Francis Bacon Foundation

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Historical Note

The Francis Bacon Library was a private rare book library that stood on the campus of Claremont Colleges, California, from 1960 to 1995. It was established and operated by the Francis Bacon Foundation, created in 1938 by Walter Conrad Arensberg (1878-1954) and his wife, Louise Stevens Arensberg (1879-1953).

The library grew out of the private collection of Walter Arensberg, a scholar, poet and art collector born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a wealthy industrial family. He became interested in Dante during his undergraduate years at Harvard University, 1896-1900, and started collecting Dante material. His interests grew to include the Renaissance, and in particular, philosopher, essayist and statesman Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Arensberg began collecting books by and about Bacon, along with material in all the fields of Bacon’s interest: law, politics, affairs of state, philosophy, the natural and physical sciences, literature, cryptography, magic, witchcraft, the occult, alchemy, and Rosicrucianism. He became convinced that Bacon was the true author of the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare, and embarked on what would become a lifelong obsession – using cryptographic methods to discover supposed hidden meanings and secret messages embedded in Shakespeare’s text by Bacon or by a Baconian secret society. Arensberg, an intellectual with a passion for chess, numerology and word games, became engrossed with analyzing texts, and hired researchers and cryptographers to assist him. He published The Cryptography of Shakespeare in 1922 and other works on the subject throughout the 1920s. Though Arensberg’s efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and his unorthodox cipher systems considered incapable of proof, his conviction and enthusiasm for his theories seldom waned, even up until his death in 1954.

The Arensbergs had relocated from New York to Los Angeles in 1921. They had begun collecting art in New York, where they had developed friendships with avant-garde intellectuals and artists--in particular, Marcel Duchamp. After moving west, they eventually settled, in 1927, into a home in Hollywood that became filled with books and art. While Walter steadily enlarged his library and conducted his cryptographic research, he and Louise were also building an important collection of modern and pre-Columbian art.

In 1938, Walter and Louise Arensberg founded the Francis Bacon Foundation as an educational and research institution to promote study in science, literature, religion, history and philosophy, with special emphasis on Bacon’s life, character and influences. Booksellers in Europe became aware of the Arensbergs’ search for rare books and manuscripts, and together with Foundation President and Library Director Elizabeth Wrigley, the Arensbergs assembled one of the most extensive libraries of Bacon material in the world.

The Foundation administered the library out of the Arensbergs’ home at 7065 Hillside Avenue, Hollywood, until it was moved to an office building in Pasadena in 1954, after the Arensbergs’ deaths. There, the Francis Bacon Library opened its doors to the public for the first time, as the Arensbergs had intended. In 1960, the library found a permanent home on the campus of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California, in a new building financed by the Foundation. The small red-brick building was formally dedicated May 8, 1960, and drew scholars, students, faculty and members of the public to its doors for 35 years, until it was closed in 1995. A major factor in its closing was the failing health of Elizabeth Wrigley, longtime director of the library, who had begun working for Mr. Arensberg in 1944. (See Biographical Note on Elizabeth Wrigley in Library Records series.)

Under Wrigley’s guidance, the library had grown to over 14,000 titles by 1995. It had one of the world’s largest collections on Francis Bacon, and one of the largest collections on the Shakespeare authorship controversy in the United States. The library also held works by numerous other Elizabethan and Jacobean authors, and supporting collections in emblem literature, Rosicrucian works, and early American political theory.

The library primarily served the academic community but made efforts to welcome the larger public pursuing scholarship, education or simply personal interest. The library staff held regular open houses and exhibits to attract new visitors, many of whom were students. Each year, they mounted a major themed exhibition and a lecture and fete in honor of Bacon’s birthday. The library interior was richly decorated with Oriental rugs, gooseneck lamps and an iron chandelier that hung from a beamed oak ceiling. It was a place for serious research but had its lighthearted moments too. A 1987 exhibit on divination included 20 different methods of divination for visitors to actually try. There was an overwhelmingly favorable response and coverage in the local media, including an article in a local newspaper featuring a photo of a costumed librarian gazing into a crystal ball. The library held memberships in professional organizations and co-sponsored events and lectures related to Bacon and Renaissance literature. It was an associate presenter of the Renaissance Conference of Southern California, along with the Huntington Library, the Getty and others. The library also sponsored a lecture series at the University of Southern California featuring prominent scholars from all over the world.

Regarding the Bacon-Shakespeare authorship question, in a 1981 letter, library director Elizabeth Wrigley explained: “Our late founder, Walter Arensberg, had his own cipher system, and we continued to work on it for six years after his death. At that time the Board of Trustees felt that we should not continue as we did not have his guidance. The Foundation does not promote the controversy. We make written materials available to scholars, but that is it. We serve as a kind of clearinghouse for Bacon scholarship, which does include some work on the controversy.”

When the library closed in 1995, its collection of books and manuscripts were donated to the Huntington Library, along with institutional records and some of the Arensbergs’ personal papers. The papers related to the Arensbergs’ art collection and most of the Foundation's administrative records were given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which had earlier been given the art collection.

From the guide to the Francis Bacon Library Archive, 1846-1996, 1920-1990, (The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Rare Books Department)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Arensberg, Walter, 1878-1954. Arensberg archives, 1905-1957. Philadelphia Museum of Art
creatorOf Francis Bacon Foundation. Francis Bacon Foundation records, 1936-1997. Philadelphia Museum of Art
referencedIn Papers, 1920-1995. Houghton Library.
creatorOf Francis Bacon Library Archive, 1846-1996, 1920-1990 The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Rare Books Department
referencedIn Arensberg, Walter, 1878-1954. Arensberg archives, 1905-1957. Philadelphia Museum of Art
Role Title Holding Repository
Direct Relationships
Relation Name
associatedWith Arensberg, Louise Stevens. person
associatedWith Arensberg, Lou (Mary Louise Stevens) person
associatedWith Arensberg, Walter, 1878-1954. person
associatedWith Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626. person
associatedWith Brown, Isabelle, 1860-1928 person
associatedWith Bynner, Witter, 1881-1968 person
associatedWith Franco, Johan, 1908-1988 person
associatedWith Friedman, William F. (William Frederick), 1891-1969 person
associatedWith Gibson, R. W. (Reginald Walter) person
associatedWith Huston, John, 1906-1987 person
associatedWith Keller, Helen, 1880-1968 person
associatedWith Lawrence, Frieda von Richthofen, 1879-1956 person
associatedWith Levin, Harry, 1912-1994 person
associatedWith Manly, John Matthews, 1865-1940 person
associatedWith Miller, Henry, 1891-1980 person
associatedWith Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 person
associatedWith Stevens, John E. 1909-1988 person
associatedWith Wallace, Karl Richards, 1905-1973 person
associatedWith Weston, Edward, 1886-1958 person
associatedWith Wilde, Oscar, 1854-1900 person
associatedWith Wolfe, Clyde Lynne Earle, b. 1885 person
associatedWith Wrigley, Elizabeth S. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
Claremont Colleges
Art, Modern--20th century--Collectors and collecting
Francis Bacon Library
Rare books
Indians--Antiquities--Collectors and collecting
Lichfield Cathedral
Cryptography
Research libraries
Ciphers
Occupation
Function

Corporate Body

Active 1936

Active 1997

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