The Forbes Baronetcy was created in 1626 for Sir William Forbes (d. circa 1650) by James VI in the Barontage of Nova Scotia. The majority of the works offered here were acquired by the sixth Baronet, also William (1739-1806), who added Pitsligo to his title in 1781. He was an eminent Scottish banker and benefactor, good friend of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson (see lots 45-46), and finally succeeded in recovering the Pitsligo estates forfeited after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. His son William, the seventh baronet, beat Sir Walter Scott to the hand of the renowned beauty Williamina Belsches Stuart (1776-1810), and it was with their marriage that the family moved to her family seat, Fettercairn House in Kincardineshire, Aberdeenshire.
Boswell's Life of Johnson, arguably "the most famous biography in any language" (ODNB), was first mentioned in the author's extensive diaries in March 1772, although it is likely Boswell conceived of the idea to "preserve but a faint impression of Johnson" (letter to Wilkes, 13 July 1765) several years before. The task, which Boswell saw as "a glory to myself and a benefit to mankind" (ibid.), took the best part of two decades to come to fruition and was eventually published exactly twenty-eight years after the first meeting of the author and his subject in Thomas Davies' back parlour in 1763.
Sir William Forbes (1739-1806) was a close friend of Boswell and, through him, had been introduced to Johnson himself in 1773. Despite their Scottish heritage, both Forbes and Boswell naturally gravitated towards London where they shared many friends and interests. Both were enthusiastic freemasons: as grand master, Forbes chose Boswell as his deputy grand master in Scotland. On Boswell's death, Forbes was appointed one of his executors, responsible not only for clearing the estate of considerable debt, but also for the care of Boswell's children and his vast array of diaries, letters and private papers. It was not until the thirties that it became clear that many of these papers - having at some point been moved to Forbes' home at Pitsligo and then later to Fettercairn House, which passed into the Forbes family on the marriage of his son - had never been returned to the Boswell family. The Fettercairn discovery, which was quite accidental, marked a significant addition to Boswell scholarship, and are now held in the collections of Yale University.
Other presentation copies of the Life included that given to John Wilkes, Warren Hastings, Sir William Scott, James Boswell the younger, and John Douglas, Bishop of Carlisle. The last of these was sold by Sotheby's, New York on 15 December 1998 (lot 26) and is the last such copy to have appeared at auction. The present copy is unrecorded in Pottle's bibliography.
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