Samuel Johnson letter sells for thousands

A recently discovered letter by the great literary genius Dr Johnson (1709-1784), who famously wrote the Dictionary of the English Language, sold at Chorley’s auctioneers to a British institution recently for £38,460 – over four times its pre-sale low estimate of £8,000.

Found by Chorley’s specialists on a routine valuation in a Gloucestershire country house, the letter was stashed amongst a cache of other historic letters in a cupboard, with the owner of the house completely unaware of it and its historical importance. The letter had been officially logged as lost for many years, with scholars only knowing of its previous existence due to it having been published in The Letters of Samuel Johnson (Oxford, 1994; Bruce Bedford, ed.).

A letter written by Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson, usually known as Dr Johnson, was a revered essayist, literary critic, editor, poet, playwright, biographer and lexicographer (the art of compiling dictionaries.) The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography refers to him as ‘arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.’ The letter caused much excitement and there was competitive bidding on the phones and internet from both UK and US museums, with a UK institution finally winning out.

About the discovery at the time, Werner Freundel, Director at Chorley’s auction house said: “Initially, I was asked to value a collection of books and rugs for a family who had recently taken over their ancestral family home. I spent a long afternoon between the library and drawing room, collating volumes of Tillotson, Defoe, Kipling and Scott that had been separated throughout the years, during their time in the various generations of the family. One of the cupboards in the library yielded several manuscript volumes detailing the household expenditure during the late 18th and 19th centuries.

“I then came across a volume of over 100 letters that the family weren’t aware of and asked if I could take them away to go through. Later, alongside a manuscript specialist we examined everything in more depth and it wasn’t long before our curiosity was piqued by the mention of Sarah Siddons, Hester Thrale-Piozzi, several members of the Hoare banking family and Samuel Johnson. Finally, a letter from and signed by the famous Dr Johnson appeared towards the end of the volume. We were thrilled to discover that it was a missing letter written by Dr Johnson himself to Sophia Lynch Thrale, which was listed in official records as ‘current location unknown.’ We felt honoured to handle such a historic document by one of the greatest contributors to the history of English.”

A letter written by Samuel Johnson

The lost letter was written to a Sophia Thrale (1771-1824), the daughter of Hester Lynch Thrale (1741-1821, later Mrs Piozzi), a British author and patron of the arts, who Johnson corresponded with so regularly and in so much detail, that her letters later became historically important published resources into 18th-century society and the great mind of Dr Johnson. The two became acquainted when Hester, who came from one of the most illustrious Welsh land-owning dynasties; the Salusbury family, married the brewer Henry Thrale in 1763 and moved to London. It was at this time that she met leading literary figures, such as Dr Johnson, who became close friends with her and her children.

The current letter to a twelve-year-old Sophia Thrale, the sixth daughter of Hester Lynch Thrale, is the only known letter between them to survive, although there are several references to others in Johnson’s published letters. In the letter the elderly Johnson chides Sophia for not thinking of herself as his favourite; ‘my favour will, I’m afraid never be worth much, but its value more or less, you are never likely to lose it.’ He also praised her arithmetical ability; ‘Never think, my Sweet, that you have arithmetick enough, when you have exhausted your master, buy books, nothing amuses more harmlessly than computation’, and pointing her to a ‘curious calculation’ relating to the capacity of Noah’s Ark in Wilkins’s Real Character, he says; ‘an essay towards a real character and a philosophical language’ (1668 by John Wilkins).

The letters between Johnson and the family began in 1765, but their correspondence ended following Hester Lynch Thrale’s second marriage following her husband’s death, to an impoverished Italian music teacher who had taught her children (Gabriel Mario Piozzi). Johnson did not approve, and their correspondence ceased in 1783. They would reconcile just before Johnson’s death in 1884 and following this, Hester published a book based on their letters titled: Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson.

Among other letters from the same Gloucestershire property was a series of 30 letters between Hester Lynch Thrale and her youngest daughter Sophia Thrale, written between 1805-1821, when Sophia had married the banker Henry Merrick Hoare (1770-1826). The letters are of considerable length and reflect the deep affection between the two. They divulge society gossip and include their own poetry and verse. This set of letters are encased in an unbound leather album bearing the bookplate of Sophia’s husband. Forgotten by the Hoare family, these particular letters have never been published. Within the same box was a selection of other letters mostly to Sophia from the stage actress Sarah Siddons (1755- 1831), which includes a page where she complains that she must ‘embrace the dreadful fatigue of playing every night.’ The group sold for £98,800 against an estimate of £15,000-£20,000.

Commenting on the sale of the letter, Werner Freundel, Director at Chorley’s, said: “We are thrilled to have brought the Hester Thrale correspondence to light and are pleased that the historical importance of the letters has been recognised. Samuel Johnson’s charming letter to a young Sophia Thrale will remain in the UK and we hope it will be displayed to the UK public in time.”