June 30th, 2017

‘John Lithgow’ Exhibit Extended

John Lithgow: Actor as Artist, a look of the the actor’s talents for drawing as well as drama, has been extended through Thursday, September 7, due to popular demand.


While on campus this spring, Lithgow stopped by to take in the display and to pose with a caricature of himself by Al Hirschfeld from the 1988 Broadway production of M. Butterfly. Lithgow, too, caricatured the show’s entire cast—himself included—in one of the many cast drawings currently displayed on the Library’s ground floor. Join us for this encore performance.

John Lithgow enrolled at Harvard in 1963, intent on becoming a painter. Even as a professional actor, he has never lost interest in the visual arts. To honor Lithgow as this year’s recipient of the Harvard Arts Medal, Houghton Library presents an exhibition of the actor’s drawings, featuring designs for student productions at the Loeb Drama Center and caricatures depicting his career on Broadway and in television, including memorable performances in M. Butterfly, the hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Netflix’s The Crown.

June 28th, 2017

Ortelius’ World

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Plate I from Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570)

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Plate I: Typus Orbum Terrarum, 1570. NC5.Or850.570tℓ

First published in 1570, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum is generally regarded as the first modern atlas, being a comprehensive suite of maps derived from empirical observations and issued together as a single work. Edited and published by the Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598), with plates engraved by Frans Hogenberg, the Theatrum was a great success, going through over twenty-five editions in various languages. With each edition, new maps were added, and old ones altered or replaced as further European “voyages of discovery” filled in the expanses once designated terra incognita. The world map shown here is derived from earlier maps by Giacomo Gastaldi and others. Note, among many other erroneous features, the inclusion of the fictitious north Atlantic island of Friesland and the enormous southern continent of Terra Australis. Buyers of the atlas could choose either a plain, uncolored version, or with the maps colored by hand, as in this copy from the 1574 Latin edition (Ortelius himself had started out as a map colorist, and for many years employed his sister Anne in this capacity).

With so many variations in edition, issue, and state, atlases like the Theatrum are notoriously complex to collate and describe, which I suppose is part of the appeal they hold for me as a book cataloger. On a more personal level, I have an affinity for Belgian things, having lived for some time in Antwerp, and, before joining the librarian profession I worked for a rare book dealer who specialized in atlases, so my interest in Ortelius is sentimental as well as academic. This particular copy, however, will always have special significance to me. Donated to Houghton and duly assigned an accession number in 1950, this treasure of a book was somehow never cataloged until 2013, when, in the course of some unrelated errand in the stacks, I happened to identify it. It was a thrilling find, a day at Houghton I will always remember, and when the call went out for staff to contribute to the exhibition Open House 75, I knew at once what to choose.

Noah Sheola, Bibliographic Assistant, Houghton Library, contributed this post.

June 26th, 2017

Edison Bulb in the Spotlight

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Theater visionary Edward Gordon Craig foretold a future when all the elements of performance—including lights—would play their parts as well as actors. A minor player in a major role, this Edison bulb from the Harvard Theatre Collection tells the story of the first electrified playhouse in America.

Edison bulb from the Boston Bijou Theatre

Edison bulb from the Boston Bijou Theatre, 1882. MS Thr 432 (40)

The invention of a practical incandescent lamp ushered in the modern era of stage lighting. In 1882 London’s Savoy Theatre was the first to make use of electric lights onstage in a specially-designed production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe.

With the show set to open in Boston three weeks later, theatergoers bid at auction for premium seats in the newly renovated Bijou Theatre. Edison himself supervised the installation of over 600 lights throughout the house. Over half were installed behind the auditorium’s distinctive, horseshoe proscenium. On opening night, the new lights were the talk of the town, outshining even the cast.

Boston Bijou Theatre interior

Lithograph of the Bijou’s interior, 1883. TCS 66 (20)

The scene above captures the excitement of the American premiere. The lighted sets for Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster left the audience in a daze of wonder. “Never have we seen a steadier and softer light in a theatre than that given by Edison’s incandescent burners,” the Boston Globe reported. Besides its obvious safety features, electric light cleansed theaters of the odor and bluish tint put off by gas lamps.

