Christ Church MS. 578
Letters from Robert Dorsett to Sir Philip Sidney; England (Oxford and Ewelme), 1575-76
Provenance and Acquisition
The letters which share this manuscript number appeared at auction in Sotheby’s London rooms on 26 June 1967 as lot 742. They had, in fact, arrived at the auction house as part of a larger collection of seventy-six letters, all of which came from the collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872). They had reached that bibliomaniac from the collection of the antiquary Benjamin Heywood Bright (1787-1843), whose manuscripts were sold by Sotheby’s on 18 June 1844, with the full seventy-six letters appearing as no. 243 (Schoenberg database, no. 20669; a label with the number appears on the coarse paper wrapper once covering the letters) and being sold to the bookseller Payne for £50 (hand-written note in Bodleian copy); Phillipps presumably purchased the collection from or via Payne. It became his MS 11762. When it re-appeared at auction, Sotheby’s divided up the set, with the majority sold separately from those from Robert Dorsett and with ChCh purchasing those written by its former Canon with assistance from the Friends of the National Libraries (the purchase and its contents is described briefly by J. F. A. Mason in the Friends’ Annual Report for 1967, 8-9). The remaining sixty-five letters were bought by James M. Osborn, who announced their significance in ‘New Light on Sir Philip Sidney’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 April 1970, 487, and subsequently used them, and the ones now in ChCh, as the basis for his volume Young Philip Sidney. The letters he bought are now Yale University, Beinecke Library, Osborn fa14.
The earlier history of the collection from which MS 578 comes has been shrewdly reconstructed by Roger Kuin (Correspondence, 1:xxv-xxix). He surmises that a yet larger collection of Sidney letters – which he denotes as ‘X’ – was held at Penshurst but left there and appeared at auction in London, as several lots, on 9 April 1811. The main buyer was James Bindley (1737-1818), who obtained those letters which were, following his death, purchased by Bright. Other letters from ‘X’ followed various routes from the 1811 sale to find themselves eventually in the British Library (in MSS Add. 15914, 17520, 18675 and 21522); some, however, remain unaccounted for and Kuin provides a tentative reconstruction of what is presently lost (Correspondence, 2:1331).
It might be added that, early in their life, there had clearly been some attempts to identify and order the letters. First, there were the added endorsements to items 4-8, with similar additions being found on other letters in ‘X’ (for an example from the Yale Osborn collection, see Kuin, Correspondence, 1:pl. 1, noting that that addition is in English while, as our items 4 and 7 demonstrate, those here are in the same script but in Italian). Later (seemingly in the eighteenth century), a system of a letter and a number was added above the opening of each letter, where the letter was the first of the correspondent’s surname, so, for instance, our item 1 was D27 (these annotations are explained by Kuin, Correspondence, 1:xxvi). In other words, though the appearance of the two lots at the Sotheby’s sale in 1967 was, as Osborn declared in his TLS article, a revelation to Sidney scholars, there had been a long history of respecting them as evidence of his life and contemporary standing.
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