Charles Bird King: Hidden Treasures

To Preserve Hidden Treasures: From the Scrapbooks of Charles Bird King


This publication is made possible in part by a grant from the the Rhode Island Commitee for the Humanities an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.




Exhibition Curator and Catalog Text: Stephen J. Zietz


Editing, Layout, and Design: Christian-Albrecht Gollub 


Maris Humphreys and Myles Byrne assisted in preparation of selected images for the layout. We thank them for their technical expertise. 


An additional thank you to Cheryl Helms, who proofread the final copy of the manuscript. 


Redwood Library thanks the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities for its support in publishing this commemorative catalog. 



Publication Notes


50 free copies were distributed to Conservators worldwide, announcing their availability using the following two listservs:  "conservation"  "archiving" These listservs were located through the "Library-Oriented Lists and Electronic Serials" website compiled by Wei Wu at the University of Houston Libraries. 


To order the publication, with full-scale, high-resolution images, please send $7.50 plus $2.50 postage & handling to the Redwood.


A Brief Chronology

1785 Charles Bird King born in Newport, Rhode Island, on September 26, the only child of Deborah Bird and Captain Zebulon King. 
1789  On April 30, father killed by Indians at Marietta, Ohio. Probably lives at home of grandparents and undoubtedly receives lessons in art from grandfather, Nathaniel Bird. 
1796-1800  Probably lives at 32 Clarke Street, Newport, in house of stepfather, Nicholas Garrison, whom mother married by 1796. Receives informal art instruction from neighbor, Samuel King. 
1800-1805  Serves apprenticeship with Edward Savage in New York. 
1806-1812  Departs for London sometime between June and September 1806. Studies at Royal Academy. Shares rooms with Thomas Sully from July 1809 to March 1810. Sends home, probably by way of Sully, ten volumes for Redwood Library. Begins collection of prints. 
1812  Presents 27 volumes to Redwood in October. Moves to Philadelphia. 
1813  Exhibits four paintings at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 
1814  Exhibits one painting at Pennsylvania Academy and is listed in catalog of exhibition as residing in Richmond, Virginia. Is in Washington, D.C., by December. 
1815  Leaves Washington before summer. Moves to Baltimore by December. Paints self-portrait (at left). 
1816  Visits Newport on death of grandfather Bird in November. Gives a painting to Redwood. Returns to Baltimore by December, then proceeds to Washington. 
1818  Exhibits one painting at Pennsylvania Academy. Stops in New York en route to or on his return from Newport during his annual summer visit. In Washington by December. Has studio at Twelfth and F Streets. 
1819  In February, mentions to John Quincy Adams his plans to return to Baltimore, but circumstances keep him in Washington and cause him to settle there until his death. Visits Newport on the death of his mother in October. Commenting on King in his diary, Adams noted, He is one of the best portrait painters in the country; little inferior to [Gilbert] Stewart. He is also an ingenious, thinking man, with a faculty of conversing upon almost any topic. 
1820  Visits Newport in July to settle mother's estate. Sells Clarke Street house, inherited from mother, to aunt, Susanna Vinson, for $1,000. 
1823  Exhibits five paintings at Pennsylvania Academy. Joins Washington Botanical Society. 
1827  Elected honorary member, professional, in National Academy of Design. 
1828  Exhibits four paintings at Boston Athenæum. 
1829  Gives Redwood five volumes and two portraits. 
1831  Exhibits one painting at Boston Athenæum. Exhibits portrait of John Quincy Adams at Pennsylvania Academy. 
1835  Gives Redwood nine volumes. 
1836  Gives Redwood one volume. 
1837  Gives Redwood a portrait of Columbus. 
1842  Gives Redwood two volumes. 
1843  Reinherits Clarke Street house on death of aunt. 
1843  Gives Redwood one volume, a copy of portrait of Governor William Coddington of Rhode Island, and $100, to be matched by Redwood's Board of Directors, for purchase of books. 
1844  Gives Redwood nineteen volumes and money to purchase two ladders for fire protection. 
1845  Gives Redwood one volume. 
1846  Gives Redwood eight or nine volumes and possibly some portraits.1847 Gives Redwood 39 volumes. 
1850  Establishes public gallery of art at Clarke Street home, but lack of interest causes him to discontinue it. 
1855  Paints self-portrait at age 70 (see page 9). 
1856  Joins Washington Art Association but is inactive member. 
1857  Visits Newport and Philadelphia. 
1859  Gives several volumes to Redwood and 78 paintings, to be hung in the newly added Reading Room. 
1860  Gives Redwood seven volumes. 
1861  Gives Redwood 46 volumes, many maps and pamphlets, and 42 paintings. Becomes gravely ill later in year. 
1862  Dies in Washington, D.C., March 18. Buried in Newport Island Cemetery. Bequest to Redwood includes 75 paintings, 395 volumes, about $10,000, and 14 volumes of engravings. 

