2017 “Victorian Passions” Exhibition

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“Victorian Passions: Stories from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection”

Morris Library Special Collections Gallery

February 14, 2017 – June 30, 2017

Exhibition Overview

Love, desire, jealousy, ambition, hatred and friendship are among the many sentiments present in “Victorian Passions: Stories from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection.” On view in the Special Collections Gallery at the Morris Library from February 14 through June 30, 2017, the exhibition brings together unique copies of rare books, manuscripts and artworks that tell stories about distinguished British writers and artists from the period 1850 to 1900, including Charles Dickens, Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Morris, George Eliot, Henry James, Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Alfred Tennyson, Aubrey Beardsley, W. B. Yeats, Rudyard Kipling and Oscar Wilde.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Margaret D. Stetz, Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware. Stetz organized a 2002 show in Old College Gallery, “Beyond Oscar Wilde: Portraits of Writers and Artists from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection,” that inspired both a later exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club and her book Facing the Late Victorians: Portraits of Writers and Artists from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, which was published in 2007 by the University of Delaware Press. “Victorian Passions” focuses on a different aspect of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, highlighting the subject of emotional connections—whether among the famous lovers, families, collaborators and friends represented here or between these creative figures and the items that they owned. At the same time, it celebrates the collecting passions of Mark Samuels Lasner himself and reveals the narratives that make these manuscripts, letters, graphics and “association copies” (books with inscriptions, annotations, and signatures) such important objects.

Association Copies on Display

Among the many association copies on display are:

  • a first edition of The Importance of Being Earnest, presented by Oscar Wilde to a friend who was among his staunchest supporters during his imprisonment for “gross indecency”
  • John Ruskin’s influential The Stones of Venice, inscribed to the great critic Thomas Carlyle
  • the copy of Idylls of the King that Alfred Tennyson gave to Julia Margaret Cameron and that launched her most significant series of staged photographs
  • The Little White Bird, which marked the first appearance in print of the ageless Peter Pan, inscribed by J. M. Barrie to his sister
  • the novel Dracula presented by Bram Stoker to the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who was the model for a contemporaneous—and scandalous—vampire-themed painting
  • Henry James’s copy of Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater, the book that introduced Art for Art’s Sake to the English-speaking world in 1873
  • one of the few known presentation copies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, sent to her friend Ellen Heaton, a pioneering feminist and art collector
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with an inscription from Arthur Conan Doyle to the editor of the Strand Magazine, in which the Holmes stories were first published

The Pre-Raphaelites—a particular strength of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection—are well represented. For the Rossetti family, there is Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song inscribed to her brother, William Michael; the proofs of Dante Gabriel’s Poems containing the texts recovered from the exhumed coffin of his wife, Elizabeth Siddall; and one of Siddall’s three surviving autograph letters. Even more remarkable is Lewis Carroll’s 1863 photograph showing the four Rossetti siblings and their mother, the only other print of which is owned by the National Portrait Gallery, London. William Morris’s calligraphic catalogue of the library at Kelmscott House—a tribute to the poet, designer, and socialist’s love of illuminated manuscripts—is paired with a copy of the Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere inscribed to the artist Edward Burne-Jones. Three items relate to Algernon Charles Swinburne: the manuscript of his poem, “Before the Mirror,” inspired by James McNeill Whistler’s painting, The Little White Girl; a photograph of that artwork inscribed by Whistler to Swinburne; and Swinburne’s leather-bound photograph album, containing a carte-de-visite of Whistler, along with many other famous contemporaries. This section features are a rare presentation copy of the famous Kelmscott Chaucer and a drawing of the Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” Jane Burden, wife of William Morris, by her lover D. G. Rossetti.

Noteworthy Manuscripts and Artworks

“Victorian Passions” offers the opportunity to see a number of highly evocative and sometimes poignant documents. The visitors’ book from Edward Burne-Jones’s country house in Sussex contains not only a host of humorous sketches by the artist, but also a note by Rudyard Kipling that records the birth of his beloved son, John (subject of the poem “My Boy Jack”), who later was to die in World War I. In a letter to his American publisher, Alfred Tennyson vehemently denies that his next work will be an “Epick of King Arthur”—”I should be crazed to write such a thing in the middle of the 19th century,” he insists—just months before the appearance of Idylls of the King. Along with Robert Browning, George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle and other Eminent Victorians, Tennyson is present, too, in The Book of Sonny, the “baby book” kept by the poet William Allingham and his artist wife, Helen, to record the doings of their child Gerald. Also on view is Keynotes, a volume of groundbreaking “New Woman” feminist stories of the 1890s, annotated by its author and specially bound by her in an embroidered cover for presentation to the book’s publisher, with whom she had a flirtation. An 1891 letter by Aubrey Beardsley, illustrated with a self-portrait and an original poem, proves so extravagant as to be more a work of art than a mere communication to a friend. Other notable literary works here in manuscript form include Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet. On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters” and the typescript of Grant Allen’s 1895 bestseller about free love that shocked and titillated Victorian readers, The Woman Who Did.

The Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

“Victorian Passions” uses material culture to provide a fascinating look at some of the emotions that animated late-nineteenth-century British life, art, and literature. Yet it represents merely a tiny selection from the more than 9,500 books, manuscripts, letters, photographs, ephemera and artworks in the vast Mark Samuels Lasner Collection. Formed over the last forty years by Samuels Lasner (who describes himself as “the most determined book collector he has ever met”), the collection, which since 2004 has been housed in a designated space within the Morris Library, was donated to the University of Delaware in June 2015. It is the largest and most important gift of its kind in the University’s history. In lending, and now in making the gift of his collection, Mark Samuels Lasner has intended it to be not only a resource available to students, faculty and the larger public and scholarly community, but also a catalyst, meant to spur the development of UD Library and to raise the University’s research profile. To further this end, the University is planning a library renovation, which will include a new Special Collections facility.

For Mark Samuels Lasner, the use, preservation and value of original materials are all of paramount importance. Neither print works nor manuscripts are dead, he asserts. On the contrary, every time an observer encounters a page, a window on another place and time opens and with it comes an opportunity to acquire a fresh perspective and understanding. That new knowledge then spreads to others—through scholarship, through collaboration and through research. “Every printed work, each leaf of writing, has in its makeup what Robert H. Taylor called the ‘flavor of the period,'” writes Samuels Lasner. It is “a spirit no later version or facsimile can offer. These objects not only connect us with their creators but tell us about their times through physical form.”

The University of Delaware and the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

“This collection adds tremendous value to scholarship on campus,” says Trevor A. Dawes, Vice Provost for Libraries and Museums and May Morris University Librarian. “Mark has always thought about how his knowledge and resources can benefit others. His gift enables people to see the importance of what exists in the library’s special collections.” The impact of the collection goes far beyond the “Victorian Passions” exhibition. Locally, it has helped to engender a closer relationship with Winterthur and also with the Delaware Art Museum, which offers with the UD Library an annual Fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite Studies. Items from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection have been lent to numerous museums and libraries, such as the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, the Petit Palais in Paris, and the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Scholars from around the globe have come to use its resources.

“Mark has not only enriched our campus,” says L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, head of the manuscripts and archives department at Morris Library and curator of the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Senatorial Papers, but as “a true bibliophile,” he has been “building bridges between people, between the university and other places, and between Delaware and the world.”

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