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W. Hugh Peal Collection, Special Collections and Digital Programs

University of Kentucky Libraries

Collection Profile

When W. Hugh Peal was given a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare (1807) as a child, to keep him occupied and away from horses, little did anyone realize the gift's consequences. Peal's acquisition developed into a lifelong interest in Charles Lamb and the English Romantics. A native of rural Ballard County, Kentucky, Peal graduated from the University of Kentucky where he learned to read German, French, and Latin—skills that earned him a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he received a law degree. Returning to the United States, Peal embarked in the 1920s on what became a distinguished legal career in New York, where he frequented the city's bookshops and eventually turned to auction houses and dealers who purchased materials for his growing collection of British and American literature. Retiring to a large country estate near Leesburg, Virginia, in the 1960s, Mr. Peal considered himself "a gentleman farmer." Although he sent portions of the collection to the University of Kentucky beginning in the early 1950s, it was not until 1981 when the Peals moved to Leesburg proper that the bulk of the collection came to the university.

Hugh Peal's collection of over 12,000 volumes and 7,000 manuscripts and letters represents one of the most significant holdings of 19th-century literary material in the United States. The heart of the collection is the papers and books of the English romantics Lamb, Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. The collection contains a number of association copies, such as Lamb's copy of Album Verses (1830), inscribed to his publisher Edward Moxon. Beyond the holdings of early Romantics is a distinguished collection of the second generation—writers such as Byron, Shelley, Campbell, Crabbe, Cunningham, De Quincy, Edgeworth, Hunt, Moore, Scott, and Mary Shelley.

Beyond these holdings are the Victorians, well-represented by works and letters of Charles Dickens. Also represented are primary source materials generated by such authors as Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lewis Carroll, Willkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, the Rossettis, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, and many more. Other "high spots" in the collection are no less spectacular and include an Isaac Newton manuscript, letters from Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday, Alexis de Tocqueville, Randolph Churchill, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Edmund Burke, and Voltaire, to name a few. The Peal Collection also includes several incunabula, printer John Baskerville's Paradise Lost (1757) and his Bible (1763), Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1778), and numerous extra-illustrated works including a copy of the Life of Sir Robert Walpole (1798) containing a group of 105 letters written to him or his contemporaries.

In recent years the Peal Collection has been the object of numerous exhibitions, class assignments, and visits by researchers and scholars. In particular, the collection has received the attention of numerous inquirers, researchers, and editorial projects from the British Isles. An extensive exhibition catalog was published at the time of the collection's dedication in 1982.

Collection Profile and Overview: William J. Marshall
Illustrations: Deirdre A. Scaggs

More About This Collection

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