The Scrapbooks of Charles Bird King

Redwood Library has had many significant benefactors in its 250-year history. None of them made a greater impact on the collections of art than the painter Charles Bird King. The Library values King's contributions to the utmost: his gifts of more than 200 paintings, his library, and his little-known collection of prints and drawings. For the last 135 years, these prints have been stored in the depths of the Library, dimmed by the natural aging and deterioration of the paper to which they are mounted, summarily inventoried, and occasionally damaged by both use and neglect. From the beginning, however, they were one of the great treasures of Redwood Library. The exhibition, To Preserve Hidden Treasures: From the Scrapbooks of Charles Bird King, announced the beginning of a project to conserve, to catalog, and to rehouse the prints; to make them known to the national community; and to accomplish King's intentions: ... 


... that his collection of engravings should be placed where they would receive due care for their preservation, and be made instrumental to the accomplishment of a useful purpose, by contributing, as far as possible, to the instruction of students and artists in this department. 


The prints collected by King were bound in 17 volumes just before his death and, by the Library, after his death. They were enthusiastically received by the Board of Directors of the Library and recorded in the Annual Report for 1862:


The second bequest is the specific donation of all his books and bound volumes of engravings, and also of his unbound engravings. ... the specific legacy of book and engravings has already been received by the Company, and is now placed in the Library. It consists of 391 volumes of books, (of which 31 volumes are illustrated works); 14 volumes of bound engravings of various sizes from large quarto to large folio; and also of three portfolios of unbound engravings ...  


The volumes of bound engravings deserve particular remark ...  


[H]e bestowed a valuable portion, consisting of about one hundred large engravings, on the Smithsonian Institute at Washington. These were delivered by Mr. King, to that Institution, sometime in the course of the last winter. Occasional donations were also made by him, in his last sickness, as a remembrance to friends visiting him. With these exceptions, constituting the smaller part of his collection, you have all the engravings acquired by him in the course of his long career as an artist, under the various opportunities and experiences of his professional life. Some of them are prints possessed by him when a child, and remembered as the first that attracted his attention. Some are his chance gatherings, in his researches among the book stalls and repositories of art in London, while there as a young student in the academy. A still larger number are the careful selection of his maturer taste, made by him just on the completion of his studies in England, and while preparing for his return home. Beside these, will be found many prints prized by him as the gifts of valued friends, and some which he acquired by inheritance. To these circumstances of personal interest associated with them, we may add that the collection contains a very large proportion of early impressions, from designs by the best artists and engravers.  


Seven quarto volumes contain prints classified as Historical, Religious, Classical, Landscape, Portraits, Costumes and Miscellaneous.  


Seven other volumes are of folio size, generally of large dimensions, and are also arranged with reference to their subjects. They include many works from the old masters, a copy of Raphael's Bible, in fifty-two plates; some original etchings from Rembrandt; a series from Rubens, illustrating the life and destiny of Marie de Medicis; nine prints from the paintings of Titian, at Blenheim, the originals of which have recently been destroyed by fire, and a large number of other works from the Italian, Dutch and other schools.  


In portraiture, will be found many of great value; those from Vandyke and Reynolds alone making two volumes. The collection is especially rich in English engravings, published in London in the beginning of this, and the latter part of the last century, and presents examples from the works of Reynolds, Gainsborough, West, Romney, Stubbs, Copley, Cosway, and other noted artists of the time, with some fine specimens of the costly line engravings issued by Boydell.  


Cf. Annual Report of the Directors of the Redwood Library and Athenæum, Newport, R.I., to The Proprietors (Newport: James Atkinson, 1862.) pp. 29-33.  


