Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Peter Beal

Peter Beal

Before joining Sotheby’s, and after getting my doctorate at the University of Leeds, I worked for six years on the Index of English Literary Manuscripts. I was responsible for the period from 1450 to 1700, and the work introduced me to archives all over the world and gave me a certain expertise in the field of literary manuscripts. On this basis, I was invited to join Sotheby’s and started work there in January 1980.

   I’m required to deal with any manuscript material in English that comes along - from 1500 onwards. A.N.L.Munby, the bibliographer, did this kind of job in the 1930s and 40s. He was a conscientious and very knowledgeable scholar, who always went out of his way to help with genuine enquiries. I like to think I’m following in his tradition.

   My own speciality is the 17th century, which I’ve always found very attractive. It’s such a transitional and dynamic period. In one century you move from a time of medieval superstition to the beginnings of modern science - from witchcraft to Sir Isaac Newton.

   Although the work is very demanding, I manage to keep up my academic interests in my spare time. I recently became a Fellow of the British Academy. So far this has only involved social functions and some committee work, but I suspect there’s more to come. I also work with Jeremy Griffiths, as co-founder and co-editor of English Manuscript Studies. 1100-1700, and I’ve been appointed Lyell Reader in Bibliography at Oxford for 1995-96.

   This involves giving five very well-prepared lectures - it could be rather nerve-wracking. Fortunately I’ve already got most of the information and it’s more a question of pulling it all together. I’m planning to lecture on various aspects of the 17th century, and Oxford University Press will eventually publish the text in book form. Next February I’m giving a talk to the John Donne Society in America - I’ll use the occasion as a trial run for the Lyell lectures!

   In my field of work, persistence is very important. I often question reports about manuscripts having been ‘destroyed’ or ‘lost’, and this approach has paid off several times. For example, the Grierson edition of Donne’s poems, published in 1912, refers to an important manuscript known as the Burley manuscript, from Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire. It was supposed to have been lost when the house was partly destroyed by fire in the early 1900s.

   There was indeed a fire but, to cut a long story short, the manuscript wasn’t destroyed. It was later deposited in the Public Record Office, then lent to a scholar in Birmingham, and I eventually tracked it down  to a safe in Birmingham University Library where it had been sitting - forgotten about - for thirteen years. It’s a large folio of 17th century verse and diplomatic letters, and has now been returned to where it belongs - among the other Burley manuscripts in the Leicestershire Record Office.

   There’s an interesting story about Milton, which might just be worth pursuing. Only three of his letters are known to exist. But there’s always been a rumour about some letters he’s said to have written to the monks of Vallombrosa, which he supposedly visited in the 1630s. Vallombrosa certainly appears in some of Milton’s poems, and the story about the letters crops up in Notes & Queries in the 1870s.

   It’s just possible there might be some truth in it, and I’ve sometimes thought of going to Florence to do some research. But the monastery archives have been dispersed, and these things tend to get shoved into drawers and cupboards. Perhaps one day someone will come across a Milton letter while sorting through a bunch of old laundry receipts. Of course it’s quite possible the whole story was invented by the monks to put themselves on the map!

   If you work with manuscripts all the time, it’s possible to develop a ‘feel’ or instinct for authenticity. Take the example of the so-called Hitler diaries, which were shown to Sotheby’s a week before the story broke. Although we only saw photocopies, it was immediately obvious that the diaries were a very amateurish imitation - almost a caricature of Hitler’s handwriting. I suppose we’re used to looking at manuscripts in a way that differs from a historian’s approach to the same material.

   In 1984 I was involved with the Bolivian diaries of Che Guevara, which attracted more attention than almost anything that’s ever been sold at Sotheby’s. These were the autograph diaries kept to within a day of Che’s capture, and found in his baggage before he was shot by the Bolivians in 1967. Film crews came to Sotheby’s in London from all over the world, and the sale attracted enormous press coverage.

   It was a very traumatic time for us - the Bolivian Government claimed the diaries had been stolen from their vaults; Che Guevara’s father threatened to come over with a pistol, and Sotheby’s security staff warned us to go home by different routes each night! However the catalogue was printed and the sale was scheduled for 16 July 1984. The auction was stopped by the Bolivian Government, but the diaries were finally sold privately to them afterwards.

   There’s something very moving about diaries found on a dead body. When Captain Scott realised he was going to die, he wrote a series of letters to people on the blank pages at the end of his journal. When his body was found, the letters were torn out and sent off, and one of them was eventually sold at  Sotheby’s for £32,000. It was a very dramatic example, in which Scott described the desperate situation of the expedition, and spoke of ‘dying like gentlemen’.

   Actually it’s been argued that Scott might just have managed to complete the remaining five miles of the expedition. But if he pushed on and died, his body and papers might never have been found in the snow. Therefore it’s been suggested that Scott made a deliberate decision to arrange things so that at least his papers survived for posterity.

   There’s still an enormous amount of good material around.  But at the moment people are waiting for the economy to stabilise. Of course there are always people who have to sell, and I must say that we’ve done some good business in this line. If a family needs to raise money quickly, archives are often the first things to go. You miss a picture over the mantelpiece, but you don’t really miss family papers, especially if they’ve been on loan to the local record office for generations.

   The manuscript market isn’t very predictable at the moment. I can’t think of any safe bets for investment purposes, unless they were of real interest to the purchaser in their own right. Look at Oscar Wilde, for example. A few years ago, there were some big collectors in the field and prices went through the roof - an autograph poem by Wilde made well over £20,000. Today the bubble’s burst, the main collectors dropped out and prices have returned to a reasonable level.

   As auctioneers, we do influence the market to the extent that we’re in position to choose what comes up for sale from the vast quantity of material we’re constantly offered. A Churchill letter is obviously saleable, but we also like to look out for more unusual items. Recently we sold a collection of pram patents dating from the 1880s to 1931. I decided to catalogue them because they looked interesting from a social, technological and aesthetic point of view. The skill of cataloguing is very much in the presentation, the choice of emphasis and having an eye for the interesting angle.

   Imagination is very important. In my experience, the top manuscript collectors bring this quality to their subject. It doesn’t require much imagination to collect a complete set of signatures of all the American presidents, for example. That’s another mentality altogether. But, in my own field, it takes a certain imagination and knowledge to appreciate the importance of manuscript material.

   Seventeenth-century manuscripts, I would say, are still underpriced. In the past decade or so, a number of wonderful 17th century archives have come on to the market. This has possibly given the impression that the material is quite common. It isn’t. And good material in the field is bound to dry up eventually.

   There’s something very attractive about collecting manuscripts, which are unique by their very nature. Books aren’t quite the  same, though of course I appreciate there are many more bibliophiles than manuscript collectors in the world. In fact, there isn’t even a nice word to describe manuscript collectors or their subject - nothing comparable to ‘bibliophile’ and ‘bibliography’. Some people use ‘codicology’, but it isn’t really satisfactory as the term has a very specific meaning for medievalists. I simply call myself a manuscript specialist and get on with the job!

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in January 1994

Dr Peter Beal FSA died in June 2024 

Photo © Sotheby’s London


Peter Beal

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