Charles Darwin’s tribute to his ‘old Scottish master’ sells for thousands

A letter from Charles Darwin paying tribute to his Scottish mentor as “the old master, to whom I am so deeply indebted” has fetched more than £10,000 at auction.

Monday, 5th October 2020, 7:06 am

Naturalist Darwin wrote the letter on 20 November 1881 to the sister-in-law of his late close friend, the Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell.

The signed four page letter was addressed to Katherine Murray Lyell, thanking her for sending him a copy of her newly published memoirs of Sir Charles.The document was later part of the collection at Kinnordy House, near Kirriemuir, in Angus, the geologist’s childhood home.

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The letter on mourning paper signed “Charles Darwin” on the last page, was among the leading lots offered at University Archives Auctions in Westport, Connecticut. It was bought by an anonymous online bidder for £10,100.

Sir Charles Lyell

Sir Charles Lyell, who died in 1875, aged 77, has been described as “one of the greatest scientific minds of the last 200 years”.

Darwin was influenced by the Scot’s treatise Principles of Geology and frequently consulted the work during his five-year data-collecting mission on the HMS Beagle. The pair later became close friends and supported each other’s scientific works until Sir Charles’s death in 1875.

Darwin himself admitted that his own books and writings “came half out of Lyell’s brains”.

In his letter to Katherine, he thanks her for sending a prized copy of the memoir and admits he has already ordered a copy of his own.

He wrote: “Your most kind present arrived last night and I am greatly obliged for it. But as it never occurred to me that you would give me so large and valuable a work, I have ordered a copy, as I was very anxious to begin reading the memoirs of the old master, to whom I am so deeply indebted under a scientific point of view.

“The ordered copy has not yet arrived, but no doubt soon will, probably tomorrow, and it will be a sin to keep two copies in the house.

“You must know many persons to whom you would like to send a copy; and should I not send you the one ordered, for you to transmit to whom you may think fit? Or if you like to send a slip of paper to paste in, and give me any address, I will dispatch the parcel by rail, as this may save you a little trouble.”

He closes: “The work appears very handsome, and again thanking you I remain yours sincerely, Charles Darwin.”

Last year, 294 notebooks written by Sir Charles - including correspondence with Darwin - were saved for the nation after a campaign led by the University of Edinburgh to raise nearly £1 million.

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