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The Ebony Cabinet, an article by Mary Hyde Eccles

The Ebony Cabinet, an article by Mary Hyde Eccles

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Over 20 years, Lt. Col. Ralph Isham amassed the Boswell Collection, which related to Mary Bryant. There are two great books, The Treasure of Auchinleck: The Story of the Boswell Papers by David Buchanan and Pride & Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers by Frederick A. Pottle. As with so much history, they focus on the Great Men involved. Yet, without a woman, the Collection could never have been kept intact. Actress turned aristocrat, Joyce Lady Talbot de Malahide ensured the collection was never dispersed.

Joyce Kerr

In 1924, Joyce Lucy Gunning Kerr married James Boswell’s grandson, Lord Talbort. After they were wed, she moved into Malahide Castle, their ancesteros home, near Dublin in Ireland. Previously, Boswell’s papers had been moved from his ancestral home at Auchinleck in Scotland to Malahide by Joyce’s parents-in-law. When she arrived at Malahide, the literature-loving chatelaine recognised the literary, financial and historical value of Boswell’s papers. The Roaring Twenties were in full swing, and the world was finally ready to read Boswell in all his scandalous, naked glory. Lord Talbot, Joyce’s husband, however was reluctant to sell Boswell’s papers. Joyce used all her persuasive powers to broker a deal between Isham and her husband. Without her determination to keep the collection whole, researchers today would have been denied access to one of the great eighteenth century literary collections.

Uncovering Joyce’s story meant researching newspapers, journal articles, local history websites and of course the books mentioned above.

Mary Hyde Eccles

I knew Joyce had corresponded with another key woman, Mary Hyde Eccles. Mary was a great book collector and scholar. She and her husband Don Hyde financed Isham’s purchases of papers from Lord and Lady Talbot when Isham was cash-strapped. Mary also accompanied five crates of Boswell’s papers from Claridges hotel in London to New York in 1948. After strapping the crates on top of a Rolls Royce, Mary, Don and Isham’s son drove to Southampton where they boarded the Queen Mary for the Trans-Atlantic crossing. The papers had their own cabin on the voyage.

I knew Mary had written an article about Boswell’s famous ebony cabinet in Studies in the Eighteenth Century, III in 1973, and that the article contained insights on Joyce. With lockdown still in place, I could not access the article as the National Library of Scotland was closed.

Searching Abebooks, I came across a book, published by the Grolier Club, entitled Mary Hyde Eccles A Miscellany of Her Essays and Addresses. Ordering it on impulse, I hoped it would contain some Boswell related research. At worst, I would learn more about Mary Hyde Eccles. When the book arrived, it contained the article, The Ebony Cabinet.

The article was everything I hoped for and gave me more insights on Lady Talbot, including some information on her wedding day. Delighted that my purchase of this book helped Royal Trinity Hospice (Instagram @royaltrinityhospice-london or  Twitter @royaltrinityLDN).

After her death in 2003, Mary Hyde Eccles bequeathed the Ebony Cabinet to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University

Books Mentioned:

Mary Hyde Eccles: A Miscellany of Her Essays and Addresses

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