I never fail to be amazed at the astonishing richness of the Library’s holdings in Special Collections and at the surprising things that turn up! A few years ago, a researcher contacted us about a project he was working on, in co-operation with the Boswell Editions at Yale University, to identify and locate books once owned by James Boswell (1740-1795), biographer of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Since Boswell inherited the family library at Auchinleck House in Ayrshire, books owned by his father, Alexander (Lord Auchinleck), and grandfather (also James), were to be included in the project, as were books previously owned by Boswell’s sons, Sir Alexander and James the Younger (unfortunately, as all the men in the family were called either Alexander or James, it is rather confusing!). We were asked to identify and provide information about any Boswell-owned books in our holdings and as a result, it came to light that we hold an unusually large collection, possibly only exceeded by Harvard and Yale Universities. The majority of these now belong to the Murray collection.
David Murray (1842-1928) was a Glasgow lawyer and antiquary who bequeathed his collection to Glasgow University on his death. Murray seems to have acquired his Boswell volumes at sales for the dispersal of books from Auchinleck House in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At least three book sales took place (1893, 1916 and 1917). While we do not hold annotated sale catalogues for all of these sales (which might help identify what Murray bought, when and how much he paid), our researcher generously shared sales provenance information he had been able to gather on most of our Boswell books. Several of the books are from the 1893 sale, with one from the 1916 sale and one from the 1917 sale. This additional provenance information has now been added to the bibliographical records in our online catalogue, along with details of ownership inscriptions or annotations in the books themselves. These are fully searchable by going to our online catalogue, selecting the Printers & Provenance option and typing the keywords “Boswell” or “Auchinleck” .
The Boswell-owned books cover a wide range of subjects. Most are on law, history, governance, and Latin grammar, but there are also works on philosophy and classical studies, as well as tracts and essays on natural philosophy (physics), agriculture and medicine, including “A Short Account of the Life of Mr. Percivall Pott”, a renowned English surgeon and a founder of orthopaedics, which was given to James Boswell by the author.
Several of the books consist of many tracts and pamphlets bound together in one volume. According to inscriptions in the volumes, the majority of the books (24) originally belonged to Lord Auchinleck (1707-1782), James Boswell’s father; these are mostly Latin works on law, history, governance and grammar. Born at Auchinleck, Ayrshire, he studied law at Leiden University (like his father before him) and became Sheriff of Wigtownshire from 1748-1750. In 1754 he was appointed to the court of session and the following year to the court of justiciary, taking his title from the barony of Auchinleck, which he had inherited in 1749. As a judge, he earned respect for his erudition and conscientious attention to his duties. He was also well-read and gifted in the classics and acquired a significant collection of books. Details of this were recorded in a catalogue by his daughter-in-law Margaret Montgomerie (wife of James Boswell) after her husband inherited Auchinleck House, and the manuscript of this catalogue is now held at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, along with other Boswell family papers.
Three books belonged to Sir Alexander Boswell (1775-1822), James Boswell’s eldest son and the first Baronet. He was a poet and politician, practised improving agriculture on his estates and was an officer in the Ayrshire Yeomanry. Following his death as the result of a duel in 1822, his estate was found to be heavily in debt. He was succeeded by his son, who died without an heir in 1857 and consequently the family baronetcy ended.
Two books belonged to James the Younger (1778-1822), barrister and literary scholar, who was the fourth child and second surviving son of James Boswell (biographer). He showed early literary ability and as a child wrote numerous unpublished plays, poems and comic operas. He attended Brasenose College , Oxford, in 1797, and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1799, becoming a counsel on the home circuit and Surrey sessions. He completed and published the 21-volume revised edition of Shakespeare, which had been started by Edmond Malone, a close associate of his father, and afterwards a friend and mentor of young James. He died suddenly in 1822 after a brief illness and shortly before his brother Sir Alexander.
We have two volumes which belonged to Old James (c.1676-1749), James Boswell’s grandfather, who was Laird of Auchinleck and an advocate. He studied at Leiden University and married Lady Elizabeth Bruce, daughter of Alexander Bruce, second earl of Kincardine.
Two books belonged to Boswell – i.e. THE James Boswell (1740-1795), who was a lawyer and diarist but best known as the friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. As the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his first wife, Euphemia, the family estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire passed to him on his father’s death. Some books are simply inscribed “Auchinleck Library”, possibly by David Murray.
We are always interested in discovering the provenance of books in our care in order to establish their history prior to their entry into our collections. As well as the intrinsic interest in the previous ownership of these Boswell volumes, an analysis of the titles of the works and the subjects covered has shed some light on the character and interests of their owners as well as the concerns of both the era and the milieu in which they lived and worked. This makes the lives of otherwise remote historic figures so much more informative and accessible to us.
Now, I wonder what fascinating treasures we will find next…?
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The Boswell Collection at Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University Library