Autograph manuscript of birthday notes by Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë with sketches by Emily, 1841, from the Honresfield Library.

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The Honresfield Library of British Literature, containing more than 500 manuscripts, first editions and letters including works by the Brontë family, Robert Burns and Walter Scott, has been purchased by the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) for £15.3m.

It had been due to be auctioned across three sales by Sotheby’s with the first planned in July. However, as reported in ATG No 2495, museums including The Brontë Society & Brontë Parsonage Museum raised concerns that this did not give them sufficient time to prepare a bid to acquire some or all of the collection.

Sotheby’s and the owner of the library agreed to delay the auction to give the institutions a chance to fundraise.

After a campaign earlier this year £15.3m was raised – a £15m purchase price plus VAT and fees.

The lead donor was billionaire businessman Sir Leonard Blavatnik, who is Britain’s richest man. He gave half the purchase price, match-funding the sum raised by FNL and the consortium institutions. In recognition of this, the collection will now be known as the Blavatnik Honresfield Library.

The contents of the library were originally put together by Arthur Bell Nicholls, the widower of Charlotte Brontë, and later acquired by the Rochdale mill owners Alfred and William Law who lived at Honresfield House – 20 miles from the Brontë family home in Haworth.

Following the deaths of the Law brothers the library was inherited in 1913 by a nephew, Sir Alfred Law, and has been largely inaccessible to the outside world for the last 80 years.

It remained in the family until this year when it was consigned to auction.

The FNL said the collection will remain permanently in the public domain and “will never be lost to overseas institutions or to private collections that are not accessible to the public”.

Charlotte's 'little books'

Among the highlights of the extensive collection is a set of manuscripts in the hands of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë. It includes seven of Charlotte’s famous ‘little books’, each of which is a work of art; a manuscript collection of poems by Anne; some 25 letters by Charlotte and an autograph manuscript diary note shared by Emily and Anne.

The FNL believes the “jewel in the crown” is Emily’s holograph notebook of 31 poems, believed by many scholars to have been lost. This poetry notebook carries annotations in Charlotte’s hand.

Charles Russell Speechlys’ Art & Luxury law team advised FNL. Sotheby’s acted on behalf of the vendor.