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?

It's always this question, if someone yells, “fire,” what do you take with you. I think I have to say that the Morris calligraphic manuscript is one of my great treasures. It's a spectacular thing. I was actually surprised that I was able to buy it at auction. I assumed that—I won't even name which institutions, but those would come readily to mind—I assumed that one or another of the great libraries or museums would outbid me, and they didn't. The manuscript is like the Holy Grail to me.

The Burne-Jones visitors' book was a complete surprise. I didn't know it existed. In January 2004 a bookseller sent me an email, saying that he had the book for sale for a client, and asking if I knew anything about it. I remember calling him, and I recall my exact words, which were “I don't know anything about it except you're putting it in a Fed-ex box and sending it to me.” That was it. I didn't know how much it was, I didn't even ask. The dealer’s email stated that it came with a little group of drawings by Burne-Jones, but there were no further details. The next morning one of the mailroom staff at the University of Delaware library brought the package to my research study. I unwrapped the book and kept turning the pages filled with sketches, awe-struck, which is an understatement. All the time I was thinking, why isn't this in the Fitzwilliam Museum or the Morgan Library, how is this here?

Samuels Lasner's childhood home, built in 1898 to the design of Bruce Price.
Then I opened the little portfolio, bound in patterned paper, which accompanied the visitors book and find a Burne-Jones self-caricature, a caricature of Georgiana Burne-Jones, drawings of animals and babies. There was a folded piece of paper, and inside this another folded sheet of paper at which I stared for at least two minutes. I thought, no, no this is not here, there's something really wrong. Because what I was looking at was the sketch of Burne-Jones in the studio in Red Lion Square, in 1858, reproduced in every book on the artist or Morris. That ironic piece of Pre-Raphaelite history must be in an institution; it just can’t be sitting in front of me, and I went to the stacks and got the Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, where the illustration caption says “from a photograph in the British Museum.” The British Museum has always had a photograph; this was the original.

And I remember, after I recovered, that I picked up the phone and I called Margaretta Frederick of the Delaware Art Museum. I asked Margaretta, “What are you doing?” and told her to just stop and get in her car and come to Newark. I did not tell her why, just that she had to come, right now.

Margaretta came, and I handed her the little piece of folded paper and she opened it up, and she kept saying “oh my god, oh my god” and of course, for both of us, this was magic: for in the drawing Burne-Jones is sitting on one of the medieval chairs, decorated by Morris and Rossetti, that are in the Delaware Art Museum.

So the Morris manuscript and Burne-Jones visitors' book are at the top of the list. It's partly the stories, and partly the acquisition, but also that these objects are without doubt really interesting, wonderful items. I'm so grateful to have them, and to not only enjoy them myself, to make them available to people to see them. Both the calligraphic manuscript and the visitors book receive a lot of “oohs and aahs.”

Are there others that you’re particularly fond of for more subjective reasons?

Oh I'm attached to so many of them. (laughs) There are things that have come to me because they belonged to friends and mentors. Early on, I was introduced to Simon Nowell-Smith, the great bibliographer and book collector: he was head of the London Library for a decade. Simon collected various things, but his lifelong enthusiasm was English poetry from Wordsworth to Betjeman.

I'd never seen books like Simon’s; when I went to see him in the 1970s he had all these association copies and rarities. Just breathtaking—the dedication copy of Swinburne’s first book, The Queen-Mother, Rosamund, inscribed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was typical, I didn't realize that a private person could own such works. I thought that they were all in libraries, Harvard, Princeton and the British Library. That really fired me up to get unique books. After Simon died his library came on the market, and I was able to buy a number of items. They're wonderful association books on their own, but because they belonged to Simon Nowell-Smith, they are very precious to me.

Your collection is wide-ranging, but Morris is one of your specialties. What makes him so interesting and important?  

