On This Day in History

25th May 2015

Every now and then, it's rather fun to pick up Sir Walter Scott's Journal or peruse a collection of letters and find out what was happening on a particular date during his life. We haven't done this yet with the Treasures of Abbotsford Blog and this story is a perfect reminder of why we should! Today's gem of a letter was penned by Archibald Constable, Scott's publisher of the time. It was addressed to the author at his Edinburgh home on Castle Street and composed on 31st May 1822.

A rather portly Archibald Constable (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.)

Ostensibly, the letter serves as an update on the reception and sales of his latest novel, the Fortunes of Nigel, and Constable claims with somewhat feigned surprise that 'the press is at work again,' meaning that avid readers had already devoured the first print run, quite literally acquiring their copies 'hot off the press.' The picture painted is reminiscent of the hype surrounding a new release in the Harry Potter franchise, or even the latest Apple gadget:

' A new novel from the author of Waverley puts aside, in other words puts down for a time, every other literary performance. The Smack Ocean, by which the new work was shipped, arrived at the wharf on Sunday; the bales were got out by one on Monday morning, and before half-past ten o'clock 7,000 copies had been dispersed from 90, Cheapside.'

Constable's letter is interesting to me for another reason, serving as a reminder of the number of Scott's high-profile friends and associates that contributed to the diversity of the Abbotsford collections. Archibald speaks of visiting the shop of a Mr. Swaby in Warden Street. Now, I assume this is Warden's Close in Edinburgh's Grassmarket, but I could well be wrong considering he has just been talking about book sales in London. He states that he had been directed to the premises of this 'curious person' Swaby, by his son, Thomas, in order to have a closer look at an antiquated portrait of a monarch spotted there. After some discussion they decide that this is a rare jewel, an unknown portrait of King James IV (perhaps painted by Maynard Wewyck), and Constable forwards it to Scott, trusting that 'ere long, [he] will see it in the Armoury at Abbotsford.'

The Abbotsford Armoury Wall, complete with James IV portrait purchased by Constable

There are several things going on here, but primarily the portrait is a reminder of one of the greatest successes in their long partnership, the epic poem Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field published in 1808, the first work in literary history for which the author received a monetary advance from his publisher. Constable is well aware that Scott aims to furnish his baronial home with objects that tell stories, specifically his own version of history if he can help it, and he is keen to contribute to the creation of this shrine to storytelling. His motivation for doing so may well lie in his knowledge that Scott's collecting and his writing have a powerfully symbiotic relationship, as of course do a writer and his publisher.

When I read this letter, it is not without a raised eyebrow and a smirk as the publisher recommends where in a home such artefacts should be displayed, but perhaps they were more 'jack of all trade' folk in the 1820s! His other purchases that day are no less important to our collection: 'two large elbow chairs, elaborately carved, in boxwood...Swaby assured me they came from the Borghese palace in Rome' and 'a slab of mosaic pavement, which I also destine for Abbotsford.'

The Borghese Palace, original home of our beautiful boxwood chairs

Constable encourages Scott to accept the pair of chairs as furniture of a calibre appropriate for the Library at Abbotsford, and the mosaic as a hearth-stone for one of the fireplaces. The chairs do indeed still stand either side of the fireplace in the library today but, thankfully, Archibald's mosaic slab forms a handsome table top rather than a hearth, preserving the exquisite piece from excessive wear and tear over the last two centuries. Supposedly there were originally ten Borghese chairs, six of which went to Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire and still stand in their Picture Gallery there to this day. I would dearly like to know where the other two have ended up!

You can see our Borghese chairs to the left and right of the fireplace; and though Belvoir Castle has a very different interior, if you look closely you can see something familiar!

Hopefully this post illustrates how archival material can help bring collection pieces to life - in just one letter, we have mapped out where these pieces were purchased, by who and for what reasons. If only we were so lucky with mapping the stories of all of our gabions and curiousities! If you think you might know the whereabouts of Swaby's or indeed the other two Borghese chairs, please do get in touch and help us build a clearer picture of this fascinating springtime exchange one hundred and ninety-three years ago.

'It occured to me that these three articles might prove suitable to your taste, and under that impression I am now induced to take the liberty of requesting you to accept them as a small but sincere pledge of grateful feeling. Our literary connexion is too important to make it necessary for your publishers to trouble you about the pounds, shillings and pence of such things.' Archibald Constable, 31st May, 1822.

Thanks for reading!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson

Heritage and Engagement Manager

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