Stories Uncovered

As a Communications and Public Outreach Intern here at Dumbarton Oaks, I have the unique opportunity to explore virtually any area of Dumbarton Oaks’ history and collection while searching for stories to feature in the monthly newsletter. In the past week, in between writing email blasts to publicize Dumbarton Oaks’ programs and researching fellowships at other institutions to compare to those at Dumbarton Oaks, I have been working on a brand new “Behind the Scenes” feature for the newsletter. We plan to have this be a recurring feature that will highlight interesting objects or projects at Dumbarton Oaks that the public would not normally get to see.

The Bennett desk in the Rare Books Room

The Bennett desk in the Rare Books Room

For the first article in this series, Rare Books librarian Linda Lott suggested that we show off the Bennett desk, which originally belonged to Mildred Bliss and now sits in the Rare Books Room. It houses extraordinary literary works including a first edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen and hand-drawn pen and ink sketches on a copy of the Iliad.  In the Bennett Desk, these books sit apart from the larger Rare Books collection, which focuses not on literary masterpieces but on garden and landscape volumes. Ms. Lott also revealed to us that the desk has a beautifully decorated interior which the public never gets to see because the desk is always closed, only showing the books inside through its glass doors.

However, in researching this piece in the many volumes written about Dumbarton Oaks’ history, I also found lots of information on Mildred Bliss’s youth, her early collecting habits, and her friendship with Royall Tyler. I found information about how Mildred, in her early teens, bought a piece of the important “opus Anglicanum” (http://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence/art/hc/HC-T-X-xxxx-21-E.jpg/view) at a time when such medieval embroideries were not commonly studied or even known. I also learned about how, at age 19, she acquired a working farm in Sharon, Connecticut and improved upon the existing property by building a double tenant house, a stable, a tennis court, and by cultivating vegetable gardens, orchards, flower gardens, and lawns before she sold it eleven years later. This experience likely set the stage for her great interest in planning the extensive gardens at Dumbarton

Mildred Bliss's farm in Sharon, CT

Mildred Bliss’s farm in Sharon, CT

Oaks with Beatrix Farrand, her friend and landscape designer. I found much of this information from reading the letters in the Bliss-Tyler Correspondence, the letters written between Mildred and Robert Bliss and Royall and Elisina Tyler, many of which are now digitalized on the Dumbarton Oaks website (http://www.doaks.org/resources/bliss-tyler-correspondence). In these letters too, I found evidence of Royall Tyler’s love for Mildred before her marriage to Robert Bliss and of his lasting friendship with the Blisses as an art adviser long after both he and Mildred were married.

These fascinating stories of the Blisses’ lives have also inspired me to write another recurring feature for the newsletter which will share such humorous and interesting anecdotes with readers and will reveal on the lasting impact that the Blisses’ very personalities have had on the atmosphere and culture of Dumbarton Oaks.

This domino effect of information discovery, begun by my research on the Bennett Desk, demonstrated to me the significance of even the most everyday objects—those not specifically showcased in exhibits or featured on the website—in telling the stories of their former owners. These, in fact, are the stories that reveal the bases for the larger philosophies and environments of institutions like Dumbarton Oaks today.

About Me: I am a rising sophomore at Harvard College pursuing a concentration in Classics. I am especially fascinated by the interplay between Latin texts and their cultural/political contexts. I am also interested in government and education policy, so I am excited to be spending the summer in Washington, D.C.

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