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In the Library

Useful & Beautiful

Oscar Wilde presented this first edition of The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1899) to More Adey at the time of publication. Adey had helped Wilde during his imprisonment; the book is inscribed: “In friendship: In gratitude.” Courtesy of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the University of Delaware Library.

Most of Morris’ publications are present, together with a strong representation of the Kelmscott Press. Manuscripts include a catalogue of a portion of the library at Kelmscott House, written in Morris’ own calligraphy (ca. 1890). A visitor’s book kept by Burne-Jones between 1881 and 1898 at his country retreat features a caricature of Morris along with doodles of other guests, and of Burne-Jones himself. Samuels Lasner’s fondness for the Rossettis can be seen in items such as Christina’s Sing-Sing (1872), inscribed to her brother William Michael; proof and presentation copies of Dante Gabriel’s 1870 Poems; a lock of Elizabeth Siddal’s iconic red hair; and Lewis Carroll’s photograph of the entire family, which is but one of two recorded prints.

The infamous as well as the famous are present in the collection. A shelf of Oscar Wilde holds the first edition of The Importance of Being Earnest (1899), inscribed by the author to his friend More Adey, who supported Wilde after the latter’s fall from grace following imprisonment for homosexuality. Not far away is The Adult: A Journal of Sex (1897), containing personal ads that leave little to the imagination. More respectable are one hundred letters from actress Ellen Terry, accompanied by a mass of photographs and a pencil portrait by her friend, Violet Lindsay, later the Duchess of Rutland. Aubrey Beardsley is another focus, highlighted by drawings for the Yellow Book and The Savoy, and the extremely rare Avenue Theatre poster. So relentless was Samuels Lasner’s pursuit of the essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm that he called the quest “Maximania,” accumulating virtually every printing of his books, original drawings, volumes from his library, and a box of Beerbohm’s incoming correspondence, not to mention Beerbohm’s ebony walking stick, an empty box of his favorite cigarettes, and the author’s own copy of his book, A Christmas Garland (1912), embellished with sketches of the writers parodied within its pages.

Neither Samuels Lasner nor his collection is new to the University of Delaware. In 2004, the collector placed his holdings on loan to the library. With the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, which owns the largest assemblage of Pre-Raphaelite art outside Britain, the university cosponsors an annual fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite studies, funded by the Amy P. Goldman Foundation. “Having a neighboring collection which is so closely aligned with ours is a curator’s dream come true,” said Margaretta Frederick, the Delaware Art Museum’s chief curator and Annette Woolard-Provine curator of the Bancroft Collection.

“Mark is a collector’s collector,” said L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, head of the University of Delaware Library’s manuscripts and archives department. Noted William Morris scholar William S. Peterson concurred. “The Mark Samuels Lasner collection was formed by a first-rate scholar; that is what makes his body of material so immensely valuable.” Indeed, Samuels Lasner has published bibliographies (of Beardsley, the poet William Allingham, and the Yellow Book), catalogues, and articles based on his collection. He has also curated (and co-curated) numerous exhibitions at the Grolier Club, Houghton Library, the Liverpool Central Library, and other venues.

In response to Samuels Lasner’s donation, the university has plans to create a new special collections facility, which will enhance exposure and access not only to the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, but to the library’s extensive and renowned other holdings. “Having the collection at UD means that it is accessible to all who might benefit, that it will be properly looked after and catalogued, and that my cherished child has a great future,” said Samuels Lasner. Visitors to the University of Delaware Library will certainly agree that the collection is, in the words of William Morris, both useful and beautiful: a leading resource for the study of British cultural history as well as a testament to the accomplishments of the Victorian age.

The exhibition, Victorian Passions: Stories from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, will be on view at the University of Delaware Library through June 3, 2017. Learn more about the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection.

Alexander Lawrence Ames is a doctoral candidate in history and museum studies at the University of Delaware, a member of the Grolier Club in New York City, and a former graduate assistant in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection at the University of Delaware Library.
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