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Climbing the curved stone staircase and entering the hushed marble foyer of the Houghton Library is like entering an ancestral monument. In contrast to the teeming Lamont Library just across the lawn, Houghton’s expansive ceilings and furtive hallways are serene. Stepping through its doors, one can sense the range of history that is locked in cabinets just beyond reach.
Houghton’s current exhibition, which opened last week, pays homage to the scientific drawings of Edward Lear at the bicentennial celebration of his birth. In my childhood, I knew this British poet and artist as the man who wrote “The Owl and the Pussycat” and whose nonsensical drawings decorated the tiles around our kitchen sink. Yet this latest exhibition put on by Houghton celebrates the side of the man often forgotten: his talent for painting scientific images of animals, particularly life-like drawings of parrots and birds.
This wondrously extensive collection reflects the life-long obsessions of notable collectors Philip Hofer and William B. Osgood Field. But how the exhibition should be appreciated is less than straightforward. Can we consider the collection of Lear’s scientific drawings—not the components but the assemblage—a work of art in and of itself?
The opening of the exhibition also coincided with the Philip Hofer Prize for Collecting Books or Art, a prize that raises further questions about the merits of collecting. The private collector is often attacked for hiding works of artistic and historical value, and the inherent costs of collecting restrict its participants to a select few. The Lear show reflects the obsession, rigor, and knowledge of two private collectors, yet presents Lear’s works in a public forum so that the greatest number of people might also view the preserved artwork. Visibility presents a possible solution to the moral problem with collecting.
CHANCE AND COMPASS
Whether collecting is an art form or not, it evokes a passion in collectors that can rival that of artists. On Dec. 7, 1984, William P. Barlow Jr.—a well-known collector specializing in books printed by 18th century English printer John Baskerville—gave the ninth of the Engelhard Lectures on the Book at the Library of Congress that was entitled “Book Collecting: Personal Rewards and Public Benefits.” Beginning his talk, Barlow stated, “The collecting experience, it has always seemed to me, is so personal that it is both painful to write about and impossible to communicate.” These words almost resemble the sentiment of artists or writers when they are asked to discuss how they produce art. The act of creation is something difficult to communicate or express—much like Barlow’s inability to discuss the act of collecting—precisely because it is too “personal.”
Barlow goes on to discuss the process whereby a collector pieces together a collection. It begins—as all works of art—with chance. Barlow, already the owner of a printing press at age 16, read about 18th century printer John Baskerville in a book. It was then, while in Pasadena during his freshman year at college, that Barlow stumbled across a set of Milton’s works printed by Baskerville. This stroke of luck was the conception of his collection—a collection that has come to span his life.
Barlow’s experience in Pasadena mirrors the chance finding described by William Kentridge in the second of his Norton Lecture series “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts”; Kentridge showed a brief clip from his black-and-white comic opera “The Magic Flute” in which a man with spindly legs walks across the screen. Kentridge described how the image of the man came about purely because a pair of mathematical compass legs were lying on a surface of his studio. The chance finding of this compass thus gave rise to the artistic image on the screen—much like the chance finding of an object that might give rise to a collection.
Hope Mayo, the curator of the Department of Visual and Graphic Arts at Houghton, emphasizes that a collection is not a mere accumulation of objects. “A collection might begin with an accumulation, but it must then cohere in either form or subject. The collection is more than just an accumulation,” says Mayo.
The Philip Hofer Prize for Collecting Books or Art, which is given in the name of the founder of the Department ofPrinting and Graphic Arts, emphasizes the coherence of a collection over the rarity and cost of the pieces within it. A body of items must be unified and, by being an assemblage, reflect a meaning different from the individual pieces. In this sense, the collection comes to reflect a work of art: a work of art is a composition, a piecing together of various fragments to construct something unified and different to its individual parts.
The invention of printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 can be conceived as the beginning of modernity because the printing press allowed the material spread of knowledge in a way that was previously unfathomable. The mass production of books has altered the way in which art and books are now consumed. Particularly in an age of mass media, where information is freely available via the Internet, art and books are sometimes considered public property. Indeed, it could be argued that in order for art’s potential to be fully acknowledged, it must be seen, used and studied by as wide an audience as possible.
Yet privacy plays an integral role in collecting. A private collection can be considered elitist by the very nature of its privacy since its objects can only be appreciated by a select few. Yet, the importance of the private collector is evinced by the fact that the collections of public institutions—including Houghton Library—are composed, for the large part, of individual donations. As illustrated by the lives of both Barlowe and Philip Hofer, the eccentricity, obsession, and passion of the private collector is key to amassing a comprehensive collection.
The split between private and public ownership of valuable objects is a difficult boundary to chart. The lack of an audience potentially renders collecting a matter of recreation rather than a display of handicraft. But, more importantly, collecting raises a series of moral dilemmas.
COINING THE MARKET
The Occupy Museums movement argues that art and valuable objects are not being made freely accessible to the public. As written on the Occupy Museum’s official website, “Galleries and museums increasingly operate as profit-driven business….This system…has emaciated the breadth of art available to the public.” On these grounds, it would be easy, but arguably ignorant, to dismiss collecting.