The collections were conveyed to Redwood Library by George Gordon King (1807-1870), first cousin once removed of Charles Bird King. The following two letters from the Redwood archives recount the history of the transmittal and binding of some of the prints. The Civil War had already caused some shortages in Washington.

Aesthetics & History: An Appreciation of the Collection

Aesthetics & History:  An Appreciation of the Collection


The Charles Bird King scrapbooks include more than 1,100 prints and a scattering of original drawings. For the most part, the works of art are by European artists; English and Dutch prints predominate. Many of the prints and drawings are of great value monetarily, aesthetically, and historically. Others were useful to King for their iconography and associations. The collection, however, is a landmark in the history of American art: it is one of only a few complete, extant collections of prints assembled by an American artist at the beginning of the 19th century. The King scrapbooks are significant from these two points of view: 


1. Individual items in the scrapbooks are masterpieces in the history of art. 

2. The entire collection is a landmark in the history of American art. 


The collection includes a large number of unidentified prints as well as works of well-known artists such as Rembrandt (1606-1669). Below is one of several Rembrandt etchings in the King scrapbooks. On the following pages is a selection of works from the King scrapbooks. While they are limited in number, they indicate the depth and breadth of the collection.


Christ Preaching in the Temple

6.25" x 8.5"

Inventory Numbers

This unknown woodcut from the 16th century, possibly Dutch or German, is initialled "H.B." 


The page (p. 32) onto which the woodcut is mounted comes from volume ten. 


The print is the 56th print in volume 10 of the scrapbooks, so that its inventory number would be 10.056. 


8.5" x 7.75"

Intellectual Order: Inventory and Cataloging

The King scrapbooks have been cursorily inventoried. The images have never been cataloged. The problem of inventory and cataloging is compounded by a number of factors: 


  1. Not all of the items require individual cataloging, but all of the prints should be inventoried. 
  2. The Library does not have an adequate art reference collection to create cataloging records for most of the items to be cataloged. 
  3. Many of the prints have been trimmed, and information essential to their cataloging has been lost. 
  4. Some of the prints and drawings are mounted in such a way as to obscure the reverse side. The back of an old print sometimes offers valuable information in cataloging. 
  5. Most but, unfortunately, not all of the prints have been mounted and bound in proper sequence. Some prints in a series, however, are quite distant from others, and in some instances prints have come loose from their mount and are loosely inserted where they clearly did not originally belong. 
  6. Cataloging requires training in art history, the history of graphic arts, graphic media, and paper conservation. 


The following section outlines some of the process in inventory and cataloging. 


The print below will serve as an example:     


Simultaneously to being inventoried, the print is described, all words are transcribed, and the measurements, in this case, 9¼" x 4½", are recorded. 


The inventory record for this print would begin: 


12.066. Girl carrying water jugs, one in right hand, one on head. Seen from rear standing on two steps. Engraving, trimmed to plate mark. Engraved in plate "Raf. Urb. pinx. Doncker d." Initialed.  Upper right corner bears engraved number "18." 






To catalog this Mannerist print - or even to inventory it in a satisfactory way - one would have to know who the engraver (who signed his name solely with the monogram) was. 


6½" x 8¾"


G.K.Nagler's Die Monogrammisten (Munich: Georg Franz, 1858) indicates that the engraver is Jan de Bisschop, known as Johannes Episcopius. 

from Die Monogrammisten (Munich: Georg Franz, 1858)


In the card inventory of volume 12 (below), from which this print is taken, the whole range of Bisschop prints is listed as "not identified." 

A letter code evaluating the quality of each of the prints is assigned by the appropriate curator. The following letters might be used: 


"A" Print or drawing of highest value

"B" Print or drawing of aesthetic, monetary, or historical interest

"C" A good print

"D" An undistinguished print


Another letter code evaluating the condition of each of the prints is assigned by the curator or conservator. The following letters might be used: 


"W" Condition good to optimum

"X" Small folds or tears/minor staining Minimum conservation needed

"Y" Extensive folding, tearing/badly stained

"Z" Ruined state


Inventory is created in a computer database. 

"A," "B," and "C" prints are cataloged with full information for the "A" and "B" prints and minimal information for the "C" prints. 

