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For Us to See and Savor

For more than ninety years after Melville’s death, the work that Melville’s widow, daughter, four granddaughters, and subsequent descendants had done to preserve his print collection was essentially unknown outside of the family and its immediate associates. When Mumford and Mather in the 1920s and 1930s referred in passing to prints Melville had collected by Claude, Turner, or Poussin, they had not mentioned anything about the size of his collection or where any of the prints were currently to be found. The first publication to provide an inventory of actual prints in a particular collection was the 1985 catalog in which Walter Herbert Jr. and Jon Swartz listed four prints in the Osborne Collection of Melville Materials at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. The next was the essay on “Melville’s Prints and Engravings at the Berkshire Athenaeum” that I published in Essays and Arts and Sciences in June 1986 (which included an inventory of 291 prints and reproductions of 14 of them). Publication of that essay led to subsequent essays in Melville Society Extracts, Harvard Library Bulletin, and Leviathan in which I documented and reproduced prints from the Mystic Seaport Museum, the Reese Collection, The Ambrose Collection, the David Metcalf Collection, the Amalia Osborne Durham Collection, the E. Bart Chapin Jr. Family Collection, the Melville Chapin Collection, and, most recently, additional prints from the Osborne Family Collection. 

Discovering, documenting, and reproducing individual prints from all the collections in the aforementioned essays was exciting enough. But bringing all the prints from those individual collections together into this comprehensive whole has been more exciting yet. It is the kind of excitement that Goethe found when, to “divert” his attention from the Napoleonic invasion in 1813, he began to arrange his prints “according to schools and to join the various collections,” discovering that “in context each print becomes instructive, and you have more than you believed.”

I had discovered all these prints from Melville’s collection by looking for something else. As I began to research my book on Melville and Turner in the early 1980s, I began to wonder what Melville might have actually known about paintings by Turner. Learning from Melville’s Reading that one of the many books Melville had owned was J. M. W. Turner by William Cosmo Monkhouse (Sealts no. 365), I visited the Houghton Reading Room at Harvard in May 1984 to consult that book along with other art books from Melville’s library that his granddaughter Eleanor Metcalf had donated to the Harvard College Library in 1942 (Metcalf, Herman Melville,  293). After spending several days examining not only the art books but also Melville’s sixteen-volume edition of Byron’s Life and Works with engraved title pages and frontispieces by Turner, I had completed my work a couple of hours early on my last day in town. It was raining hard outside, so I requested a “miscellaneous box of Melville materials” I had noticed in the card catalog and began to thumb through its contents. One item was a pale blue ditto summarizing the materials relating to Herman Melville that the Berkshire Athenaeum had received from Eleanor Melville Metcalf on August 18, 1952. I was surprised and excited to see “Large Portfolio of Prints” on the list. Also listed were “Miscellaneous Small Prints in Old Portfolio” and “Old German and English Prints kept in ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ Portfolio.” I had known from Stedman’s 1891 “Funeral” notice and the occasional mentions by Mumford and Mather that Melville had assembled some kind of print collection, but until now I had no idea where, or even whether, it had survived.

As soon as I got back home to Northern Kentucky I contacted the Berkshire Athenaeum to ask if they still had those portfolios from 1952, how many prints were inside them, and whether any were after paintings by Turner. They said the collection was large but that they did not know exactly what was in it because they had never made an inventory of its contents. When I arrived to examine the actual prints in April 1985, the three portfolios of loose engravings were in a large paper bag in a storage room. When I spread the prints out to see what was there, I was delighted to see that twenty of the engravings were after paintings by Turner (FIG 5: The First Turner Prints to Surface). Apart from that, I was overwhelmed by the number of engravings (they had been numbered consecutively from A1 to A 287), by the range of their subjects, and by the difficulty of knowing what some of those subjects were (especially with the 53 prints that contained no information as to artist, engraver, subject, or publisher).

Although I had my own favorites among the collection, I thought the best thing to do at that point was to make an inventory of everything that was there so others would be able to follow out their own interests within the collection. In my 1986 essay I therefore listed 285 numbered prints that had been donated by Eleanor Metcalf in 1952 and Jeannette Chapin in 1960 according to the portfolios in which they had been preserved (two of the numbered prints had not been from Melville’s collection). I also listed six framed prints that Eleanor Metcalf had donated from Melville’s collection; these included engravings after Poussin’s The Shepherds of Arcadia and Turner’s The Golden Bough (Wallace 1986, 72-86).

