Is It Any Good? Prints, Drawings, and Paintings at the Lewis Walpole Library

Introduction

Art historians, curators, and connoisseurs often pose the question, Is it any good? evoking a sense of quality manifest in canonical works of art. By contrast, when building a collection of eighteenth-century prints that would become a cornerstone for research at the Lewis Walpole Library, W.S. and Annie Burr Lewis envisioned a visual collection that is essentially archival. Prints were valued foremost as documents that would improve their library dedicated to the life and times of Horace Walpole and to 18th-century studies. The Lewises’ iconographic approach, however, does not preclude the importance of assessing what is good. Aesthetic, material, and technical attributes are integral to understanding the power of visual art and artifacts to communicate the eighteenth-century histories they document. Asking Is it any good? this exhibition presents a selection of prints, drawings, and paintings at the Lewis Walpole Library to explore the intersections of quality and documentary value. 

Richard Newton
Soulagement en prison, or, Comfort in Prison
ca. 1793
Watercolor and ink 
Drawings N481 no. 10

Acquired by W. S. Lewis in 1929, this watercolor drawing by Richard Newton is among the earliest visual documents to enter the collection in Farmington, Connecticut. The illustration, later etched by Newton and published by William Holland on 20 August 1793, depicts Lord George Gordon dining with several companions in Newgate Prison. The imprisoned men engage in conversation while being attended by a female servant, who provides the amenities of smoking tobacco in long-stemmed pipes and drinking spirits from tankards and glasses.

In his anecdotal account of the establishment of the library’s Print Room in his memoir, One Man’s Education (1968), Lewis makes clear his interest in the content value of images over the matter of their quality. In an apology for Newton’s Soulagement en prison, he boasts with apparent satisfaction of the “disgust” expressed over Newton’s watercolor by his friend and colleague R. W. Chapman, who, as Lewis describes, was a leading Johnsonian and the Secretary to the Delegates of the Clarendon Press. Clearly unimpressed by the quality of the drawing, Chapman asked, “Why did you get that thing?” Lewis replied: “I got it because Lord George Gordon is a major minor figure and because it makes the eighteenth century come alive.”

Curated by Dr. Cynthia Roman, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Paintings, The Lewis Walpole Library

This exhibition was produced in Omeka by Kristen McDonald, Public Services, The Lewis Walpole Library.

For questions/comments about the exhibit, please contact the Lewis Walpole Library: walpole@yale.edu