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.