Ross P. Ford ’12 was last year’s winner of the Philip Hofer Prize for Collecting Books or Art with his collection of coins entitled, “Traveling Art of the British Empire (1884-1947), a Numismatic (Re) Collection.” Ford has been a collector since an early age. His grandfather—an avid collector of coins himself—initiated Ford’s penchant for collecting by encouraging Ford to find the state coins as a child. But despite his personal motivations for collecting, Ford reflects the passion and determination of a collector whose aim is not to hoard objects of value, but to recognize and preserve these objects.
“I like to find things as cheaply as possible, to find something beautiful for nothing,” says Ford. “The market is often so absurd, as people don’t understand the value of things, so I am able to find objects of value at very low prices because their value is not being recognized.”
Ford is not a collector with a limitless budget who shops only at the world’s most expensive auction houses. Rather, he
enjoys hunting for forgotten objects in Goodwill and at street markets, and he relishes the thrill of finding a valuable object for nothing. He illustrates that collecting is not merely reserved for a select few.
Ford sees the activity of collecting as a vital pursuit because, by finding objects of value that have been forgotten, he helps preserve items of historical signifance. It is the act of collecting, of sourcing, recognizing, and acquiring these objects of historical and artistic importance that prevents parts of our historical past falling out of the material record.
Whilst travelling through Europe the summer after his freshman year, Ford stumbled across relics of material history in markets in Istanbul and along the Balkan Peninsula. In Bulgaria, he came across what collectors call a cornerstone: the object that is the unifying piece of the collection. For him, it was the Maria Thaler Dollar silver coin.
The act of collecting can open up areas of historical knowledge previously unknown. Another coin in Ford’s collection bears the face of Englishman James Brooke, who became the first White Rajah of Sarawak. The Brookes—an English family of an army officer— were the rulers of Sarawak for three generations and possessed the power of life and death over their subjects. After discovering this coin, Ford came to learn about the White Rajah dynasty of Sarawak—a startling and intriguing fragment of colonialist history.
Ford’s experience illustrates how objects serve as historical repositories: each a door into a past that may have fallen out of the historical record, or, if not, at least out of our consciousness. Similarly, the new exhibition of Edward Lear in the Houghton Library forces us to remember a crucial part of Edward Lear’s career that often remains forgotten.
Collections can also function as vehicles of social advocacy. This is exemplified in this year’s winning collection, by Carla Martin, a Ph.D. student in the Department of African and African American Studies and entitled “‘Nos lingua, nos kultura, nos identidadi’ (‘Our language, our culture, our identity’): Books in and about Cape Verdean Creole.”
“Ultimately, this collection, while a source of daily inspiration to my own research and writing, is inherently political in nature,” Martin wrote in an email. Martin has spent the past decade involved in various research and civic engagement projects in Cape Verdean communities. “Its broader implications include potential progressive social development (through education, social enfranchisement, and political participation) for Creole-speaking communities. I strongly believe that it is through the collection and dissemination of Creole language materials that further advocacy work will be made possible,” she wrote.
Martin’s collection includes written texts pertaining to the language of Cape Verde, such as poetry, fiction, children’s storybooks, and non-written or sonic texts such as sheet music. Martin, the U.S. Representative of the National Library of Cape Verde, regards this work as vital, not only to her own individual project, but to making publications from Cape Verde freely available to communities around the world.
“Each year, I organize multiple book fairs in conjunction with cultural events. As a result of these book fairs, members of the United States-based Cape Verdean community now have unprecedented access to these publications,” Martin wrote.
Carla’s work illustrates the societal role a collection project can perform. Carla collects texts for her own research and ownership, but her collection simultaneously sheds light upon the cultural context of Cape Verdean Creole, and constructs possible paths for social development in Creole-speaking communities.
In the fall of 1984, the Harvard Library Bulletin published an article entitled “Prince of the Eye: Philip Hofer and the Harvard Library” written by William Bentinck-Smith. In the article, Bentinck-Smith described Philip Hofer as a “librarian, trustee, world traveler, collector and donor, founder and long curator of the College Library’s Department of Printing and Graphic Arts.”
As this lengthy list implies, Hofer was an extraordinary collector to whom Mayo attributes “revived interest in book illustration.” Hofer was not merely an extensive private collector, but he also founded the Harvard department dedicated to the preservation of printed works and illustrations.
As illustrated by Ford and Martin, the private collector is a fascinating, and often eccentric individual, one whose passion for a particular subject will take them delving through markets and auction houses, whose eye is always searching for an object of value. Their collections are highly personal and thorough and serve a higher purpose than the mere accumulation of objects: preserving material history or even aiding social advocacy.
Even so, how can the problems of private collecting be solved? The solution is in Philip Hofer’s work and in the sentiments expressed by Carla Martin. “I have already started the process of digitizing those works in [my] collection that fall under the category of public domain, and have plans to make them available on this website,” Martin wrote.
The exhibition space comes to reflect the unity of the private collection with the public space, while allowing for collections to serve a larger societal purpose. But the exhibition space is itself limited by location and access. The possibility of digitalizing collections offers permanent and limitless access to all collections, and both Martin and Houghton Library have plans to digitalize collections in the near future—Houghton intends to digitalize the pictures by Edward Lear currently being exhibited. The digital age, despite the repercussions it may have on the longevity of the material book, could render valuable artistic and historic documents freely available to all. Technology presents the possibility of further accessibility, but ultimately, the donation of private collections to public institutions allows a general public to appreciate the fruits of a collector’s passion, no matter how obscure.
—Staff writer Sarah L. Hopkinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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