17 September 2017

Call for Applications - Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship

The William Morris Society in the United States is calling for applications for the 2018 Joseph R. Dunlap Memorial Fellowship. The deadline is December 15, 2017.

The Dunlap Fellowship supports scholarly and creative work about William Morris.  The
fellowship offers funding of $1000 or more for research and other expenses, including travel to conferences and libraries. Projects may deal with any subject—biographical, literary, historical, social, artistic, political, typographical—relating to Morris. The Society also encourages translations of Morris's works and the production of teaching materials (lesson plans and course materials) suitable for use at the elementary, secondary, college or adult-education level. Applications are sought particularly from younger members of the Society and from those at the beginning of their careers. Recipients may be from any country and need not have an academic or institutional appointment, nor must recipients hold the Ph.D.

In some years the Society offers a second, smaller fellowship, the William Morris Society Award (the amount to be determined by the committee of judges).  The purpose and aims of this second award are the same as for the Dunlap Fellowship.

Applicants should send a two-page description of their projects, along with a c.v. and at least one letter of recommendation. For a translation project, please submit an additional letter from a recognized authority able to certify the applicant's competence in both languages. For teaching materials, we ask also for a cover letter describing the ways in which the materials might be used in learning situations. The Society would be pleased to publish any completed translation or teaching materials on its website, but this is not a requirement.

Send applications to:
Professor Linda Hughes
Department of English
Texas Christian University

For more information, see the Morris Society website.

05 September 2017

"Free and Happy Work": David Parr's Domestic Monument to Working-Class Artistry

In his essay “The Worker’s Share of Art,” published in his socialist newspaper Commonweal in April 1885, William Morris defined beauty as “the sign of free and happy work.” Following John Ruskin, he believed that the aesthetic surface of a creative work could reveal a deeper social totality, and the conditions of labor under which it was produced. The worker’s pleasure was, Morris said, the true font of art and beauty:

The chief source of art is man’s pleasure in his daily necessary work, which expresses itself and is embodied in that work itself; nothing else can make the common surroundings of life beautiful, and whenever they are beautiful it is a sign that men’s work has pleasure in it, however they may suffer otherwise.

For over a century now, Morris’s critics have wondered whether he was able to create such conditions of beauty and pleasure for the workers in his own decorative arts firm. In moving the firm to Merton Abbey in 1881, he hoped to create a guild-like setting for pleasurable collective labor, and yet, as biographer Fiona MacCarthy has discussed, Morris still maintained a tight control over the firm’s designs and “there was no serious attempt to bring out the latent creative talent of each workman.” While Morris’s workers were paid well, and the Abbey was unquestionably an agreeable place to work by nineteenth-century standards, the firm still fell short of Morris’s ideal of the craftsman-artist creating beauty through work-pleasure.

A new cultural site in Cambridge, U.K., however, raises the question of whether we ought to look not
to Merton Abbey for evidence of working-class craftsmen’s pleasure in their labor, but rather to the private lives of the workers apart from their tasks for the firm. While we have precious little material evidence today to document how nineteenth-century working-class artisans felt about their labor, the David Parr House promises to shed light on this topic from the perspective of one of the artist-workers who made their living in Morris’s craft circles. The Parr House, at 186 Gwydir Street, Cambridge, is a pocket-sized monument to pleasurable craft labor, a workman’s cottage transformed into one man’s earthly paradise. It has recently been purchased by a group of trustees with the aim of opening it up as a museum in April 2019 after a period of necessary restoration and structural repair. A modest home even by nineteenth-century standards, it was transformed by Parr, who lived there from 1886-1927, into a splendid gallery of decorative painting and patterning – all done in Parr’s off-work hours, for his own pleasure, often by candlelight or lamplight.

David Parr was an employee of the Cambridge firm F. R. Leach & Sons, which specialized in ecclesiastical interiors and took on occasional jobs for Morris & Co. Because Morris had a tendency to take on more projects than he had time to do, or perhaps to take too long with the jobs he had underway, he would often farm out work to other decorative arts firms, including F. R. Leach & Sons. Leach himself, to whom Morris reportedly appealed for business advice on how to run a firm, was the son of a Cambridge artist known for painting many of the city’s pub signs. His firm worked nationally but is especially remembered for several important projects in Cambridge, including the mural on St Clements Church and the chapel ceiling at Jesus College, a job that they took on for Morris’s firm. Prior to this important commission at Jesus, the Leach firm had successfully performed decorative work under Morris’s supervision at All Saints Church, across the road from Jesus College, and Morris was so pleased with their work that he engaged Leach with relative frequency thereafter.