The image also depicts the Oriental style of the Bijou’s sumptuous interior, featuring a Moorish ceiling and chandeliers left over from an order for the Khedive of Egypt. Today, a stripped down façade on Washington Street between the present-day Boston Opera House and the Paramount Center is all that remains of the Bijou’s former opulence.

That, and Edison’s bulb. Since its donation in 1975, this hand-blown beauty has seldom, if ever, been exhibited. Stored away from bumping elbows, it is part of the records of the Boston Bijou Theatre, which includes materials relating to the company’s day-to-day management. We owe to Edison’s innovation the thrilling anticipation before a performance as the house lights fade to black and transport us to another time and place.

Dale Stinchcomb, Curatorial Assistant in the Harvard Theatre Collection, contributed this post.

June 22nd, 2017

Beyond Beyond Words

In the fall of 2016, the major exhibition Beyond Words: Illuminated Manuscripts in Boston Collections dazzled the press and the public alike. Divided across three venues, 260 medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books from nineteen Boston-area collections shone on gorgeous display. It was the largest exhibition of its kind ever held in North America and was attended by almost 52,000 visitors across the three sites: Houghton Library, Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. beyond_wordsResearchers gathered for a three-day symposium based on the artifacts; the public was welcomed to a number of hands-on events and lectures; and a luxurious print catalog was produced with full-color plates and contributions from 83 scholars. The exhibition was featured in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Huffington Post.

Along with all of this remarkable effort, the curators also created a digital catalog on the website for the exhibit, beyondwords2016.org. Since the final exhibit shuttered in January, the site has languished. It represents, however, a remarkable resource for researchers, teachers, and hobbyists. As a Harvard Library Pforzheimer Fellow this summer, my task is to update the digital catalog. In my first week here, I focused on making sure that all 249 entries had a thumbnail image­—I added more than 75 images!–and fixing or adding links to additional digital images. While this has resulted in a more functional website, much remains to be done.

We plan to upload descriptions and bibliography for the manuscripts, and eventually to add the print catalog write-ups to the digital entries. We hope to work with our web developer to improve search engine optimization and make the website more user-friendly. All of this will help Beyond Words continue to be a model of collaboration and sharing of information in the scholarly community and, well, beyond. Stay tuned for further developments!

Hannah Weaver, Harvard Library Pforzheimer Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures, contributed this post.

June 19th, 2017

Byron’s Corsair: A Triptych

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

1826_milan_corsairThe British Romantic poet Lord Byron (1788-1824) followed up his successful Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) with a series of popular Oriental Tales, inspired in part by his early adventures in the Levant.  He composed and revised the third of these tales, The Corsair (1814), in just one month, and the first edition sold an unprecedented 10,000 copies on its day of publication.  Already a lion in London literary circles, Byron was out-of-town when his jubilant publisher John Murray wrote, “I really think that I may venture to congratulate your Lordship upon the Publication of a Poem wch has set up your fame beyond all assailment – You have no notion of the sensation which it has occasioned and my only regret that you were not present to witness it.”  Popular demand called for eight further editions in quick succession, bringing the total circulation of The Corsair to 25,000 copies through 1815.

The Corsair reached an even wider audience through several contemporary melodramatic adaptations, in prose or written for the stage.  One such prose adaptation was Conrad and Medora; or, The Pirate’s Isle (ca. 1814), a chapbook printed and sold by Dean and Munday, a London firm that specialized in cheap editions of popular literature intended to reach the masses.  The edition featured a crudely hand-colored frontispiece illustrating the dramatic moment when the pirate Conrad discovers “the lifeless body of his beloved Medora” after his long absence:

He snatch’d the lamp – its light will answer all –

It quits his grasp, expiring in the fall.


