Monday, 16 January 2012

Ragtime to riches: a musical legacy at the Bodleian Library

Ragtime to riches is the title of a small exhibition currently in place in the Proscholium, the entrance hall to the Old Bodleian Library, in celebration of Walter Newton Henry Harding (1883-1973) whose astonishing collection was the largest single bequest ever received by the Library when it arrived in Oxford in 1975. Born in south London in 1883, Harding emigrated with his parents to the United States at the age of four and spent the rest of his life in Chicago, making his living as a ragtime pianist, cinema organist and organist at various churches and masonic lodges in the locality. Harding became fascinated by the words of the songs he heard and performed and began to build up a remarkable collection of verse, drama and printed music which, by the time of his death in December 1973, completely filled his house in downtown Chicago. Harding was not an academic but he had a detailed knowledge of the diverse material in his collection, much of which was indexed on tens of thousands of hand-written cards.

A hand-made miscellany

The exhibition coincides with the progress of the Digital Miscellanies Index, a three-year project, led by Dr Abigail Williams, based at the University of Oxford Faculty of English Language and Literature, and funded by the Leverhulme Trust.  The project is creating a database of the contents of approximately 1,000 eighteenth-century English poetic miscellanies, popular printed collections of poetry and songs, the majority of which can be found in Harding’s collection. Although the display can do little more than scratch the surface of Harding’s enormous collection, it aims to give a flavour of Harding the man and collector, despite the fact that some aspects of his life and interests could not be represented owing to a lack of space.

The musical portions of the Harding Collection fall into several categories, including English, French and Italian opera scores and vocal scores, English song, folk music, American songs and music hall songs. When the collection was received in 1975, it greatly enriched the Library’s already strong holdings in many of these areas and made it the most important repository of American song material on this side of the Atlantic.

One of a set of small 16th-cent.
Italian part books
The importance of the Harding Collection is not so much in the value of individual items (although there are many rare, valuable and unique things) but in its near comprehensive coverage of the areas in which he set out to collect. He was not a wealthy man but, fortunately, the kind of material that interested him, primarily ephemeral, popular publications, had little commercial value in the middle of the twentieth century so he was able to buy a great deal very cheaply. He is known to have said that he felt it was better to go into debt and buy the stuff while it was still available then he could rejoice in his collection for the rest of his life.

The exhibition runs until 29th January and, on Wednesday 18th January, there is a related event at which Dr Abigail Williams and Prof. Michael Burden will speak about different aspects of the collection, with some musical entertainment thrown in (see


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