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Sotheby's London To Hold a Sale of Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings
Plutarch’s Lives of Romulus and Cato the Younger, a lavishly illuminated late-medieval manuscript with over fifty full-page miniatures. Photo: Sotheby's.

LONDON.- On 7th December Sotheby’s London will hold a sale of ‘Magnificent Books, Manuscripts and Drawings from the Collection of Frederick, 2nd Lord Hesketh, The Property of the Trustees of the 2nd Baron Hesketh’s Will Trust’. The selection of books, manuscripts and drawings from this distinguished collection was built up by successive generations of the family, and shows the best of every aspect of the bibliophile’s endeavour: typography, illustration, illumination, literary and historical importance, and fine binding. The majority of the works in the sale were acquired by Frederick, 2nd Baron Hesketh (1916–1955), who bought them in a golden age of book collecting, when, paradoxically, great rarities seemed almost commonplace. Few collections can boast of both Audubon’s Birds of America and Shakespeare’s First Folio, yet Lord Hesketh acquired a magnificent subscriber’s copy of the Birds, and a crisp, textually complete Folio in an early binding within a space of a few years. The sale takes one on a journey of printed books from a rare example by England’s first printer, William Caxton, through indisputably the most important book in English Literature, Shakespeare’s First Folio, to a great landmark of natural history Audubon’s Birds of America; manuscripts range from a fine illuminated early gospel commentary from the eleventh century in Old Frankish, the language of Charlemagne, to an exceptional historical series of letters by Queen Elizabeth I, the Earl of Leicester and the spy Francis Walsingham relating to the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, and there is as well a group of ravishingly beautiful original drawings from Redoute’s Les Roses, once owned by the Duchesse de Berry. The sale has an estimate of £8-10 million.

David Goldthorpe, Director and Senior Specialist in Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, said: “Unlike other libraries which specifically focus on, for instance, literature, history or science, the fifty lots coming from this magnificent collection are an example of what is known as “high spot collecting” – when a collector seeks out the very best across a range of fields. For example, the sale offers the twin peaks of book collecting - the most expensive book in the world, Audubon’s Birds of America and the most important book in all of English Literature, Shakespeare’s First Folio. We are thrilled to be offering such a diverse and remarkable collection.”

Renowned ornithologist, naturalist and painter, John James Audubon (1785-1851) is one of the key influential figures in natural history. Quoted three times by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, Audubon’s work inspired generations of ornithologists to come, in particular his famed Birds of America, a copy of which is included in the sale with an estimate of £4,000,000-6,000,000. This fine copy, in excellent condition, was bought by notable early paleobotanist Henry Witham, subscriber number eleven as noted in Audubon’s ledger. Audubon’s journal entry for 3rd December, 1826 tells of how the naturalist dined with Witham at Edinburgh, noting that “I determined in an instant that this gentleman was a gentleman indeed…We all talked much, for I believe the good wine of Mr. Witham had a most direct effect…And at half past one, after been [sic] dubbed a great philosopher and an extraordinary man, my health drank, etc., etc., I retired with Dr. Know, but left Mr. B[ridges] and Mr. W[itham] at their whiskey toddy”.

Other masterpieces of natural history include celebrated botanical artist Pierre Joseph Redouté’s original drawings on vellum of his most famous work, Les Roses (1817-1824), acquired by his patron and pupil the Duchesse de Berry (total estimate £1.5 million: drawings to offered individually). This will be the largest group of rose drawings by legendary painter and botanist to come on the market since de Berry’s sale in 1837. Works by Mark Catesby and John Gould round out a comprehensive group of eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury natural history books.

A supreme highlight of the sale is what is widely recognised as the most important book in English Literature – the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the ‘First Folio’. This extremely rare, “virtually unmarred”, copy dates from 1623, and has 451 out of the original 454 leaves, but contains the complete text to all the plays. It is one of only two other textually complete copies to exist in private hands in a comparably early binding (c. 1690-1730). Containing thirty-six plays, the First Folio is the cardinal point of all Shakespeare’s dramatic output, around which all Shakespearean scholarship has revolved since publication in the early seventeenth century. Shakespeare died in 1616 having made no apparent effort in his lifetime to get an edition of his plays published. Eighteen of the thirty-six included in the Folio, among them Macbeth, The Tempest and Twelfth Night, were printed for the first time, which means that without the Folio they might well have been lost forever. Shakespeare’s First Folio was authorised after the author’s death by his friends and closest colleagues - those who knew his plays best because they were the people who performed them – and as such the Folio is the closest we are ever likely to get to any final published text authorised by Shakespeare himself. Printing was halted on more than a hundred occasions to make small corrections to the text and consequently copies of the Folio almost always vary in their make up of uncorrected and corrected sheets. Indeed, no two copies of the Folio have been found to be exactly identical, and this present copy will be offered with an estimate of £1,000,000-1,500,000.

Among the fine examples of early printing in the sale are William Caxton’s Polychronicon, a rare English incunable by the man who brought the printing press to England, and Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta memorabilia, printed on vellum, further distinguished by gold initials and marginal flourishes. These books from the dawn of printing are complemented by manuscripts from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, including Plutarch’s Lives of Romulus and Cato the Younger, a lavishly illuminated late-medieval manuscript with over fifty full-page miniatures. This present copy is the hitherto-unsuspected missing half of a manuscript in the Austrian National Library which was made for the Duke of Lorraine. A further highlight is an exceedingly fine eleventh-century manuscript of Christianus of Stavelot’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, with one of the first few witnesses to Old Frankish - the language spoken by Charlemagne and the direct ancestor of Modern Flemish and Dutch.

Lord Hesketh’s wife Christian, Lady Hesketh (1929–2006) was a noted scholar of Scottish history, and this interest is reflected in an exceptional and relatively unknown series of over 40 letters relating to the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, including four letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I as well as many letters by her chief minister Lord Burghley and spy-master Francis Walsingham. These letters were written to Sir Ralph Sadler when he was entrusted with the custody of Mary in 1584-85 and provide a unique insight into the Scottish Queen’s life and the hardening attitude of Elizabeth and her ministers to their illustrious prisoner (est. £150,000-200,000).

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