Bonhams to Auction Long-Lost Jacobean Play

. October 27, 2009

An extremely rare Jacobean manuscript, a hitherto unknown play by Lord Edward Herbert, a close friend of John Donne, has been found in a folder marked ‘Old Poems’ and buried in a trunk that had been stored in an attic in Powis Castle.

Writing in the latest edition of Bonhams Magazine, Felix Pryor, of Bonhams Book Department discusses how he found the manuscript which will be sold at Bonhams Sale of Books and Manuscripts on November 10 in New Bond Street, London.

The manuscript was uncovered during a valuation at Powis Castle, when Lord Powis, the owner of the Castle, showed Felix into a room, where he had two trunks of manuscripts.

Felix says: “They contained the usual mixture. There were typed letters from the estate’s archive and the like mixed in with 17th-century property deeds, themselves not without interest. It turned out later that everything in the trunks had been meticulously listed, item by item. But with one exception. This was a folder, marked, ‘Old Poems’. Some of these were just 17th-century copies – others were clearly in the hand of Lord Powis’s forebear, Lord Herbert of Cherbury. He was the elder brother of the poet George Herbert and a close family friend of John Donne, writing poems in his ‘metaphysical’ style. He was also a friend of Ben Jonson. But Lord Cherbury is best known for his works on philosophy and an extremely lively autobiography which Horace Walpole published in the 18th-century.

“This tells us a great deal about his military prowess and how attractive women found him, but next to nothing about his literary ambitions (something of this comes across in the glorious miniature of him as a young-man-about-court by Isaac Oliver, with seemingly spiked and gelled hair). And in this folder, there it was. A play. And clearly the draft of a play. It had lots of crossings out. It even had a heading: ‘The Amazon’. “

When Felix Pryor got home very late that evening, he immediately looked it up and found that there had been a masque of that name due to be performed before James I and his court on New Year’s Day in 1618. But for some reason it had been cancelled.

“The manuscript itself, which is written in a sort of pre-bound booklet of foolscap size, is set out in the manner that one can identify as typical of professional dramatists of the period. It didn’t seem likely that Herbert of Cherbury was trying his hand in writing for the commercial theatre?”

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