Mr Morgan’s Library

Shortly after arriving at the Morgan Library I was vexed by two not-particularly-helpful questions – why had it taken me so long to get around to visiting, and why was there no queue to get in? Free entry beginning at 7pm on a Friday is perhaps their strategy for keeping the crowds down, but everyone elses’ loss was very much our gain, and we enjoyed looking around with comparatively few other visitors getting in the way.

Cartoon of J.P. Morgan "The Magnet"

This lovely cartoon sums up Pierpont Morgan’s collection policy, which described as follows on the Morgan Library’s website:

During the last two decades of his life—from the 1890s until 1913—Morgan spent some $60 million on art (about $900 million today). From the beginning, it was clear that Morgan’s collecting tastes could only be described as encyclopedic—what he amassed in such a short period encompassed virtually the full range of artistic and human achievement in Western civilization, from antiquity to modern times.”

He clearly needed somewhere to put all this stuff, so commissioned a new building next door to his residence on Madison Avenue, reportedly telling his architect that he wanted “a gem”. The picture below depicts an illustration of the design, and the Morgan residence is just visible on the left-hand edge. (He also apparently enlarged his London townhouse for the same reason, but by the more straightforward method of purchasing an adjacent property and knocking through.)

Engraving of Morgan library exterior

The new building predominantly contained the library at one end, Morgan’s study at the other, and an office for the librarian in the middle. The library is quite spectacular, with two galleries reached by staircases concealed behind the bookcases. (Apologies for the rubbish pictures, I didn’t even think to take a camera and these were the best my phone could manage.) Morgan’s literary tastes appear to have been eclectic to say the least, although illuminated manuscripts, autographed originals, and popular authors of his time feature heavily amongst the collections.

Morgan library interior

I thought that these four items from amongst the works on display served to illustrate the collections as a whole rather nicely. Clockwise from the top left they are:

  • a letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, dated 24th November 1815
  • a rather wonderfully-illuminated Medieval calendar
  • a 20-foot-long scroll of recipes in English from the mid fifteenth century
  • Wagner’s draft music for his opera Lohengrin

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I could happily have spent all evening in the library, but there were other things to see, most notably a fabulous temporary exhibition of illuminated books of hours, in which photographs were not permitted. We were also interested to see Morgan’s study – all dark red walls and heavy wooden furniture, with a massive vault in one side which apparently housed the most valuable of his treasures. I should also note that Mr Morgan was no mere frivolous collector, building one of the most powerful banking firms in the world and amassing a stupendous fortune along the way. I particularly like this quote (also from the library website) and rather suspect that it’s quite indicative of his character:

At a time when the United States had no central bank, Morgan served as the country’s unofficial lender of last resort. In 1907 Morgan, then nearly seventy, stopped a major public panic in New York by rallying fellow bankers to supply liquidity to shore up the endangered economy. The crisis was resolved in Morgan’s newly built Library, after he locked the doors and refused to let the bankers leave until they agreed to a rescue plan.”

Morgan only employed one librarian in his lifetime – Belle da Costa Greene – who started working for him in her early 20s and outlived him. Her office has since been converted into additional exhibition space, but it remains a beautiful room, and I couldn’t help thinking that she must have had the best job in the world! (I’ve also just noticed that they have a volunteer scheme, which I don’t believe I’ve applied to yet…)

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2 thoughts on “Mr Morgan’s Library

  1. Pingback: First month at the Morgan | Libraries, the universe and everything

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