Blind book collector donates $10 million collection to Univ. of Delaware [video]

     Mark Samuels Lasner sitting in a room surrounded by his collection (Shirley Min/WHYY)

    Mark Samuels Lasner sitting in a room surrounded by his collection (Shirley Min/WHYY)

    A Victorian collection of books, photographs and art was donated to the library at the University of Delaware in February.

    With more than 9,500 pieces and worth more than $10 million, the recent donation is the largest and most valuable gift in Morris Library’s history.

    “This is one of the best collections of its type in the world. And so scholars from not only around the U.S., but international scholars, will be able to think of the University of Delaware when they’re thinking about works of this time period, of this genre,” said Trevor Dawes, vice provost of libraries and museums.

    The collection is vast and focuses on British literature and art from 1850 to 1900. Margaret Stetz curated an accompanying exhibit showcasing highlights from the massive collection amassed by UD Senior Research Fellow Mark Samuels Lasner over the last 40 years.

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    “If you’ve even heard of big names like Charles Dickens, Charles Dickens is represented here, as well as Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale and George Eliot. People whose names, I think, are fairly familiar, as well as some writers and artists whose names are less familiar,” said Stetz, the Mae and Robert Carter professor of women’s studies and humanities.

    The exhibition juxtaposes the familiar with the less familiar and highlights the stories of how they might be connected.

    “So one book that’s been given by a writer to another writer that you might’ve heard of, or one work of art that’s been given by the artist to another famous figure. There are lots of stories here about connections and associations,” Stetz said.

    How it all began

    Mark Samuels Lasner’s collection started with a passion for Pre-Raphaelites.

    Stetz compared the Pre-Raphaelites in Europe to the hippies in the U.S. Stetz said the Pre-Raphaelites were a group of artists in 1848 who began their own kind of counterculture movement.

    “They banded together, these young artisan writers, to fight the power, to fight the academy, to fight the rules, to fight all of the settled notions of what art was supposed to be like,” Stetz said.

    Samuels Lasner’s passion grew from there. A passion, it seems, the 64-year-old was destined to have, in spite of being born partially-sighted.

    “I had- in a sense- a late 19th century childhood,” said Samuels Lasner, who spoke of growing up in an 1896 Queen Anne revival summer cottage. “When I say summer cottage, it’s not really a cottage, it was a 27-room house overlooking Long Island in Connecticut.”

    While living this Victorian childhood, Samuels Lasner met May Bradshaw Hays, a close friend of his grandmother’s. Hays was born in London and grew up in the Victorian era.

    “As a teenager, I would go visit Mrs. Hays and she’d tell me stories of meeting Robert Browning as a little girl, of knowing the painter Edward Burne-Jones,” Samuels Lasner recalled. “So I knew someone who actually had known the people that I became interested in.”

    The stories transported him beyond the limitations of his eyesight and later fostered his love of books from the late 19th century; that love, later evolved into a passion for collecting.

    “When I graduated from college, at which point she was in her mid-90s, a box arrived from Mrs. Hays, which contained two hand-painted fireplace tiles, that were the wedding gift to her parents from Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones; and the remnants of a blue and white tea set that were the presents from William and Jane Morris — that’s how I started collecting,” Samuels Lasner said.

    “He has a vision for how to build a collection, how to make things cohere, how to create a kind of narrative so that one item connects with another item,” Stetz said. “And for that he doesn’t need perfect eyesight, he just needs a perfect vision, a perfect sense of what he wants to build and offer to other people so that they will see what he sees about the 19th century.”

    Samuels Lasner said collectors like to control what happens to their collections and felt like this was the right time and UD was the right place to make the donation. Samuels Lasner’s collection also complements the Delaware Art Museum’s vast collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.

    Victorian Passions: Stories from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection is on exhibit in the Special Collections gallery in Morris Library through June 3. It can also be viewed online at the University of Delaware library’s website.

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