The Corpus was the brainchild of the late Professor George Zarnecki CBE, FBA, FSA (1915-2008), Deputy Director of The Courtauld Institute of Art and the doyen of Romanesque studies in Britain. It was Zarnecki who taught the British to appreciate their Romanesque heritage, just as another scholarly refugee, the late Professor Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, taught them to appreciate British art in general. Arriving during World War II as a refugee from Poland and escaped prisoner of war, Zarnecki, a trained art historian, was encouraged by Fritz Saxl, then Director of the Warburg Institute, to start a PhD thesis on English Romanesque sculpture. The doctorate was duly awarded in 1950, and resulted in two books, English Romanesque Sculpture 1066-1140 (1951) and Later English Romanesque Sculpture 1140-1210 (1953). These books sparked big interest in and understanding of the topic. Zarnecki was also much respected for his book, Gislebertus, Sculptor of Autun (1961), produced with photographs by Denis Grivot, and it was his knowledge of European sculpture as a whole that greatly enriched his interpretation of the British material.
On his retirement in 1988, Zarnecki was able to push ahead with his dream of recording every piece of surviving Romanesque sculpture in Britain and Ireland. With the help of Neil Stratford, then Keeper of Medieval and Later Antiquities at the British Museum, he set up the Corpus as a British Academy Research Project. The first meeting of the committee, made up of expert medievalists, was held on 19 July 1988, under the chair of Professor Peter Lasko, a distinguished medieval art historian and former Director of The Courtauld Institute. Lasko guided the project through its early stages, retiring in 1999 when Sandy Heslop, FSA, Dean of World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia, took over, followed by Dr Nicola Coldstream, FSA, from 2009-12. The chair from 2012 until 2016 was the buildings archaeologist, Dr Jennifer Alexander, FSA.
In 2016 CRSBI reorganised its operating structure and became fully incorporated as a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), with a board of Trustees under a new chair, Nigel Clubb, with a Management Board and a roster of expert editors, meaning more sites than ever could be prepared for publication on the website. Nigel Clubb will step down for a new chair in April 2018.