"D" prints are inventoried only and are not cataloged. 




The two prints below are from a series by Rubens on Marie de Medici. Both are "A" prints, i.e., "of the highest value." 

The print below left would have a condition code of "W" (good to optimum); the one at right would bear a code of "Z" (ruined state). In this case the ruined print would be encapsulated and inventoried but not cataloged.  




 This 18th- or early 19th-century drawing in the manner of Flaxman (1755 - 1826) would be assigned the quality code "A" and the condition code "W." Once it is removed from the actual scrapbook page, its verso may reveal more about its origins. First drawn in pencil with many erasures, the drawing was next outlined in part with black ink. A broader stroked brown ink completed the drawing. 



Directly below: a selection of "D" (undistinguished) prints. Such prints represent only about one-eighth of the King collection. They were useful icons for an artist but are of little interest in and of themselves. The entirety of the prints, however, tells us about artistic tastes and interests in early 19th-century United States.



Substandard Housing: The Scrapbooks Themselves

It is quite clear upon examination that the bindings and the mounting paper of the King scrapbooks are not only themselves decaying, but they are also causing damage to the prints they are supposed to protect and organize. This situation presents a quandary to the Library: Does the Library remove all or some of the prints from the albums, thus breaking up the order they have rested in over the last 135 years; or, does the Library preserve the prints in their original covers, repair where possible, and let the deterioration continue? 


The current opinion is to preserve the order and appearance of the scrapbooks by replacing all of the prints with photographic reproductions in the exact order in which they are found. The bindings would be repaired minimally. Eventually, as time and resources permitted, the albums would be photographed or microfilmed. 


The original prints will be rehoused in folders and stored in archival boxes especially made for print storage. In this way the order of the prints, their original housing, and the prints themselves would be preserved. 


The original bindings of individual scrapbooks show extensive disrepair, and individual pages have come loose. Whole signatures are completely torn free. 


The cause of the scrapbooks' deterioration lies not in their care and handling but in what conservators call the "inherent vice" of the materials used to mount and bind the scrapbooks. Wood pulp paper and boards and highly inflexible hide glues deteriorate at rapid speed, staining and wrinkling the prints. 


In the collection of loose prints, damage to the prints is done each time the album is moved or shown. Loose prints have disappeared, or, as in the case when they are only partially loose, the prints become folded, creased, or torn. 


As each print is expertly conserved, a photocopy will replace it in its exact location in the scrapbook. 


Original prints will be properly stored.

A Better Future: Conservation and Housing

For the exhibition, Redwood asked paper conservator Elizabeth Coombs Leslie to prepare examples of some of the conservation measures that might be employed to put the King scrapbooks in order.As the collection is cataloged, conservation will be done of some of the damaged prints, and all the works of art will be placed in protective enclosures.Conservation of cultural property is taken to include the following aspects of long-term preservation: 


Preventive Conservation (housing in a stable environment)


All objects in a collection, whether or not they receive conservation treatment, need to be adequately housed. For works of art on paper this means storage in either acid-free folders (individually or in small groups) with acid-free interleaving tissue; or hinging onto mats made from 100% rag board. 


Because of the added bulk of the mats, this housing method requires much more storage space and so is generally reserved for objects most likely to be exhibited or examined by researchers. Objects are secured in their mats with two hinges of good quality Japanese paper placed in the upper corners verso, adhered with cooked wheat starch paste. This adhesive ages well without yellowing and is strong but easily reversible. 


Both folders and mats are stored in sturdy, acid-free solander boxes.  



Stabilization (retarding or arresting deterioration) and Restoration (bringing the object closer to its original appearance)


Both these terms refer to types of conservation treatment.Discoloration, dirt, and staining can be disfiguring and substantially alter the artist's original intent. However, they are not always damaging, especially if exposure to light is minimized. Therefore, the decision to correct these problems can be based on aesthetic considerations and falls in the realm of restoration. 


In addition to mending tears and filling losses in paper, examples of stabilization are 


1. Removal of damaging tapes and adhesives (e.g., masking tape or rubber cement); and 

2. Reducing the acidity in paper, which is deteriorating, especially when catalyzed by light. 


An example is Rembrandt's Descent from the Cross (see below).Before treatment, the paper color was so dark that much of Rembrandt's dramatic contrast between the darkness of the night and the figures illuminated by torchlight was lost. Restoring the paper to approximately its original color reestablishes this balance.Stabilization (retarding or arresting deterioration) can be illustrated with the same Rembrandt print. The lower corners needed mending, since they had been almost completely torn off from a combination of how the print was attached to the album page and through careless handling of the album.  