David Parr was, as the census records put it, a “decorative painter” for Leach’s firm, and the influence of the grand interiors he painted during his workdays is visible in his own domestic artistry. Nearly every room of Parr’s house is meticulously painted in ornate, vibrant, and seemingly original patterns, many of which bear a close resemblance to Morris patterns or are modeled on Morris patterns but don’t mimic them exactly. In his notebooks, Parr detailed with precision all of the work that he did on his house, not so much to describe his inspiration or his feelings about the work, but rather to record the dates and details as to what was accomplished and when. We know, thanks to the notebook, that it took him 30 years to complete his marvelous, show-stopping parlor, and the trustees now suspect, reading between the lines, that Parr’s wife, Mary Jane, may have become fed up with the parlor being disturbed all the time during this long period. Clearly, stories within stories are waiting to be uncovered within this house.

The trustees of the house are working now to learn more about David Parr’s life, his family, and what may have motivated him to produce this stately pleasure dome within the private confines of his modest Cambridge cottage. They have learned that Parr was born to a laborer, and that he was orphaned young, with his mother dying when he was 5 and his father when he was 8. At age 16, Parr commenced working for Leach’s firm, and he was successful enough within that position to be able to buy his home at 186 Gwydir Street – a home that has a front garden as well as a back garden and was thus rather posh for a working-class cottage of this day. In addition to painting it in best Morrisian fashion, Parr also installed what must have been one of the first indoor W.C.s in the neighborhood (though the sanitary authorities made him re-do some of the drainpipe work to their specifications, all duly recorded in Parr’s notebook); he also built custom cabinetry for the house, and seems to have used materials leftover from some of the Leach jobs, such as stained window glass, to help him achieve his vision for the house.

After Parr’s death, his granddaughter, Elsie, came to live in the home with her grandmother; she was 12 at the time, and stayed there for the next 85 years, leaving the house just as her grandfather had created it. During this time, Elsie married and had two children. They lived always in the house, but respected Parr’s artistic legacy and left the house mostly intact, with his painted walls ever in view. Elsie’s husband, an avid gardener, made a paradise of his own in the back garden. In 2013, after Elsie’s death, a group of trustees led by Tamsin Wimhurst purchased the house, and they have since successfully applied for and received two Heritage Lottery Fund grants – one to conserve the house and protect it for future generations, and one to help generate an endowment. Because it is a very small space, and fragile, the Parr House can never accommodate a large enough public to support the museum on admission fees alone, but the endowment will allow the trustees to keep it open for years to come and to engage in public outreach through their website -- http://davidparrhouse.org/ -- and through collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum and other local and national sites for Arts and Crafts heritage and working-class history.

It would be wrong to conclude from this house, of course, that the typical nineteenth-century, working-class craftsman in the circles of Morris’s firm was so enamored of his labors that he wanted to continue performing them at home, without pay, for his own pleasure. Surely David Parr is an exceptional figure, an outsider artist possessed of rare aesthetic ambition and an unusual drive to create. Despite the fact that he was working in the privacy of his own domestic space, with his home as his canvas, a decorative banner painted along the upper border of his parlor walls suggests that Parr’s motivations were similar to those of many better-known artists: he wanted to create something beautiful and permanent that would live on after his death. The banner reads:

Swiftly see each moment flies, 
See and learn be timely wise,
Every moment shortens day,
Every pulse beats life away,
Thus our every heaving breath,
Wafts us on to certain death,
Seize the moments as they fly,
Know to live and learn to die.

In the context of Parr’s astonishing home, this verse, a popular bit of Victorian rhyme, is transported and elevated from cliché to grandeur. We have precious few records of how working-class artisans felt about their work, or what they gained personally or spiritually from its creation, but the poignant pleasure that Parr took in his own work is quite literally written on the walls of this remarkable house.

--Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English, UC Davis

11 August 2017

The Enduring Legacy of Willliam Morris

One of the reasons so many of us love William Morris is the ability of his ideas and styles to transcend time and place.  Last year I wrote about the wonderful Arts & Crafts Press located in Tacoma, Washington. This local Tacoma Press embodies the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement, a movement that is well documented in the book by Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press, 2007).

