Abbotsford Entrance Hall

Abbotsford Entrance Hall

Sunday, 31 May 2015

On this day in History...

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
 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.'  
Granted, this is a Victorian piece of Scott memorabilia, but I love these Minton tiles featuring scenes from the Waverley novels. Not easy to come by so I shouldn't think I'll be fashioning my home with them any time soon!

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!

The Abbotsford Library. You can see one of our Borghese chairs to the left of the fireplace

Belvoir Castle has a very different interior to Abbotsford, but 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


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Scott on Waterloo

'Bones of horses , quantities of old hats, rags of clothes, scraps of leather and fragments of books and papers strewed the ground in great profusion...'

This was the sight that greeted Sir Walter on his visit to the battlefield in August 1815. Indeed, he had felt full of such fire to make the trip that the venture would see him take his very first steps on foreign soil. The words themselves, although a reflection of Sir Walter's own experiences, come from the eponymous narrator of Paul's Letters to his Kinsfolk, a strange work that purports to be a series of letters penned for five different recipients back home. In effect, this short work is Scott's closest brush with journalism. A brand new edition of this fascinating text, along with The Field of Waterloo and 'the Dance of Death,' was published at the end of April this year and we were delighted to assist Penguin Random House with the cover!

Front Cover Photograph showing the Soldier's Book and Tricolour Cockade from the Abbotsford Collections

On the evening of Tuesday 12th May we were very fortunate to welcome Dr. Paul O' Keeffe, the editor of this new publication, to Abbotsford to introduce his new book and talk a little more about Scott's battlefield visit in the run up to the bicentenary of Waterloo next month. The evening was a wonderful, theatrical affair (with belly laughs aplenty), but it was not without a suitable dose of the macabre.

A very charismatic Paul O' Keeffe as Ruskin at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

 Battlefield tourism seems a pretty alien pastime to our modern sensibilities; nowadays when we visit the sites
of previous conflict, say the Somme, Culloden or Waterloo,  we are fuelled by a thirst for knowledge or a need to pay our respects. Curiousity and the sense of reaching out and touching history was certainly still a motivating factor for visitors to Waterloo in 1815, but when you consider that a few intrepid onlookers started arriving the morning after the battle, presumably jostling with the local peasants ransacking valuables from the dead, something quite different was at work. There was a powerful sense that Waterloo was the key battle of the time and tourists were eager to acquire souvenirs from the field. 

Napoleonic Plaque displayed in the Abbotsford Entrance Hall

O'Keeffe had the audience grimacing suitably as he evoked the dizzying stench of poorly buried mass graves, human bodies slowly baking just below the surface in the stifling heat of summer. The battlefield area was relatively small and could be explored easily on a day excursion from Brussels but once visitors arrived, they would have found it essential to have packed both quantities of snuff and an iron constitution!

French Cuirassier's Steel and Brass Breast and Back Plate and to the right, a copy of the Imperial Eagle Standard

By the time Sir Walter Scott arrived on the scene, the craze for Waterloo relics had spawned a veritable marketplace where nearby villagers successfully flogged weaponry and cuirasses to awestruck tourists. The bodies had been long stripped but not long buried and Scott encounters an eerie landscape strewn with paper and rags. He set about picking up smaller relics and arranging the purchase of more impressive artefacts over the duration of his trip. One of his most treasured acquisitions, a French soldier's book now in the Abbotsford collections, is photographed on O' Keeffe's book cover. In amongst the cuirasses, sabres, pistols and Napoleonic totems, it is fitting that this little book has been given pride of place. With papers flitting in the breeze before him as far as the eye could see, these military livrets were far from a rarity but they offered a tangible link with an individual life. Scott finds his soldier's book to be a very personal snapshot of a life snuffed out, 'and with it, all his earthly hopes and prospects.'  

Thanks for reading!

Kirsty Archer-Thompson
Heritage and Engagement Manager