In a colonial house by the banks of the Pequabuck River in Farmington, Connecticut, once lived a Yale alumnus who felt an ardent kinship with a man who lived in a villa by a river several thousand miles away and two centuries ago. This passion, part scholarly and part personal, inspired the alumnus to fill his home with tens of thousands of books, letters, art works and other materials belonging or relating to the man he admired.
Today the alumnus' home -- now known as the Lewis Walpole Library -- is an official, if far-flung, part of the Yale campus. Its unique holdings have made the library a mecca for scholars from throughout the globe who travel to this wooded corner of Connecticut to learn about the intricacies and intrigues of daily life in England during the 18th century. The home is also a historic building in its own right and rests on the site of one of the oldest known continuously used Native American camping grounds in New England.
The library bears the names of both its founder, Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis 1895-1979, and the British gentleman around whom the collection centers, Horace Walpole 1717-1797. As the youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, England's first prime minister, and a member of Parliament himself, Horace Walpole was a first-hand observer of the political events of his day, which he recorded in his "Memoirs." He wrote the first Gothic romance, "The Castle of Otranto," and the first history of British art; owned a private printing press; and was a collector and antiquarian. Walpole lived along the Thames River in a villa called Strawberry Hill, which he remodeled in a Gothic style of his own creation and which subsequently became renowned throughout Europe. It is, however, his letters to his friends, which illuminate many aspects of his age, for which Walpole is now best known.
Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, on the other hand, was a West Coast native who settled in Farmington after graduating from Yale College in 1918. His interest in Walpole was ignited after purchasing several letters by the author and was fanned to a full flame through the encouragement of his Yale mentor, Professor Chauncey Brewster Tinker. In his autobiography, "One Man's Education," which is written in the third person, Lewis described the "parallels" he found between Walpole's life and his own: "Walpole's parents were unhappily married and he -- Lewis -- was brought up by an over-fond mother; Walpole was devoted to his friends and the companionship of older women; both men shared a taste for pictures, collecting, reading, writing, and conversation; both had recurring attacks of mysterious illness; when Lefty -- Lewis -- moved to the country he was also a bachelor." Lewis also confessed that he "swept aside the conspicuous dissimilarities" between himself and Walpole. So strong was his identification, noted the alumnus, that "For thirty years and more he felt that anyone who criticized Walpole was criticizing him."
Lewis believed that Walpole was "greatly undervalued" as a historic figure. "So Walpole, the friend and champion of underdogs, was himself in need of a champion," wrote Lewis, "someone with the time, energy and will to do him justice; someone, of course, who liked and respected him. Lefty believed that he was that person. He had what in the sacred profession is recognized as a 'call,' a compulsion to dedicate himself to a cause. He would rehabilitate Walpole, give him his rightful place in history and in the regard of posterity ..."
This "calling" led Lewis to write and lecture widely about Walpole's work and, eventually, to undertake the massive task of editing the Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, a University publishing venture that produced 48 volumes between 1937 and 1981.
Lewis and his wife, Annie Burr Auchincloss, also became avid collectors of "Walpoliana." Among the Walpole-related items that can now be found in Farmington are the doorway to his London house at 11 Berkeley Square, acquired when the building was demolished in 1937; the lamp that once hung in the entrance of Strawberry Hill, where Walpole said it cast "a most venerable gloom"; and four Gothic chairs that were specially designed for the villa by Richard Bentley. In a special fireproof room reside two-thirds of the traceable volumes that once graced the shelves of Walpole's library in Strawberry Hill; these works have been arranged, as much as possible, in the same order that Walpole kept them. See "Other treasures," below.
All told, the Lewis Walpole Library now contains more than 30,000 volumes. In addition to the aforementioned collection, these include Walpole's manuscripts and letters; books printed at the Strawberry Hill Press; folios of drawings and architectural designs; works by or belonging to Walpole's relatives and friends, including the poets Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray; and a variety of volumes on diverse aspects of 18th-century life. The mere "mention of Walpole's name in a book justified its purchase," admitted the alumnus in his autobiography.