The book provides a comprehensive review of the movement in Washington and Oregon. In the introductory chapter, the authors provide a clue to the origins of the movement in this region: the visit of one leader of the second generation of Arts & Crafts advocates from England, Charles Robert (C.R.) Ashbee, who was inspired and influenced by Morris.   Ashbee visited the Northwest and gave several lectures in 1909 and greatly influenced the evolution of design in this area.

Charles Robert Ashbee was born in 1863 in London, the son of a comfortable London merchant.  He attended King’s College Cambridge from 1883-1886, where he was first exposed to socialism, art, and the writing of John Ruskin.  He worked as an architect (as did Morris) and lived in Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, a residence set up to encourage students from Oxford and Cambridge Universities to undertake social work in the deprived areas of the East End. It was during this time that Ashbee ran a Ruskin reading class and begin to develop an idea to create a craft school. There is no doubt that Ashbee’s view of craft was a result of his connection with the work of Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement. In March of 1898 Ashbee’s prospering workshops took over the staff and presses of the Kelmscott Press to form the Essex House Press. Ashbee bought the Kelmscott Press’s Albion printing presses after William Morris's death, and employed one of the Kelmscott compositors, Thomas Binning. In 1902 Ashbee moved his workshop to the picturesque Cotswold village of Chipping Camden.  After the move to the country, the workshop did not prosper despite Ashbee’s dedication to the principles of fair labor and fine craft, and in the autumn of 1907 his workshop closed. Ashbee turned to lectures and spend a great deal of time in the United States.

In January 1909 Ashbee visited Seattle and write in his journal that Seattle was "the only American city I have so far seen in which I would care to live. All the gold of Ophir would not tempt me to live in one of those smug Eastern cities. . . . Here is a city with a new light in her eyes." It is interesting to ponder how much influence Ashbee might have had on architects, designers and craftsman of the Pacific Northwest.  He joined a host of other prominent members of the Arts & Crafts community in bringing the aesthetics and design of the movement to all parts of the Northwest.  For example, Jud Yoho, a local architect, published The Bungalow Magazine from 1912 – 1918, which no doubt inspired a generation of architects.  The Book Club of Washington reprinted a special edition of one of Yoho’s pattern books in 2007. The pattern book contains photographs, floorplans and brief descriptions of these "dream houses," as well as estimated construction costs.

Bungalows are prevalent throughout the Northwest and here in Tacoma, there are an abundance of bungalows in the North End of the city where the University of Puget Sound is located. The City of Tacoma Historic Preservation Department provides an excellent overview of architecture in Tacoma with reference to the “bungalow” or Arts & Crafts style, in a style guide available on the city’s Historic Preservation website.

Not only was Yoho’s magazine a local influence, but so was the work of Greene & Greene from California and Gustav Stickley.  Both of these prominent architects of the period were once again influenced by the enduring legacy of William Morris.

I taught a class a few years ago titled William Morris and His World.  One section in the class dealt with Morris and architecture and students were given the assignment to find their “favorite” North End bungalow.  As one said, once they started looking, they saw Morris’s influence everywhere! Here are two favorites of mine:

A final point to make about the enduring legacy of William Morris is a story related to the University of Puget Sound.  The University’s President from 1942 to 1973 was R. Franklin Thompson.  Thompson wrote about his experience as President and many of his papers are available on the Collins Library’s Institutional Repository, SoundIdeas.

During his Presidency at Puget Sound, he spearheaded the construction of 37 buildings.  In his history Thompson makes several references to his time as a student at Oxford University.  Almost every building constructed during Thompson’s presidency had some characteristics of Oxford architecture as a part of its design.  In fact, reading through his accounts of his Presidency I was struck by the following statement he made when referring to the design principles of the buildings: “Make them beautiful. Let's get them so they are not only utilitarian but add beauty to the campus.”

I couldn’t help but think of the famous quote from Morris:  “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  I don’t think it is too far of a stretch to say that Thompson, as a young man studying in Oxford in the 1920’s, might have been influenced by Morris.  Indeed, there are additional accounts of his riding his bicycle around the town, where he no doubt passed by St Michael's Church, Ship Street ,where Morris married Jane Burden. He also writes fondly of his walks along the Isis River.  It is highly likely that he would have visited the Oxford Union and seen the wonderful murals painted by Morris and Rossetti.  And in another passage from his memoirs, he writes specifically about the design of the Collins Library:

“One night I was thinking about it and I went to sleep and in the middle of the night I suddenly wakened and remembered that as a student at Oxford University I had ridden my bicycle through Magdalen College on many occasions. The interior tower had a very beautiful design and I thought that this would be the kind of design we could use on the tower. I got up and got my book of Oxford, took it to the architect, and he said it would fit perfectly. So the Tower of the Collins Library is a modified copy of the interior tower at Magdalen College.”

