New Museum Exhibition Shows Off Rare Handwritten Letters From History’s Most Famous Figures

An autographed letter from 7-year-old Victoria, future queen of England, to her uncle, 1826.
An autographed letter from 7-year-old Victoria, future queen of England, to her uncle, 1826.
Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago

There’s something special about seeing the handwriting of one of your heroes. Just ask anyone who has gotten a celebrity’s autograph. The unique power a signature holds is at the center of an upcoming exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection.

As part of the display, the museum features drawings, signed photos, and rare letters from figures throughout history—from line drawings Michelangelo used to order marble for the facade of a basilica he was contracted to build in Florence to a previously unpublished, signed photo of Rasputin.

A line drawing with a marble order from Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564). Pen and ink drawing with autograph instructions for a marble order for the facade of San Lorenzo, [Florence, 1518]. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

The materials on display are just part of the collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago, a Brazilian art historian and author who started writing to prominent celebrities when he was 12 years old, asking for their autographs. Over the next 50 years, he assembled a massive collection of autographs, manuscripts, and other handwritten materials that date back to 1140. The 140 items on display at the Morgan make up just a tiny fraction of the 100,000 autographs he owns.

The items are divided up into several different categories: art, history, literature, science, music, and entertainment. Many of them have never been shown before in a public exhibition.

Handwritten mathematical equations by Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Autograph mathematical manuscript, ca. 1940s. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

The exhibition includes treasures like a 12th century papal bull signed by four different medieval popes (three were cardinals at the time of signing) and a Catholic saint, Guarinus of Palestrina. There are documents and letters signed by royalty, including Richard III and Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots; there is a rare letter from Leon Trotsky to Frida Kahlo, written as the two were ending their affair; and an autographed draft of a letter Jean-Paul Sartre wrote to the Swedish Academy in 1964, asking them not to give him the Nobel Prize (they awarded it to him anyway). There is a draft of a poem William Butler Yeats wrote on the back of a letter, and a signed mathematical manuscript from Albert Einstein.

Below is a handwritten bill for 20 therapy sessions with Sigmund Freud. Freud charged American neurologist Roy Grinker 100 Austrian schillings per hour, or the equivalent of $20 or $25 at that time, for psychoanalysis sessions.

A handwritten note on stationary from Dr. Freud
Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Autograph invoice signed, to Roy Grinker, written on a personal correspondence card, Vienna, 30 June 1934. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

Artist René Magritte sent this letter to photographer and filmmaker Francis Lee, suggesting Lee make use of the sequence of drawings included (of a man removing his gloves, hat, and head) in a film:

A two-page letter with drawings of men in top hats
René Magritte (1898–1967). Autograph letter signed, to Francis Lee, Brussels, 22 January 1946. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. © 2018 C. Herscovici / Artists Rights Society

This is one of two surviving letters from Oscar Wilde to Bram Stoker. Wilde wanted Stoker, who worked at London’s Lyceum Theatre, to set aside a ticket for him that night:

A handwritten letter from Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). Autograph letter signed, to Bram Stoker, London, [1879 or 1880]. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago.

This draft of the opening of Swann's Way differs slightly from what Proust eventually published. Notably, it doesn't include what would become the first sentence: “For a long time I used to go to bed early."

A ripped page from a Proust manuscript
Marcel Proust (1871–1922). Swann’s Way (Du côté de chez Swann), autograph manuscript draft of the opening passage, ca. March–April 1913. Collection of Pedro Corrêa do Lago. Image used with permission of the Proust Estate.

The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection will run from June 1 to September 16, 2018 at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

iStock
iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.


iStock

By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

Michael Faraday
iStock

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

London's Trafalgar Square Gets a Poetry-Writing Red Lion

Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images
Tolga Akmen, AFP/Getty Images

London’s historic Trafalgar Square just got a fifth lion, the BBC reports. The fluorescent red, AI-powered lion takes visitor-submitted words and turns them into two-line poems, which are displayed on a screen inside its mouth. The history-inspired installation is part of the ongoing festivities for the London Design Festival, which ends Sunday.

The idea comes from set designer Es Devlin, who is participating in a yearlong collaboration with Google Arts & Culture. She was inspired by another designer who remarked that Sir Edwin Landseer, who sculptured the other lions in the square in the late 19th century, "never wanted [them] to look so passive.” Landseer apparently wanted the lions to assume a more lively stance, “but Queen Victoria found it too shocking,” Devlin says.

The story of how Trafalgar Square’s lions came to be is an odd piece of history. For one, the process was painfully slow. Landseer spent four years just working up a sketch and spent hours studying the habits of lions at the London Zoo. He even waited two years for one of the zoo’s lions to die, then carted it back to his studio and kept it there until it started to decay. He was forced to throw out the animal—and his reference material—before he finished. “Which is why, if you look closely, you can see that the lions in Trafalgar Square actually have the paws of cats, rather than lions,” The Telegraph notes.

[h/t BBC]

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