Celebrating Research


Spencer Collection, The Research Libraries, Humanities and Social Sciences Library

The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Collection Profile

The Spencer Collection was established with a bequest from William Augustus Spencer, a native New Yorker living in Paris, who was lost in the Titanic disaster in April 1912. Spencer’s will stipulated that the library receive his collection of turn-of-the-century French illustrated books in fine bindings, and a portion of his estate. The gift provided for an endowment to acquire “the finest illustrated books that can be procured of any country and in any language…thus constituting a collection representative of the arts of illustration and bookbinding.”

The provisions of the bequest offered curators wide latitude in developing a collection, beginning as early as 1918 with the acquisition of exceptional Western manuscripts, among them the Tickhill Psalter. These early acquisitions also included great monuments of the Western printed book, such as the Aldine Hypnerotomachia Poliphili on vellum, the 1481 copperplate edition of Dante’s Divina Commedia, and Dürer’s three great woodcut albums. Curators, beginning with Karl Kup in 1934, have continued to acquire the finest illustrated books of numerous varieties, from festival books, emblem books, and architectural treatises to novels, poetry anthologies, and livres d’artistes, and they have expanded the scope of the collection to encompass illustrated and illuminated books and scrolls from China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. With the recent acquisition of the Elaine Lustig Cohen Dada Collection, the Spencer Collection now can document that 20th-century art movement through illustrated books, periodicals, posters, prints, drawings, and related ephemera.

The Spencer Collection has been featured in numerous library exhibitions, beginning in 1914 with “The Spencer Collection of Modern Book Bindings.” In recent years these shows have included “Tales of Japan: Scrolls and Prints from The New York Public Library”; “The Splendor of the Word: Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts at The New York Public Library”; and “Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan.” These recent exhibitions were accompanied by major catalogs, which join another scholarly publication documenting primarily Spencer holdings, Islamic Manuscripts in The New York Public Library (1992). Other exhibitions, drawn extensively from Spencer, have featured artists’ books and livres d’artistes by contemporary artists, including Christian Boltanski, Richard Long, Richard Tuttle, Jim Dine, and Lawrence Weiner.

The Spencer Collection is also increasingly visible and accessible through digital projects. The Spencer Collection, with the library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division, participated in Digital Scriptorium. The more than 2,000 medieval and Renaissance manuscript pages and associated illuminations are on the library’s NYPL Digital Gallery Web site with 3,900 other images from the Spencer Collection. Present also are digital images of the Japanese printed books and scrolls, many in their entirety, that are reproduced in the catalog for Ehon: The Artist and the Book in Japan (2006).

Two all-day symposiums have been hosted by the Spencer Collection in conjunction with its exhibitions, and a video of the “Ehon” symposium has been posted on the NYPL Web site. Both attracted large audiences including the general public, scholars, and graduate students. School groups, focusing on K–12, were invited to attend special classes and tours for the “Ehon” exhibition, and teachers have continued to bring their classes to learn about other collections.

Collection Profile and Overview: Heike Kordish
Illustrations: Various

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