When I read this I thought immediately of William Guest, the narrator from News from Nowhere who also wakens from a dream with meaningful revelations about his life.  And so to bring this full circle, I went in search of the Collins Library’s copy of News from Nowhere and to my delight found it was the personal copy of William Perry, Collins Librarian from 1940-1964 and a friend and colleague of Thompson during his years as Puget Sound.  Our copy is a bit worn – but being worn must mean it had been read!  And the medieval inspired bookplate is perfect for this classic text of William Morris.

Now I realize it is a stretch of the imagination to say that Thompson and Perry might have engaged in discussions about Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement, but when I walk around campus I can’t help but think this could have happened.  And so to conclude this blog on the enduring legacy of William Morris, I share a final image of the façade of Collins Library.  I see a resemblance to the unique fonts Golden and Troy designed by Morris in the inscription above the door – another example of the Arts & Crafts Movement and the enduring legacy of William Morris.  Indeed, once you start looking, the influence of Morris is everywhere!

--Jane Carlin, Librarian, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound

14 July 2017

Giving May Morris the Recognition She Deserves

‘I’m a remarkable woman – always was, though none of you seemed to think so,'
 May Morris in a letter to George Bernard Shaw, 1936

This October The William Morris Gallery in London will stage a landmark exhibition  exploring the life and work of May Morris, the younger daughter of William Morris and one of the most significant artists of the British Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century. ‘May Morris: Art & Life’ will be the most comprehensive survey of May’s work to date and will bring together over 80 works from collections around the UK, many of which have never been on public display.

For more than 100 years May’s contribution to the decorative arts, in particular to art embroidery, has languished behind her father’s more illustrious career. The exhibition will reveal the breadth of May’s creative pursuits, featuring wallpaper and embroidery alongside jewellery, dresses and book designs, as well as sketches and watercolours, which May painted throughout her lifetime. The exhibition will tell the story of May, who at age 23 took charge of the Morris & Co. embroidery department and was responsible for creating some of the company’s most iconic textiles and wallpaper designs. It will focus on May’s role in the development of art embroidery – elevating needlework from a domestic craft to a serious art form – and highlight the extent of her influence in the U.K. and abroad, particularly the U.S.
'Maids of Honour' firescreen
Journal entries and letters will offer unprecedented insight into May’s extraordinary life. Thanks to the social circles in which the Morrises moved, May and her sister were exposed to a range of artistic and political influence from an early age. As a child, May would often model for her parents’ artist friends, who included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and George Howard, later Earl of Carlisle. The exhibition will reveal Rossetti’s fondness of May, and include a pastel drawing of May by Rossetti, on loan from Kelmscott Manor.

Through her father May was drawn into political activity in the emergent Socialist movement and was close to Eleanor Marx, George Bernard Shaw, and future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. In 1907 she founded the Women’s Guild of Art as an alternative to the existing Art Workers Guild, which did not accept female members until 1964. Painter Evelyn De Morgan, jeweller Georgie Gaskin, bookbinder Katherine Adams and sculptor Mabel White were some of the earliest members of the Women’s Guild whose mission was to provide a forum for social and professional networking within the arts and in May’s words ‘to meet women who are not playing at art’.

'Honeysuckle' wallpaper
The exhibition will position May as an integral figure in the British Arts & Crafts movement and explore her impressive career as a designer, embroiderer, writer and teacher. May exhibited widely in the U.K. and abroad and developed an international reputation for her historical knowledge of embroidered textiles and techniques, delivering a lecture tour of North America in her late forties.

The exhibition will coincide with the publication of May Morris: Arts & Crafts Designer,  which was co-authored by curators at the William Morris Gallery and the V&A, and will be published by Thames & Hudson in October 2017.

The breadth and scale of ‘May Morris: Art & Life’ will be made possible in part thanks to a crowdfunding campaign supported by the Art Fund, run on Art Happens- where the public have pledged £15,000 so far towards the exhibition. Although the crowdfunding campaign ended on 15 July we are still in need of further financial support to help make this show bigger and better. For every £100 more we raise, we can conserve and prepare another of May’s works for display. We can accept online donations via Paypal on our website.

