Saturday 8 August 2020

Henry Yates Thompson and America

I recently found a contribution I wrote fifteen years ago for a facsimile commentary of BL, Yates Thompson MS 36, a copy of the Divine Comedy illuminated by Giovanni di Paolo for of Alfonso V, King of of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily:
La divina commedia di Alfonso d’Aragona, re di Napoli: Manoscritto Yates Thompson 36, Londra, British Library, commentario, ed. by Milvia Bollati, 2 vols (Modena: Panini, 2006).
My text was translated into Italian for publication, and in the nature of such facsimiles, it has presumably had a rather limited readership; I have therefore this week put the original English text on my page here.

Much of my discussion about Henry Yates Thompson was, or will seem now, rather derivative, but I think some of it is original, so I decided to provide an extract here, in the hope that it will be of interest to some readers, concerning HYT's attitude to America and Americans.

The following passage relates to the much-discussed matter of HYT's decision to sell most of his manuscripts at open auction, in the knowledge that many might be acquired by collectors and institutions in the USA:
An interesting aspect of the proposed sale that has not, to my knowledge, been mentioned before, is Yates Thompson’s attitude towards American versus British owners of manuscripts. On hearing that Yates Thompson had decided to auction his manuscripts, M. R. James appealed to him that, having been brought together safely in an English collection, they should not ‘be dispersed again among Boches, Jews and Transatlantics.’ [1] 
Cockerell displayed similar, if less strongly expressed, sentiments when he wrote begging Yates Thompson to ‘give me the chance of raising the money and securing them for the country and Cambridge … I will at least try my utmost to save them from the hands of ignorant millionaires’. [2] 
Yates Thompson would have been completely unmoved by these nationalistic appeals. Neither James nor Cockerell had been to America, but Yates Thompson loved the country and had been there many times: he first spent six months there in 1863, concluding that ‘If ever a nation deserved to live it is the United States of America’; [3] he went again in 1866 to re-visit the friends he had made, taking his younger brother with him; he took his wife there soon after their marriage (her great-grandfather was from Virginia); and he and his wife were known for their hospitality to Americans in London: his obituary in The Times noted that ‘He became the warm friend of each succeeding American Ambassador in London and welcomed to his house in Portman Square all Americans of any intellectual standing who found their way there – and most of them did.’ The Yates Thompsons counted among their friends Henry James, Henry Adams, and Andrew and Louise Carnegie. ‘He always loved the company of Americans and after 1863 he returned to America again and again right up to the time of the 1914–18 war’. [4] 
In an attempt to make America better understood in England Yates Thompson even offered to endow an annual Lectureship at Harvard on the ‘History and Political Institutions of the United States of America’, but the offer was turned down by Cambridge University, where the lectures would have been delivered. 
When, in 1920, Cockerell told Yates Thompson that he was just about to make his first visit to America, Yates Thompson replied:
‘What excellent news! It is an episode of importance in your life. You will come back Americanised—in a good sense—especially [because] you will teach the British world how absurd their craze is for retaining all art and history treasures in England, when the truth is that such as they manage to secure will be quite as much or more valued and cared for in America than here.’ [5]

1 Quoted by Hermann, op. cit., p. 187. James was a firm Anglican, which may explain his antipathy to Jews; and had lost many friends in the First World War, which explains his enmity towards Germans; but I have no reason to suppose that he had any particular ill-feeling towards Americans.
2 Blunt, op. cit., p. 146–47; the reference to ‘ignorant millionaires’ was doubtless a reference to the Americans such as J. Pierpont Morgan who were buying many of the best items that appeared on the market in the preceding two or three decades.
3 Quoted by Jean Gooder, op. cit., pp. v–vi.
4 Chancellor, op. cit., p. 3.
5 In a letter dated 9 October 1920 (BL, Additional MS. 52755, f. 224)

The manuscript has now been digitised here.

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