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Henry Yates Thompson’s illuminated manuscripts

100 illuminated manuscripts Dispersal The British Library's collection Bibliography

Introduction

The Yates Thompson collection comprises the smallest number of manuscripts of any of the named collections in the British Library’s Department of Manuscripts, but among these fifty-two books are some of the finest illuminated manuscripts in the world. This tour introduces the collection and its eponymous collector, Henry Yates Thompson.

Born to affluence in 1838, Henry Yates Thompson is principally remembered as the greatest manuscript collector of his generation. As a young man, he distinguished himself academically first at Harrow, and then as a prize-winning undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge. After graduating with a degree in Classics, in 1863 Thompson travelled to America where he watched at first hand the progress of the American Civil War. After witnessing Ulysses S. Grant overseeing the battle of Chatanooga, he wrote in his diary ‘If the battle had been a pageant got up for my benefit I could hot have had it better.’1 Subsequent expeditions took him around Europe, the Middle East and to Asia. On his return to England he devoted himself to politics with a zeal unmatched by success, standing unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate three times. During this period he was for six years private secretary to Lord Spencer, Viceroy of Ireland.

In 1878, he married Elizabeth Murray Smith, daughter of George Smith, founder of the Dictionary of National Biography and the Pall Mall Gazette. Smith gave the Gazette to his new son-in-law, which Thompson converted in sympathy from Conservative to Liberal. Henry and Elizabeth Yates Thompson lived in London at 19 Portman Square, and had a country house in Buckinghamshire. They lived comfortably, were generous with their money, and were involved in politics, the arts, and social causes. In 1892 Thompson sold the Gazette, having endured a certain amount of awkwardness as its proprietor during the editorship of the controversial W.T. Stead. Perhaps coincidentally, it was at about this time that Thompson began increasingly to devote his energy - and money - to building an unrivalled collection of illuminated manuscripts.


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1 Henry Yates Thompson, An Englishman in the American Civil War: the Diaries of Henry Yates Thompson 1863, ed. C. Chancellor (1971), p. 155.



100 illuminated manuscripts Dispersal The British Library's collection Bibliography

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