--Rowan Bain, Curator, William Morris Gallery

12 June 2017

Topsy-Turvy: Of Houses, Hair, and Hammersmith

I have often felt myself to be living in two different times. As a scholar of William Morris and of nineteenth-century literature, I spend my working life struggling to piece together a sense of the past, immersing myself in history's works and doings, hoping to interpret it in service of our present-day life. The past has given birth to the present, but in ways that are not always easy to grasp. As a scholar based in North America, I am distanced spatially as well as temporally from the world Morris inhabited: in the post-1950s landscape of Davis, California, there is almost nothing in my daily life to connect me, materially, to the nineteenth-century past of Morris and his circle. This past in which I spend so much time, then, exists mainly in the form of words on a page. I see Morris’s voice in black letters and the white spaces between them… always remembering that Morris himself had very firm opinions as to what the dimensions of those white spaces should be.

Kelmscott House, Hammersmith
Imagine how it felt, then, on May 20th, 2017, to encounter the embodied trace of Morris not just in his home, and not just in a lock of his famously unruly hair, but through an entire neighborhood ecosystem. Thanks to the joint project of Arts and Crafts Hammersmith, denizens of the present can now experience the nineteenth-century microclimate of artistic innovation that took root in this London neighborhood on the Thames over a hundred years ago.

I came to Hammersmith to speak on “William Morris and Radical Print” in the Coach House at Kelmscott House, the space in Morris’s London home where the William Morris Society UK meets today and the very site where the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League used to meet back in the 1880s. I had visited Kelmscott House once before, as part of the William Morris Conference at the University of London in 2007, but returning ten years later I saw improved facilities and a loving, intimate display of Morris’s textiles drawn from the Society’s rich collections. Kelmscott House is situated on the Thames, and I was struck for the first time by the way that the bends in the river that Morris loved reproduce themselves in the undulating, curving forms of his botanical designs. One of the samples in the Society’s possession, an 1883 printed cotton called Evenlode, was “the first of Morris’s designs to be named after a Thames tributary,” as I learned from the 2015 volume Highlights from the William Morris Society’s Collection.

William Morris, "Evenlode" fabric
Before my engagement at the Kelmscott House, the Society Manager, Cathy De’Freitas, was kind enough to arrange a place for me on a tour of the newly reopened Emery Walker House. At 7 Hammersmith Terrace, Walker’s home -- spruced up and restored through funds from the Arts and Crafts Hammersmith project -- is just a short walk down the Thames, and one of the great pleasures of the day was to think about the Arts and Crafts community that lived with and amongst each other in late-nineteenth-century Hammersmith. May Morris, in fact, lived right next door at 8 Hammersmith Terrace during the period of her ill-fated marriage to Henry Halliday Sparling, and other key figures associated with the Socialist League and the Kelmscott Press, including foreman printer Thomas Binning, also lived in the neighborhood.

While Arts and Crafts Hammersmith has gone to great expense to repair the roof at 7 Hammersmith Terrace and make other necessary structural improvements, they have left the house largely as it was during its years as a private home. Here one walks into a space that seems to be frozen in time, full of Morris’s wallpapers and textiles and littered with intimate personal traces of the friendship between Walker and the Morris family. At one point our tour guide displayed a small box with a lock of Morris’s hair from the day that he died and two pairs of his spectacles, so small and so familiar to those of us who have studied his image from the perspective of the distant present. Other treasures include a stunning pencil drawing of May Morris done by Edward Burne-Jones, where the ghost of her mother’s famous face haunts the lower lip like an unspoken word, and a hand-embroidered bed spread made by May Morris for Walker’s wife. 

Dining Room, Emery Walker House
My day finished with a trip to The Dove pub with Martin Stott of the William Morris Society, where we sat outside, watched the Thames, and spoke of the past and the present. It was a few weeks before the UK general election, and at a moment when the U.S. commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement still hung in the balance. There was much to discuss, and Morris’s place in the present seemed more necessary than ever.

--Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Professor of English at UC Davis
Liz Miller with Martin Stott and one of Morris's Albion presses

For a fascinating, full-length review of the new Emery Walker museum written by Marcus Waithe, author of  William Morris's Utopia of Strangers, visit Apollo Magazine here.

19 April 2017

What Would William Morris Think?

