Discoveries from the Vault children's exhibition

This article collects the children's exhibition material featured in The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.

The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault features some of the library staff members' favorite items. Many of these items have rarely – or never – been shown to the public! To learn more about these treasures, read on!

Lost Art

The Folger Shakespeare Library has over 50,000 drawings, paintings, photographs, and other works of art in its collection. In a collection this large, there can be surprising finds. A series of drawings by the famous artist Henry Fuseli was recently rediscovered in the Folger vaults. Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) was born in Switzerland but spent most of his life working in England. He was a very famous and influential artist who also taught many younger artists. Fuseli enjoyed Shakespeare's plays and often used characters and scenes from Shakespeare as inspiration for his art as he liked to create dramatic, emotional scenes.

These three drawings were believed to be lost, but now, they are on display where visitors to the Folger can see them.

This large drawing shows a scene from Macbeth in which the Scottish warrior encounters three mysterious women on a dark and stormy night.

A second drawing includes characters from Shakespeare's comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The third drawing was once thought to show chracters from King Lear, and the drawing's title, Conceptual representation of King Lear, shows this. However, we now believe Fuseli's sketch is of three different people from three different scenes.

Look at the third sketch again.

  • Can you tell who the three people are?
  • Are they male or female? Young or old?
  • What are they doing?

"How To" Books

Books have always been important ways for people to share information or to learn something new. In Shakespeare's time (1564–1616) and for several centuries afterwards, London was one of the biggest producers of books in Europe. People were excited about reading books on many different topics, from history to cooking to learning how to make fireworks!

Look at this large picture.

  • Does it look like anything you might see today? Hint: These vehicles are usually red and have loud sirens.

The author of this book, A treatise named Lucarsolace, was a man named Cyprian Lucar. He wrote about many different topics, including weapons and surveying. In this particular book, he calls this machine a "squirt" and tells readers that it can "be made to squirt out his water with great violence upon the fire that is to be quenched.”

Did you know? Fire engines were used against the Great Fire of London in 1666. However, they did not work very well. They had water spouts but no hoses, so that the water could not shoot very far. The crowded streets, high flames, and difficulty getting to water also caused problems.

Famous Figures

In addition to seeing plays in a theater, children in the 19th century might also have toy theaters where they could act out their favorite scenes. The toy theaters included paper cutouts of characters that could be moved around the stage.

Even before movies were invented, some actors and actresses became quite famous. Instead of having action figures modeled after them, printed portraits of these celebrities were sold to fans, which included adults and children. The portraits usually showed the actor or actress in the costume they wore on stage. Some portraits were sold "plain" or uncolored, so that fans could decorate them at home. In addition to coloring the portraits in, sometimes the owner might add real pieces of fabric, leather, and other materials to recreate the texture of the costume!

Famous actors and actresses in the 19th century included:

  • Fanny Kemble. Kemble's family was well known on the stage, and her father and younger sister were both performers. Fanny Kemble attracted fans in England and America. In fact, she married an American plantation owner and became active in the antislavery movement.
  • Edmund Kean. Although his childhood and teenage years were difficult, Kean eventually found success as an actor. His portrayals of tragic characters such as King Lear, Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth made him famous. He visited America and Canada as well, and was even adopted into the Huron tribe and made an honorary chief.
  • Sarah Bernhard. Nicknamed "the Divine Sarah," this actress was famous for her beauty and for playing male roles, especially Hamlet. She published several books in her lifetime and also painted and sculpted.
  • Henry Irving. Irving loved Shakespeare, but often cut down longer plays in an attempt to make them more popular. He was known for his dramatic, emotional acting and was a lifelong friend of the Irish novelist Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula.

Try it yourself! Here is a coloring Page of Mr. Gomersall as Earl Douglas (in Chevy Chase) you can color yourself. Then take a look at this portrait to see how your colors compare to the original.


One of the treasures in the Folger collection is a handwritten book of magic spells that is over 400 years old. The book is written in English, but also includes magical terms like "abracadabra" and drawings of angels, demons, dragons, and other supernatural creatures.

This book was used by many people over many, many years. Owners added their own notes into the margins, and one person even wrote in page numbers.

Although people in the Middle Ages and even during Shakespeare's time used magic for lots of different reasons, including healing sick people, helping to find lost objects, or finding the guilty person when a crime was committed, magic was often done in secret.

Did you know? Books on magic, especially those from the Middle Ages, are referred to as grimoires. The word grimoire comes from the Old French word grammaire, meaning related to letters. "Grammaire" actually has a Greek root, from the word graphein, "to write."

The Curatorial Eye: Discoveries from the Folger Vault family guide