Writer and artist. Samuel Butler was born in 1835 near Bingham, Nottinghamshire. He was the eldest son of Thomas Butler, Rector of Langar and canon of Lincoln. His grandfather was Dr Samuel Butler, headmaster of Shrewsbury School and later bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. Butler followed family tradition by first attending Shrewsbury school, and then distinguishing himself at St John's College, where he studied Classics between 1854 and 1858.
After two years spent working with the poor in London, Butler began to question his faith, refusing to take holy orders as his father had intended. His ambition to become an artist only caused further consternation. A compromise was reached with Butler being funded to seek his fortune in New Zealand. He arrived there in 1859, settling near Christchurch on the South Island. He proved moderately successful as a sheep farmer and his journeys into the hinterland of Canterbury province have since seen him recognised as one of New Zealand's early explorers. He also played an important part in the cultural life of the area, organising the first art exhibitions held at the Christchurch Club and contributing articles to the local newspaper, the Christchurch Press. Notable among these was one entitled 'Darwin and the Machines', which wittily addressed ideas propounded in the recently published 'On the Origin of Species'. An edited selection of Butler's letters home was published by his father in 1863. 'A First Year in Canterbury Settlement' describes Butler's land claim adventures and contrasts the scenery with the European vistas he had experienced in travels as a boy with his family.
Butler left New Zealand in 1864, having made a small profit on the sale of his farm, and settled in London. Though not totally financially independent, he now concentrated on painting. A few of his works were exhibited at the Royal Academy, including Mr Heatherley's Holiday (1874), which is now in the Tate Gallery, but Butler was not a success as an artist. With the encouragement of friends he turned to writing, anonymously publishing 'Erewhon' in 1872. A reworking of articles written in New Zealand and letters which had appeared in 'A First Year in Canterbury Settlement', it describes a utopian world and includes a close scrutiny of the ethical implications of Darwinism. Satirical and provoking it was critically acclaimed. His next book, 'The Fair Haven' (1873), a complex examination of contemporary religious assumptions, was not so well received. Butler's reflections on Darwin and Darwinism continued with 'Life and Habit' (1878), 'Evolution, Old and New' (1879), 'Unconscious Memory' (1880) and 'Luck or Cunning' (1886). Initially championing the naturalist, these books chart Butler's disillusionment with Darwin, precipitated by Butler's discovery of the earlier theories of the French scientist Lamarck.
Butler's relations with his father continued to be strained, largely on account of monetary gifts made by Butler to a male acquaintance from New Zealand. Feeling responsible for the investment advice he had given the recipient of his favours, Butler travelled to Canada in 1873 to investigate the affairs of a company of which he had become a director. His father died in 1886 and the inheritance allowed Butler to pursue a more leisurely lifestyle. He could now live for half the year in Italy, first at Faido, then at Varallo. He had already been a regular visitor to Italy and in 1881 had published 'Alps and Sanctuaries', an account of his travels to the sanctuaries of the Ticino, Piedmont and Lombardy. He followed this up with 'Ex voto: an account of the Sacro Monte or New Jerusalem at Varallo-Sesia' (1888). It attempted to popularize the work of local craftsmen and forgotten sculptures, popular on the Catholic pilgrimage routes but ignored by art historians and connoisseurs. The book included sketches and photographs. Butler's photographic record of the area, including not only images of sculpture and architecture but also of the local people and their lifestyle, show him as a true pioneer of this new medium.
In the 1890s Butler tackled the classics. Again he provocatively attacked the established view, the very title of his 'The Authoress of the Odyssey' (1897) causing consternation. Butler also translated the 'Iliad' (1898) and the 'Odyssey' (1900) using colloquial prose to appeal to a younger audience. Foregoing his usual stay in Northern Italy he travelled to Sicily to study the setting for the 'Odyssey'. He also visited the Greek sites of the epic and the recently excavated city of Troy, producing a photographic record of his travels. Butler's biggest impact came posthumously. His autobiographical novel, originally written in the 1880s but put aside for fear of offending his family, was published immediately after his death in 1902. 'The Way of All Flesh' describes the life of Ernest Pontifex and his disillusionment with the hypocritical, self-righteous Victorian attitudes of his family. It was greeted with wide acclaim both critically and popularly.
Butler is a difficult man to judge. His eclecticism makes him difficult to categorize. Much of his work, especially his scientific thinking, was not well received during his lifetime, though he did achieve some recognition in France. His photographic work and his letters and notebooks, full of acerbic observations and irony, are now seen as of considerable import, not just the record of an era but also of considerable artistic merit. It was his fiction, though, which raised Butler above that of a minor Victorian man of letters. Seen as a precursor to the anti-Victorian feeling that prevailed in the years after his death, and as a stepping stone to the modernism that would follow, the popularity of 'Erewhon' and 'The Way of All Flesh' is in no doubt. They have both remained continuously in print since their original publication.
The collection includes Butler's books, manuscripts, music, photographs, pictures and drawings, and personal effects.
Some items initially donated to St John's by SB's great friend, Henry Festing Jones, in 1917. Festing Jones eventually donated the complete collection by 1921.
The collection was arranged into groupings by item format by Henry Festing Jones.
Shaffer, Elinor, 'The Way of All Flesh: Samuel Butler (1835-1902), A Centenary Exhibition at St John's College, Cambridge', 2002, Shaffer, Elinor, 'Erewhons of the Eye: Samuel Butler as Painter, Photographer and Art Critic', 1988, Jones, Henry Festing and Bartholomew, A. T., 'The Samuel Butler Collection at Saint john's College, Cambridge', 1921