The scrapbooks of Charles Bird King present a treasure trove of information for art historians, historians, conservators, connoisseurs, and collectors. The Library chose to draw attention to the condition of the scrapbooks to educate its public about the richness of the collection and to demonstrate the rigors of proper stewardship of our nation's cultural heritage. The Library staff hoped that the exhibition of the scrapbooks would mark the beginning of a project to catalog and to preserve this unique treasure.  


This catalog outlines some preliminary thoughts about methodology. It points out in a very general way both the enormity of the collection and the extent of the problems facing it. Solving the problems will require dedicated, skilled work and a large expenditure of capital.  


The Library is still not able to launch into a project to catalog, to rehouse, and to preserve the scrapbooks. The next step is to ascertain the full extent of the task at hand and to estimate precisely the time, staff, and resources necessary to proceed. Once this is done, the Library can begin to put the pieces in line to see to the preservation of one of its great hidden treasures.   

Selected Bibliography



Adams, John Quincy. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Comprising Portions of His Diary from 1759 to 1848. Edited by Charles Francis Adams. Vols. 6,7. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1875. 


Annual Report of the Directors of the Redwood Library and Athenæum, Newport, R.I., to the Proprietors, Submitted Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1862. Newport: James Atkinson, 1862. 


Anonymous. Charles Bird King (Obituary). Newport Advertiser, March 26, 1862. 


Cosentino, Andrew J. The Paintings of Charles Bird King (1785-1862). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977. 


Ewers, John C. "Charles Bird King, Painter of Indian Visitors to the Nation's Capital." Smithsonian Report for 1953 (1954), pp. 463-82. 





Ausfeld, Margaret L., ed. Master Printmakers of Three Centuries: Dürer, Rembrandt, and Beyond. Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1994. 


Cunningham, Eldon C., ed. Printmaking: A Primary Form of Expression. University of Colorado Press, 1992. 


Goldman, Paul. Looking at Prints, Drawings and Watercolours: A Guide to Technical Terms. J. Paul Getty Museum, 1988. 


Hults, Linda C. The Print in the Western World: An Introductory History. University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 


Wax, Carol. The Mezzotint: History and Technique. Harry N. Abrams, 1996. 





Fox, Lisa L., Don K. Thompson, Joan Ten Hoor. A Core Collection in Preservation. American Library Association Editions, 1993. 


Ogden, Sherelyn, ed. Preservation of Library and Archival Materials: A Manual. Northeast Document Conservation Center, 1996. 

Appendix: Condition and Treatment Report

Owner/Authorized agent: Redwood Library 

Artist: Rembrandt 

Title: Descent from the Cross, 1654          Lab. #: 96.47 

Medium: etching

Support: medium-weight antique laid paper 

Dimensions: 20.9 x 16.2 cm 

Identifying marks: in plate, lower left: Rembrandt f. 1654  

Watermark: none 

Secondary support/mount: acidic (pH 4.5 measured with Merck ColorpHast test strip) heavy-weight paper 





Mounted all corners verso. Corners are severely creased around and beyond the adhesive. Paper and adhesive residues all corners verso are evidence of previous mounting. 


Lower left corner split in rectangular area 12 x 13 mm. Lower right corner is split diagonally. 


Heavily discolored overall recto and verso; heavy foxing verso.4. Printing is shiny from rubbing and compression (from album?). 




Float-washed 3 times in slightly alkaline deionized water (pH 8.0, calcium hydroxide added) to reduce discoloration as far as possible. Exposed to filtered sunlight whilst wet to further reduce discoloration and foxing. Paper and adhesive residues removed whilst wet. 

Reattached lower corners with thin Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. 

Humidified, then straightened under light pressure between sheets of smooth mat board and foam. 

Japanese paper hinges adhered to upper corners with wheat starch paste. Hinged into 4-ply rag mat. 



Elizabeth Coombs Leslie 

Paper Conservator 


Date: 5/16/96