Roy Davids’ manuscript collection



2015-06-26 10:46:45

Roy Davids’ manuscript collection features handwritten manuscripts by a range of historical figures, from Winston Churchill to Ted Hughes.

The collection was auctioned by Bonhams in London in March 2011.

Roy Davids

Davids studied history at London University, and his working life from then on revolved around history and historical manuscripts. He worked at the History of Parliament Trust writing biographies of 16th century MPs, and also for scholarly booksellers Hofmann and Freeman.

He joined Sotheby's in 1970 as a cataloguer of post-medieval manuscripts and worked there for well over two decades, rising to run the department he began work in, and then later the Books Department.

Later he started his own company, Roy Davids Ltd, to trade in manuscripts and portraits of writers, artists and musicians, and has been involved in the sale of papers and archives of:

  • Sir Winston Churchill
  • John Osborne
  • Edna O'Brien
  • George MacBeth
  • John Linnell
  • Peter Redgrove
  • Siegfired Sassoon
  • Douglas Dunn
  • John Wyndham
  • Tom Paulin
  • Julian Barnes
  • Alan Sillitoe
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Ted Hughes

The collection

Davids’ own collection was composed mostly of manuscripts and portraits. Highlights include:

  • a very rare love letter from the dying John Keats
  • a William Blake letter detailing his watercolour, The Last Judgement
  • a letter from Edward Lear in his own form of nonsense writing, also including a tiny drawing of a dog
  • an unused speech by Winston Churchill (referring to 'glimpses of a better world')
  • a letter written by Gandhi in December 1919 - a crucial time in his changing political views


In addition, Davids’ also collected a set of some of the very earliest X-ray photographs made in the UK.

Davids’ quotes on manuscript collecting

He has been quoted as saying that being a manuscript collector appeals to him more than collecting printed material for two reasons. Firstly:

"…they range over virtually every field of human endeavour — literature, art, music, exploration, science, medicine, finance, magic, cricket, hunting, cooking, yachting, cricket, religion, economics, space, architecture, aviation. The choice is almost limitless."

Also that the original handwritten text holds much more interest than the content alone. Davids has enthused that handwriting is 'as individual as a fingerprint' and likens it to 'an abstract portrait':

"The paper, the age, the shape, the size, the colour, the ink, the bloom, the stains, the wear, the dust, the nibblings of rodents, the folds, the tears, the creases, the seals, the smell, the ties, the postal markings, the endorsements, the dockets, the spelling, the corrections, the revisions, the deletions, the writer, the recipient, the provenance, the handwriting, the style, the imagination, the thoughts expressed … All of these contribute to our senses of reality and contact. We respond emotionally, psychologically and intellectually. Manuscripts bring history home to us."

Notable sale

Portrait auction

The first sale from the Roy Davids Collection took place in October 2005. The leading lot of the portraits auction was a work by Sir Gerald Kelly of Thomas Stearns Eliot, which made £50,400.

Bonhams sale

On 29 March 2011 it was announced that the last letter in private hands from Keats to his lover Fanny Brawne had set a world record for a document by the poet when it sold for £96,000 at the Roy Davids Collection of Papers and Portraits at Bonhams. It was sold to an America buyer. The previous record was set in 1990 when a manuscript of a Keats poem sold for $150,000.


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