Frontispiece, Conrad and Medora (London, ca. 1814)                                       *44W-1217 – Gift of W. B. O. Field, 1944

In 1819 Murray was contemplating his own illustrated edition of Byron’s works.  He commissioned the painter and book illustrator Richard Westall (1765-1836) to create a new suite of images to accompany several poems, including The Corsair.  (Six years earlier, Westall had captured the world-weary poet at the height of his fame in an oil portrait now held by the National Portrait Gallery.)  When Byron in Italy received a set of Westall’s steel-engraved illustrations, he signaled his approval in a letter to Murray: “the brush has beat the poetry.”


Lord Byron, Works, v. 3 (London, 1821)                                                     *EC8.B9968.B821w2 – Amy Lowell fund, 1964

For Open House 75, I selected an illuminated 1826 edition of The Corsair, bound in black velvet and printed on vellum in an edition of no more than two or three copies by the Societá Tipografica dei Classici Italiani in Milan.  The illuminator, Giambattista Gigola (1769-1841), received his artistic training in France and is best known for exquisite miniatures achieved in a neo-classical style.  For The Corsair, he produced a brilliant frontispiece after Westall’s 1813 portrait of Byron and nine full-page illuminations heightened in gold leaf to accompany the text, each within an intricate border; the artist also provided six ornate headpieces and three tailpieces.


Lord Byron, The Corsair (Milan, 1826)                                                                                          Typ 825.26.2527 – Bequest of Philip Hofer, 1984

I first came upon this magnificent example of “European Britannica” (translations of English literature and books about England published on the continent) in the bequest of Philip Hofer, the founding curator of the library’s Printing and Graphic Arts Department.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s I had the privilege of cataloging a substantial part of the Hofer bequest under the direction of my colleague Dennis Marnon.  As an erstwhile Byron collector, I find it somewhat paradoxical that this deluxe Milanese edition of The Corsair and the more homely Conrad and Medora chapbook are today equally unobtainable, each surviving in only a few copies.  The triptych of images in this post is intended to suggest a broader range of visual resources available at Houghton Library to those interested in Romantic era book illustration.

Thanks to Peter X. Accardo, Programs Coordinator, for contributing this post.

June 12th, 2017

Spending Time with Tennessee

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

MS Thr 91.1 In the fall of 1954 Tennessee Williams was desperate for a hit. After the meteoric successes of The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire came one respectable showing and two abject commercial failures. It was with this in mind that he presented a new script to Elia Kazan, who had directed both the lauded Streetcar and the critically decimated box office flop Camino Real.

The raw power of Cat on A Hot Tin Roof called to Kazan, but he played coy. He was eager to direct, but only if he could convince Williams to make significant changes that to his mind would ensure a success. After the experimental Camino, he wanted a more traditional story structure, with character development and resolution. Early drafts offered a protagonist in Brick who, aside from a couple of notable outbursts of emotion, spent the play in a drunken lethargy. Whatever trajectory Brick was on in the first two acts, there was no further character development in the final act, which also relegated one of the most dynamic characters of the play, Big Daddy, offstage and mute. Keep reading →

June 8th, 2017

Join Us for Houghton Library’s 75th Anniversary Symposium: Who Cares?

banner image of brick wall covered in ivy with the words "Who Cares?" in graffiti

October 5-6, 2017
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Free to register

The symposium is limited to 200 participants to encourage productive and dynamic dialogue in a more intimate setting. We expect demand to exceed our supply of seats, so please register early to secure your spot.

This year Houghton Library, Harvard College’s primary rare books and manuscripts library, marks its 75th anniversary. We’ve acknowledged the occasion in many ways, but with this symposium we seek to resist the themes of comfortable reflection, appreciation, and celebration that attend anniversaries. Instead, we intend to examine the legacy, mission, and future of the library, and others like it, through the lens of the question: who cares?

