Men and Women of Letters

Our 9th September Fine Art & Antiques auction included a fascinating collection of letters, Royal Warrants, notes and autographs from prominent figures of British Regency & Victorian society to include; Royalty, peers, prime ministers, soldiers, diplomats, writers and painters.The collection ranged from frivolous insights of Regency high-life to WWI letters between a father and son at the front line, alongside an invitation for the Duke of Wellington's funeral and political missives signed by Queen Victoria.

Chief among the collection, was an autograph album containing over 200 signatures and notes - a veritable Who's Who of Victorian and Georgian society, which sold for £16,000. Of particular note was a fragment of a letter from Jane Austen. Very little actual biographical details of Jane's life have survived, so the slightest insight is important. This fragment is a snippet of her domestic arrangements and mentions going through a linen inventory with 'Mde B', who may be the family's faithful servant and friend Madame Bigeon and was included in Jane's will.

 Amongst the collection, a letter from Charles Dickens described the disastrous over-long visit of Hans Christian Andersen in 1857, and laments his dreadful accent. Dickens comments that "He was here for some six weeks, and I turned his face to Folkestone a week ago. His existence was of the most bewildered kind. He spoke French like Peter the Wild Boy and English like the Deaf and Dumb School. He could not pronounce the name of his own book, The Improvisatore, in Italian; and his translatress appears to make out that he can't speak Danish." This letter has received a lot of the press attention and appeared in articles in The Observer and The Times. it eventually sold for £4,600.

A series of letters between members of the Royal Geographical Society discussed Dr Livingstone's disastrous Zambesi Expedition, including the statement from Sir Roderick Murchison, President Royal Geographic Society, "I am inclined to agree with Mr Meller [Charles James Mellor, Naturalist and Surveyor to Livingstone's Zambesi Expedition]. It is a wild goose chase, but Dr Livingstone must be allowed to try". This bundle of letters achieved a hammer price of £2500.

Also included are notes from prominent artists Edwin Landseer and William Holman Hunt with sketches. Typically, in Landseer's case there are dogs, but Holman Hunt's offering is a cheeky origami sketch of a young boy poking his tongue out - showing a much lighter personality than his paintings often suggest!

Elsewhere, was a letter from George, Prince Regent, to his friend (the ultimate Regency dandy) Beau Brummel cancelling a dinner date. The Prince expresses his extreme regret as "you know how happy I am at all times to dine with you" and he hopes soon "to make up for this punishing disappointment". The letter sold for £500.

On a more serious note, Arthur Elliot (Liberal Unionist MP) writes a detailed account of a séance he attended along with his friend George Darwin (son of Charles) in 1874. Also present was a certain Mrs Lewes - better known to us as the author George Eliot. The medium Charles Williams brought forward a spirit named John King and mysteriously moved chairs and candlesticks around the room. However, Arthur was left with "A strong impression that it all looked like humbug", and Williams was later debunked by a Spiritualist Circle in Amsterdam. This letter sold for £950.

The letters' original owner and collector was Lady Charlotte Portal (d.1899), fourth daughter of Gilbert, the 2nd Earl of Minto (1782-1859). Her father was a politician and diplomat; First Lord of the Admiralty under Lord Melbourne and Lord Privy Seal under Lord John Russell (who one of his daughters married). Lady Charlotte married Melville Portal (1819-1904) who was also a politician. The family were clearly very well connected and an active part of high Regency and Victorian society. From Lady Charlotte, the collection passed down through the family, before part of it went through a Sotheby's auction in 1938. The collection came to us from a well-connected Scottish family now residing in East Anglia.


Sign up to hear about forthcoming auctions, news and featured lots


Please be assured that we will never pass your details on to third parties and you can unsubscribe at any point.