Acquired Tastes. 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeumby C. Harrison

Journal of the History of Collections

About

Year
2009
DOI
10.1093/jhc/fhp016
Subject
Conservation / Museology / Visual Arts and Performing Arts

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Text

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B O O K R E V I E W S

Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger (eds),

Acquired Tastes.  Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenaeum . Boston, The Boston Athenaeum,  .  ---- .  pp.,  col. illus.,  b. & w. illus. $ .

The Boston Athenaeum is by no means the oldest such institution in North America, but it is one of the most distinguished and distinctive. Its origins were conventional enough: the Anthology Society, founded in , combined the facilities of a gentlemen’s club with a reading room. Three years later, it developed into the Boston Athenaeum, with its own premises and trustees. It was modelled not on the earlier Athenaeums in Rhode Island and elsewhere in the new republic, but on the Liverpool Athenaeum in England. The aims were typical of such institutions: to provide a reading room for periodicals and serials; a library of scholarly and rare books; and a museum of natural and artifi cial curiosities, a scientifi c laboratory and a repository of arts. It was fi rst housed in William Smith

Shaw’s mansion, but it moved in  to purpose-built premises at  ½ Beacon Street, where, in spite of several proposals for alternative accommodation, it happily remains. Over the two centuries of its existence, the aims have never changed, though the collections at N orth D akota State U niversity on June 30, 2015 http://jhc.oxfordjournals.org/

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B O O K R E V I E W S been bought in , and only one now remains in the

Athenaeum. Such sales have often been controversial: there are still Bostonians who have not forgiven the

Athenaeum authorities for selling its two most famous paintings, the unfi nished portraits of George and

Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart, in the s.

Ironically, although these are still known as the ‘ Athenaeum Portraits ’ , they were not included in the exhibition, and their fate is not discussed in detail in the catalogue. Other slightly unsavoury aspects of the collection are, however, treated without fl inching, such as the extensive collection of bookplates, which owes its existence to the barbaric practice (which still continues in some libraries) of soaking them out of books, and thereby destroying the historical value of both book and bookplate.

Acquired Tastes is not a history of the Boston Athenaeum: for that, one must look elsewhere, most recently in Wendorf’s chapter in America’s Membership Libraries (). As the catalogue of what must have been an exceedingly interesting exhibition, as a compilation of essays on some of the treasures of the institution, and as a celebration on a signifi cant birthday, it is exemplary.

Colin Harrison colin.harrison@ashmus.ox.ac.uk doi:10.1093/jhc/fhp016 have. The early strengths were in newspapers and tracts, but most of the former have been transferred to other, larger, repositories. During the s, ‘ books of a purely professional and technical interest ’ were weeded out. The museum has also largely gone. Perhaps, the greatest change arose from the foundation of the Museum of Fine Arts in , when many of the paintings from the Athenaeum were placed on loan to the new institution and have gradually been sold to it.

The establishment of the Museum also ended the celebrated series of annual exhibitions of paintings, held between  and . In spite of these modifi cations, the Boston Athenaeum is justifi ably proud of its history and celebrated its bicentenary with a splendid exhibition, Acquired Tastes , the lavish catalogue of which provides an introduction and overview of the collections, both current and past.

Two preliminary essays by the editors give accounts of the formation of the collections of books and fi ne art. The  catalogue entries are divided into fi ve sections, beginning with the largest, books and maps, and ending with the smallest, decorative arts and artefacts.

Each exhibited item is treated to an extensive essay and illustrated in colour. Finally, the Director of the

Boston Athenaeum, Richard Wendorf, offers a short essay on ‘ Small treasures: an essay on method ’ , illustrating the essentially collaborative work that goes into any properly researched catalogue entry. The range of the exhibits is impressive: from an Egyptian shrinehanging to a subscribers ’ copy of Audubon’s Birds of

America . Among the most celebrated volumes in the

Athenaeum are the books and tracts belonging to

George Washington, bought in ; the collection of

Confederate imprints, now the most heavily used part of the library; and items relating to the history of Boston itself. There are casts and marble copies of celebrated ancient statues, portrait busts and sculptures by some of the leading names of the nineteenth century, notably Thomas Crawford, a gold medal of Simon Bolivar, and a rare plaster cast of the Portland

Vase, rightly described as ‘ unprepossessing ’ . All are discussed exhaustively. Occasionally, the catalogue essays are better on the history of individual copies of books than on the general signifi cance of the title in question. Also, the changing nature of the collections is explored but sometimes glossed over. Most of the best paintings, in particular, have been sold. Two of the set of four views in Rome painted for the Duc de

Choiseul were sold only three years after they had at N orth D akota State U niversity on June 30, 2015 http://jhc.oxfordjournals.org/

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