Whatever would William Morris think? How would he feel seeing how this clever sidewall takes his beloved wallpaper design (the first he ever created) and stylizes it into a series of dots?

Whether it brings to mind the Ben Day dots used in comic books or an LED display, the result seems to have been produced using some kind of modern industrial process. Thus, one could imagine that Morris, whose central philosophy involved rejection of all forms of industrial production in favor of handcraft techniques, would be upset to see his beloved pattern reproduced in this way. However, Morris, the great lover of craft, may still find something to enjoy in this take on his work because it is, despite its appearance, completely handmade. A closer look will reveal that every dot is irregularly-shaped and spaced apart, indicating that someone had painstakingly painted the whole thing. The paper’s distinct style, evoking modern industrial technology, both disguises and is a result of its particular method of production, a fact which no doubt would leave a lot of design reformers of the late 19th-century confused. The paper’s handmade production and use of a classic Arts and Crafts movement pattern is not only tongue-in-cheek but ironically serves to remind us how far the world of design had moved on from the ideals of Morris.

A paper like this, playfully toying with the work of one of the great figures in the history of design, is such a perfect example of Postmodernist design that it’s no surprise that two great figures of the movement were involved in its creation. Harry Moore was a prolific architect most famous for the Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans. Alan Buchsbaum was an architect and interior designer known for being a pioneer of the Supergraphics and High Tech styles. In his interiors for various New York lofts and stores, he pioneered a type of informal, high-design interior style that used pop culture imagery, off-the-shelf objects, and industrial fixtures. For Norton Blumenthal, a New York-based wallpaper company known for selling reproductions of Victorian embossed papers, Buchsbaum contributed several designs. Some, like Chopped Herringbone, reflect his use of Supergraphics, while Trellis Dot shows him, Moore, and another designer Mark Simon making their own Pop ribbing of a cultural icon. It is not often one can describe a wallpaper pattern as clever and humorous, but Trellis Dot is certainly such a pattern and among the Cooper Hewitt’s best examples of late 20th-century wallpaper design.

Giovanni, Joseph. “Alan Buchsbaum, High-Tech Architect, Dies.” The New York Times, April 11, 1987.
“New Styles of Anaglypta and Lincrusta.” Old-House Journal, March 1986. 

--Nicholas Lopes

Nicholas Lopes is a student in the History of Design & Curatorial Studies graduate program at the Cooper Hewitt, and is a Master’s Fellow in the Wallcoverings Department.

23 March 2017

Mark Samuels Lasner: A Genius of Collecting and Connecting

“Mark Samuels Lasner is a genius of collecting, and he is a genius of connecting.” Elaine Showalter’s tribute to Samuels Lasner was part of her keynote address at the symposium “Celebrating the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection,” held at the University of Delaware March 17-18, 2017. The symposium, which marked Samuels Lasner’s donation of his extraordinary collection of Victorian books, manuscripts, and art to the University, accompanied an exhibition of highlights from the collection, which continues in the University Library through June 3. 
UD President Dennis Assanis; Mark Samuels Lasner; Trevor A. Dawes, UD Vice-Provost for Libraries & Museums; Margaret D. Stetz, Mae & Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies & Professor of Humanities
Elaine Showalter, Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University, began her address with A. S. Byatt’s 1990 novel Possession, which includes a satiric portrait of Mortimer Cropper, a ruthless American collector of Victorian manuscripts. Samuels Lasner, Showalter hastened to point out, is no Cropper, and she praised the aptness of the exhibition’s title—not “Victorian Possessions” but “Victorian Passions.” Samuels Lasner, she said, is a passionate collector more interested in an item’s human interest than in its physical condition or monetary value. His genius for connecting is demonstrated not only in the way his collection places items within a dense narrative web of “creation, meaning, and history”—to use Samuels Lasner’s own phrase—but in his many connections to a range of people interested in the Victorian era, not only collectors and dealers but also librarians and scholars. “Of all the great collectors of Victorian literature,” Showalter proclaimed, “Mark Samuels Lasner is the best connected and the most fun.” 