I think Morris is central first of all because of the personal connection of knowing Mrs. Hays. But Morris is fascinating; he did so many things so well. I'm a great admirer, sympathetic to his political and environmental views, I love the incredible invention of design that he had. The sheer beauty of Morris's productions, whether they are textiles, Kelmscott Press books, or stained glass windows, is remarkable. I remember that there's the story that when William Morris died, his doctor said that he died of being William Morris and doing more things than ten ordinary men.

However, I have to say that while I was president of the William Morris society, I claimed that I did not collect William Morris. That was in self-defense, but it was also true. Because I've never gone out to look for Morris in the way that I've searched for, say, Max Beerbohm or Aubrey Beardsley, on whom I have done scholarly work. Morris items simply came to me, and I was happy to add them, but, for instance, I’ve never deliberately acquired William Morris letters. And thus I only have a couple—and with Kelmscott Press books, it’s much the same process; I like to have some, but have never wanted a complete set. I couldn't afford it anyway. The Chaucer, in any case, is not financially possible.

Oddly enough, I no longer have my first Kelmscott Press book, which my grandmother bought me on our first trip to London in 1967. Inexplicably it got out of my possession. It's in the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. When the William Morris Society paid a visit to the Athenaeum there or four years ago, they brought out their Morris and Arts and Crafts books, and there was Gothic Architecture, with my bookplate, in the box I had made for it... they do not have an acquisition record, nor I do not have any recollection of selling it or giving it away. I'd like it back! (laughs)

Which of his Kelmscott Press books do you admire most?

I almost would say you have to admire the Chaucer, but actually I'm very fond of News from Nowhere because of Gere’s beautiful frontispiece of Kelmscott Manor, one of the great examples of Morris’s uniting illustration, text, and ornament to perfection.

You said in an earlier interview that when you collect, you seek out connections to the past rather than mint-condition items. Can you talk about this concept a little? 

Many collectors are interested in the obvious qualities of rarity, cultural significance, and the fine condition of the objects they collect. I'm not entirely indifferent to condition, but I consider it to be of far less consequence than the interest in the item, in terms of “who made it,” “what is it,” and “what does it tell you about the person and the period and the place.” I believe that objects are practically human, or animate anyway, and they have three tales to tell: the story of their creation, the story of what they mean in their own time, and then the story of what's happened to them since.

A staggering find: Edward Burne-Jones in the studio at Red Lion Square, 1858.
All these stories are fascinating to me. And occasionally I find something that combines all three elements. A good example would be, of course, the Burne-Jones visitors book, but another might be William Allingham's manuscript commonplace book. Allingham is an interesting writer, and commonplace books of nineteenth century poets are not something you see everyday: you get an idea of what interested him, what he felt was worth copying into his notebook. Allingham began the manuscript probably around 1850, and then continued to add to the book until 1866. Most of the text consists of poems by the Brownings and Tennyson. These writers became his friends, but he didn't know them when he started. It turns out that much of what is in the book is copied from another commonplace book, one kept by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, because Allingham has included comments, which he attributes to a “note of DGR”; from their correspondence we know that Rossetti lent his notebook, location now unknown, to Allingham.

The volume opens with a transcription of Robert Browning's first published book, Pauline, published anonymously in 1833. In 1847, Rossetti read Pauline in the British Museum and guessed that Browning, who he didn't know, was the author. He wrote to Browning, saying I've come across this book, can you tell me if it is your work? The letter he wrote to Browning is in the Huntington; it's a rather famous letter. Allingham has copied, along with the transcription of Pauline, the letter Browning wrote to Rossetti acknowledging the authorship. This is the only known text of the letter. So now we have the second story, a multilayered contemporary context: in one object a picture of, not just Allingham, but also the first personal connection between Rossetti and Browning.

