Sunday, June 21, 2020

Letter from Edwin A. Abbott to Percival Gardner-Smith

I was recently noodling around for some biographical information on Percival Gardner-Smith who is well known in the field of NT studies as the author of St John and the Synoptic Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), and the subject of Ian Mills's and Laura Robinson's recent NT Review Podcast, on which I guested.

I came across this lovely piece of correspondence sent to Percival Gardner-Smith by another scholar well known in our field, Edwin A. Abbott:

Letter from Edwin A. Abbott to Percival Gardner-Smith
Letter from Edwin A. Abbott to Percival Gardner-Smith dated Jan. 26, 1892. In the letter Abbott enclosed a circular on behalf of his sister, offering a home for young Indian children. Abbott also alludes to a "big book" he has in the press. He writes that the book will be too big to send and requests that Gardner-Smith get a copy from Mudie's.
The letter is reproduced in high quality at the above link, in Brown Digital Repository. But the date given, 26 January 1892, is surely wrong. Gardner-Smith was born on 3 February 1888, so he was not even 4 years old at the time. The letter asks Gardner-Smith:
". . . to pigeon-hole the enclosed circular which my sister has recently issued, in case any of your pupils' parents may want a home for young Indian children."
No doubt Gardner-Smith was a precocious child but he is unlikely to have had pupils, or to have been interested in "a big book in the press" that Abbott goes on to mention.

So what is going on here? The date of the letter certainly looks like 26 Jan. 92:

The only sense I can make of it is that the date is in fact 26 Jan. 12, i.e. 1912, when Gardner-Smith would have been 23, and curate of St Mark's Milverton, Leamington. But could that digit be a "1"? The loop at the top is certainly odd, but this is the way that Abbott wrote the capital "I", as in this letter:

Or from another letter, see here:

That "I" does look a bit like a "9".

These are not perfect analogies, especially as the digit drops below the line, so I'm not sure if this is the solution. But certainly a date in 1912 would work, and it is surely preferable to the idea that Abbott was writing to a three year old.

The letter features the following annotation in a different hand:

This is presumably an inference that the mentioned "big book in the press" is The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman (1892), unlikely to be of interest to a three year old. But if the letter is 1912, the book would be Light on the Gospel from an Ancient Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1912), a book that would certainly have been of interest to the twenty-three year old Gardner-Smith.

That's my suggestion. I wondered if it could perhaps be a different "Percival" but I can't find a friend of Abbott's other than Percival Gardner-Smith, and it may be Gardner-Smith himself who provided the letter to Thomas Banchoff, who has a lovely picture of Gardner-Smith in his eighties, also in the archive.

Update 1: here is my attempt at a transcription of the letter (with thanks to Graham Gould for help with reading lines 2-3):
Willow Road
Hampstead N.W. 
26 Jan. 92
My dear Percival, 
After all good wishes, and deprecations [for "depredations"?] of influ-enza  — this is to ask you to pigeon-hole the enclosed circular which my sister has recently issued, in case any of your pupils’ parents may want a home for young Indian children. My sister is ?bright or motherly, and my niece is fond of children — almost to excess: so I think the little people wd be happy with them. At the same time she does not limit herself to the very young children, nor to those of Indian parents.  
I hope you will hear of me again soon in the literary sphere. I have a big book in the press, so big that I shall not be able to afford to send it to you: but you must get it from Mudie’s. I think it will be interesting; I hope it will not be too irritating.  
Yours ever 
Edwin A. Abbott

Update 2:  I am grateful to Graham Gould who points out that "other letters from Abbott in the Brown Digital Repository suggests that Abbott had moved from Braeside, Willow Road, Hampstead to Wellside, Well Walk, Hampstead, by 1895 and so would not have been living at Braeside in 1912." And having run through the archive now myself, I notice that Abbott was already living at Wellside by 1893, and was still there in 1913. So the letter above, sent from Braeside cannot be from 1912 unless he was using old notepaper! Graham also points out that there are letters where the "1" digit is written with a straight line, and not with the loop that he used in writing a capital "I".

So the mystery is not solved!