The library's collection of 37,000 18th-century English satirical prints and drawings -- the most extensive such collection outside of Great Britain -- resides in a converted squash court in one wing of the Farmington house. Lewis originally began acquiring prints from the era to illustrate Walpole's correspondence, and today these holdings have expanded to include nearly all known plates by engraver William Hogarth, as well as designs by virtually every artist of the period. On the walls of the Print Room hang works owned by Walpole, with manuscript notes in his hand. Elsewhere in the building are displayed portraits of Walpole and his contemporaries, various views of Strawberry Hill and other art works from the period. Following a tradition established by Mrs. Lewis, the first curator of the collection, each work of art is meticulously catalogued both for essential information about its creator and origin, and for the various items and subject matters depicted therein -- including fashions, furnishings and food. Using the cross-referenced index, a scholar could easily locate every work in the collection showing the timepieces of the day or popular perceptions of clergymen, for example.
Lewis, who was a member of the Yale Corporation for 26 years, often invited scholars to stay at his home as they explored his collections, and he bequeathed his home and adjacent properties to Yale so that this tradition of academic hospitality could continue. Today, the Farmington facility continues to offer scholars a haven for "periods of uninterrupted study," says Richard G. Williams, who arrived from London, England, in May to assume the directorship of the Lewis Walpole Library. The center annually offers a minimum of two residential fellowships -- this year, it's four -- to scholars interested in its collections. Due to security considerations, the researchers are now housed in the Root House, the 1784 home next door to the library. While these accommodations are not as luxurious as those enjoyed by the scholars who stayed at the Lewises' home and were waited upon by their servants, notes Mr. Williams, they are far more spacious, as the Root House apartments together have nine bedrooms.
Mr. Williams -- who previously was librarian of Birkbeck College in the University of London and director of two private collections in England at Mapledurham House and Hendred House, Oxfordshire -- hopes to enhance the Farmington library's academic mission by "building bridges" with departments on the main campus and at other colleges and universities in the area. "I want to restore the library's contribution as an academic resource and increase its participation in the life of Yale's main campus," he says. This winter, for instance, the Lewis Walpole Library will loan some of its Hogarth prints to the Yale Center for British Art for an exhibition there.
The new director is also exploring ways to utilize the facility's other attributes. The library itself is a white colonial frame house to which wings have been added. The original part of the house was built in 1784 by Major-General Solomon Cowles, who served under George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The house remains furnished as it was in the Lewises' day and reveals "how a man of letters lived in the middle part of this century," says Mr. Williams. While scholarly groups can arrange for private tours of the facility by calling 860-677-2140, it is not open to the general public at this time.
The 13 acres that encompass "Yale in Farmington" -- as Lewis called it -- are also situated on lands used by the Tunxis tribe from approximately 10,000 B.C. through the 1700s -- a fact that came to light in 1958, when the Lewises' gardener, Bill Day, dug up a considerable number of arrowheads on the property. Subsequent archaeological excavations have revealed that the migratory tribe used the area as a camping ground and "factory" for making tools and weapons. A few of the finds from these digs -- the most recent of which was led in May by Yale alumnus David Starbuck -- are in the collections of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. Most are in the Day-Lewis Museum, a one-room cabin that was the home of the last member of the Tunxis tribe, who died in Farmington in 1820. Lewis had the cabin transported to his property so the artifacts discovered there could be exhibited on-site. The facility is open to the public 2-4 p.m. every Wednesday afternoon.
All these projects, however, remain secondary to the Lewis Walpole Library's main mission -- providing scholars undisturbed access to a unique and broad-based resource on 18th-century England, notes Mr. Williams. As Lewis wrote in his autobiography, "Walpole's reputation will rise and fall, as all reputations do, but Yale in Farmington will be able to support serious studies in any aspect of his time."
-- By LuAnn Bishop
Just a few of the many artifacts that are housed at the Lewis Walpole Library at 158 Main St. in Farmington, Connecticut, include:
-- The copies of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" that poet Alexander Pope used to write his famous translations.
-- An inlaid writing desk that belonged to British essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle.
-- The so-called Nag's Head portrait, said to have been discovered aboard a deserted ship off the coast of North Carolina; the image is of one of the missing passengers, Theodosia Burr Alston, daugher of Aaron Burr.
-- A portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, which hangs over the fireplace in the Old Library, and a stove-top statue of the nation's first president, which stands in the garden.
-- Books with fore-edge paintings that, when angled properly, reveal miniature landscapes, including a scene of Strawberry Hill.