The third story is about provenance, how did the commonplace book get from William Allingham, who died in 1889, to Mark Samuels Lasner in 1979?  The Allinghams lived in Surrey in a house called Sandhills. Helen was a watercolor painter famed for her depiction of the British countryside. At the end of his life, Allingham became ill, and they moved to Hampstead. The house survived, and was bought by the artist-writer W. Graham Robertson. He died in 1948, having never installed central heat, running water, or electricity. Eventually the house came on the market, and the new owner supposedly found some boxes of materials left behind 90 years before by the Allinghams.

I have no idea if the last part is true. Possibly the box turned up at Hampstead or was sold in a country auction in Surrey. It doesn’t matter, the Allingham books and two manuscripts, one of which was the commonplace book, came on the market. I bought them. It was years before I realized that the commonplace book contained the first letter from Browning to Rossetti.

There are many perfectly ordinary books in the collection, with texts not found online; or containing elements I find appealing, such as illustrations or a publisher's binding; or that merely act to represent a particular artist or writer. What I really love are the items that have within them narratives of creation, meaning, and history.

Some books in the collection can be traced continuously through a series of owners and I know where they lived from publication day to my acquisition. There's a copy of Tennyson's The Lover’s Tale, one of his later, still extremely common titles, that he gave to the writer/collector Frederick Locker-Lampson. It was sold after Locker's death, and next owned by the American collector, William Harris Arnold; Arnold sold his library at auction, where it was bought by the composer Jerome Kern; Kern in turn sold his library at another auction in 1929; this time it was acquired by Arthur Houghton, Jr., the Corning Glass heir and a major book collector. I purchased the book at the Houghton sale at Christie’s in 1981. Each owner is represented by his bookplate, including my own.

Just to continue that question, do you have a favorite inscription from one of these authors to someone else? Also, do you have favorite caricature and maybe even a favorite letter?

Oh dear, a favorite inscription. This is a really tough question, because there are more than a thousand inscribed books in the collection, and it would be hard to choose one. I suppose it has to be the Kelmscott News from Nowhere, which was presented by Morris to Burne-Jones.

In terms of Max Beerbohm caricatures, my choice would be Un Revers. This is the largest self-caricature he ever did, and it's truly wonderful, showing the dandified Max seated in an armchair writing at a tiny desk, the floor of the room littered with drafts of whatever he was writing. The caption reads, “They call me the inimitable and the incomparable and the witty, I wonder if I am.” Without doubt the epitome of Max.

There are letters, too, that I am very fond of. In one, Oscar Wilde writes when he was in Kansas in 1882 during his American lecture tour; he was in Topeka for one day, and then went on to someplace else. It’s rather a fun letter. The recipient was a poet called Peacock, and Wilde says that he was appreciative of the man's visit, and of course, makes a witty remark about a poet having such as aesthetic name.

In the past, you’ve sold some excellent items in order to buy others. Do you have any tales of particularly successful, or unsuccessful, bargains?

A page from the Burne-Jones visitors' book.
I want to admit first that there are things that I've sold and bought back when I realized I made a mistake or later discovered a significant feature in the book or manuscript. It was Simon Nowell-Smith who introduced me to deaccessioning as a way to improve a collection. Simon sold his Henry James books to fund purchases in poetry. He constantly traded up, disposing of minor items (and authors) in order to buy otherwise unaffordable major association copies. I think a lot of people who collect never sell anything: they're careful about what they buy in the first place, or they just can’t part with anything. In my case, I love new acquisitions—to the point of forgetting about what I already have.

At times I’ve sold items that, well–because I can't figure them out. There was one book to which I devoted an enormous amount of research, indeed dragged other people in trying to determine the identity of the writer of an inscription, to the point that I finally got so sick of it that I just said “It's going, I don't want to see it again. It’s driving me crazy.” And so the book went into the discard shelf.

