Wilmarth Lewis—book collector extraordinaire

Strawberry Hill catalogue 1842Found in a copy of John O’London’s Weekly for 18th April 1952 is a review of Collector’s Progress by Wilmarth Lewis ( 1895 – 1979) in which the author reveals that the combination of wealth and a collector’s obsession brought about the greatest collection of manuscripts relating to Horace Walpole in the world.

In his book Lewis revealed that he had always been a born collector. At the age of five he collected house flies in a discarded cigar box. A year later he had turned to shells. Stamps, coins and butterflies followed. Eventually, he began to collect books, starting with standard works and moving on to first editions. On the way to Europe by ship to fight in the First World War he met John Masefield, who introduced him to the writings of Horace Walpole. As a result of this meeting he collected a complete set of Masefield first editions. In 1923, at the age of 28 he had $5,000 a year (a large sum in those days) to spend on books. He was an enthusiast for the eighteenth century, but had not yet decided which particular eighteenth century writer to collect. Eventually, in 1923,after buying in London a copy of Jesse’s George Selwyn and his Contemporaries annotated by the bluestocking Lady Louisa Stuart, he returned to Horace Walpole, vowing to assemble the finest collection of Walpoliana– mainly letters and Strawberry Hill books– in the world. In 1952 he described his Library thus:

‘…the new library is panelled in butternut. It has light on three sides and a barrel-vaulted ceiling, eighteen and a half feet high….There are about 5,000 books in the room…The heart of the collection is the newest library, the one that opens off the long hall. This is a fireproof room. In it are some 3,000 books…Recently, two small stack rooms have been added. These more than double the space for files and indexes and provide shelves for 6,000 books.’.

As a graduate of Yale Lewis decided that his alma mater should make his huge collection of Walpole letters the basis of a definitive edition, and thus the first volume of what became the 48 volume Yale edition of the correspondence of Horace Walpole, was published, to great acclaim. In the end it took Lewis nearly 50 years to complete his task. He died in 1979.

Today, the Lewis Walpole Library, housed in a comfortable eighteenth century mansion in rural Farmington, Connecticut, is a mecca for scholars of Georgian England. [R.M.Healey]



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