More than a provocation, this question is an earnest interrogation of roles and responsibilities of special collections and archives in an ever-shifting social, cultural, intellectual, and technological landscape. Who cares for special collections? Why do we open our doors? How will we move forward? These questions have no fixed answers, consensus is unlikely; it’s this uncertainty we welcome as we engage in substantive, productive conversation. To that end, we’ve invited speakers and panelists who connect to our collections in a range of ways – as creators and collectors, readers and interpreters, colleagues in cultural heritage from around the world – and asked them to grapple with these questions.
The symposium will feature keynote lectures by Jamaica Kincaid and Johanna Drucker; remarks from Drew Gilpin Faust, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Sarah Thomas, and Thomas Hyry. We are also pleased to feature papers and presentations from Tez Clark, Jarrett Drake, Maria Estorino, Arthur Fournier, Michelle Habell-Pallan and Sonnet Retman, Angela Lorenz, Marcyliena Morgan, Trevor Muñoz, Jay Satterfield, Liz Ševčenko, Jordan Alexander Stein, and Chris Wilde.

Our hope is that you’ll join us as well. Learn more and register online: https://houghton75symposium.org.

June 5th, 2017

The Start of Something Big

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

MS Hyde 50 (38)In 1746, a consortium of London publishers approached Samuel Johnson, a rising star in the literary world, with a proposal: write an English dictionary. In the end, Johnson was equal to the task, but only after nine years of mammoth intellectual labor. Although the practice of lexicography has advanced considerably in the centuries since, Johnson’s Dictionary is still regarded as a tour de force, appreciated for the wit and trenchancy of its definitions, and the erudition underlying its illustrative quotations. Samuel Johnson’s stamp on the writing of English is profound and lasting.

Everything started from this modest manuscript, now visibly cracked from the corrosive ink used to write it. Over the course of a handful of pages Johnson lays out his plan for a work that would grow to two enormous volumes: how he will choose the words to define, how he will determine their proper spelling, from which authors he will draw quotations.
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June 1st, 2017

Collections Now Available for Research: June 2017

Houghton Library is pleased to announce that the following collections now have descriptive finding aids and are available for research in the library’s reading room.

American Repertory Theatre Records, 1979-2012 (MS Thr 1605) – processed by Adrien Hilton, Jennifer Lyons, and Dale Stinchcomb

Fredric Woodbridge Wilson Collection of Costume Designs for Theater, Musical Comedy, Pantomime and Opera, 1841-1909 (MS Thr 1625) – processed by Irina Klyagin

Donald Hyde and Mary Hyde Eccles Iconography Collection, circa 1700-1999 (MS Hyde 100) – processed by Rick Stattler, edited and uploaded by Adrien Hilton

Jamaica Kincaid papers, circa 1950-2013 (MS Am 3097) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Edward Jackson Lowell Papers, 1881-1893 (MS Am 800.2) – processed by Ashley Nary

Murray Anthony Potter Papers, circa 1900-1915 (MS Am 863-MS Am 871) – processed by Ashley Nary

Hilary Putnam Papers, circa 1950-2012 (MS Am 3126) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Simon Vinkenoog Papers Concerning Timothy Leary and Hallucinogenic Drugs, 1960-2001 (MS Dutch 22) – processed by Susan Wyssen

May 24th, 2017

Most Creative: John Lithgow’s Harvard Years

It’s been a year of milestones for actor and Harvard alum John Lithgow, who this week celebrates his 50th class reunion. Last April, he was fêted with the 2017 Harvard Arts Medal at the kick-off of Arts First, the annual festival of student creativity he helped launch 25 years ago.

Watercolor of Winston Churchill in The Crown by John Lithgow
Self-portrait as Winston Churchill in The Crown. 2016MT-55

Fresh from on-screen successes in Netflix’s The Crown and NBC’s crime mockumentary Trial & Error, Lithgow has earned a reputation as a consummate performer; his two Tonys, five Emmys, and a laundry list of accolades make it impossible to imagine otherwise. Yet the former history and literature major once nursed ambitions of becoming a painter. His undergraduate years, he recalls, were “the most active and creative of my life.”

The artistic license of those formative years has proven impossible to recreate. “It was the last time I worked in the theater for the pure, unfettered joy of it,” he has written. “Some of the work was excellent, much of it was dreadful, but its quality was never really the point. Joy was the point.”

Here’s a joyous look back at just a few of Lithgow’s extracurricular entanglements, compiled from his memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education, with illustrations from the Harvard Theatre Collection.

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