On occasion, to buy something like the Morris calligraphic manuscript, I have had to sell some lovely books, but I thought the particular item was so crucial to the collection that sacrifices were necessary. And since the collection came to reside at the University of Delaware Library, there has been “controlled weeding,” the deliberate reduction in the number of books by authors in which my collection is weak and the library strong. Do I need two shelves of first editions of Robert Louis Stevenson? And the answer may be, that unless there's something about the book in terms of rarity, illustration, inscriptions, or provenance that really appeals to me, I don't need it if there is a copy upstairs in Special Collections. The aim is representation, not completeness.

Bargains sometimes come my way because of knowledge of the period or long experience as a collector. I remember once buying a book published under the name of Fiona Macleod, the female pseudonym of William Sharp. Sharp was a perfectly respectable novelist, critic, and poet, but his alter ego Fiona was a literary star of the Celtic Renaissance. There were some at the time who wondered who Fiona really was, for few had ever met the mysterious author. Sharp was very clever about this. He got either a cousin or a beautiful woman named Edith Rinder, who was his muse, to pose as Fiona, to meet George Meredith—Meredith was particularly curious about Fiona. Meredith then vouchsafed the charming Miss Macleod.

On a visit to a bookseller in New York, I was shown a copy of The Dominion of Dreams by Fiona Macleod. The dealer figured I’d like to have it. And, yes, I did—for Fiona Macleod had presented it to George Meredith. Inserted was a long letter from “Fiona,” regarding the meeting her friend Mr. Sharp had arranged. Since the seller had no idea who the author was he priced the book and letter together at $75. I wrote a check on the spot and left before I could say another word.

Surely my greatest unexpected find was a couple of years ago when my friend Phil Cohen told me that a British dealer had in a catalogue the first two volumes of the large paper edition of Morris’s The Earthly Paradise. Although the two volumes make up only the first part of the poem (the large paper version extends to a total of eight volumes) they are very rare. I had only seen such large paper copies once before, but that’s another story.

In his description the dealer stated that there was a portrait of Morris glued in opposite the title page. I assumed this would be a printed portrait cut out of a periodical. Now, I won't admit the cost of this book, except to say that it was a very, very moderate amount of money. There was indeed a portrait of Morris glued in opposite the title-page, except it was not a reproduction but an original drawing, inscribed underneath, “the author of the Earthly Paradise by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” It is hard to believe that the bookseller did not notice this. The books had belonged to Ruth Herbert, the actress who was also an occasional model for Rossetti and the drawing was an unrecorded caricature of Morris, dated to the late 1850s by Jan Marsh when she published it in The Journal of William Morris Studies.

Looking at some of your bibliographies, it occurred to me that a good bibliography of a single author’s work is a like an amalgam of a collection and a biography. Do you think of your bibliographic work in any similar terms? What do you tend to enjoy about this kind of work?

You've described the ideal purpose of a bibliography, which is to be a biography as well as a descriptive catalogue. In the late 1890s, the bibliographer and also forger Thomas J. Wise, and a number of people in his circle, discussed how to do bibliographies of authors. One of the things that came out of this discussion has become a rule: a bibliography of an author, a publisher, a catalogue of an artist, any list is best done in chronological order. You see the development of that person's activity and reputation through the growing number of items and how they relate over time.

A good bibliography of a historical figure is in many ways a biography, a life story with the boring or speculative bits left out. I've done a couple of bibliographies, and also often in collaboration with Margaret Stetz, a number of exhibition catalogues. I love these forms of scholarship. They're never perfect, there is always some awful mistake you find years later, and let's not forget the information that turns up later. While scholars and critics tend to neglect bibliographies (a well known novelist once asked me "what is a bibliography?), antiquarian booksellers consult them avidly. Indeed the citations of bibliographies in dealer's catalogues may represent the sole fame bibliographers receive. It is rather cruel to say this, but I suspect my name will live on longer than those of far more adept writers on literature and art. Decades from now, some bookseller will no doubt ask a large price for a Beardsley item “not in Samuels Lasner.”
Bibliographies really belong online now, where they can be updated and corrected. Yet there is a satisfaction in a printed book that cannot come from digital publication. Although I may be wrong, I cannot think of a major descriptive bibliography that is available solely online.

