shergold, Librarian

Many years ago, the Library was given a collection of guidebooks relating to historic buildings and gardens. This collection has sat within our College Library collection uncatalogued and underused. Gathering dust, you might say. The collection was given to the Library by Helen Lowenthal; one of the College’s very early trustees.

It seems fitting therefore in our year of celebrating the 50th Anniversary of West Dean College to look at this collection and reflect on its insight into the College, and Helen Lowenthal as the collector and the trustee. In so doing the aim too was to catalogue the collection and make it available for use to students, staff, and researchers as a teaching, learning and research resource.

West Dean College opened its doors to students in 1971.  The list of trustees in 1971 included E.F.W. James (Founder), W.E.G. Churcher, W.G.D. Cox, Major General C. Lloyd. The first Honorary Principal was Major General Lloyd, and the Agent was M. Heymann. Helen Lowenthal was appointed in the spring of 1977.

Correspondence from Anne Jacobsen from the Charity Commission states that we now have four trustees permanently in residence in England, and intimates that this was seen as a positive outcome. We also know in and around this time, Christopher Gibbs was appointed as well.

Helen Lowenthal was an educator, born in Belfast on the 21st June1904 and had a ‘lifetime of practical involvement in the crafts field where she was highly esteemed’.[i] She had worked at the V&A Museum as an Educational Advisor (1953-69), was the first Vice-President of NADFAS (National Association of Decorative Fine Arts) and most significantly was one of the Co-Founders of the Attingham National Trust Summer School (1951)[ii]. She was course director of this Summer School between 1952-1976. This began an ongoing relationship with the Attingham Trust, which to this day still visits and hosts its Summer School at West Dean College. She was awarded an OBE 1970 and died in London on the 30th March 1993.[iii]

Various letters in the West Dean College Archive indicate that Helen Lowenthal was introduced to Edward James at Leixlip Castle; the home of Hon. Desmond Guinness in either 1976 or early 1977. It seems that Edward James was an admirer of Helen Lowenthal’s work and professional knowledge, writing ‘Her appointment will also fulfil the pressure we are under form the Charity Commissioners to produce a trustee with a standing in the educational field’[iv]. He continues in the letter to say that she is a ‘dynamic woman; but also, a lady with dignity and reserve’. [v] For Helen Lowenthal, the work of West Dean was considered important.  On 5th July, 1978, she writes to Noel Simon (the Executive Trustee): ‘At a time when we value of craft education is increasingly esteemed, the influence of the College is likely to grow in importance’.[vi]

We also know that Helen was instrumental in creating and promoting one of the early courses on Architectural Conservation, as can be seen from the first letter below.

The course was a success and appears to have run, not as the letter might have hoped in 1979, but in 1980 and again in 1981. Indeed, in the letter above from Edward James to Helen Lowenthal, he refers to this course with the comment ‘what a fine and forward looking face this puts on West Dean at last’.[vii]  The College prospectus of 1980 confirms that 20th – 29th June 1980, 50 delegates attended the Course/Conference on Architectural Conservation.

Instrumental as a trustee and well respected, her links with Attingham Trust Summer School continued. The collection of the guidebooks that she left to the College reflect not only her interest in history, architecture and contents of historic buildings and their gardens and estates, but also her travels.

So, what of the guidebook collection itself? It contains 186 items covering many buildings across England with some in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Many of the guidebooks cover some of the well-known, established stately or country houses (82), historic houses (56) and religious buildings (44), museums (10) and government buildings (4). Geographically, there is a slightly larger local interest collection, and some with various iterations, including Petworth House, Arundel Castle, Uppark House, Firle Place, Chichester Cathedral, Goodwood House and more. Some cover historic gardens (5) either linked to country houses such as Stourhead Gardens or Culzean Woodlands, and the collection also includes the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and Hampton Court Palace Gardens and Parks.

