A consortium of British libraries and museums announced that they had successfully raised more than $ 20 million to purchase a ‘lost’ library containing rare manuscripts of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and the Brontes, preparing for an auction and preserving the collection intact.
The collection, known as the Honresfield Library, was assembled in the 19th century by two British industrialists, but had hardly been seen since the 1930s. The announcement last May that it had resurfaced and would be sold auctioned by Sotheby’s sparked enthusiastic reactions from researchers, as well as fears that the collection might be scattered in inaccessible private collections.
“A collection of literary treasures of this importance comes only once in a generation,” said Richard Ovenden, director of Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, in a press release earlier this month announcing the deal.
The arrangement, he said, will ensure that it is “available to academics and the general public, now and long into the future.”
After the outcry last spring, Sotheby’s agreed to delay the auction, allowing the group, Friends of National Libraries, to raise funds to purchase the entire collection. Once the agreement is concluded, the manuscript funds will be distributed to eight institutions: the Bodleian; the British library; the National Library of Scotland; Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds; and is home to museums dedicated to Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and the Brontës.
The approximately 1,400 printed books in the collection will be scattered among a larger group of institutions across Britain.
The $ 20 million came from a number of individual and institutional donors. Half came from philanthropist Leonard Blavatnik, in what the release called the largest single donation to the UK by an individual for literary treasure.
Alfred and William Law, two self-taught mill owners who grew up within 20 miles of the Brontë House in Haworth (now the Brontë Parsonage Museum), began collecting what became the Honresfield Library in the 1890s. After their death, the collection passed to a nephew, who granted access to selected scholars, and had facsimiles of certain objects made.
But after the nephew’s death in 1939, the originals fell out of public view. By the 1940s, the collection had become “almost impossible to find”, as one scholar put it at the time.
One of the most prized parts of the collection was a group of Brontë manuscripts, including an 1844 manuscript manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems with pencil editions by Charlotte. He had made an auction estimate at Sotheby’s of $ 1.1 million to $ 1.7 million – a near record for a manuscript of modern English literature, according to Sotheby’s, had it been reached.
Other highlights of the collection, which was sold by unidentified relatives of the Law brothers, include the full working manuscript of Scott’s 1817 novel “Rob Roy” and the collection of manuscripts known as “First Commonplace. Burns’ Book ”from 1783 to 1785, which contains some of his early literary writings.
The collection also includes what the consortium called “two extremely important letters” from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, including one from 1796 (the first surviving letter of her writing) in which Austen, then 20, discusses a love story. According to the group, only three first letters from Austen are kept in a UK national collection. Most of those who survive are in the Morgan Library in New York.
In the announcement, Gabriel Heaton, the Sotheby’s specialist who organized the planned sale, called it “a collection like no other that has hit the market in recent decades.”
The successful campaign to keep it intact, he said, “is a testament to what can be achieved by public institutions and private collectors.”