The outline of the tale has been told before. It can be found in Edward Miller’s history of the British Museum
, Arundell Esdaile’s book on the British Museum Library,
rather more chattily, in Edward Edward’s Lives of the founder of the Museum, and most recently and its first excursion this century outside the literature of the Museum in Christopher Hibbert’s new biography of George III.The December 1850 issue of the Quarterly Review contain a long article reviewing of the House of Commons select committee report of 1836, fifteen years earlier: it is never too late to review a good report. Although anonymous, it was written by Richard Ford, probably best remembered today as the author of Murray’s Handbook
for travelers in Spain.The review contains much that is entertaining and amusing and I must say it can be recommended today to anyone concerned with organizing Library services, but for our purpose the bit that matters is the allegation that, among other things George IV had been considering selling George III’s library
to the Tsar of Russia, until the British government intervened and arranged for its transfer instead to the British Museum.This story was picked up during 1851 by a number of contributors to notes & queries, where various mischievous observation about what happened and who was involved were made. These comments revolved chiefly round the suggestion that the King’s Library
was not the munificent gift to the nation that it was claimed to be, but that the government had in effect had to buy the Library either directly by purchase or indirectly by agreeing to treat the King’s requests for money more sympathetically than hitherto.In August 1851 however, came a communication to notes & queries of a different kind from the previous notes, which are rather more gossipy in nature, it is signed “c.” He writes: “I have delayed contradicting the stories told about the King’s Library in the Quarterly Review of last December…. I am sorry to say still more gravely and circumstantially reproduced by the Editor of notes & queries. I have delayed, I say, until I was enable to satisfy myself more completely as to one of the allegations in your Note.”“C.” goes on: “I can now venture assure you that the whole story of the project sale to Russia is absolutely unfounded.” He then goes on to sketch in background about George IV’s wish to dispose of the Library and the government’s success in getting it to the British Museum.
“C.’ then object in particular to the suggestion, made by the notes & queries editor rather than in the quarterly that princess Lieven, the well-known socialite and friend of George IV’s , whose husband was Russian ambassador in London at the time had been involved in the plan. He explain that princess Lieven was adamant that she had known of no such proposal and therefore that that was that.
But that was not that. The December issue of notes & queries includes a short note, signed “Griffin” , arguing that while princess Lieven may claim to have known nothing , it did not mean that there had not been talk about a Russian purchase. “Griffin” also suggests that one of the King’s motives for getting rid of the Library was to sort out problems arising from George III’s will ( a suggestion as has been pointed out before that is incidentally supported by an entry from early 1823 in the journal of Charles Greville).
This provoked “C.” to return to the matter in early 1852, when he argued that it was inconceivable that princess Lieven would not have known that such a thing was in the air given her court and social connections. In other words, the Russian connection is just idle speculation.
An interesting aspect of all this is that the initial stirring and rumour-mongering was all to do with money: was they library or was it not, paid for? It is the intervention of “C.” and his fervent denials that bring the Russians into prominence.
The identity of “C.” is obscure. Arundell Esdaile identifies him as John Wilson Croker, the veteran politician and essayist. This seems to me unlikely: croker was certainly involved in public affairs in the 1820s. but he was also a major contributor, a sort of editorial advisor, to the Quarterly Review, where the original offending article appeared. Indeed he wrote his own piece for it on the Museum in the December 1852 issue, without referring at all the King’s Library stories and referring to Richard Ford’s article in respectful not to say glowing terms. A footnote to his article however states that the Quarterly expected to published an authoritative account of the King’s Library business in the future: it never did.