Twenty years ago, the Redwood Library published To Preserve Hidden Treasures: From the Scrapbooks of Charles Bird King (1997) to commemorate an exhibit on the subject held the year before. This exhibit featured selections from the extensive print collection of Charles Bird King (1785-1862) whose paintings line the walls of our library. While his portraits are on display to greet every visitor, his print collection is of no lesser value and deserves a spotlight. The exhibit twenty years ago announced an intention to properly catalog and conserve the collection, a slow process that has seen progress over the years. Today the collection is housed in archival boxes in the vault and each item is individually numbered. The other intention of the exhibit was to bring more attention to the collection and so, twenty years later, we are taking up that goal again this week.
Self-Portrait at 30 (ca. 1815) by Charles Bird King
From the Collection of the Redwood Library, Bequest of the artist.
Charles Bird King was born in Newport in 1785 and likely received lessons in art from an early age from his grandfather, Nathaniel Bird. Following an apprenticeship with Edward Savage in New York from 1800-1805, King left for London to study at the Royal Academy from 1806-1812. It is during this period that he began collecting prints. His scrapbooks today, which he donated to the Redwood Library, contain more than 1,100 prints and a few original drawings by King himself. For the most part, the art is by European artists, primarily English and Dutch, but they comprise a wide range of talents. This collection is one of the only complete sets of an American artist's source material from the nineteenth century still in existence and is valuable not just in understanding the work of Charles Bird King, but also other American artists of his time who likely studied their craft in the same way. King also ran a for-profit picture gallery in Washington, D.C. where he frequently copied prints in his collection for display. While most of those paintings are lost to us now, these prints allow us to reconstruct an image of a picture gallery in our nation’s capital from 1824 through the 1850s.
The collection includes many unidentified prints alongside well-known artists such as Rembrandt (1606-1669), as seen directly below, and Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). It spans a large range of artistic styles, subjects, and movements to create an impressive collection of source material for any American artist. Presented here is a selection, which will perhaps provide some inspiration to future American artists.
All print images are from the Charles Bird King Scrapbooks in the Collection of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. For more information about the scrapbooks and the prints in the collection, please contact a reference librarian at firstname.lastname@example.org.