Thursday, January 27, 2022 Jan 27, 2022
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CHAPTERS & VERSE

SMU’s Bridwell Library has one of the best rare book collections in the country. Now it wants to get the word out.
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What do people in New York, Boston and Washington know about Dallas that Dallas doesn’t know.’

They know that Southern Methodist University has more than just a picture-book campus, rich-as-Croesus coeds and a nationally ranked football team.

It has a great library.

The Bridwell, the library of the Perkins School of Theology, has one of the most spectacular collections of rare books in the country.

Its masterpieces, which range from the rarest religious works of the 15th century to a superb collection of art books by such masters as Matisse and Chagall, are worth more than $30 million. That figure is particularly impressive since compared to other libraries that started collecting 200 years ago and more, Bridwell began collecting rare books slightly more than two decades ago.

In 1963, when nearly no one was watching, Bridwell’s genius, former director Decherd Turner, began building a collection composed of rare and beautiful liturgical books and handsome “Livres d’Artist” (art books) unequaled in the Southwest-and virtually unknown in Dallas.

In fact, the collection has been kept a secret for so long that until this year, the majority of SMU’s Board of Governors had no idea of its immense worth. When informed of the treasures by Bridwell’s current director Jerry Campbell, the Board quickly voted to install a complex state-of-the-art security system in the library.

How did Bridwell amass such a fortune in books in such a short period of time? Why has the library collected art books or simply books about books, which would seemingly have very little to do with theology? Why has this great collection been kept a secret for so long?

“Decherd Turner had the vision to understand that one of the differences between a great and a mediocre university is in its library collection and that a religious library can go way beyond liturgy,” says Campbell, who succeeded Turner in 1980.

“People ask, ’What does a book of illustrations by Matisse have to do with religion?’ The church has been the mother of the arts over the centuries, and once we began to get enough religious art, we asked ourselves whether to exclude important works simply because they aren’t liturgical,” explains Turner. “We decided not to. And we decided we couldn’t turn away from books whose essence was beauty. Typography was the way to present the Bible. The beautiful way in which the word was conveyed influenced the integrity of the word being conveyed.”

Among the works not excluded from this religious collection is Hyperotomachia Poliphili, published in 1499. It is filled with erotic pictures and sexual connotations (which the book’s previous owner unsuccessfully tried to scribble out with a lead pencil). Lest an SMU theology student be shocked at the scenes, Campbell is quick to point out that, “page after page of Poliphili is typographically a asterpiece.”



THE BRIDWELL LIBRARY’S rare book collection was founded in 1963 when Joseph Sterling Bridwell, an oil man from Wichita Falls, donated the money to build a library at the Perkins School of Theology. “Mr. Bridwell died in 1966, but in those three years, he set the course that would turn Bridwell into a world-class library. He wanted to know the importance of every acquisition, yet he was anxious to have us build a library very quickly,” claims Turner, who, like Bridwell, grew up on a farm in Missouri.

At his death, Bridwell established a foundation for the library that so far has given more than $10 million in support.

“Bridwell was the rare book club of the Sixties,” says Roland Folter, with the New York City firm of H.P. Kraus, the top rare book dealer in the world. “Dealers and libraries everywhere stood by and watched in amazement as Decherd Turner found and purchased the best books there were. By the middle Seventies, Bridwell was only a few steps behind the top rare book clubs in the United States, libraries such as the Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Morgan Library in New York, which have been collecting for 200 years.”

With an annual budget of more than $500,000 ($275,000 of that in endowment and gifts), Bridwell has been able to acquire virtually whatever it wanted.

Probably the most important rare book since The Gutenberg Bible is the Kelmscott Chaucer by pre-Raphaelite artist and painter William Morris. The Bridwell owns two, one of which is among only 13 existing copies in vellum and the only one signed by Morris.

The Bridwell also holds what is commonly known as “The Triple Crown” in modem typography: the Kelmscott Chaucer, Doves Press Bible and Ashendene Dante-the greatest items from each of the classic modern presses. In the early 1900s, the Kelmscott, Doves and Ashendene presses sparked a revival in great craftsmanship in book-making that had not been seen since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

In 1977, Bridwell acquired the Doves Press Bible on vellum, and today it is the only institution in the world, according to Campbell, to own all three works on vellum.

“At auction ’The Triple Crown’ on vellum could fetch well over $750,000,” Campbell claims. “But nobody else in the world owns such a collection, so what it’s worth may be way beyond my wildest dreams.”

Of the 215.000 volumes at the Bridwell, 30,000 are rare books. Tucked away in the library’s vaults are thousands of books, including the complete Book of Jeremiah from The Gutenberg Bible, a reproduction the size of a matchbook of Horace’s Sapphic Odes made in 1903 by St. John Hornby for Queen Mary’s doll house and the first printed Christmas card, designed in England in 1843 by J.C. Horsley for his friend, Sir Henry Cole.