As an independent collector, researcher, typographer and bibliographer who collaborates with all sorts of people, where do you see your position in relation to the worlds of curating, academia, publishing, and collecting? Do you feel mostly independent, or mostly integrated into one or more of these communities?

"Un Revers," Samuels Lasner's favorite Beerbohm caricature from his collection.
I'm active in all of these roles—with collecting at the center. I'm sort of an academic; I'm sort of a curator. Now I work for the great university library that has provided a wonderful home for the collection. Much of what I do as a “Senior Research Fellow” (a clever made-up title, but perhaps not as appealing since my sixtieth birthday) is only tangentially connected to my own interests. Looking for donations, helping researchers, working on exhibitions, helping to organize events, our annual Fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite Studies. Then there are the various organizations and bibliophile groups in which I’ve been involved: the William Morris Society, the Grolier Club, the Bibliographical Society of America, the American Printing History Association... anything that involves books, I'm there.

It may sound odd, but there are reasons to collect apart from having a collection. Collecting of course gives you something to do, using time and money that might be devoted to a more constructive purpose. I often think of A.N.L. Munby's comment that book collecting is a full-time occupation, and if you do it right, you won't have time for frivolities like reading. One can collect at any financial level, and now, with the Internet, you can make acquisitions twenty-four hours a day. Another reason why I love collecting is you get mail (something email has yet to replace)—dealers’ catalogues, and of course packages. If you buy enough, every day is like your birthday.

You also get to know a lot of wonderful, extraordinary people, who may not share your particular interest or obsession, but understand it. There can be no more gossipy world than the... I'm going to say the book-collecting world, certainly the collecting world, and probably the book-collecting world is the most gossipy of all. We want to know what's happening. Who has just been hired by that library, what collection is coming up for sale, how the deal was done to get that rare and famous book from one place to another, who's writing on what. It’s a fabulously insular little world. I like that. It's something like academia, but better, with real books and money, and crime and sex, added. Speaking of scholars let me not forget all that I have learned from them about my books. Although I cherish my independence as a private collector, I also like being integrated into the other worlds that you asked about.

You have the world’s largest private collection of works and items related to Max Beerbohm, the eminently amusing critic, essayist, writer, and caricaturist. Does a personal affinity with Beerbohm—who looked back on the past much as you do, in your position as surveyor of late Victorian and Edwardian literary figures—fuel any of your interest in collecting him?

Of all the people I collect, Max Beerbohm is the one that I would most want to visit, and have him just talk. Max is perhaps—even more than William Morris—the figure most appealing to me. Certainly the greatest British caricaturist of his time, Max drew several thousand caricatures of the literary, artistic, political men, mostly, of his time. He was also an extraordinary writer, perhaps the greatest parodist in the English language, an important theater critic, and the author of one of the great comic novels, Zuleika Dobson.  Yes, Max became an obsession for me and I simply love—and want—everything to do with him.

Still, I am not unaware of Max’s blind spots. He didn't like to caricature women, which he got around by saying that he didn't want to be cruel to them; he didn't care much for women writers or their writings, although he admired Virginia Woolf. Like most of us he could be touchy or difficult at various points. Part of Max’s appeal is that he was fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites (see the book of caricatures, Rossetti and his Circle) and knew the writers and artists of the 1890s—in a way he is a way of approaching the rest of my collection through a single brilliant figure.

I have to say that Max has influenced my style of dress. Indeed since I wear a hat, sport a monocle, and have a walking stick. I've turned into a Max Beerbohm caricature myself. Such a caricature exists, by my artist friend Peter Astwood, signed “Max” of course. Perhaps some future curator will catalogue it as the real thing. 

Why do you think he looked back to Morris and his circle, and caricatured and wrote about them as if they were his friends?

