Huntington Library makes a Dickens of an acquisition


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In a bit of news that may elicit a chorus of “Bah, humbug!” from disappointed rival collectors -- or hearty congratulations if they choose to follow the code of proper Victorian civility -- the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens says it has acquired a cache of 35 letters that Charles Dickens wrote from about 1838 to 1869.

Highlights, the San Marino museum says, include missives to Dickens’ best-known illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne (a.k.a. “Phiz”), and to poet Robert Lytton. Among the letters are Dickens’ instructions to Browne about how a scene in a women’s hat shop in “Nicholas Nickleby” should look: “there may be a cap on a block and a dress on a stand if it would improve the sketch,” the author suggests, adding, “Please to take care that Miss Knag is not like Miss La Creevy.”


In another, Dickens apologizes to an A. Hayward for having forgotten a Saturday night dinner engagement: ‘For many hours after the time, I was at my desk, and hard at work. This is my real and best excuse.’

The letters, bought for an undisclosed sum from a New York City rare book and manuscript dealer who had acquired them over many years for his personal collection, extend Huntington holdings that already had encompassed about 1,000 letters by Dickens, as well as the originals of 49 drawings Browne made for “Nicholas Nickleby.”

Also noteworthy to Anglophiles may be the Huntington’s new acquisition of a 35-page manuscript copy, made during the 1590s, of an account of the English forces’ 1347 Siege of Calais during the Hundred Years’ War with France. It’s considered a find “because of its sophisticated design, elegant layout, and beautiful calligraphy” and the title page’s color painting of Edward III’s coat of arms, the Huntington says.

Closer to home, the Huntington landed 172 rare photographs of Santa Barbara from the late 1800s, from the studio of E.J. Hayward and Henry W. Muzzall, which the museum says “represents the most comprehensive visual record of Santa Barbara’s early years.”

Footing the bill is the Huntington Library’s collectors’ council, which provides funds for special purchases too pricey for the institution’s regular acquisitions budget. No exhibition plans for the new items have been announced.

-- Mike Boehm