Tag Archives: David McClay

Dear Mr Murray

David McClay is the former curator of the John Murray archive located at the National Library of Scotland which includes Paddy’s papers which were donated to the archive by Paddy in his will. This book may be of general interest to some of you.

by Rosemary Hill

First published in the London Review of Books

Some things in the relations between authors and publishers never change. Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher, edited by David McClay, a collection of letters written to six generations of the Murray family, is full of familiar complaints. Jane Austen was ‘very much disappointed … by the delays of the printers’. Maria Rundell, author of A New System of Domestic Cookery (1805), was furious about misprints in the second edition, including an unfortunate mistake in a recipe for rice pudding. Byron objected to cuts in his work, as did David Livingstone, who also took exception to the ‘absolutely abominable’ illustrations of his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa, in particular the scene of his own encounter with a lion: ‘Everyone … will die with laughing … It’s like a dray horse.’ On the other side of the editorial desk successive John Murrays had their own difficulties. Rundell’s editor, Murray II, told his wife that ‘her conceit surpasses anything.’ Whitwell Elwin, the reader to whom Murray III sent the manuscript of On the Origin of Species, wrote back that, despite ‘the very high opinion’ he had of Darwin, he felt the book lacked substance. There was no proof of the argument. It would be better, he thought, to concentrate on one species, such as pigeons: ‘Everybody is interested in pigeons.’ Fortunately for Murray’s reputation, Whitwell was overruled.

Murray I began life as John McMurray in Edinburgh in 1737. On a friend’s advice he dropped the ‘wild Highland Mac’ when he came to London, setting up business in Fleet Street in 1768, at a time when publishers, booksellers, journalists and printers were often the same people. It was the age of Grub Street, of Boswell and Johnson, coffee houses, clay pipes and gallons of port. In 1812 Murray II moved the firm to Albemarle Street in the more respectable West End, where it remained until the seventh John Murray sold up in 2002. Here Murray’s built a list that included some of the best and most popular authors of their day, from Byron and Walter Scott to Patrick Leigh-Fermor and Freya Stark. It was Murray’s reputation for solid, conservative values that led both the geologist Charles Lyell and then Darwin to publish their potentially disruptive theories under its aegis. No. 50 Albemarle Street became famous for the great writers who passed through its door and notorious for its drawing-room fireplace in which Murray II burned Byron’s memoirs. Byron had wanted him to publish them but they were destroyed in deference to the family’s feelings about what David McClay refers to laconically as the ‘many ups and downs’ of Byron’s career.

McClay is an exasperating editor, vague about dates and details. The book is arranged thematically so that authors often feature in more than one section, but without an index it is hard to follow them. While he makes no claim to have done more than pick a few cherries from a vast archive, he seems unsure who they are for and the book is neither serious history nor stocking-filler. The reader who needs to be told that Alexander Pope was ‘an early 18th-century poet’ cannot be expected to know who ‘dear old Panizzi’ is in the same letter. His is one of many un-glossed names, some of them important. The ‘Owen’ referred to by Joseph Hooker in a letter to Murray III about Samuel Wilberforce’s hostile review of Origin of Species is Richard Owen, the palaeontologist who coined the word ‘dinosaur’, and who disagreed with Darwin about the transmutation of species. Hooker’s suggestion that Wilberforce, who is too often cast as merely a bigoted reactionary, had been ‘made a tool of’ by Owen for his rival evolutionary theory, is therefore significant. It is also interesting that the article, which sparked widespread controversy and led several months later to the famous debate on evolution between Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley at the Oxford Museum, appeared in the Quarterly Review, which was published by Murray’s. The editor was John Gibson Lockhart, but we aren’t told why he chose to commission what was guaranteed to be a savage review.