As our conservation students study objects and their context, the guidebooks offer a rich source of information. For our new students of KLC School of Design, they offer an insight into historic interiors, but also of some of the adjoining landscapes in which these buildings are situated. Some of the guidebooks clearly focus on the architectural details of the houses, and others on collections held within those buildings. Additionally, the collection, as a set of objects in and of themselves, could be of interest to our Conservation of Books and Library Materials students, and to students of typography and graphic design.

One of the items, the Uppark Guidebook (1976), contains a press cutting that Helen Lowenthal included. It is interesting because it shows Helen’s interest in the work of Lady Meade-Featherstonehaugh, who was instrumental in the conservation of many aspects of the house’s collection, and notably the textiles.

As well as the South East, other counties and regions are also well represented. Of the home nations, there are certainly more guidebooks to Scotland (23), with a handful in Wales and Northern Ireland. Although the collection includes many substantial buildings, it also included churches and religious buildings ranging from the more modest St Martha’s and the Pilgrims (1934) in Surrey; or the Parish Church of Hammoon, Dorset (1946); as well as grander buildings such as Sherbourne Abbey, Dorset or Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire. We can surmise that this collection reflects not only her interests, but also the Attingham Trust Summer Schools’ itineraries and visits in the UK.

There are many highlights in this collection. Some are more recent while others relate to a collection Helen Lowenthal would have started much earlier. The earliest guidebook is from 1924, The Handbook to the Prince Consort National Museum (1924), and one of the latest is from Petworth in 1984.  Many have wonderful front covers, and some cases include various iterations of a guidebook (Culzean, Firle, Petworth, and Goodwood), and as such, reflect the change in the way that an institution has represented itself.

Some of the earlier guidebooks have more illustrative front covers and others are focused more on photographic images. We are in an age where guidebooks are being phased out, and often being replaced by digital content. This collection serves as a fine representation of the historical representation of historic buildings and thus of changing taste and consumption.

It is also clear that we get some insight into the interests of Helen Lowenthal, as she has made annotations in several of the guidebooks. These guidebooks are very eclectic, with notations against the history, architecture and contents of historic buildings, their gardens, and estates. In some cases, Lowenthal commented on specific pieces of furniture, paintings, ceramics, or other objects singled out as being of specific interest.

Good examples of guidebooks where objects are singularly of significance are for example, The Catalogue of the Sherbourne Abbey’s Fan Vaults and Medieval Sculpture, The Catalogue of the principal items on view at Osbourne House, or The Tapestries at Hampton Court Palace. Some of the guidebooks have drawings sitting alongside annotations and as such give us more of an indication of her interests.

Other examples of visits Lowenthal made range from the House of Lords, where the ticket for entry into the Lord Chancellor’s office was included inside the catalogue; to a dated example of her visit to Firle House on September 3rd, 1976. Included in this is not only her notes, but a flyer on the International Ceramics Fair – Firle Sevres Collection; which is of historical significance to our conservation students specialising in Ceramics and Related Materials.

The collection is fascinating in terms of its historical and geographical breadth, as well as in terms of the range of buildings and gardens and their contents covered. We are delighted to have this collection and to have been able to catalogue it and make it available to our students, staff and researchers. It may also inspire you to visit one of the houses!


Thank you to the Research Committee of West Dean College in supporting this research project and to Jacqueline Knee (Assistant Librarian) and Katerina Williams (Library Assistant) for work involved in the cataloguing of this collection. Finally, my gratitude to The Edward James Foundation for access to the West Dean College Archive and to Simon Coleman (Archivist) for his assistance.

If you wish to know more about this collection, then please do contact the Librarian at West Dean College. [email protected]


[i] Simon, N (1977) Letter to Anne Jacobson 22nd March.

[ii] (Accessed: 6 October 2021).

[iii] (Accessed: 12 October 2021).

[iv] James, E. (197?) letter to Helen Lowenthal 6th December.

[v] James, E. (197?) letter to Helen Lowenthal 6th December.

[vi] HL to NS enroute to USA – 18th March 1979,

[vii] Edward James (197?) letter to Helen Lowenthal 12th November.