'Manuscripts bring history home to us'... a look at the Roy Davids collection

Roy Davids, whose collection is now being offered at Bonhams, is the consummate collector, who has gathered fascinating items that bring the holder to a richer idea of persons and circumstances than the content of the pieces alone.

Davids studied history at London University, and his working life from then on revolved around history and historical manuscripts. He worked at the History of Parliament Trust writing biographies of 16th century MPs, and also for scholarly booksellers Hofmann and Freeman.

He joined Sotheby's in 1970 as a cataloguer of post-medieval manuscripts and worked there for well over two decades, rising to run the department he began work in, and then later the Books Department as well.

Keats love letter
My dearest Fanny... Keats's tragic love letter

Later he started his own company, Roy Davids Ltd, to trade in manuscripts and portraits of writers, artists and musicians, and has been involved in the sale of papers and archives of Sir Winston Churchill, John Osborne, Edna O'Brien, George MacBeth, John Linnell, Peter Redgrove, Siegfired Sassoon, Douglas Dunn, John Wyndham, Tom Paulin, Julian Barnes, Alan Sillitoe, Sylvia Plath and especially Ted Hughes - including a series of letters.

Davids's own collection has likewise been composed mostly of manuscripts and portraits. Although many of those from whom he collects have published works, he explains that being a manuscript collector appeals to him more than collecting printed material for two reasons:

Firstly, that "…they range over virtually every field of human endeavour -- literature, art, music, exploration, science, medicine, finance, magic, cricket, hunting, cooking, yachting, cricket, religion, economics, space, architecture, aviation. The choice is almost limitless."

Earliest X-rays
Your hand's fine, but your finances are shaky... early X-rays

But also, as every autograph and memorabilia collector would agree, the original handwritten text holds much more interest than the content alone. He enthuses that handwriting is 'as individual as a fingerprint' and likens it to 'an abstract portrait', and speaks for many collectors when he adds:

"The paper, the age, the shape, the size, the colour, the ink, the bloom, the stains, the wear, the dust, the nibblings of rodents, the folds, the tears, the creases, the seals, the smell, the ties, the postal markings, the endorsements, the dockets, the spelling, the corrections, the revisions, the deletions, the writer, the recipient, the provenance, the handwriting, the style, the imagination, the thoughts expressed.

"All of these contribute to our senses of reality and contact. We respond emotionally, psychologically and intellectually. Manuscripts bring history home to us."

Davids's collection certainly covers an impressive range of intriguing pieces, as we've noted in recent weeks.

These include: a very rare love letter from the dying John Keats, a William Blake letter detailing his watercolour, The Last Judgement, and a remarkable letter from Edward Lear in his own form of nonsense writing, which has be found to include a tiny drawing of a dog.

Lear's hidden dog letter
'Ain't nuthin' but a found dog' - the secret drawing by Lear

Two very different, though equally celebrated, figures from politics are also represented in an unused speech by Winston Churchill (referring to 'glimpses of a better world') and a letter written by Gandhi in December 1919 - a crucial time in his changing political views.

Other types of collectibles are on offer too, some unique, such as a set of some of the very earliest X-ray photographs made in the UK.

Davids is not parting with his collection because he has shrugged off the collecting bug, nor is he close to death. However, he came very close to death a few years back and was saved only by very delicate surgery.

The auction at Bonhams then is not an end, but a beginning. How better to use a new lease of life than with a fresh collection?

'Papers & Portraits: The Roy Davids Collection Part II' by Roy Davids take place at Bonhams in London on March 29th.


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