Max had the ability to at once get to the essence of so many people in a humorous way. Someone, I think it was Oscar Wilde, said the gods had given Max the gift of perpetual old age. This was when Max was twenty years old. Yes, he was already looking back even as a very young man. In 1896, he wrote an essay, “Diminuendo,” published at the end of his book The Works of Max Beerbohm, which one might think is the collected works of an old man, but is in fact the title of Max’s first book. In it he says, “I belong to the Beardsley period,” already writing of himself as passé. He seems to have had a very self-aware nostalgia, something I identify with. At sixty I have a reverence for my childhood; when I'm seventy no doubt I'll look back longingly at my fifties.

Max is simply fun to collect. Like William Morris, he worked in a variety of media. Max Beerbohm once claimed that “my gifts are small; I've used them wisely,” leading one to believe that he hadn't done very much over his long life. In fact, if you include every pamphlet there are at least sixty separate printed items by Max (his collected works issued 1922-28 extend to ten thick volumes). And that's just writings, never mind 2,000 original caricatures, plus radio broadcasts and periodical appearances. As with Morris, there is no lack of material in the marketplace. I used to say that I could walk into any bookstore in the world and find something with a Max connection: a later edition, a magazine, or a book of someone's reminiscences. It is extraordinary the number of otherwise negligible items which contain a reference to Max. So there are a great many things to collect: the first editions of his books, books from his library, letters, manuscripts, drawings, and personalia. Of the last category I own, inter alia, one of his walking sticks, one of his cigarette boxes (empty), and his and his wife's World War II food ration book. Gathering Max became for me an obsession with a name: Maximania. The excuse of acquiring such a mass (or mess) was that I was compiling the definitive bibliography, which survives in a draft approximately 1,300 pages long—typeset.

So now I come to my book-collector question: what might one version of your ideal book look like? Take us through its qualities, from the cover through the illustrations and the type. Then, I’d like to know what time-transcending team of collaborators you might like to see creating this book.

William Morris's calligraphic catalogue of his own books.
That's a good question, what's my ideal book. Actually, what I would like to have is a printed catalogue of my collection, necessitating many volumes, produced in 2013 as if it was printed in 1913. So we're talking letterpress, handmade paper, generous margins, and lots of details in the entries, indications of provenance, collotype illustrations. Something like Harry Elkins Widener's A Catalogue of the Most Important Books, Manuscripts, and Drawings in the Library of Harry Elkins Widener, privately printed in 1910 in an edition of 100 copies. That would be my kind of ideal book. Think Updike and the Merrymount Press, not a Kelmscott imitation. Grandeur, but not grandiose.

Regarding collaborators. My friends at Lead Graffiti, Ray Nichols and Jill Cypher, who did The Multifaceted Mr. Morris, fabulous letterpress printers and artists of the book. I’d certainly like Jerry Kelly to have a hand in the design (how about some of his lovely calligraphy on the title-page?). Wouldn’t mind input from some other designers, such as Bruce Kennett, and of course William S. Peterson would be there to advise not only on typography but also content—good to have one of the best bibliographers and book historians on the planet take a major role. Margaret Stetz, Steve Rothman, Phil Cohen, Florence S. Boos, David Holmes, Carol Rothkopf, and John Bidwell might all take a role. Perhaps I should get them all to be proofreaders: with everyone involved surely there will be no errors of any kind. Nicolas Barker might provide a preface.

Binding. I'm not very interested in bookbinding. Perhaps bright red cloth, solidly sewn and cased, reminiscent of Thomas J. Wise's library catalogues. I don't want the books to fall apart.

Illustrations. Black and white mostly, a color frontispiece for show in each volume. I do like the elaborate tipped-in illustrations in Jerry Kelly’s massive catalogue of Grolier Club exhibitions and publications—but perhaps this is asking too much.

