Current Issue

Apr. 25, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 11


Hidden Treasure

Unexpected ­Discoveries in Firestone Library

By Jennifer Altmann
Published in the April 25, 2012, issue


FOUND: Twenty-three watercolors by Gwen John, a British painter who died in 1939 and was the muse of sculptor Auguste Rodin.

WHEN: In November 2010 by a visiting scholar in the papers of poet Arthur Symons, which were donated to the Princeton University Library in 1951.

IN THE FALL OF 2010, a professor from England came to Princeton to do research on 19th-century Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. In the Depart­ment of Rare Books and Special Collections at Firestone Library, Anna Gruetzner Robins asked to see several boxes of the papers of English poet and critic Arthur Symons, who was a fan of Beardsley’s work. There were some 30 boxes of Symons’ papers, which were donated to the library in 1951. 

In a box marked “unidentified paintings,” Gruetzner Robins came upon two hand-sewn albums filled with watercolors and immediately recognized them as the work of Gwen John, a highly regarded British painter who was once the muse of sculptor Auguste Rodin.

The 23 watercolors — which have an estimated value of approximately $700,000, according to Gruetzner Robins — were a striking example of the unknown treasures researchers have found among the library’s holdings.

About 2,000 linear feet of donated and purchased material — including Symons’ papers — never have been thoroughly cataloged, says Don Skemer, Firestone’s curator of manuscripts. Much of the material was received in the late 19th century through the 1970s, when the department’s tiny staff had little time to do cataloging. Symons’ papers alone take up 14 linear feet. 

Today, five catalogers spend most of their time on new donations, and are able to review just a few hundred linear feet of older material a year, according to Skemer. Still, discoveries are made.

“We find all kinds of things,” he says. “It makes the job interesting.”

Past discoveries include one of the last letters Ernest Hemingway wrote, a five-page meditation on potential titles and the prospects for publishing his “Paris book,” issued posthumously as A Moveable Feast. The letter never was mailed, and Hemingway took his own life almost three months later. A student worker found the letter in the 1990s in the papers of Charles Scribner’s Sons, Hemingway’s publisher, which are at Firestone. 

Two years ago, a library cataloger found a rare, handwritten copy of the U.S. Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. One of about a dozen souvenir copies that were produced in 1864 or 1865, the document was signed by Abraham Lincoln a few months before he was assassinated. It was discovered in a large miscellaneous collection called “General Manuscripts, Oversized.” “It had been there, unnoticed, since the 1960s,” Skemer says.

It is visiting researchers such as Gruetzner Robins who are often the ones that stumble on hidden treasures. Finding the watercolors was “thrilling,” she says. “It seemed so extraordinary that they could have been in the library for such a long time.” 

Jennifer Altmann is an associate editor at PAW.

Post Comments
5 Responses to Unexpected ­Discoveries in Firestone Library

Charles Ruas '60 *70 Says:

2012-05-02 09:27:27

It reminds me that I am very reluctant to donate original manuscripts to Princeton, much as I want to, because I do not know if they can handle the material. Have they applied to the Leon Levy, Shelby White Foundation for grants to fund archival library work? They donated the funds for creating a library at the Institute for Advance Study.

Don Skemer Says:

2012-05-02 14:09:13

In reference to Professor Ruas' comment, I would like to add some information as curator of manuscripts, responsible for the Arthur Symons Papers and some 1,400 other collections in the manuscripts division. The Arthur Symons Papers, including the watercolors, were donated to Princeton some 60 years ago, when the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections had almost no staff to deal with manuscripts. In addition, Gwen John did not sign the watercolors nor inscribe the albums in which she put them. Nor did Arthur Symons, who admired Gwen John as an artist, ever identify the watercolors. The American artist and art collector A.E. Gallatin, who donated the Symons papers to the library, failed to do so as well. Fortunately, we now have a very able professional staff to deal with new accessions and improve access to older collections, such as the Arthur Symons Papers. This department also receives substantial external funding from public agencies and private foundations.

Allen Scheuch '76 Says:

2012-05-08 17:21:39

I am saddened to read Charles Ruas' comment for several reasons. First and foremost, the Princeton Library has a superb staff whose work is admired the world 'round and whose expertise, dedication, and success are extraordinary. It is patently unfair to characterize an institution on the basis of a few inadvertent missteps. Isn't a lost manuscript or two, an album, artwork, volume, etc. to be expected over several centuries and among the many thousands of notable achievements? Ever it shall be thus. (And isn't it thrilling when something wonderful is unearthed?) Second, every collector must choose to donate for their own reasons, and among those often lie (thankfully) the allegiance and excitement one has to/for the institution of choice, as well as how effectively one believes the item(s) will be used. Having made several donations to the Princeton Library, I have had the distinct pleasure of seeing them "put to work" quickly and effectively, through exhibition and research. (The library staff communicated their use by email, and I saw the exhibits). My donations have been beautifully cataloged and stored. I haven't a single regret and am perfectly delighted by the way they were received and treated. I can only encourage others to take advantage of the opportunity to donate their collections or items to Princeton's Firestone Library (and the other libraries that house the University's remarkable web of collections) that they might be shared with future generations of some of the sharpest and most appreciative minds on the planet. My primary interest is in graphic arts, and I encourage anyone to peruse curator Julie Melby's fascinating, thorough blog for that department: Best wishes from Brooklyn!

David Paton '52 Says:

2012-05-08 17:26:18

I would like to be in touch with Firestone Library regarding the whereabouts of Egyptian books that include some by my namesake (whom I never knew) donated in the 1920s. Both of us received honorary degrees from Princeton -- his was for work as an Egyptologist and the donation of his book collection to the library. There is a plaque that honors him on a campus building. I was sorry to discover he was not mentioned in the related article about early translations recently featured in PAW, but would be very interested to know if his collection is still on file at Firestone.

Charles Ruas '60 *70 Says:

2012-09-21 09:23:28

My previous comments sound distorted because I mean that I have manuscripts and material that I want to contribute to the library but have not had the time to begin the process. I loved the library and the rare-book collection both as an undergraduate and graduate student, because it was at the heart of my education.
Tell us what you think about
Unexpected ­Discoveries in Firestone Library
Enter the word as it appears in the picture below
By submitting a comment, you agree to PAW's comment posting policy.
CURRENT ISSUE: Apr. 25, 2012
Related stories
Dig of the century
Princeton’s Antioch expeditions astonished the world by unearthing lost mosaic treasures