Introducing the Iselin Collection of Humor

By Jeff Hill | April 26, 2023

The University of Virginia Library is delighted to announce the donation of a major gift, the Iselin Collection of Humor. Built over many years by noted collector and retired attorney Josephine Lea Iselin, the Iselin Collection will be a tremendous asset for research and learning at the University across a wide range of disciplines.

Book spines
Bound French volumes from the Iselin Collection of Humor

The Iselin Collection, which will reside in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, consists of illustrated books, reference materials, periodicals, prints, manuscripts, and ephemera, principally of social and political satire. The Iselin Collection encompasses more than 800 items, including 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.”

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 New York City, where Iselin resides). 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.

Boxes containing materials by the French painter, sculptor, and printmaker Honoré Daumier.
Boxes containing materials by the French painter, sculptor, and printmaker Honoré Daumier.

The Iselin Collection has far-ranging potential for research, instruction, exhibition, and outreach, as the items relate to many fields of study, including art, art history, literature, political science, history, and media studies. 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. “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.

Shelves of books, primarily from the English portion of the Iselin Collection.
Shelves of books, primarily from the English portion of the Iselin Collection.

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.”

 The Iselin Collection of Humor is currently being cataloged. The UVA Library will continue to highlight this important collection as work proceeds.