Typeface. Morris's advice was, when in doubt use Caslon. Caslon would be fine, or a digital interpretation of a classic typeface, but printed really dark, which is what letterpress is so wonderful for. Avoid at all costs the gray color on grayish paper found commonly today in commercial books. The size ought to be appropriate for the page, say 12-14 point. (Smaller for descriptive sections and notes, however.)

I think that's what I'd like it to be. Obviously, a signed, limited edition. Maybe five copies printed on Japan vellum, for special gifts.

Would you want all black ink, or some red too?

Oh, black and smattering of red, please. Along with images of items in the collection, and I suppose I would commission a portrait of myself. I'm not sure who I would have do that. The annual portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London might give me some ideas. Perhaps there is a living artist whose style harks back to the fin de siècle. Silverpoint, or an etching or lithograph, not oil painting. If only we could get William Strang to come back, or Violet Lindsay who did wonderful drawings, someone in that period. On second thought, I don't want any historical figures involved, they're going to be too difficult, too opinionated, and their unfamiliarity with digital processes will surely breed contempt.  William Morris would take over the project, he'd want it done his way, not mine.

My last question is, can you think of a few discoveries that stand out from your career as being more exciting than others? What items feel most obviously missing from your collection today?

I think I mentioned a few discoveries, inadvertent or not: William Allingham’s commonplace book with the text of Browning's first letter to Rossetti; the Burne-Jones visitors book; the Morris portrait by Rossetti in The Earthly Paradise; there are many others I've acquired and eventually figured out that they merit unusual interest.  I am now in the process of re-cataloguing the entire collection, assisted by a wonderful graduate assistant, Ashley Rye. Margaret Stetz's brilliant phrase for this process is that I'm shopping my own shelves. Indeed I am. I'm looking at things I have no recollection of, or I'm looking at them in a new light because when I bought the item years ago I didn't know what I know now. Often we find that one item now relates to another in the collection. So that's been wonderful. I've made some pretty good discoveries.

"Had Shakespeare asked me...": another Beerbohm caricature in the collection.
What's missing from the collection? I have a list of ten books I want to get before I die. The list changes as books turn up, often by happenstance, perhaps one title every two or three years. Long on the list was People of the Period, a biographical dictionary, an early Who's Who from the 1890s. I first came across this in the Boston Athenaeum library and have always wanted one but never saw a copy for sale, ever. People of the Period is a book that is truly hard to find. It was instantly out of date as a work of reference; it’s printed on very bad paper and a large volume, cheaply bound, so copies simply fall apart. Yet one day, it turned up on the Internet, offered for sale by the London bookseller Jarndyce. When they received my order Brian Lake and Janet Nassau were surprised—for just two weeks earlier I had been standing right in front of the book in their shop! I wasn't expecting to find it there, so didn’t notice; indeed I hadn't expected to ever find a copy. So People of the Period went off the list—at last.

What else do I want? A Girl Among the Anarchists (1903), by William Michael Rossetti's daughters Olive and Helen under the pseudonym Isabel Meredith, is a long-sought desideratum. I do have a copy of the book, but in the plain secondary binding. I want the first edition in the first binding, bright red cloth showing a large, round, black bomb with a lit fuse on the front cover. Now, that's on my list. Then Without Permission: A Book of Dedications by Arthur Sykes (1896). I have never seen a copy for sale. It’s a tour de force, three hundred pages of parodies of famous contemporary writers by one forgotten one.

What else, what other things? A Max Beerbohm broadside, Ballade Tragique, a Double Refrain. There's a copy at Princeton, and an entirely different one in the British Library. Those are the only copies known so far, and one or both may be a Thomas J. Wise forgery, but it's missing from my Beerbohm collection.

