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William James Stillman collection

 Collection — Box: 21
Identifier: SCA-0144

Content Description

The collection is comprised of a wide range of materials reflecting Stillman’s long and prolific career in journalism, as well as his intimate ties to literary, artistic and political circles of the nineteenth century. In addition to close to six hundred letters and documents between Stillman and family, friends, colleagues and associates, there are several unpublished manuscripts by Stillman: essays, articles, stories and poetry.

Several large photograph albums contain Stillman’s photos of Greece, Italy, the Adirondacks, the countryside of Cambridge and the Charles River in Boston; and a smaller album contains Julia Mitchell Cameron’s costume photos of Stillman’s second wife Marie Spartali. Other loose manuscripts are Stillman’s own manual on the science of photography, personal photographs of Stillman, his first wife and his country home in Surrey, reminiscences of Stillman in old age by his granddaughter, and a woodblock drawing of Stillman by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


  • 1838 - 1978


Language of Materials

Primarily English, some items are in Greek and Italian.

Conditions Governing Access

Open for research.

Biographical / Historical

William James Stillman was born on June 1, 1828 in Schenectady, NY, the ninth child of Seventh-Day Baptists from Rhode Island. His father Joseph was a machinist, and his mother Eliza was a descendent of New England Calvinists, who hoped her son might become a minister. As a child, Stillman showed a disinclination for his father’s workshop and a love of drawing and the outdoors. The countryside around the family farm sparked his lifelong fascination with the artistic values of nature. Years later, he recalled that “it was a fortunate thing for my after-life that I lived so near the forests that all my odd time was spent in them and the surrounding fields.”

In 1845 Stillman entered Union College, then presided over by its illustrious fourth president Eliphalet Nott, who had held that position since 1804 and would continue to do so until his death in 1866. Stillman owed his education in part to his two older brothers, who had business ties to Nott.

Though he graduated in 1848, he always spoke with ambivalence about his Union education. On one hand, he had great respect for Union’s reputation as “the third university in the United States, coming, in the general estimation and the number of its graduates, immediately after Yale, Harvard being then, as always first.” And, he claimed, he was a “favorite” of President Nott’s, with whom Stillman personally studied during his last year.

On the other hand, a college education, according to Stillman, “was supposed to be a facilitation for whatever occupation I might afterward decide on.” And he had it in his mind going in that he wanted to be an artist. He never truly forgave Union for not providing him with a technical art education, for honing his talents. The truth was that he was not a great artist; his theoretic knowledge surpassed his ability, a realization he came to himself many years later. Union, however, did prepare him for his prolific journalism, which was where his true talents lay.

After his graduation, Stillman moved to New York City, where he studied painting under Frederic Church during the winter of 1848-1849. Selling his first landscape in the fall of 1849, he then sailed to England in January 1850, where he met and worked with Joseph Turner, John Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelite painters. He soon returned to the United States, where he continued to paint. In 1855 he founded and edited the weekly Crayon: A Journal Devoted to the Graphic Arts and the Literature Related to Them, a journal for essays on poetry and art. Though financial difficulties and ill health quickly severed his connection with the journal, the Crayon brought Stillman to the attention of the great thinkers of Cambridge and Concord, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Louis Agassiz. He soon relocated to Cambridge, where, around 1856, he organized the Adirondacks Club, a summer excursion to the mountains for the Massachusetts literati. He immortalized the trip in his famous painting “The Philosopher’s Camp in the Adirondacks.”

The Cretan Insurrection of 1866-7-8On November 19, 1860 Stillman married Laura Mack, with whom he would have three children. With the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, he sought more than once to enlist in the Union Army, but poor health kept him out. That same year, however, he was appointed United States Consul to Rome. Four years later he was Consul to war-torn Crete. His reports on the insurrection against the Ottomans, culminating in his book, The Cretan Insurrection of 1866-7-8, persuaded the “great powers” to send ships to rescue the noncombatants. Laura, however, could not withstand the stress of the continuous fighting and committed suicide in 1868.

Stillman moved to England in 1869, where he lived briefly with the poet and painter Dante Rossetti, and where in 1871 he married Marie Spartali, the daughter of the Greek Consul to London and herself an artist also. In 1875, he headed for the Balkans as a volunteer correspondent for the London Times, the paper with whom he would be connected for much of the rest of his life. His reports from Herzegovina persuaded the British to recognize the Montenegrin insurgents. Stillman even gave the Slavic rebels a telescope, allowing them to gauge enemy locations and numbers. He was instrumental in enabling them to defeat 20,000 Turks.

On commission from Scribner’s in 1879, Stillman sailed from Ithaca to the Aegean and Crete and later published his account of the voyage as a travelogue On the Track of Ulysses (1888). In 1889 he selected Rome as a correspondence base for the Times. There he worked closely with the Italian premier Francesco Crispi, helping him in negotiations with the British and tipping him off to a political conspiracy against him. For his help, Crispi publicly honored Stillman in 1891. Stillman returned the favor by writing Crispi’s biography, which would be published in 1899.

In 1898, after a career spanning forty years, Stillman retired to his country house in Surrey, England, where he wrote his autobiography and delighted in his grandchildren and the red squirrels on the property. He died there in 1901.


9.82 Cubic Feet

20 Boxes

Other Finding Aids

Catalogue of the William James Stillman Collection by Frances Miller was published by the Friends of the Union College Library in 1974 and covers the original 1959 donation of 597 letters and fifteen other documents.

A complete index of names and a partial subject index of the original donation is also available at the repository.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The first portion of the collection was donated by Michael S. Stillman (William James Stillman's son) in August 1959. Additional donations by the Stillman family continued through the 1990s, during which time the Library purchases numerous additional letters from dealers.

Related Materials

SCA-0150, William James Stillman Correspondence to the Times of London (copies) SCA-0369, International Center of Photography Files on William James Stillman Photography Projects SCA-1046, Richard Bullock Research Files on William James Stillman

Processing Information

The call number Mss UT S857 was previously used with this collection.

In 2017, collections 145 (Mss UT S857 1974), 146 (Mss UT S857 photos), 147 (Mss UT S857Al photos), 148 (Mss UT S857as photos), 149 (Mss UT S857R), 152 (Mss UT S857w photos), 368, and 449 were merged with this collection. In addition, collections 10, 27, 57, 65, 84, 99, 131, 151, and 162 (all associated with Mss UT S857 C) were added.
William James Stillman collection
Andrea Belair
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Repository Details

Part of the Special Collections and Archives Repository

Union College
807 Union Street
Schenectady NY 12308 United States