The Quarterly was founded by Murray II in 1809 when publishers’ operations in the last Georgian decades, if they were not as multifarious as in the first John Murray’s day, still extended beyond books. Archibald Constable, Walter Scott’s Scottish publisher, was also the publisher of the Whig Edinburgh Review, edited by Francis Jeffrey with the frequent assistance of Sydney Smith. The Quarterly was intended as a Tory rival and enjoyed Scott’s close co-operation. After an erratic start, its middlebrow conservatism built a large and loyal readership. The correspondence suggests, however, that as with books, a lot of time was spent on complaints: a subscriber cancelling because the titles chosen for review were so ‘utterly destitute of interest’, or a furious James Hogg in Edinburgh alleging Anglocentric bias in a review of Scott’s second novel, Guy Mannering: ‘How I do despise your London critics.’ Murray II sent a reply that was even-handedly disparaging of reviewer, author and complainant: ‘Our article is not good, & our praise is by no means adequate, but I suspect that you very greatly overrate the novel.’

In the days of anonymous reviewing editorial standards of impartiality were often compromised. Scott’s authorship of the Waverley novels was an open secret in the literary world but in 1816 Murray co-published his collected Tales of My Landlord, which carried no claim to be ‘by the author of Waverley’. Murray was sure it was ‘either by Walter Scott or the devil’, but Scott assured him it wasn’t and ingeniously suggested he should prove the point by reviewing it himself. He did and found he didn’t like it much: ‘unusually artificial; neither hero nor heroine excites interest of any sort.’ The piece concluded with a hefty hint that the author was his brother, Thomas Scott. The subterfuge worked and Murray was convinced, ‘to within an inch of [his] life’, that it was true.

The 19th century was Murray’s heyday, culminating in a selection of The Letters of Queen Victoria, which appeared in 1907, after the many exasperating delays and alterations attendant on all royal publications. As the editor A.C. Benson wrote to Murray in the course of a letter threatening to resign, ‘Royalty have no conception how much trouble they give.’ With the new century the correspondence changed in various ways. Telegrams began to appear, film rights became a consideration and so did commercial sponsorship. NBC paid $1000 for a radio adaptation of Beau Geste to be broadcast in the Campbell Soup Hour and Murray VI got his Oxford friend John Betjeman’s poems published by promising his uncle, who was then at the helm, that he would underwrite them with his own shares in Bovril. ‘I do appreciate the charity,’ Betjeman wrote when the book appeared, ‘for I can only call it that.’ In fact it was an instance of the benign self-interest that makes a far-sighted publisher succeed. As poet laureate Betjeman was worth his weight in Bovril.

Over its long life John Murray produced not only new books, but whole new genres. The famous red Murray’s handbooks were the original foreign guidebooks, a model for Baedeker. Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help of 1859 has had many successors. But this somewhat haphazard collection, intended as a tribute, has more the air of an obituary, and a lacklustre one at that.

Buy Dear Mr Murray: Letters to a Gentleman Publisher

Edit 19 Nov – it has been brought to my attention that David McClay is the former curator of the John Murray Archive. More positive reviews of Dear Mr Murray may be found in the Scottish Review of Books and a 5 star review in the Telegraph.

https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/2018/11/correspondence-course/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/darwins-pigeons-inventing-self-help-book-john-murray-letters/

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Curating the Patrick Leigh Fermor archive

David McClay, curator of the John Murray archive

David McClay, curator of the John Murray archive

You may be forgiven for thinking that a lecture about curating Paddy’s archive could be a little dry, but for the one hundred and eighty people who attended last night’s event at the Hellenic Society in Paddington it turned out to be nothing of the kind.

By Tom Sawford

David McClay is the National Library of Scotland’s curator of the John Murray archive. He had travelled down to London to give the inaugural lecture of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society and it was a great success for both. David led a large team of activists, technicians and photographers who have spent the best part of a year cataloguing and itemising Paddy’s extensive personal collection, and over 6,000 of Joan’s photographs.