So far, I've been thinking of things that might actually come my way. Moving on to books that exist but which I cannot possibly afford, how about the Kelmscott Chaucer, an incurable or illuminated manuscript from William Morris’s library, or the series of letters Charles Dickens wrote to Alice Meynell’s parents recently offered at the New York antiquarian book fair — these would all fit in nicely, don’t you think? And if we are talking true fantasyland, I wouldn't mind, if we’re going into Victorian literature more broadly, having a first edition of Jane Eyre, inscribed by Currer Bell to Elizabeth Gaskell or the 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland presented by Carroll to Christina Rossetti. Carroll makes me think of the weak areas of the collection, authors or artists for who are under-represented in terms of the number of items in relation to their importance.  Although the poets of the period are found in depth, most of the canonical—and non-canonical—novelists are mostly absent. The only book by George Eliot is a book of verse. There’s no Trollope, Brontes, Gaskell, little Haggard and Mary Ward. I would like to have some novels in parts, more Carroll, and a first edition of Little Black Sambo, if only to be able to show students that the story is not about African-Americans and is not demeaning to its hero.

Of course I'd also love to have a roomful of Beatrix Potter.

Just a roomful? 

A roomful! All the first editions, beginning with the privately printed Tale of Peter Rabbit; some illustrated letters; drawings and watercolors (a watercolor from the series, The Rabbits' Christmas Party recently sold for   £400,000. I did recently acquire Potter's first separate publication, A Happy Pair (1890), which is said to be a rare book but is in fact quite common, though not so common in the poor condition of the copy I could actually afford. 

And once done with Potter, it would be nice to add some illuminated manuscripts and incunabula, drawings by Blake and Sargent, Tennyson's Idylls of the King illustrated with photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, and all the titles in the Grolier Club's "undress" lists. I have generally eschewed the accepted high-sots, but would welcome these now, especially the ones which are not yet in the University of Delaware Library. One of my collector friends jokes that eventually what he really would like is one great book, one a great painting, one a great chair, and a Tiffany lamp. I'm not ready to be reduced to that but admire the thought.

Thank you very much.

(To read or listen to previous interviews with Mark, go here and here.)


  1. This is a very good interview with an exceptional set of responses made all the more enjoyable with the accompanying illustrations. Clara Finley's questions of Mark Samuel Lasner (MSL) were both perspicacious and well crafted. The in-depth interview, admittedly within a short time frame, is a tremendous success in that it begins to explore a number of MSL's sides, and gives the reader insights into what makes this collector sans pareil to many others across the world. He's truly an upper echelon book and manuscript collector, and an inexhaustible enthusiast in his area of Victorian and fin de siècle literature. Her interview has done the book world a true service. In my opinion, MSL is an Edwardian spirit to be appreciated. My only suggestion would be to link the interview with the Wikipedia listing and vice versa. Actually I'm surprised it has taken this long to finally have someone do what Clara Finley has done. Philip R. Bishop

    1. Thank you Philip, that means all the more coming from an accomplished book collector. I will look at putting in the links, I think you're right that Mark's responses should be shared as widely as possible. All my best. -Clara

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  3. I first met Mark Samuels Lasner in 1989 when a book-collector friend put me on to Mark and his fabulous nineties collection. At the time Mark and Margaret were living in an apartment in Washington, DC, near DuPont Circle, when Mark graciously invited me into their home to see his collection. At the time, I was only a very modest collector of late nineteenth-century English literature although some of my high points included Kelmscott Press books and several books bound at the Doves Bindery. Nothing on the scale of Mark's vast collection. I was struck not only by Mark's vast knowledge in his collecting interests but his ability to make his collection as an extension of himself with the care and reverence he bestowed upon his books, drawings, and manuscripts. A year later Mark organized an exhibition at the special collections department at Georgetown University featuring works from his vast holdings. I was fortunate to see it when in town for the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair. That Mark has accomplished as much as he has in his knowledge and sharing of late Victorian literature comes as no surprise. The collectors and scholars interested in this era have much to be grateful for when Mark donated his collection to the University of Delaware so that it is available for all to see and enjoy.