Although it is not widely known, there are book bindings that are considered by the cognoscente as being not merely protective, but works of art in themselves. “Among the top half dozen collections of such art book bindings is that of the Bridwell,” says British-born Deborah Evetts, book conservator for the Morgan Library in New York and one of the top dozen art binders of the world. “Not only does the Bridwell have the latest in book binding, but its collection spans the best of the last 60 years.” Evetts made a beautiful book binding for the Bridwell in 1980.

But before a reporter could view the most valuable works at the Bridwell, Campbell had to warn SMU’s security force of the precise time that the reporter would be opening the downstairs vault for the viewing. Afterward, there were no students or other casual observers waiting in line for a similarly special showing. Nor were there likely to be.

In fact, SMU students and residents of Dallas who come to casually browse through the stacks may have a very short and disappointing stay.

“Many of the Bridwell’s precious gems are kept under lock and key and are simply unavailable for viewing,” says a local art collector who was turned away from seeing the collection. “With a half-million dollar-budget, Bridwell ought to be able to hire a few guards to show the stuff out in the open the way most museums do.”

Campbell denies that it is difficult to view the works. “The reason we have closed stacks is the realities of theft today. The Dallas Museum of Art would not let its visitors remove paintings from the wall even under supervision,” Campbell says. “If a student wants to see the Kelmscott Chaucer, we put him in a room with it, take away his pens and give him gloves.”

The collection is a well-kept secret not only at SMU but throughout Dallas. Not until this fall-when Bridwell loaned seven “Livres d’Artist” to complement the Pierre Bonnard exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art-had the library exhibited any of its works at a major Dallas or Fort Worth museum. Insiders at SMU say there may be a good reason for keeping the treasures hidden. “Staff members were worried that an SMU trustee might see the enormous value of the Bridwell collection and decide that $100,000 could be better spent on a top-flight quarterback than on some fancy French art books,” says one rare book collector and donor to the Bridwell.

Turner, who left Bridwell in 1980 to become director of the Humanities Research Center (the rare book library) at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Bridwell Foundation was continually besieged to give money to areas of SMU other than the Bridwell . “There was a tremendous effort by the business school trustees to turn Mr. Bridwell away from the library and toward their school,” Turner says. “But I never knew Mr. Bridwell or his foundation to turn away from their primary interest, the library. As long as his immediate successors continue to run the foundation, Bridwell will live.”

The foundation still consists of its original directors: Clifford Tinsley and Herbert Story, both of Wichita Falls, and Ralph Bridwell of Abilene, cousin of Joseph Bridwell.

Despite charges that the library has not made itself available to the public, not all of the fault lies with the Bridwell. The Dallas Museum of Art has not mounted a major exhibition of SMU’s art books, yet the Brid-well’s treasures have been shown several times at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In the mid-Sixties, a major and costly exhibition called The Arts of The French Book-1900-1965 was presented at the Dallas Public Library. It was planned by Harvard University and borrowed Harvard’s materials. But the most significant aspect of that show was how many of the borrowed works were available right here at the Bridwell, as well as comparable and, in some cases, superior works.

One who has understood the value of the Bridwell collection is Stanley Marcus. In his Texas Book of Lists, Marcus included Bridwell Library in his list of the “20 Best Things in Texas.”

“One of the finest gifts Bridwell ever received during my time was book designer Bruce Rogers’ typographic collection, given in 1976 by Stanley Marcus,” Turner says. “Bruce Rogers was one of Mr. Marcus’ great passions.”

In the main room of the library in the “closed stacks” (locked glass cases) are hundreds of “Livres d’Artist” (art books that consist of folios: tall manuscript paper folded into packets that are not bound). “The ’Livres d’Artist’ were an attempt by the artists to get their art into the eyes and minds of the masses before the days of TV,” Campbell explains. Because the Bridwell has tried to buy the very best books over the years, a majority of its books (although there may have been hundreds of any one produced) are very low-numbered editions.

The Bridwell owns Matisse’s Jazz, a similar edition of which recently sold at auction in New York for $55,000. And there’s George Rouault’s Miserere, a book of scenes from the Old Testament illustrated by Charles Chagall and an edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated and signed by Salvador Dali.

The collection even goes beyond religious and art books to include such works as Papermaking By Hand in America, published in 1950 by Dard Hunter, which Campbell says is the only book ever made entirely by one man alone. “Admittedly, we travel a long distance at a theology school library to go from the first Bible to a book about paper, but without paper and the book, what would theology have been?”

The Bridwell consists not of dusty shelves and heavy metal writing tables nor does it, like many libraries, smell faintly of mice. Turner managed not only to acquire beautiful antique art books, he created a climate of luxury in which the books are at home. Housed in the library are French Aubusson tapestry chairs and an ormolu, porcelain and rosewood cabinet made in St. Petersburg before the Russian Revolution.

“I always had a terror of working and working and never meeting the end,” Turner says. “Through the years, I kept saying that I wanted the collection to be discovered by the people of Dallas later, always later, after it was bigger and greater. I believe that time has come.”

One of Campbell’s goals, when he accepted the director’s position four years ago, was to make the collection known. “SMU has been able to assemble book arts and research materials which are not only important to the community but one of the essential ingredients of a great city,” Campbell says. “Now the question is how to get the collection to the people and the people to the collection.”