We were given a glimpse of some of the material which includes over 10,000 letters and postcards as well as numerous corrected drafts of Paddy’s manuscripts, and surviving journals of his post-war journeys around Greece and other beloved places. The collection takes up over 16 metres of shelving and the catalogue is eighty one pages long. Fortunately Paddy gave David and the team some assistance with his various boxes labelled “Detailed Oddments” or “Not very important oddments” and so forth.

The story of the acquisition is interesting itself. The John Murray archive was donated to the museum in the 1980s and includes material from the authors published by the house including of course Lord Byron, Jane Austen, Charles Darwin and John Betjeman. The catalogue extends to over one million items and may have a value in excess of £100 million. When offered the PLF archive, the decision to purchase was not an instant yes as Paddy had no obvious relationship with Scotland. The decision to go ahead was based upon the relationship with John Murray, in particular John “Jock” Murray VI, and of course the recognition that Paddy’s work was unique and important in 20th century English literature.

Given Paddy’s long life, his varied career, and the circle of friends that he had, many of whom were significant figures in their own right, David McClay’s view is that there is a lot to be uncovered and the material could provide the basis for further biographies. He cited as an example Paddy’s friendship with Greek artist Nikos Ghika; he believes that their correspondence is worthy of publication. Many of the letters include drawings and small paintings by Ghika. The propensity to illustrate letters was common (as we have seen in the letters to Debo Devonshire – see In Tearing Haste), and other examples include those from John Craxton to Paddy: one of Craxton’s letters includes a sketch of the harbour view from his house in Crete. Likewise the guest book from Kardamyli is full of wonderful material and colourful illustrations.

Joan Fermor’s work should not be ignored. David McClay told us that she was a successful architectural photographer with an ability to bring her subjects to life which included many archaeological subjects. As we know she also took brilliant images of their friends.

For the student, biographer, or even just the casual visitor, there are other delightful inclusions such as a copy of Paddy’s beloved friend Xan Fielding’s post-war CV which ran to about 15 lines and included a list of his skills and talents which were:

Fishing with dynamite
Bull fighting
Skiing
Witchcraft
Sailing
Swimming

Clearly a man with all the vital talents to make him employable anywhere!

One of the most important messages to bring to you all, dear readers, is David’s view that this is “your archive”: it is freely available for you to visit whether you be a professional writer, academic or merely just wanting to hold, touch and read the ephemera of Paddy’s life. You are encouraged to visit Edinburgh and can request information. Soon much more will be available online for you to use or just to browse and amuse yourself. This positive drive towards public accessibility was very encouraging, and whilst every care has been taken to ensure that the materials will survive – storage in proper archival folders in acid free environments – the archive is a living entity and to be of any value it must be accessed. McClay made a special appeal for people to come forward with ideas about the origins of certain pictures, including who may have taken them, where and when. Much work still needs to be done and you, his friends and fans, may be able to help.

As well as the storage of the material and the process of digitisation of some items, the Library has plans to publicly display as much material as possible. I will keep you posted about events but David anticipates exhibitions in Edinburgh and then on tour to London. The renowned water colourist Hugh Buchannan has made some paintings of material from the archive which will feature in an exhibition of the Esterhazy Archive. These works will be on display at the NLS in the summer of 2015 and will move to London to be shown at the John Martin gallery in, of all places, Albemarle Street just up the road from John Murray.

It didn’t take long during the Q&A session for the subject of “the house” to come up. Charles Arnold, the leading light behind the PLF Society handled this one. It appears that the Society has engaged a leading law firm as well as accountants KPMG to work with the Benaki to establish a structure for the proper and transparent use of any funds that the Society may donate for the upkeep and renovation of the house at Kardamyli. We wish them luck with that!

The choice of subject for this first PLF Society event was a good one. It covered all aspects of Paddy’s life and reassured us that this valuable and fascinating material will be accessible by all. If you would like to find out more about the work of curating the archive or to help David McClay and his colleagues in the ongoing identification process you are encouraged to get in touch. Likewise if you have material – items received from Paddy – that you may wish to donate (or in some cases sell) you can contact David at d.mcclay[at]nls.uk