The presence of engravings after Poussin and Turner coincided with accounts Mumford and Mather had left of the collection, but where was Claude Lorrain, mentioned by each of them in addition to Stedman in 1891? There was not a single engraving after this painter among the 291 prints at the Berkshire Athenaeum, framed or unframed. The answer to this mystery came when Hershel Parker mentioned to me that he thought Melville’s great-granddaughter Priscilla Ambrose in Irving, Virginia, might have a couple of prints from Herman’s collection.[1] When she welcomed me into her home on April 7, 1994, I discovered my first engravings after Claude from his collection, View of a Sea Port during a Sun-set and the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (two exceptionally beautiful mezzotints by Richard Earlom from the 1770s).

Conversation with Priscilla Ambrose about these and other prints in her collection led me eventually to other branches of the Melville family tree (she is on the Osborne side). In Maine and Massachussetts, I was delighted to discover additional prints after Claude in the homes of Bart and Melville Chapin, sons of Jeannette (Thomas) Chapin. As these successive prints after Claude surfaced in groups of two, seven, and five in three different states, I began to realize not only Melville’s great love for Claude but also how selective—as well as comprehensive—his appreciation of this artist was. This realization was deepened further by an etching by Claude himself that surfaced belatedly in the Osborne Collection in Texas.

Each new print I was able to see, and then document and write about in each new essay, was a challenge and inspiration. Two particular groups are deserving of special mention here because they show the fragility of material objects and how contingent their preservation can sometimes be. The 44 prints from the Reese Collection that I catalogued and interpreted in 1993 are unusual among Melville’s collection in that they consist mainly of topographical views of architectural and antiquarian sites in Great Britain (though they do also include celebrated fine-art engravings after Guido’s Beatrice Cenci and Watteau’s Finette). This group of prints appear to have been the first from Melville’s collection ever to be exhibited. In 1950, the Berkshire Athenaeum put them on display as a loan from Samuel Sukel of Pittsfield (but with no catalog of the exhibition). The prints remained in Sukel’s collection until he died, at which point William Reese, a book collector in New Haven, Connecticut, got an emergency phone call from Harrison Hayford, a Melville scholar from Evanston, Illinois. Hayford was at the house sale of Sukel’s remains, he told Reese from Pittsfield, and he saw a bunch of engravings in the wastebasket as being of no value. Would Bill want to come up and take a look at them? Reese drove up to see them and recognized immediately that they were engravings that until now had been preserved from Melville’s personal collection. He therefore purchased and preserved them himself until 2004, when he donated them to the newly formed Melville Society Archive at the Research Library of the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

The other story of fragility and archival retrieval involves the Osborne prints now in Texas. In 2001 I wrote to the Special Collections department at Southwestern University to ask if they could provide measurements for the four prints from Melville’s collection that had been listed in the catalog of the Osborne Collection in 1985. Kathryn Stallard generously provided the measurements; she also mentioned that there were five additional prints that had not been exhibited or listed in the 1985 catalog. When Kathryn welcomed me into her Special Collection on January 2, 2002, I saw why the five additional prints had not been exhibited. Several were heavily stained, as if Melville (or someone else) had spilled tea or coffee on them while they were sitting on his desk. Another was covered with foxing so thick the image could hardly be seen. One had heavy abrasions on the surface and the margins of the print. Another had paper loss on the margins as if the paper had been eaten by microbes (FIG 6: Turner print before and after Restoration).

Physically, it was easy to see why these prints had not been exhibited. Pictorially, however, the story was different. Underneath the stains, abrasions, and other disfigurements, the five images turned out to be: an exquisite etching by Claude Lorrain; the first image after Ruisdael to surface from Melville’s collection; and three additional prints after Turner. Once Duncan Osborne, who has loaned the Osborne Collection to the University, learned of the visual and intellectual value of these prints, he arranged to have them restored to a condition in which they could be exhibited and, now, included on this site (return to FIG 6 to see the restored version). 

I am hoping that the presentation of Melville’s collection on this digital site will lead to the discovery of additional prints from his collection in sites currently unknown or as yet unrevealed. Even though the 420 prints presented here may not represent the entirety of the collection Melville assembled and savored in his own home during the closing decades of his life, they in themselves represent direct visual insight into his own imaginative life that are in themselves a fascinating body of work for us to see and savor.

[1] Hershel Parker is one of several Melville scholars and Melville family members who helped me to find additional prints after I had published my account of those at the Berkshire Athenaeum.