Eleanor Garvey, 94; expert on books and art

Ms. Garvey had great knowledge of 18th-century Italian illustrated books.
Ms. Garvey had great knowledge of 18th-century Italian illustrated books.

Eleanor Garvey combined her passions for books, art, and history by uncovering and cataloging art books and bringing them to the museum-going public during her long career as a print curator, much of it at Harvard University’s Houghton Library.

“She was our star,” said Roger E. Stoddard, former curator of rare books at the library and a longtime colleague. “She had an international following, people knew her all over the book world.”

Ms. Garvey, who Stoddard said was “a great expert on 18th-century Italian illustrated books,” was still involved in a project on books of Venetian art when she died at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge on Feb. 11 of complications from a stroke. She was 94.


She spent 37 years as a curator at Houghton Library, the main repository for rare books and manuscripts at Harvard University. In 1984, she was named the library’s first Philip Hofer curator of printing and graphic arts, a chair endowed in her mentor’s name.

Though Ms. Garvey officially retired in 1990, colleagues said she remained a familiar presence in the library as she continued her research and advised successors.

Hope Mayo, current curator of printing and graphic arts, said Ms. Garvey was “immensely helpful to me” when Mayo took her position in 2001.

“She was warm, vivacious, and very generous in every way,” Mayo said of Ms. Garvey, who was known as Elli. “She put a great value on friendship and was very well known at Houghton, in the Harvard community, and throughout Cambridge.”

Besides contributing to exhibitions, projects, and publications at the library and other museums, Ms. Garvey was a teacher and lecturer, and belonged to scholarly organizations such as the International Association of Bibliophiles, the Print Council of America, The Society of Printers, and The Grolier Club, a New York City society for bibliophiles and graphic arts enthusiasts.


She also was involved in art preservation groups and was an enthusiastic supporter of her alma mater, Wellesley College. In 1988, the college awarded her its Alumnae Achievement Award.

During a memorial service at Harvard in March, Stoddard said Ms. Garvey brought honor to Wellesley and that her example helped lead “a new generation of young women into library or museum service.”

Ms. Garvey built a career “when it was unusual for women to do so,” said her cousin Kathleen Niebel of Westminster. “I’m sure it wasn’t always easy for her.”

In a 1997 oral history interview for the Archives of American Art, Ms. Garvey said few women were on the staff at Houghton Library when she arrived and it took time to get acclimated.

“It was hierarchical, and it troubled me a lot in the beginning,” she said. “Then I got used to it, and it began to loosen up a little.”

Eleanor M. Garvey was born in Worcester in 1918, the only child of parents who “started taking me to museums when I was a small child,” she said in the oral history. “And I was always taken to concerts and plays. They were great theatergoers, and they were great readers.”

She enrolled in Wellesley College expecting to study English, but an art class her sophomore year persuaded Ms. Garvey to change her major to art history. She graduated in 1940.

Returning to Worcester, she attended Clark University, from which she graduated in 1942 with a master’s in education, and took painting classes at Worcester Art Museum.


After she graduated with a master’s, the museum hired her to be a teacher. A few years later she went back to Wellesley College to work as an art librarian and museum curator.

She also worked at the Newark Art Museum in New Jersey and the Fogg Museum at Harvard before being hired at Houghton Library in 1953 as an assistant to Philip Hofer, the founder and curator of the department of printing and graphic arts. She was named curator of the department in 1975.

While at Houghton Library, Ms. Garvey developed a keen interest in books featuring graphic designs of artists who worked in other media. In 1961 she and Hofer planned a Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibition titled “The Artist & the Book, 1860 –1960, in Western Europe and the United States.” Ms. Garvey wrote the exhibition’s catalogue, which Mayo said is still considered a basic reference book for the subject.

Ms. Garvey helped organize many other exhibitions that focused on topics and locations ranging from Paris to Boston, and a 1988 exhibition of items Hofer had bequeathed to Houghton Library. She also developed a collection of contemporary books.

In 1977, Ms. Garvey joined the faculty of the Radcliffe Seminars at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and in 1991, she taught at the Rare Book School, which then was at Columbia University in New York City.


In addition, she lectured at places and organizations such as Houghton Library, the Boston Public Library, The Grolier Club, and the Society of Printers.

When she retired, colleagues endowed the Eleanor M. Garvey Visiting Fellowship, which supports visiting scholars to the printing and graphic arts department.

Ms. Garvey, who had no immediate survivors, was a frequent traveler who “loved going to museums, of course, and she liked to travel and see architecture and take walking tours,” her cousin said.

At the memorial service, Stoddard praised Ms. Garvey’s extensive knowledge, adding that “when you were in Europe with her, she would know in advance the art in both the museums and the churches.”

In a remembrance on the Houghton Library website, Mayo described Ms. Garvey as “a woman of broad cultural interests,” and said that “her many friends and acquaintances will miss her warmth, vivacity, generosity of spirit, and gift for friendship.”

Until Ms. Garvey died, her cousin said, she took a train each week to meet a friend for lunch.

“She was so bright,” she said. “I’d say she was sort of a quiet leader, very brave, and also outgoing.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at