'Once in a generation': Institutions join forces in bid to acquire rare private library - Museums Association

‘Once in a generation’: Institutions join forces in bid to acquire rare private library

Sotheby’s agrees to postpone impending auction of Honresfield collection
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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A consortium of museums and libraries is hoping to raise around £15m to bring a library of rare manuscripts into public hands.

The Honresfield Library, which features more than 500 rare documents and heirlooms relating to renowned literary figures such as the Brontë family, Jane Austen and Robert Burns, was due to be sold off in a series of auctions starting next month.

The Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) charity is leading the bid, saying that “a private library of English literature of such significance has not been placed on the open market for many decades, nor is ever likely to appear again”.

Working with FNL, the auction house Sotheby’s has announced that the sale will be postponed to allow time for negotiations for the library in its entirety to be acquired for the nation.

The FNL has launched an appeal and will work to fundraise with the public and private philanthropists over the next few months, in addition to making a donation from its own resources.

Other institutions involved in the consortium include Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Brotherton Library (University of Leeds), Walter Scott’s home Abbotsford in Melrose, and Jane Austen’s House in Chawton.

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If successful, the consortium will pass ownership of every individual item to the appropriate national, regional and specialist institution across the UK.

The collection was assembled by William Law (1836-1901), a Rochdale mill-owner living at Honresfield, near Haworth, and his brother Alfred. The library at Honresfield House has been inaccessible to all but a few scholars since the death of their nephew and heir Alfred Law in 1939.

John Scally, trustee of the FNL and national librarian and chief executive of the National Library of Scotland, said: “Once in a generation, a collection of books and manuscripts appears from almost nowhere that is met with a mixture of awe and stunned silence, followed by concerted action to bring it into public ownership. The UK-wide consortium is determined to raise the funds to ensure we can save the Honresfield Library for everyone to share and enjoy.”

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s English literature and historical manuscripts specialist, said: “Sotheby’s has a great history of working together with private collectors and institutions and we are pleased to play our part in this potential outcome for this great library.

“This proposed acquisition is a fitting tribute to the Law brothers’ voracious literary interests and their family’s excellent care of this material for over a century. The unprecedented initiative is testament to the continued power of literature to inspire the public so many years after these writers first put pen to paper.”

Collection highlights

The Honresfield collection includes the complete working manuscript of Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy, part of the autograph manuscript of Scott’s verse romance, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, his travel journal of a voyage off the Scottish coast in 1814, a copy of Border Antiquities with extensive manuscript revisions, and a group of Scott first editions in their original condition.

Other Scottish material of significance includes an early volume of poems by Robert Burns in his own hand – containing some of his earliest recorded literary works – known as the First Commonplace Book, as well as individual autograph poems (Cessnock Banks and the Brigs of Ayr), and a group of the poet’s earliest correspondence, including the only extant letter to his father.

At the library’s heart lies a set of manuscripts in the hands of the Brontë siblings, much of which has been unseen for 80 years and never properly examined. It includes seven of Charlotte Brontë’s famous “little books”; a manuscript collection of poems by Anne Brontë; some 25 letters by Charlotte Brontë; and a small autograph manuscript diary note shared by Emily and Anne Brontë.

The jewel of the Brontë collection is Emily Brontë’s holograph notebook of 31 poems, believed by many scholars to have been lost.  This poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand. The printed treasures of the sisters include Emily Brontë’s own annotated copy of their first publication, the rare Poems of 1846, and presentation copies of first editions of their novels in their original cloth bindings.

Jane Austen is represented by two hugely significant letters to her sister Cassandra (only three such early autograph letters are held in any UK national collection, the bulk being in the Morgan Library, New York). One is a very early letter, written on the eve of a ball where she anticipated the end of a love affair; the second dates from 1813 and discusses the reception of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The collection also includes first editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in their original condition.

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