Abandoned to the archives of the old Nightingale Library at Westminster College, eight black-and-white prints depicting Shakespeare characters lay unnoticed until a student happened upon them.
At that student’s insistence, English professor Elree Harris — a Victorian art expert — made her way to the archives section to take a look at what he found.
Ten years later, on the eve of her retirement, Harris is still trying to figure out how the prints, known as "Shakespeare’s Heroines," created by noted Pre-Raphaelite artists in London, made their way to Salt Lake City.
"Maybe someone will have a memory of seeing the prints hanging on an English professor’s wall or in a classmate’s dorm," says Harris. "Anything would be something."
Harris says it was love at first sight the moment she saw the prints, which are now on display on the second floor of Westminster’s Giovale Library.
She immediately noticed signatures at the bottom of each print — John Waterhouse, Val Prinsep and Charles Perugini among them — and quickly realized she had stumbled upon something special.
"These were all household names at the time," Harris says.
Persistent detective work in the years since, aided and encouraged by former student Sara Mortensen, confirmed Harris’ first impression — the prints are indeed special, although their monetary value remains a mystery.
The sleuths discovered that the prints were commissioned in the mid-1880s by The Graphic, a popular London-based art magazine. The publication selected famous artists to paint a heroine from one of Shakespeare’s plays, then had the colored paintings copied on plates by the Goupil Gallery of London using Goupil gravure, a technique known for its sharp images, dense black areas and exceptional variety in tones of light and shade.
The magazine turned the colored prints over to Christie’s for an auction in 1889 and went on with its planned publication of the black-and-white prints. London Publisher Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington issued the resulting art book: "Shakespeare’s Heroines."
The characters in Westminster’s collection are Silvia, Cressida, Cleopatra, Katherine, Mariana, Beatrice, Imogen and Rosalind.
"These prints are important because they highlight the vast array of women in Shakespeare’s works," says Mortensen, who worked with Harris on the project for 10 months researching, writing and looking for more clues. "It’s important to remember the women in some of the greatest works of literature as complex characters with a variety of emotions."
Harris says the more she dug, the more apparent it became she would need to go straight to the source of the prints: London. Through the support of the college, she made her way to the vast British Library.
There, she found an original copy of "Shakespeare’s Heroines" — containing 21 prints.
"Elree wrote the Gore grant that got her to England to do the research," says Stephen Morgan, Westminster’s vice president of institutional advancement. "Our goal would be to try and complete the collection if we can find them."
Harris has since found three copies of the book in its entirety — including one at the library of California State University, Sacramento.
But the eight prints held at Westminster differ in a significant way from the copies in the books: They are signed by the artists.
Harris says she believes there were 100 "limited-edition" prints from the collection signed by the artists, although she has yet to discover any others.
Though Harris’ 25-year career at Westminster College is coming to an end, she plans to continue her quest to find the remaining signed prints in the collection. She’s planning another trip to the British Library and calling bookstores around the world.
She’s also turning to the public for help in trying to figure out when — and how — the prints arrived in Salt Lake City (see box).
When the prints were cleaned and preserved, Harris says tape residue was found on the corners of each one, indicating someone might have taped them to a wall.
"Westminster used to have yearbooks, and I went through I don’t know how many yearbooks, looking at pictures, hoping there would be a group in a classroom and there would be the pictures on the wall," Harris says. "Nothing."
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