The Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) has launched an appeal and is in discussion with private philanthropists and sources of public funds to raise the purchase price of £15m for The Honresfield Library of British Literature.
The auction house had planned to offer the collection across three auctions with the first held online on July 2-13.
However, as reported in ATG 2495, museums including The Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum raised concerns this did not give them sufficient time to prepare a bid to acquire some or all of the collection.
The more than 500 manuscripts, first editions and letters from the Honresfield Library, were originally put together by Arthur Bell Nicholls, the widower of Charlotte Brontë, and later acquired by the Rochdale mill owners Alfred and William Law who lived at Honresfield House – 20 miles from the Brontë family home in Haworth. The archive also includes items from Robert Burns and Walter Scott.
Following the deaths of the Law brothers the library was inherited in 1913 by a nephew, Sir Alfred Law, and remained in the family until this year when it was consigned to auction.
A statement from Sotheby’s said: “Working together with the UK charity Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), Sotheby’s has agreed to postpone the commencement of the auctions to allow for negotiations for the entirety of the library to be acquired by a consortium of institutions for the nation.”
The Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) have begun fundraising and will work with institutions including the Bodleian Libraries, the British Library, The National Library of Scotland, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Brotherton Library (University of Leeds), Abbotsford (The Home Of Sir Walter Scott) and Jane Austen’s House, among others.
The FNL said a private library of English literature of such significance “has not been placed on the open market for many decades, or is ever likely to appear again”.
The plan is for the institutions to share the items so they will be “made available in institutions across the UK, enabling the widest possible audience to see, study and enjoy this pre-eminent material”.
Dr 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.”
Charles Sebag-Montefiore, trustee and treasurer of FNL, said: “FNL is working with a consortium of institutional funders and individual philanthropists to raise the substantial funds need to secure this extraordinary collection for the benefit of everyone in the UK. This is a crucial national endeavour to raise enough funds to keep this unique treasure trove in Britain.”
Richard Ovenden, trustee of the FNL and Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford said: “Now is a time to act together, to preserve and share some of the greatest examples of this heritage.”
Rebecca Yorke, interim director of the Brontë Society said: “We are very grateful that Sotheby’s and the vendors have delayed the auction and are proud to be working with the Friends of the National Libraries and other partners on a fundraising campaign to acquire this unique collection for the nation.
“There is still some way to go, but we are thrilled to have come this far, and are committed to doing all we can to ensure these treasures of English literature remain in the public domain to inspire future generations.”
John Scally, trustee of the FNL and national librarian and chief executive of the National Library of Scotland, said: “The UK-wide consortium is determined to raise the funds to ensure we can save the Honresfield Library for everyone to share and enjoy."