Exhibition curator Margaret Stetz assembled a variety of items from Samuels Lasner’s collection of more than 9,500 works of literature and art. Four that Samuels Lasner has identified as among his favorites are of special interest to Morris scholars. The most visually sumptuous is Morris’s illuminated manuscript catalogue of his book collection. Morris never completed the project—the eighteen extant pages list only some of the incunabula he owned—but the skill and time he lavished on the catalogue reveal that his passion for book collecting rivaled Samuels Lasner’s.
Another Samuels Lasner favorite is the 1881-1898 visitors' book for North End House, Edward Burne-Jones’s seaside retreat on the Sussex coast. Burne-Jones, whom Stetz labels a “compulsive cartoonist,” decorated the visitors' book with witty caricatures of his guests and family, including a stout, heroic-looking William Morris and a small, woeful Edward Burne-Jones. When the visitors' book arrived in the mail from a dealer, out fell a drawing that Samuels Lasner had no idea was included but that is familiar to everyone interested in the Pre-Raphaelites: Burne-Jones’s drawing of himself in the Red Lion Square studio that he and Morris shared, engaged in decorating a massive medieval-style chair—a chair that is now just up the road from the Samuels Lasner Collection at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington.

The fourth item is one of the newest in the Samuels Lasner collection, a book that only two years ago Samuels Lasner believed it would be “impossible” for him to obtain: a pristine copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer. This great work of art exemplifies the connections that Samuels Lasner values, representing a collaboration among Morris, Burne-Jones, the designers and artisans of the Kelmscott Press, and Morris’s beloved predecessor Geoffrey Chaucer.

Ten speakers were featured during the symposium, all of whom testified to the Samuels Lasner Collection’s value to the study of material culture. Recalling her own academic training during the 1960s and 1970s, Margaret Stetz pointed out that both New Critics and post-structuralist theorists focused on texts, not books themselves; however, the past three decades have seen renewed attention to books and other material artifacts. Barbara Heritage of the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School offered a theoretically sophisticated defense of the importance of special collections at a moment when influential figures within the field of library science are arguing that, in the fully digitized era to come, books will no longer matter. R. David Lankes made that case in a controversial 2014 talk, “Burn the Libraries and Free the Librarians”; Heritage implied that librarians might want to keep their matches in their pockets. 

Several speakers talked about how specific items in the Samuels Lasner Collection make important contributions to our understanding of the Victorian period. Joseph Bristow of UCLA discussed how two illustrated collections of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde broaden our understanding of Wilde’s career. William S. Peterson, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, described his work in progress on the Kelmscott Chaucer, noting that the presentation copy in Samuels Lasner’s collection, inscribed to Robert Catterson-Smith, a Kelmscott Press designer, reveals the complex collaboration that produced an artifact Burne-Jones described as a “pocket cathedral.” David Taylor, an independent scholar from the U.K., focused on the correspondence of Vernon Lushington, a little-known but fascinating figure in Pre-Raphaelite circles. It was he who introduced Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti to one another, and his daughter Kitty served as model for Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway. 

Margaretta Frederick, Chief Curator of the Delaware Art Museum, described how her study of May Morris landscape sketches in the Samuels Lasner Collection opened up wider vistas on a figure increasingly recognized as a significant artist. She also discussed her research on the artist Barbara Bodichon, who will be the subject of a future exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum. Linda Hughes of Texas Christian University talked about her ongoing research on frontispiece portraits of Victorian women poets, drawing out the problematic relationship during the nineteenth century between the woman poet’s body and her body of work. Frequently, Victorian publishers avoided any visual representation of the woman poet by omitting a frontispiece. However, as the century went on and women increasingly and publicly put their bodies on the line in suffrage demonstrations, poets and their publishers more often included a frontispiece, dealing in a variety of ways with what Hughes called “the troublesome flesh of the female poet.” 

Other speakers included Ed Maggs of Maggs Brothers, a prestigious London book dealer founded in 1853. In the course of a witty and affectionate tribute to his long friendship with Samuels Lasner, Maggs detailed the tribulations of the antiquarian book trade, but he also expressed optimism for the future. The millennial generation, he said, is on a quest for authenticity, demonstrated in their fondness for vinyl recordings and fixie bicycles. Their quest, he said, extends to books, and he predicted that there would be Samuels Lasner-like collectors yet to come.

The quest for authenticity and passion for material artifacts were vividly demonstrated in the talk by Mark Dimunation, head of the Rare Books and Special Collections division at the Library of Congress. In a series of entertaining anecdotes, Dimunation talked about some of the most significant and spectacular items in the Library of Congress collection, demonstrating the rich narratives and immediate pleasures that are at the heart of collecting, collections, and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection. 

Michael Robertson, The College of New Jersey