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Library gets rare Vanity Fair prints of Victorian personalities

By Melissa Norris

A retired University literature scholar has donated nearly 900 rare caricatures of important figures from Victorian and Edwardian England to the U.Va. Library.

Prince Albert
This Vanity Fair caricature of Prince Albert is part of a collection recently given to the U.Va. Library by professor emeritus Cecil Lang

The prints were given by professor emeritus Cecil Lang, a leading 19th-century literature expert, to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, and originally appeared in the legendary British “smart set” magazine, Vanity Fair.

The urbane and trend-setting London weekly captured the interest and imagination of subscribers from 1868 to 1914 with its political, economic and society news, enhanced by chromolithographic caricatures of eminent personalities of the times. One of the most successful of the vast numbers of periodicals in 19th-century England, Vanity Fair has been likened to a combination of today’s Harper’s Bazaar, Town and Country and The New Yorker.

“While the prints are quite amusing and entertaining in themselves, more importantly they are a valuable collection and important resource with obvious research potential in Victorian and Edwardian literature and history, fine arts and the history of printing,” said Kathryn N. Morgan, associate director of the Special Collections Library.

University Librarian Karin Wittenborg added: “The Vanity Fair prints are a significant addition to our rare materials on Victorian literature and history. Mr. Lang is renowned as a scholar of that period and it is a particular honor to receive this gift from him.”

Lang, a U.Va. professor of English from 1967 to 1991 who lives in Charlottesville, collected the prints as a reference resource of notable Victorians while he was editing the letters of the British writer Matthew Arnold.

Each Vanity Fair issue featured a cartoon, or caricature, depicting a prominent person of lasting — or fleeting — fame during the golden age of the British Empire. Vanity Fair’s founding editor, Thomas Gibson Bowles, referred to the illustrations as “the unheroic representation of heroes.” More than 2,000 of these caricatures appeared of subjects that included artists, athletes, royalty, statesmen, scientists, authors, actors, soldiers and scholars. Among Lang’s set, for example, are drawings of Winston Churchill, Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling and Queen Victoria.

Produced by an international group of talented artists, the illustrations are the chief legacy of the magazine and now form a unique and valuable pictorial record of the period. Among the artists who contributed illustrations were Sir Max Beerbohm, Sir Leslie Ward (who signed his work “Spy”), the Italian Carlo Pellegrini (known as “Ape”), the French artist James Jacques Tissot and the American Thomas Nast.

The prints are now available in the Special Collections Library and are cataloged in VIRGO, the Library’s online catalog at www.lib.virginia.edu. To learn more about the resources found in Special Collections, visit www.lib.virginia.edu/speccol.


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