With the Exhibition Hall closed for needed repairs this summer, I got to thinking about the various displays it has held over the years.
It’s almost impossible to pick out any specific books or manuscripts in this photo from around 1935, but many of the objects and paintings are recognizable [UPDATE: the photo was taken in 1931, before the library opened]. The case in the center of the room holds what are probably the two most valuable three-dimensional objects at the Folger, a 16th-century lute and an 18th-century terracotta sculpture. The lute is signed “In Padova, Michielle Harton, 1598,” making it one of the few surviving examples of Harton’s work. (Note: clicking on the image will let you enlarge it to see the detail of the 1935 exhibit; clicking on the link in the call number in the caption will take you to an enlargeable image in Luna.)
Back-to-back with the lute stands a terracotta sculpture of Shakespeare by Louis-François Roubiliac, dated 1757. The stone cutters who executed Roubiliac’s work as a life-size marble used this clay figure as the master model. Originally designed for David Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, the marble statue now stands in the grand entry of the British Library, on the left as you go up the main stairs.
Matthew William Peters’ Death of Juliet wins the prize for being most recognizable item from the collection, thanks to its size.
Some of you might recognize it as the enormous painting that hangs to the left of the circulation desk in the New Reading Room, where it is paired with Isabella appealing to Angelo, by William Hamilton. Both paintings are life-size oil on canvas works from 1793. Sure enough, if you zoom in on the other large painting to the left of Juliet in the 1935 photograph, there’s Isabella:
The ceramics on the top shelf below Juliet include a Staffordshire figurine of John Philip Kemble as Hamlet, apparently turned away from the others so he can stare at the camera while pointing to Yorick’s skull.
Underneath Kemble, a semi-abstract bronze of Lady Macbeth holds out her draped hands. This sculpture, by American artist Alice Morgan Wright, is one of only a small handful of modernist artworks owned by Mr. and Mrs. Folger. It now sits on a wooden base not seen in the 1935 photograph.
The bronze was a gift to Mr. Folger from Mrs. Folger’s sister, Mary Augusta Jordan. Records show that the gift went into storage almost immediately after it was received in September, 1921. Mary Augusta Jordan surely knew that modern art wasn’t to her brother-in-law’s taste, and I like to think that she had a sly grin as she presented it. Not only was it modern art, the sculptor was a women’s rights activist who had served time in prison following a Suffragist demonstration in London in 1912. He might not care for it, but thanks to the Shakespearean subject—Lady Macbeth, no less—he couldn’t get rid of it.