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The Mystery of the Lewis Walpole Library Explained

Do you know what's inside the Yale library on Main Street?

We drive by it all the time, but how many Farmington residents have ever been inside 154 Main St.?

Why does Yale University have a library 40 miles away from its New Haven campus, on fourteen acres on the banks of the Pequabuck River?

The  is a department of Yale University Library. It holds “one of the most important research collections for British eighteenth-century studies in the world, including the finest collection of eighteenth-century British graphic art outside the British Museum,” reported Susan Walker, Head of Public Services at the library.

While touring the spectacular Reading Room, Walker explained that while the rare collection is not browsable, it can be viewed online. The library also maintains a blog, Recent Antiquarian Acquisitions and can be found on Facebook.

Yale alumnus Wilmarth Lewis  and his wife, Annie Burr Lewis, a Miss Porter’s School graduate, devoted themselves to building a collection of books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, and furniture, “all centered on the Lewises' near-obsessive interest in the eighteenth-century English literary figure Horace Walpole” in their Farmington home.

“Wilmarth Lewis made it his life’s work, and spent a fortune, to collect, edit and publish Walpole’s voluminous correspondence,” Walker said, while pointing out the more than 30 volumes of materials he produced.

When Lewis died in 1979, he left his property and the collection to Yale to become a research center.

Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797) was the son of Sir Robert, Britain's first Prime Minister. He is known for writing the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, which was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as for coining the term ‘serendipity.' Walpole’s Strawberry Hill,  known as Britain’s finest example of Georgian Gothic revival architecture, was the inspiration for the book. 

In 2006, the Lewis Walpole Library underwent a major renovation to create a new reading room, classroom and exhibition space and to improve conditions for the collection.

Every year over a dozen visiting fellows from around the world live in the white house at the corner of Main Street and Meadow Road while doing research at the Lewis Walpole Library.

Yale students, classes from other colleges and local organizations regularly visit the collections.

The public is invited to visit the library’s exhibitions. The library mounts two rotating exhibitions from its collection each year, which are free and open to the public during gallery hours: Wednesdays, 2-4:30 p.m. Tours can also be arranged upon request.

“We are always happy to hear from the community,” said Margaret Powell, W.S. Lewis Librarian and Executive Director. “For Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, this place represented their three loves: Horace Walpole, Yale and Farmington, and we are dedicated to continuing in that spirit.”

The current exhibit, on view until July 29, is “Illustrious Heads: Portrait Prints as History,”

“In curating this exhibition, I wanted to show how history was told through portraits rather than narrative at that time,” explained Cynthia Roman, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Paintings. “It is also interesting to note the size of some of the books on display,” Roman added. “It really was a luxury to own them, as you would need someone to carry them for you.”

A one-day master class on “Hogarth to Cruikshank at the Lewis Walpole Library: Comic Image 1750-1850,” will be offered on May 14, 9:30am–4:30pm, led by Brian Maidment, Research Professor in the History of Print at Salford University in Manchester, UK, and Cynthia Roman, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Paintings at the library.

This year, for the first time, the library invites members of the community to attend the master class, which will use the library’s collections of satirical prints and caricatures to explore the evolution of comic imagery and visual humor between 1750 and 1850. The class will work with primary material to consider diverse forms of visual comedy and the role of caricature in British society and will include an introduction to identifying printmaking techniques common during this period.

No previous experience working with prints is required. Early registration is encouraged, and the number of participants will be limited.

For registration or further information, contact Cynthia Roman at 860 677-2140 or cynthia.roman@yale.edu.

For future events, visit the library’s News & Events website.

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