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?