Academy Houses Hidden Treasures: Rare Books and Relics Stored in Library and Addison Gallery

Many see Phillips Academy as a school or a home, but over 233 years, campus has transformed into a treasure trove of artifacts and artwork, stashed in the archives and the Addison Gallery of American Art. Rare books and relics from Phillips Academy’s history rest in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library while seminal works of American art gather the Addison Gallery. Visitors to the library may not realize that among the worn editions of Oedipus Rex, latest issues of Time magazine and copies of the Boston Globe is a unique rare books collection. The library collection houses an ancient tablet, manuscript from 1443 and several miniature books. The oldest item in the library is a mud-colored Babylonian clay tablet that details business records in a script called Cuneiform. According to Timothy Sprattler, School Archivist, the tablet has resided in a small box in the library for several years, but there is no record of when it arrived at the Academy. Among the library’s collection is also a manuscript of Caesar’s Gaelic Wars from 1443, which was used to teach Classics in the past. The manuscript was hand-written on vellum, pounded flat animal skin. According to Sprattler, two different scribes, probably monks, compiled the text. “There was only one copy [in the world] made because it’s handwritten,” said Sprattler. The Audubon Double Elephant Folio of Birds is another of the library’s stand-out pieces, which is now in storage at the Addison Gallery. The large book features near life-size renderings of birds by naturalist John James Audubon. According to Sprattler, the book is probably worth between 12 and 15 million dollars. “[Copies of the book] were not widely purchased, but it became very famous, and the more famous it became, the more expensive it became,” said Sprattler. Audubon went bankrupt trying to publish the large, colored book, and ultimately had to publish it as a smaller copy, which the library also owns, according to Sprattler. The Library also houses a collection of miniature books. The books vary in size but one of the books is the size of a fingernail, with the Lord’s Prayer finely printed inside. Miniature books became popular after 1924, when Queen Mary of England completed a dollhouse, which was famous for the tiny, readable books in its library. An old steamer trunk, a stray cigarette butt and a copy of the formula for gunpowder, preserved testaments of famous alumni and visitors, brush against each other in the Phillips Academy archives. The steamer trunk of former United States Secretary of War, Henry Lewis Stimson, was bequeathed to the Academy as part of Stimson’s estate. “We ended up with a large number of his scrapbooks [that came inside] the steamer trunk. The steamer trunk is locked in the attic and the rest of the materials are currently locked in the fifth floor stacks,” said Sprattler. The archives commemorate the visit of former President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, with a preserved butt of a cigar Coolidge smoked while on campus. Sprattler said Coolidge came to speak at the sesquicentennial, which was celebrated at Commencement. The school made a movie of the visit. The archives also hold the first formula for gunpowder, created by the Academy’s first headmaster Eliphalet Pearson. The Academy also served as a gunpowder factory during the Revolutionary War. With antique silverware, iconic oil-paintings and contemporary artworks, the Addison Addison Gallery of American Art features a variety of gems. Since Addison’s opening in 1931, the collection has grown from 400 to more than 17,000 pieces. The collection boasts a variety of artworks from as early as the seventeenth century to as recently as 2011. “We have one of the best collections of American art in the world. The collection is really wonderful,” said Brian Allen, Director of the Addison Gallery. Recently, the Addison purchased a silver teapot from 1750 that belonged to Phoebe Foxcroft Phillips and Samuel Phillips. “It really is an exceptional work of art in terms of its design and decoration, but it also has an extraordinary lineage,” said Allen. Unlike the usual pear-shape for teapots at the time, the Phillips teapot has an apple shaped design. According to Allen the composition features “a very harmonious relationship between the teapot and the spout.” “The top has important engravings portraying a chase scene with horses and stags and guys on horses and ducks and trees, which is extraordinary [to see] in eighteenth century American silver,” said Allen. Among the more historic pieces of American Art that the Addison owns is “Eight Bells” by Winslow Homer. “‘Eight Bells’ is in a pivotal point in the career of Winslow Homer when he was transitioning from figure painting to seascapes that depicted the eternal clash between land and sea,” said Allen. While the Addison owns famous works from the early Americas, it is also in the process of expanding its collection of works from the twentieth century. “Last year we bought a very important painting by Mark Bradford who we consider will be one of the great artists of our time. [It is] a very abstract painting that is just smashing to look at. It has very thick white paint on white…with fragments of other colors mixed in. It’s really a celebration of the texture of paint,” said Allen.