Harvard College Library

One of World's Finest Collections of 18th Century English Literature Goes to Harvard's Houghton Library

Portrait of Samuel Johnson
Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Gilbert Stuart, undated
March 1, 2004 - "Generous: noble of mind; open of heart; liberal; munificent; vigorous. . .." Samuel Johnson's Dictionary definition might have been written to describe Mary, Viscountess Eccles (1912-2003). Her bequest of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, considered one of the world's most important privately held collections of 18th-century English literature, to Harvard University's Houghton Library is a defining act of generosity not only to Harvard, but to the world of scholarship in which she was both participant and patron. In addition to the collection, Mary Eccles made a substantial gift to endow the position of Curator of the Hyde Collection and to fund acquisitions to ensure the growth of the collection and support 18th century studies in the scholarly world.

"The Hyde Collection is one of incomparable rarity and coherence," said William P. Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library. "This bequest has established a scholarly resource of international importance at Harvard, and generations of students and scholars worldwide will be grateful for the wisdom and generosity of Mary Hyde Eccles."

Assembled over a 60-year period, the Hyde Collection, with Dr. Johnson at its center, encompasses letters, manuscripts, first editions, portraits, and even his silver teapot. It includes half of Johnson's surviving letters; several drafts of his Plan for a Dictionary and the few surviving manuscript entries; and is comprehensive in its coverage of Johnson's published works. Comparable riches document his lively biographer, James Boswell (including corrected proofs for the Life of Johnson); his great friend Hester Thrale Piozzi; their families; and such friends and contemporaries as Tobias Smollett, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Alexander Pope, and David Garrick. With more than 4,000 volumes, approximately 5,500 letters and manuscripts, and more than 5,000 prints, drawings, and objects, it paints a broad yet detailed picture of 18th century English literature and culture.

"This bequest is a boon to anyone interested in Samuel Johnson, his circle, and his era. Such collections are as close as we can get to the unmediated presence of the past. They are invaluable for teaching and research," said James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

Mary Hyde Eccles was no less remarkable than the collection she created. She began the collection in collaboration with her first husband, Donald Hyde, in the 1940s. Their acquisition of the great R.B. Adam Johnson collection in 1948 put them into the first rank of American collectors. After Donald Hyde's sudden death in 1966, she continued, with quiet determination, to mold the collection into an indispensable resource for any scholar studying the Age of Johnson. She was among the first women elected to the bibliophile's Grolier Club in America, and the first woman elected to the Roxburghe Club in Great Britain.

Not content with simply collecting Johnson and his circle, she wrote about them as well. Her books include The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale and The Thrales of Streatham Park. She was a member of the Harvard University Overseers' Committee to Visit the University Library for an unprecedented 25 years, and served two terms as a member of the Harvard University Overseers' Committee to Visit the Department of English and American Literature and Language. In 1983, she was made Honorary Curator of Eighteenth-Century English Literature in the Harvard University Library.

Born Mary Morley Crapo in Michigan in 1912, she graduated from Vassar College in 1934 and received her doctorate from Columbia University in 1945. Mary Hyde married David, Viscount Eccles, in 1984. Lord Eccles, who was Chairman of the Board of the British Library from 1973 to 1978, died in 1999. Together Lord and Lady Eccles established the David and Mary Eccles Centre for American Studies at The British Library.

Lady Eccles' collection of early English drama, including the only quarto of Hamlet remaining in private hands, will be auctioned at Christie's in New York on April 14. Proceeds from the sale will benefit a number of institutions, including Harvard.

A committed philanthropist throughout her life, Lady Eccles made a number of significant bequests under her will, including bequests to the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Library of the Grolier Club, both located in New York City; the British Library, the National Portrait Gallery and the Trustees of Dr. Johnson's House, all located in London; the Community Foundation of Southeastern Massachusetts in New Bedford, Massachusetts; and the American Trust for Oxford University.

The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson will be housed in Houghton's Donald Hyde Rooms, an earlier gift from Mary Hyde Eccles and family friend Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Designed by Conover Fitch, Jr. of Perry, Dean and Stewart, the second floor suite was built to house the collection and includes an oval exhibition room, seminar room, curator's office, and stack space. Scholars will be able to access the collection within the next two years.

This story appears courtesy of the Harvard College Library Communications Office
Copyright © 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College