A Treasured Collection of Illustration & Whimsy
A great book collection doesn’t assemble itself. It requires a person with a singular focus, a discerning eye, and a bibliophile’s unwavering devotion.
Detail from “Pérégrinations D'une Comète” (Wanderings of a Comet), a fantastical illustration from the French caricaturist J.J. Grandville’s 1844 “Un Autre Monde” (Another World).
Josephine Lea Iselin, a retired attorney who practiced law for 35 years and was a partner in the New York law firm of Lankenau Kovner Kurtz & Outten, specialized in intellectual property, litigation, and trusts and estates. She also assembled, over the course of many years, one of the finest collections of 19th-century French and English caricature and graphic humor in private hands, and one that would be almost impossible to duplicate today.
Now, Iselin has generously chosen to give her entire collection to the University of Virginia Library. This major gift, the Iselin Collection of Humor, will reside in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, where it will be a tremendous asset for research and learning at the University across a wide range of disciplines.
Though Iselin is a noted collector, well-respected in bibliographical and book-collecting circles, and a member of New York City’s venerable Grolier Club—America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts—she traces the origins of her enthusiasm to one happy event.
Bound volumes in French and English from the Iselin Collection.
“With the arrival of my first grandchild, I started buying children’s books to replace my childhood favorites that had disappeared into ancient cellars,” she said. “In the process, I caught the collecting bug. As time passed, I turned to early 19th-century England and France, where humorous illustrated books were published primarily for adults as social or political satire.”
Her collecting focus remained essentially the same. “I was drawn to great draftsmen who were able to capture human nature through humor; those who, like the best children’s book illustrators, drew with great skill and style the foibles of those around them,” she said. “I have always loved history and drawing. Caricature is the essence of both.”
The 800 items in the Iselin Collection consist of illustrated books, reference materials, periodicals, prints, manuscripts, and ephemera, principally of social and political satire. The collection includes significant works of 19th-century English and French material, a 20th-century collection of illustrated humor books by well-known editorial cartoonists of the era, and an adjunct collection of 19th- and 20th-century American illustrated fiction, put together, as Iselin noted, “with an emphasis on the quality of the illustration and pure whimsy.”
Plates in black and white and color by George Cruikshank from John Payne Collier’s “Punch and Judy” (1828). “Punch and Judy” first appeared as a puppet play in England in the 1600s but was not published until this edition.
Both the English and French materials include works by the most celebrated graphic humorists of the period. Giants of the genre of satire and caricature, such as George and Robert Cruikshank in England and Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, and J.J. Grandville in France, are the focus of the collections, but many other artists are included. Charles H. Bennett, Richard Doyle, Alfred Henry Forrester, Harold Knight Browne (Phiz), Thomas Rowlandson, John Tenniel, Charles Amédée de Noé (Cham), André Gill, Rodolphe Töpffer, and dozens of other well-known illustrators all appear.
Portions of the collection have been the subjects of recent exhibitions at the Grolier Club. In 2017, the club displayed “Vive les Satiristes! French Caricature during the Reign of Louis Philippe, 1830-1848,” followed by “The Great George: Cruikshank and London’s Graphic Humorists, 1800-1850” in 2021. “Vive les Satiristes!” and “The Great George” were curated by Iselin, and catalogs were published for both exhibitions.
The Iselin Collection touches on many subjects—art, art history, literature, political science, history, and media studies. It has far-ranging potential for research, instruction, exhibition, and outreach. In addition to availability in the Small Special Collections Library, the collection will also be used in Rare Book School courses in illustration, printing, bibliography, book arts, and book history.
Brenda Gunn, associate university librarian for special collections and preservation, noted the importance of the collection.
“'Sir Frog He Would A Wooing Go” — two plates (from a series of six) by illustrator Edward Hull, along with marbled board folder and gilt label. The plates tell the story of the frog who courted a mouse, an adaption of a 16-century Scottish folk song familiar to many modern readers as “Froggie Went a-Courtin’.”
“Not only will it vastly improve our 19th-century French and English holdings, but it also serves as a complement and connection to our materials in American political cartooning and satire,” she said. The Library has significant holdings in that area, including manuscript collections, materials in the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, and the papers of acclaimed political cartoonist Patrick Oliphant, whose archive the University acquired in 2018.
Gunn remarked upon another distinction of the collection. “The Iselin Collection is notable not just for its exceptional content but also as one of the few gatherings of rare materials at the Library amassed by a female collector. The collection reflects Lea Iselin’s critical eye and her passion for the materials, and it shows her extraordinary skill in assembling them into a unified whole. Finally, the collection is in excellent overall condition. We are grateful to her for this singular gift and look forward to stewarding it and making it available for scholars and visitors.”
As any booklover will attest, parting with a treasured tome is exceedingly difficult. Iselin is no different. But she’s secure in the knowledge that her collection has found a good steward in the University. “This collection has certainly been very meaningful to me,” she said. “And I feel comfortable that it will be well taken care of. I feel very good about its new home.”