A blog about the famous Victorian poet, designer, and Socialist, William Morris.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mark Samuels Lasner: The Collecting Life

Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Delaware Library, is an authority on the literature and art of 1850-1900. He has spent years collecting thousands of items from the period, and his collection is largely housed at the University of Delaware's Morris Library, under the name of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

His books include The Bookplates of Aubrey Beardsley; and bibliographies of Aubrey Beardsley and William Allingham. His writings have appeared in journals such as Book Collector and Browning Institute Studies. With Margaret D. Stetz, he has co-authored books and curated exhibitions including England in the 1880s: Old Guard and Avant-Garde; The Yellow Book: A Centenary Exhibition; and London Bound: American Writers in Britain, 1870-1916.
He was the principal organizer of "Useful & Beautiful: The Transatlantic Arts of William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites," a conference and related exhibitions held at the University of Delaware, Delaware Art Museum, and Winterthur in 2010. Works from his collection are frequently included in outside exhibitions as well, including the excellent show this spring, Pre-Raphaelites and the Book, which was shown alongside the Tate Britain's Pre-Raphaelite show when it visited the National Gallery of Art.

I met Samuels Lasner at his home away from home in Manhattan, The Grolier Club. Each room in this bibliophile's club, founded in 1884, seems to contain only dark wood, stately chairs, and books. The Grolier Club library contains an impressive 100,000 volumes, mostly surrounding the theme "books about books." Despite the existence of the perfectly apt "Morris Room" on the fifth floor, we met in the smaller Phillipps room instead, and began to talk about collecting, William Morris, Max Beerbohm, and the three tales that a book can tell.

Can you pinpoint a particular experience, or acquisition, which led you to become a collector?

Well, I'll go back and start with my usual story, which seems even more remarkable now as I get older than it did when it happened. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and lived with my grandparents in a wonderful Queen Anne “summer cottage” designed in 1898 by Bruce Price, the architect of Tuxedo Park. I loved that house; in fact I might claim to have had a turn-of-the century childhood in the 1950s. The atmosphere was of the late Victorian period. Of course my grandparents were born in the 1890s.

My grandmother had an elderly friend, May Bradshaw Hays, whom we used to visit. Mrs. Hays was the daughter of Joseph Jacobs, the Australian-born British writer and folklorist. She was born in 1880 and was full of tales about growing up in London. And she had known William Morris and had visited Kelmscott House; she had known Burne-Jones; she had met Robert Browning; she remembered, as a teenager, being taken rowing by Frederick Furnivall. Mrs. Hays even claimed, and it was possible, that George Eliot had seen her as an infant.

I heard all these reminiscences, which only reinforced my love for everything about that period. When I graduated from Connecticut College in 1974, at which point Mrs. Hays was 94 years old, a box arrived. In the box were two hand-painted fireplace tiles; those were her parent's wedding present from Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones; and four pieces of blue and white china, the remnants of the tea set that William and Jane Morris gave them. That was the moment I started to collect. And I now realize that I knew the last living person to have known William Morris. It's just astonishing. As Lorelei Lee says in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, “fate just keeps on happening”—and it keeps happening to me.

You own such treasures as Morris’s handwritten catalogue of his books, Edward Burne-Jones’s visitors book from North End House, Rottingdean, and a rare original print by Max Beerhbohm: is there a single item that you would consider to be the crowning jewel of your collection?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Morrisian Interview Series, #2: John J. Walsdorf

John J. Walsdorf, the talented Portland-based collector and author, has been collecting William Morris and Kelmscott Press related books and ephemera for almost fifty years, while also working on other collections. He is currently the Vice President of the William Morris Society, and serves on the board of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society.

Among his many publications are a complete bibliography of the work of author Julian Symons; a book on the American printer Elbert Hubbard; and a memoir about his experiences, entitled "On Collecting William Morris," which was brought out in a fittingly beautiful, limited edition volume by The Printery. Happily, there are also records of all his impressive Morris collections, even those which have been sold on. The first collection can be found in his 1983 book William Morris in Private Press and Limited Editions: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books by and About William Morris; the second lives on in his 1994 volume, William Morris and the Kelmscott Press; and two years later, the third was preserved in Kelmscott Press: William Morris & His Circle.

I met up with him this January at the Modern Language Association conference in Boston, and it was on a cold, sunny day that we convened to the marble-floored lobby of the Fairmont Hotel. There, perched on some Queen Anne furniture in a corner dominated by a big, jungly potted plant, we began our wide-ranging chat, touching on Morris, the future of the book, and the surprises that can hide in bookstores (or even in your own collection, if it's large enough).

Your collecting career can be broken into distinct stages—might you be able to talk us through that progression a bit? How did it start?

Well, first of all, I would say that I am a life-long collector. When I was really young, 6-12, I was serious about stamp collecting, and I still have those collections. In high school, I didn’t do any formal collecting, but I did a tremendous amount of reading.

When I did my undergraduate work—and I was an English major—I started collecting books, but reading copies only. Especially American and English literature: I really liked Maugham, Hardy, Dreiser, Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where I really got into collecting, and I started collecting fine press books and fine printing on a very, very modest budget.

I would haunt the local used bookstores, especially one in downtown Madison called Paul’s Book Store, and I would go in there and I would just spend my time looking for beautifully printed books and interesting books. It was also at graduate school that a professor of mine at the school of library science, Rachel K. Shenck, introduced me to Kelmscott Press books. She actually owned two Kelmscott Press books, and she brought them to the class, and she passed them around. And she let us handle and look at them, and I simply fell in love with the printing of the Kelmscott Press books.

And really, after that introduction, I knew I wanted to find a way to go to England. And I was lucky enough to get a job, on a library exchange position program two years after graduating from U.W. Madison: I got an exchange at the Oxford City Library.

It must have been wonderful to work in the library of such a literary city.

Yes: the wonder of Oxford was not just the buildings, nor the bookshops, nor the city of Oxford itself, but also the people.  Which leads me to my most famous encounter, and for the truth in the saying: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

One of the patrons at the City Library was J.R.R. Tolkien, and one day I remarked to some of my colleagues at the library that I was going to send him a copy of The Hobbit to inscribe.  They thought that that was simply an unbelievable idea, the thought of sending him a copy of my book to inscribe was unheard of, at least to them.  Nevertheless I did it, and a number of weeks passed, without the return of my book.  

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gems from Jane's Collected Letters, No. 1

Cheer up, love.
My Father and Mother never could come to a clear understanding about what had disagreed with my Father the day he lost his situation at Fothergill's. 
My Father thought it was the sausage and mashed potatoes he had for lunch at the Rose and Crown, at fourpence, and as much mustard and pepper as you liked. My Mother thought it was the beer.
There was something to be said for my Mother's view, on the score of quantity.

This is how William De Morgan's 1906 novel Joseph Vance opens, and it continues in much the same cheery vein. Jane Morris, reading it in Burford Old Hospital mere months after its release, was delighted by it, and immediately wrote a letter to De Morgan. "Dear Bill,  I don't think I have ever written you a letter before, but this is such a very grand occasion that I feel I must put pen to paper and say how happy your book has made me."

"I have not laughed so much for many a long year" she wrote, "I can't write half what is in my mind to say in praise of the book, letter-writing being a lost art with me now."