Cultural Encounters: What’s in a Letter?

Contributed by Jade Scott, AHRC Research Assistant, English Language and Linguistics, University of Glasgow

The acquisition of a letter from James McNeill Whistler to Claude Monet (see related blog post), is an opportunity to share details of other notable letters held in the University of Glasgow Library.

As this year’s ‘Being Human’ festival approaches, we look back to 2017’s Being Human’s Cultural Encounters which introduced an audience to some notable letters from Archives and Special Collections. Events in the ‘Cultural Encounters’ series sought to consider how letters have connected Scotland to the world and explore what connections can be found, both between the original letter-writers and readers today.

Some letters have a special connection to the University of Glasgow and others took a more unusual journey to get here! We were only able to show a select few, but whether you are interested in an individual, or more broadly concerned with artists, musicians or writers, the collection can offer some outstanding materials!

As the ‘Cultural Encounters’ events had a musical connection – with live music performed each day – we started off our tour of the letters with one written by composer Wolfgang Amadeaus Mozart (1756-1791). His penultimate letter, penned in October 1791, was sent to his wife Konstanze to describe and discuss a performance of his opera ‘Die Zauberflote’.


Letter from Mozart to Konstanze, his wife (MS Farmer 271/5)

The letter is part of a wider collection of Mozartiana held in the Farmer Collection. Henry George Farmer (1882-1965) was a distinguished scholar of military music, Arabic and Scottish folk music. He was musical director of the Empire Theatre in Glasgow for 33 years and was music librarian at the University of Glasgow. Mozart’s letter was passed through his family collections, descending to his son Carl Mozart who gifted it to the composer Vaclav Zavertal. Zavertal’s own son Ladislao then inherited the letter and donated it to Henry Farmer in 1928 as part of a collection of Mozartiana.

We are also very privileged to have a huge variety of documents signed by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). These materials might not seem familiar as correspondence in our traditional sense of a private letter shared between a sender and a recipient. Indeed, all of the documents are actually proclamations, warrants and pardons relating to events throughout Elizabeth’s reign. They range in interest from the price of wheat, notices against ‘seditious’ texts, and responses to uprisings against the queen. The example we shared at ‘Being Human’ was a proclamation issued by Queen Elizabeth following a short-lived rebellion in 1569. She declared her royal mercy, pardoning those men implicated in the events. In reality, the rebellion cost over 700 men their lives and many more were imprisoned, leaving families impoverished and the local economy struggling. This proclamation was issued publicly across the country and we can see it as a mode of communication between the queen and her subjects. And just look at that signature!


Signature of Elizabeth I (MS Hunter 3)

This material came to Glasgow in 1807 as part of the bequest of William Hunter (1718-1783),  whose tercentenary is celebrated this year.

We also featured a letter between two hugely influential figures in the history of Western art, James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). The letter was purchased in September 2017 with assistance from the National Fund for Acquisitions. This is an important addition to the University’s extensive holdings of Whistler’s papers and works of art, bequeathed by his sister-in-law, who was the executor of his will. Read more about this letter. – LINK.

Some of our more unusual examples of correspondence can be found in the Lushington collection. At first glance the collection seems like a conventional, if extensive Victorian correspondence – albeit with some notable correspondents including the poet Alfred Tennyson (Tennyson was Professor Lushington’s brother-in-law). Edmund Law Lushington was appointed in 1838 to teach Greek at the University of Glasgow and later became professor, resigning his chair in 1875. He was also elected Lord Rector in 1884. His correspondence therefore offers excellent insight into the procedures of the academic culture at the university. Yet his correspondence also includes various examples of more intimate exchanges, with many letters sent to him from his young family who remained at their family home in England while he was resident at the university.


Letter from Edmund Henry Lushington (1844-1856) to his father Edmund Law Lushington (1811-1893), (MS Gen 557/2/19/2)

This example written by Professor Lushington’s son Edmund Henry is one of the few examples of letters prepared by children.  In this example, Edmund asks his father to climb trees when he next returns home and offers updates on his younger siblings. The content is amusing and informal, yet children’s letters can offer evidence of how people constructed letters. Edmund’s example indicates that letter-writing was a process that had to be learned. It is formally presented, with the lines used to shape his handwriting still visible.

Even more unusual is this anonymous letter. The letter appears to be a draft, undated and unsigned. It was found loose a few years ago in a seventeenth-century publication on law by Antoine Favre (1557-1624) alongside a pressed daffodil flower. It was addressed to ‘Margaret’ yet we don’t know who ‘Margaret’ was.


Letter by anonymous author addressed to ‘Margaret’ (MS Gen 1741/2)

Examination of the handwriting style suggests that the letter is a late seventeenth or early eighteenth century composition. The content suggests that this may have been a love letter since the writer complains that Margaret’s earlier letter was destroyed by the person who was supposed to deliver it. They complain that ‘the very thought of your lost letter torments me…’ Yet the mystery remains – was this a letter from a lovelorn student or even prepared by a member of staff at the university? Was the final copy ever sent to Margaret? Or could it be that this was a hoax of some kind, prepared to mystify library staff and researchers?

We also wanted to share some of our more contemporary correspondence. Poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) sent this letter via fax machine to jazz saxophonist and composter Tommy Smith on 21st July 1998. The letter includes the lyrics to their collaboration ‘A Song for Glasgow’ which was commissioned as part of a project for senior pupils in Glasgow schools to be performed at concerts and by a new schools’ choir as part of the city’s Christmas festivities. Morgan and Smith collaborated on various music projects throughout the 1990s and this familiarity is shown by Morgan’s brief note to the lyrics, which closes with the friendly ‘Avanti!’


Note from the poet Edwin Morgan, faxed to the musician Tommy Smith (MS Morgan K/4/13)

Morgan was a renowned poet and translator, educator and critic. He was Poet Laureate for Glasgow from 1999 to 2005 and Scotland’s National Poet from 2004 until his death in 2010. He had a long association with the University of Glasgow, first as a student of English Language and Literature and later as a member of the English department. He retired from the university in 1980. In the 30 years before his death, Morgan gradually gifted his personal papers to the University of Glasgow Library. The collection includes nearly 1500 manuscript drafts of poems and related material including correspondence with publishers and collaborators. The collection reflects Morgan’s significant role in the culture of Scotland. 2020 will mark the centenary of his birth.

Archives and Special Collections hold correspondence relating to many other prominent figures, including political economist Adam Smith (1723-1790). Letters can be found in many of the collections here including these further examples.

Find out more about the Being Human festival.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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