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Bernard Shaw: Portraits and Portrayals

Examining Shaw in 2006

By Ronald D. Patkus
Associate Director of the Library for Special Collections

2006 represents the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Bernard Shaw, or Bernard Shaw as he preferred to be called. The anniversary year provides an opportunity for us to consider anew Shaw’s life and work, and Colton Johnson’s essay in this brochure provides an excellent overview of this topic. Shaw was prolific in his literary output, and involved in a variety of artistic, political, and social issues. He achieved great fame not only because of his dramatic and literary accomplishments, but also because of the sheer force of his personality. Some have even gone so far as to say that during his lifetime Shaw was the most famous person in the world.

Shaw may have been one of the most famous people in the world, but he was probably also one of the most controversial. Some people agreed strongly with his views. Others disagreed strongly. And still others took more complex views of the man and his oeuvre. When examining even a small sample of writings that were published about him, one sees almost immediately in the titles of books that authors wanted to deal with a diversity of opinions on Shaw. Was he, for example, a harlequin or a patriot? A prophet or a playboy? A man or a mask? Or neither? Or both?

The current exhibit in the Main Library, “Bernard Shaw: Portraits and Portrayals,” examines in some detail how Shaw was viewed, and what his contemporaries thought of him. It does this by presenting examples of artistic portraits and literary portrayals. Together these complementary genres give us some sense of who Shaw was to his readers and the general public up to 1950, the year he died. The exhibit relies on materials held by the Vassar College Libraries, and two items on loan from the Burns Library at Boston College.

Many of the artistic portraits and books relating to Shaw form part of the Archives and Special Collections Department. The majority of these materials were donated to the library in 1977 by Mrs. Oscar Serlin. Many interesting items were included in the Serlin gift, such as depictions of Shaw by European and American artists, and a number of rare and valuable books. The Serlin gift nicely complemented other materials already held by Special Collections that in some way related to Shaw. Together, they extend our holdings on the theatre and modern literature in general, which is one of our strongest areas of collecting. Of course there are many other books in the Main Library that relate to Shaw and several of these are included in the exhibit as well.

There are a number of other libraries in the United States and Canada that have substantial collections on Shaw. In recent years Boston College acquired a collection from Samuel N. Freedman, which was thought to have been the largest in private hands. The University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, houses the Dan H. Laurence Shaw Collection, formed by a noted Shaw editor and bibliographer. Brown University houses the Sidney P. Albert-Bernard Shaw Collection, and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas also has a large Shaw collection. Closer to home, in New York State, Cornell holds one of the largest collections in the world, the Bernard F. Burgunder Collection, and Colgate University also holds a collection on Shaw. This list is not exhaustive, and there are many other interesting Shaw items in other institutions.

It is hoped that in this anniversary year the Vassar exhibit will provide one opportunity for us to re-acquaint ourselves with Shaw and to ask ourselves who he was and who he is.