I wondered if the "big book in the press, so big that I shall not be able to afford to send it to you" could help us out some more. How big was The Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman, the 1892 book, which is written in a note on the letter? It is indeed absolutely massive -- 440 pages in volume 1 and 500 pages in volume 2! So it really does seem likely that we are looking at 1892. The 1912 book that I was suggesting, Light on the Gospel from an Ancient Poet is also huge (600 pages), but it seems impossible to get the 1912 date to work given the address on the letter.

Either Abbott is writing to a three year old about getting a book on Cardinal Henry Newman from Mudie's (an old lending library), or this is a different Percival.

Update 3: This is a very enjoyable case of collaborative research. Many thanks to Graham Gould, Tony Bellows, and Deane Galbraith, for some really helpful contributions.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that the letter was written in 1892, when Abbott was still living at Braeside, and that rules out my suggestion above about trying to relocate the letter to 1912. But the letter is not written to a three-year old Percival Gardner-Smith. That much is true. So could it be Bishop John Percival, a known colleague and friend of Abbott's? He seems like the ideal candidate, but I had earlier balked at the suggestion (a) because I could not imagine someone addressing an esteemed colleague by his surname; and (b) because I assumed that Thomas Banchoff, whose collection this is in, had received the letter from Percival Gardner-Smith himself, with whom Banchoff had had conversations. John Percival certainly seems like a very strong candidate in that in 1892 he is still headmaster of Rugby School, and so the reference to "your pupils' parents" would make excellent sense.

Update 4 (June 22 2020): Many thanks again to Graham Gould, Tony Bellows, and Deane Galbraith, and thanks now also to Michael Strickland: there is more! It is beyond reasonable doubt that this letter is in fact written to Bishop John Percival. It turns out that addressing people by their surname in this way, "My dear Percival" was indeed common in the era. Moreover, there are specific examples of "My dear Percival" in William Temple's Life of Bishop Percival (London: Macmillan, 1921), which one can read in toto on Google Books.

Moreover, having enjoyed digging a little into this fascinating Life of Bishop Percival, another piece falls into place -- he would indeed have been interested in a book on Cardinal Newman. He was a fan (if that's the right way to put it), and had him to dinner at Trinity College, Oxford, where he was president, in 1880. Temple adds this note:
"The Cardinal stayed with Percival for a few days. From this time onwards Percival often wrote to him, and being in Rome in 1887 sent him a painting of his Church — San Pietro in Vellabro, — which Newman always kept in his room and caused to be hung at the foot of his bed when he was dying." (p. 78).
So of course Percival would have been interested in Abbott's massive book about Newman.

This has been a lot of fun to unravel, and huge thanks to my collaborators.

Update 5 (June 23 2020): Today I received a voicemail from Prof. Thomas Banchoff, the curator Flatweb,  the wonderful collection of material located in Brown's Digital Repository, and he confirms what we had surmised, that the letter is indeed a letter to John Percival. I am hoping to speak to Prof. Banchoff later in the week. I will also get in touch with Brown Digital Repository about correcting the title and data for this letter in their records.


Rin said...

Could it be an apostrophe followed by one dipping under the line ('12)?

TonyTheProf said...

There's a letter from Abbott here which has a 1 and a 9 at the top.

TonyTheProf said...

And another here:

This one is most peculiar is it looks as if the date was placed on the letter at a later date by another hand.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Tony. Interesting. My suggestion has to be wrong. More anon.

TonyTheProf said...

Most probably John Percival. The formal way of addressing people rather than as we are used to first name terms. See your FB page for more details on Abbot and Percival.

John Percival (27 September 1834 – 3 December 1918) was the first headmaster of Clifton College, where he made his reputation as a great educator.

TonyTheProf said...

This is also interesting:

An Address was presented to the Rev. Edwin Abbott Abbott, M.A., D.D., F.B.A., Hon.
Fellow of the College, on his eightieth birthday (December 20, 1918). Readers of the Eagle
will be glad to see this tribute to an eminent Johnian reprinted in the College Magazine.
December 20, 1918.

This remarkable list of eminent persons — virtually every name on this list is to be
found in the Dictionary of National Biography or Who Was Who — includes but a few of
Abbott’s personal friends and only ten of his former students. Securing the signatures must
have required several weeks. One of the signers, Abbott’s friend and former Headmaster at
Clifton, Bishop John Percival, died on December 3, seventeen days before the presentation.