Books & Manuscripts

Autograph Letters and Manuscripts by Verdi, Wilde, Darwin, Churchill and More

By Stephen Roe
On 26 October 2017, Sotheby’s offered Part I of this remarkable collection of autograph manuscripts, which was devoted entirely to Music. Among the many treasures was a spectacular collection of letters from Giuseppe Verdi to his librettist. Now, we are delighted to offer Part II of the same collection, which is much wider in its scope. In addition to another fine selection Music material, this sale also features English Literature, Science, Art, Continental Manuscripts and Americana. Part II of Fine Autograph Letters and Manuscripts from a Distinguished Private Collection will be held on 13 December in New York.

T he collection was begun in Europe around 1930; the last items purchased some twenty or so years later. The collectors lived first in Germany, then Switzerland and eventually the United States, where the family settled permanently. The owners were connoisseurs, discerning, discreet, highly cultured and very private. Their names were known to a group of manuscript dealers and auctioneers of the distant past. Few are left who had the pleasure of knowing them personally. The collection was largely preserved by their heirs. Before 2017, twenty or so items were auctioned by Sotheby’s, including the great autograph manuscript of Schumann’s Second Symphony, sold in our London rooms on 1 December 1994.

The freshness of the material is paramount. With very few exceptions, not a single item has appeared on the market for at least seventy years. This means that there are great discoveries. Many letters having been unavailable for publication in the intervening years means that there are many new insights into the lives of Verdi, Brahms, Dvorák, Paganini and Rossini as well as Oscar Wilde, Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Einstein and Darwin, to name but a few.

Giuseppe Verdi, Fourteen Largely Unpublished Autograph Letters Signed to Alessandro Lanari, The “Napoleon Of Impresarios.” Estimate $100,000–150,000.

The most exceptional grouping is again by Verdi, this time 14 letters to the impresario Lanari relating mostly to the composition and casting of Macbeth, the first of the composer’s three great adaptations of Shakespeare. Thirteen of these letters are unknown and unpublished. The text of the fourteenth is taken from Verdi’s transcript in the Copialettere. These letters provide a vivid impression of Verdi as an extraordinary dynamo of creative energy, an unstoppable force. Wagner is usually similarly characterised, but these letters show Verdi in a different league when negotiating with his impresario.

Gainsborough, Thomas, Autograph Letter Signed, Likely To His Attorney And Friend James Unwin. Estimate $20,000–30,000.

Also extraordinary is Rossini’s letter of introduction to the conductor Pietro Romani after the Frenchman won the Prix de Rome and journeyed to Italy in 1857. The letter was published in the 1890s only in French translation, then translated back into Italian by early editors of Rossini’s letters, without reference to the composer’s original, which differs from it in several details. Rossini admired Bizet greatly and the feeling was mutual. Similarly, the letters of Mendelssohn and Gainsborough were published from transcripts. Now the originals can be seen for the first time in many years. Letters of Gainsborough are of great rarity, only ten or so remaining in private hands. In this letter, dating from as early as 1763, Gainsborough describes his studio in Bath and gives details of his current portraits. There are similarly important letters of artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, Monet, Signac and Manet.

The collection is rich in the prime movers of the nineteenth and twentieth century: four major letters of Tolstoy, in English, French and Russian, comparing French and Russian approaches to art, invoking Dostoevsky and Turgenev; expressing his fears about censorship in Tsarist Russia and the difficulties of publishing controversial material. Karl Marx remits to an admirer his publications which led to the Communist Manifesto, some in collaboration with Friedrich Engels; Churchill discusses his first efforts to get into Parliament in 1900, effectively marking the end of his life as a journalist, soldier and adventurer and the beginning of his political career, which was to last a further sixty years. Einstein writes about his scientific work, supported by mathematical calculations relating to his work on Relativity. Charles Darwin deals at length with the critical reaction to his On the Origin of Species in several unpublished letters.

Although the Oscar Wilde holdings in this collection comprise only nine lots, they provide a remarkable range of biographical and literary information, most of it previously unpublished and unseen for over 75 years. In a letter from 1880, Wilde seeks to find a producer for his first play, Vera, or the Nihilists. In other letters, we see him in the thick of the London theatrical and literary worlds, finding small parts in his plays for young actresses; dealing with publishers and putting himself forward as a translator of Flaubert. There is one fascinating literary manuscript in the collection, a variation on Wilde’s poem “Symphony in Yellow,” in which the scene has been changed from London to Paris. Two letters demonstrate Wilde’s continuing attachment to his mother: in one, he makes an introduction for her to an American author; and in the other, he asks for a stipend to help support her. The highlight is undoubtedly an eight-page letter written by Wilde from Kansas City in April 1882, describing his experiences in Salt Lake City, his impressions of the Mormons he meets, and his astonishing visit to Leadville, Colorado, and the Matchless Mine. This letter was never seen by the editors of Wilde’s letters, who had only a transcript (with a few minor mistakes) to work with.

No collection of Wilde would be complete without a memorable epigram; in this case a tragic one. In his letter to Carlos Blacker, written from France just one year after his release from Pentonville Prison, Wilde remarks, “Tragedies are much better than Farces, and there is no other alternative on the world’s stage.”

George Washington, Autograph Letter Signed ("Go: Washington") To William Neale. Estimate $25,000–30,000.

The American documents in the collection do not represent the United States so much as representing the role of the United States in the greater world. It is a measure of the breadth of this collection that it should contain any historical American manuscripts at all. It is less surprising that the Americans represented in the collection are truly world figures. Among the U.S. Presidents, no Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, or Chester Arthur, but, rather George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Teddy’s distant cousin, Franklin D. – names almost as familiar in the capitals of Europe as in Washington, D.C. Other American historical figures include Benjamin Franklin, whose greatest service to his country probably came during his diplomatic postings to London and Paris, and Thomas Edison, whose myriad inventions transformed daily life across the globe. Mark Twain and Jack London – two of the few U.S. authors represented in the collection – are both quintessentially American, and yet they are also the most frequently translated of all American literary writers.

The final part of the collection, the French holdings, including more Music, Art and Literature, will be offered for sale in Paris in the near future.

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