In conversation: Margaret Powell on ‘taking the train back to the 18th century’ at the Lewis Walpole Library

Margaret Powell, who retired in May as the W.S. Lewis Librarian and executive director of the Lewis Walpole Library (LWL), met with YaleNews recently to discuss the retrospective exhibition that is currently on view there, some of the biggest initiatives during her tenure, and the “amazing,” “cool,” and “wonderful” things that she will remember about the library.

(Photo courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library)
(Photo courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library)

Located in Farmington, the Lewis Walpole Library — a department of the Yale University Library since 1980 — is an internationally recognized research collection in the field of 18th-century British studies. Its collection includes numerous volumes from Horace Walpole’s renowned library at Strawberry Hill, outside London, and many letters and other manuscripts by him. The LWL’s extensive book and manuscript collections cover all aspects of 18th-century British culture.

The library is also home to one of the largest collections of 18th-century British graphic art outside of London’s British Museum, including satirical prints, portraits, and topographical views exploring the many facets of English life during this period. In addition, the collections feature drawings, paintings, and furniture — all housed on a 14-acre campus with four historical structures and extensive grounds.

Can you tell us about the exhibition that is on view at the library?

The exhibition is called a “A Collection’s Progress: The Lewis Walpole Library, 2000-2014.” It’s a pun on “Collector’s Progress” — the title of one of two autobiographical books that W.S. Lewis wrote about his experiences putting together the collections that became the Lewis Walpole Library. It is a celebration, really, of the last 14 years of additions to the LWL. At the core of the library are the materials that Lewis collected around the 18th-century figure Horace Walpole, and a chunk of what we acquired over the last 14 years adds to that core. One of Lewis’s accomplishments is the extraordinary 48-volume Yale Edition of Walpole’s correspondence, a project that took 50 years; we have added significantly to  the 3,000 original letters and 3,000 more in Photostats and copies that Lewis acquired for the edition. We have also added another 20 volumes from Walpole’s library at Strawberry Hill, so one entire case in the exhibition is filled with “Walpolian” materials. I’ve been doing a lot more collecting of ephemera and manuscript materials such as inventories. While these are less immediately “Walpolian” they do speak directly to the 18th-century world: for instance, one display case holds a collection of bills from various inns that show what it cost to stable a horse, what people paid for a beer, and what they paid for hay. One inventory lists everything a weaver, to take one example from several in the exhibition, had in his possession when he died. We also have a really extraordinary group of papers dating from the middle of the 18th century through to the 19th century that belonged to a provincial lawyer and that document the workings of an estate in the north of England. He meticulously collected and noted all kinds of documents, from lists of the trees planted on his land and how much it cost to buy muck, to correspondence from business dealings in the West Indies.

Essentially, what the collection is now, and what Lewis wanted it to be, is an 18th-century studies research center, so its focus is not only on Walpole and his house, Strawberry Hill, but on that whole world. Lewis described it as taking the train to the 18th century.

What are some of the “must see” things on a visit to the library?

I think one of the really interesting aspects of the library is how it has evolved from a residential private library into a place that is part of a great institution, and now has commensurately appropriate professional facilities and staff. It has been my aim to make the collections more accessible and to make sure that we get folks up here not just from Yale but from all over the world.

And that, I think, is one of the interesting stories here. Besides the library building there is another 18th-century building, the Timothy Root House, which was renovated in 2000-2001 to serve as a residence for scholars, including residential fellows who come here to study. We award between 12 and 14 fellowships — usually for one month — to junior and senior research scholars who come from all over the world, and a wonderful community builds up among them and the staff. We also offer travel grants for one or two weeks of study, and, in the summer, fellowships to one or two Yale graduate students. Most recently we began to offer an annual grant to a Yale senior working on a senior project.

What has been the biggest initiative that has taken place during your tenure at the library?

The 2007 renovation and addition was a big one. It was a major planning operation first to nail down and articulate what we wanted and second to figure out how to get there. With approval from the university, planning began in 2003 and construction was completed in 2007. To get that kind of affirmation said a lot about the university’s commitment to what we were and what we were trying to do. I think such a major project also convinced the town and our neighbors that Yale was in Farmington to stay.

Do you have any

W.S. and Annie Burr Lewis, ca. 1928 (Photo courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library)
W.S. and Annie Burr Lewis, ca. 1928 (Photo courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library)
favorite or funny memories of your time at the library?

When I started at the library, I think I had it in my head that I was going to spend a lot of time reading. During the first week or so I learned otherwise when there was a phone call from one of the neighbors. She began by saying “Your poison ivy is strangling my rhododendron!” And then, about two weeks ago, the same woman called to say “You need to fix your fence!” I just loved that.

Is it true that there are Indian excavations taking place on the grounds of the library?

One of the wonderful things about this place is that we are in Farmington, on Main Street, with many other 18th-century houses along it. And then it turns out that the library site is very rich archeologically. Lewis’ gardener, Bill Day, kept digging up stone artifacts, and it turns out that these artifacts are thousands of years old, even 10,000 years old. The Peabody led digs here some years ago. And a really cool thing is that last summer and again this summer, Farmington High School archaeology students have come to conduct digs. They were incredibly well prepared. They spent a week digging and at the end of the week they held a show-and-tell on a Saturday morning where they laid out what they had found and showed pictures of how the dig had proceeded. It was amazing!

What will you miss most about the LWL?

I’ll miss my colleagues. I’ll miss the excitement of introducing scholars to the collections and to our community. And I’ll miss dreaming up new things to do.

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