John Forster (1812-1876) was a noted biographer, critic, essayist and historian, probably best remembered for his biography of his close friend, the novelist Charles Dickens (1812- 1870). In the course of his life Forster collected a vast library, mainly, but not exclusively, of books and pamphlets. He bequeathed this collection to his wife until her death; whereupon it would pass to what was then the South Kensington Museum, so that it could be used by the nation. She generously waived her rights in order to fulfill his wishes more quickly.

The Forster Collection is one of two very large and distinct collections within the National Art Library, the other being the Dyce Collection. With justice the two collections are often referred to collectively as the Dyce and Forster Collections. The respective donors were close friends and the transfer of the Dyce Collection to the Museum was overseen by Forster, who was Alexander Dyce's executor. The Forster Collection is the larger of the two, containing over eighteen thousand books, and took nearly a year and a half to be delivered to the Museum in its entirety. The following is only a brief summary of its contents.

English literature : from Augustan to Victorian

Forster was literary editor of the weekly Examiner from 1833 to 1847, and then its editor from 1847 to 1855. He arrived early enough in the literary world to know some of the later Romantic writers, such as Leigh Hunt (1784- 1859); and remained long enough to see some of the first of the later Victorian novelists, such as George Meredith (1828-1909). The collection contains many nineteenth century novels which were given to him, either as review or presentation copies; and usually with an affectionate inscription from the author. One such example is Sartor Resartus (1838) by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). In addition to befriending some of the most famous writers of his day, Forster was also an influential critic who helped to establish younger literary figures, such as the poet Robert Browning (1812- 1889). There is a copy of his work Paracelsus (1835), his first successful poem which was given a favourable review in the Examiner.

Forster acquired many items by Augustan writers as well, including two volumes of proof-sheets of Prefaces, biographical and critical, to the works of the English poets (1779-81) by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784); a work known more famously to us as the Lives of the English Poets . There is also a copy of the first edition of Life and strange surprizing adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).

Of Romantic writers, the collection holds a copy of the earliest work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1824), namely the Fall of Robespierre (1794); a verse drama which he jointly composed with Robert Southey (1774- 1843). There is also a manuscript of a poem 'On the grasshopper and the cricket', dated 1816, by John Keats (1795-1821) and written in his own handwriting. Among other manuscripts is An enquiry concerning the principles of political justice (1793) by William Godwin (1756- 1836). Although incomplete, it does reveal the sympathy towards the French Revolution felt by many writers at that time. Romantic writers such as Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb (1775-1834) are also included in the collection, while there is a copy of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) by Lord Byron (1788-1824), containing savage criticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth (1770-1850), with corrections in Byrons's own handwriting.

Finally, from the Victorian era, Forster received or amassed a great deal. There is the first published work of Tennyson (1809-1892) entitled Poems by Two Brothers (1827); and many of the works of that prolific writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), inscribed to Forster. Another item of interest is a copy of the first significant novel written by George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), with which he enjoyed critical, though not commercial, success. Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) presented him with copies of the new editions of his novels, such as The Woman in White (1861), again with inscriptions.

Charles Dickens

Perhaps the most famous part of this Collection is the material relating to the life and work of Charles Dickens, who met Forster in 1836 while both worked as young journalists for the True Sun. Forster was to become one of Dickens' closest friends and trusted advisers, and was shown the manuscripts of nearly all the novels before they were published. Dickens appointed him his literary executor and, after the novelist's death, Forster published a biography in three volumes (1872-74).

Forster inherited the original manuscripts still in Dickens' possession, including nearly all of his novels, such as Dombey and Son (1848) and Little Dorrit(1857); as well as other published work such as the American Notes (1842) and Pictures from Italy (1846). In addition, Forster had the corrected proofs of novels such as Bleak House (1853). These two sets together provide a fascinating picture of Dickens' output : his ideas and methods; the development of his plots and characters; and his skill as a craftsman and stylist. The works were published in numerous editions during his lifetime, such as the Library Edition of 1858-59; and there are copies of these too, usually inscribed by him.

Amongst other noteworthy items are over a hundred letters by Dickens to Forster, stretching over nearly thirty years; some manuscripts and revisions of his contributions to the Daily News and Household Words; and the remnants of a diary that Dickens kept between 1838 and 1841.

History of the Theatre

Dickens and Forster shared a common interest in the theatre and a love of amateur theatricals. Forster collected a large quantity of theatrical material, including playbills, several different published editions of numerous dramatic works, and literary manuscripts by famous actors. As a pupil in his local grammar school in Newcastle, Forster had written a drama set in the English Civil War, as well as A few Thoughts in Vindication of the stage (1827). During the 1840s, along with Dickens, he had taken part in some amateur productions, such as Every Man in his Humour and The Merry Wives of Windsor . The Collection contains Forster's own copy of Every Man by Ben Jonson (1572/3-1637), annotated in his own handwriting. There is another copy also, used by the celebrated eighteenth century actor David Garrick (1717-1791), and with manuscript additions by him.

A copy of the Dramatic Works (1827) of William Shakespeare (1564- 1616) was used by the famous nineteenth century actor W.C. Macready (1793-1873). Other works of Shakespeare are also represented in the Collection, including a copy of the first collected edition of his works, known as the First Folio edition of 1623. It is the only folio edition of any real textual integrity, containing an engraved portrait of Shakespeare on the title-page by Martin Droeshout (1601-1650), one of the few authentic images we have of the playwright. The Collection also includes the Garrick Correspondence, comprising some 1,600 letters to and from David Garrick.

Finally, attention should be drawn to the number of published editions of dramatic works, many of which were produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by people such as Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821). There are 25 volumes of Inchbald's British Theatre as well as other sets. This period saw a revival of book illustration in England, thanks to the influence of artists such as Hubert Francois Gravelot (1699-1773) who helped to establish the French rococco style in English publishing. It seems that he worked in England between 1723 and 1745, opening a drawing school on the Strand which counted Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) among its pupils. He was one of the most celebrated illustrators of his age, and an example of his work can be seen in the third volume of The Dramatick Works (1763) by John Dryden (1631-1700); a frontispiece depicting a scene from Almaunzor and Almahide , engraved by the Dutch artist Gerard van der Gucht (1695/6-1776). The Collection also includes work by one of Gravelot's successors, the draughtsman and engraver Anthony Walker (1726-1765). There is a frontispiece by him in The Way to Keep Him (1760) by Arthur Murphy (1727-1805). The comedy The Mayor of Garratt (1831, originally published 1764) contains a frontispiece and a vignette on the title-page by Robert Seymour (1800-1836), who later became the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers (1837).


Last modified November 28 2000

Last modified 8 June 2007