A new letter by Lowth

A new letter by Robert Lowth has come to light:

new letter by Lowth

It is advertised on the website Modern First Editions (from which I took this image). This is very interesting news, but I have a lot of questions:

  • the information on the website says that the letter is signed, but it lacks a signature, so what made the sellers identify it as a letter from Lowth? (And why do they claim it is signed?)
  • if there is no date or place, on what grounds is it dated 1767? It is said to have been sent from Oxford, but this cannot be seen in the letter itself.
  • how did they get hold of it?
  • why would someone wish to sell the letter?
  • who is it addressed to?

But most importantly of all, why do they ask so much for it? Three hundred pounds is a great deal of money for a letter that isn’t really very informative and that is in far from perfect condition.

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A scrap of a letter from Lowth

I’m very pleased to have become the owner of a scrap of a letter by Lowth, which basically contains his signature only. I was in two minds about bidding for it on ebay, because I’m appalled at the idea that autograph hunters cut up original letters just for the sake of the signature, but the original owner let me know that this had already been done in the nineteenth century.

Here it is (the image was taken from ebay):

Lowth's signature

I think I have a pretty good idea as to who the addressee may have been, and will argue my case as soon as I have the document in my possession.

Thanks to Samuli Kaislaniemi for bringing the scrap to my attention.

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An authentic portrait of Lowth?

This image with a detail from the newly discovered picture of Robert Lowth shows part of the spine of the book in the portrait:

Lowth's De Sacra Hebraeorum

Lowth’s De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum

The spine, however, also reads “DONVM AVTORIS”, a gift from the author. I suppose it could mean anything: why would Lowth hold a gift to himself? Could the man in the portrait be someone else perhaps? But perhaps there are good reasons to accept the portrait as representing Lowth after all: the likeness is indeed very close to the Pine engraving. Perhaps it wasn’t the book as such but the portrait that was a gift from the author. If so, this would be a very subtle hint indeed.

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New portrait by Robert Lowth?

An oil painting has just shown up that might very well represent Robert Lowth.

Copyright Ben Cavanna

Though the painter is currently unknown, the portrait shows clear similarities with the one that you normally see when you google for images of him.

“From an original Picture by R.E. Pine, in the Possession of the Rev. Robert Lowth M.A. Drawn by W. Evans. Engraved by J. Godby.”

Once restored, the portrait will be put up for sale. As there are very few oil paintings by Lowth available, there might be considerable interest in the portrait. If you wish to acquire the portrait, please reply to this post in the form of a comment. Comments don’t go online automatically, and they will be treated with the greatest conficence.

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Lowth letters in Leiden

Great newsLeiden University Library owns two letters from the most authoritative 18th-century English grammarian, Robert Lowth (1710-1787) . They were identified accidentally by Myrte Wouterse, BA English and Honours Academy student at the University of Leiden.

Myrte and a fellow student had been taken to the library by their teacher Thijs Porck, who wanted to introduce them to the Library’s Special Collections. When they asked to see a letter by the orientalist Sir William Jones, they were shown the diary of one of Jones’s correspondents, his Dutch fellow orientalist H.A. Schultens (1749-1793). Schultens was spending a year in Oxford to study some Arabic manuscripts  there. At Oxford, he met Thomas Henry Lowth (1753-1778), Bishop Robert Lowth’s son, and it was through Thomas Henry that Schultens approached Lowth to try and help him obtain an MA from Oxford. An early example of social networking!

Myrte is working on a prsentation on the letters for the third year BA course “Introduction to Late Modern English”, taught by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. The paper is due next week: after that, she will be able to report more on the context of the letters as well as on their contents.

Finding the letters came as a complete surprise to Ingrid Tieken-Boon va Ostade, author of The Bishop’s Grammar, Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism (OUP, 2011): she had been collecting letters by Lowth for years without knowing some of them were so close by. They plan to write an article on the letters and what they mean for current research on Lowth but primarily on H.A. Schultens, in the near future.

Schultens’ diary from the period of his stay in Oxford has been published online, and is well-worth reading (if you are able to read Dutch). And if you are interested in letters from the Late Modern English period generally, you might like to follow the Late Modern English letters blog.

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Historiographia Linguistica: special issue on Lowth and his grammar

This month, a special issue of Historiographia Linguistica has come out called Robert Lowth (1710-1787): The making of his grammar and its influence (HL XXXIX/1, 2012).  The issue, which was guest-edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, has been dedicated to the memory of R.C. Alston, who died last year, and without whose bibliography on grammars none of the work on the English grammatical tradition down to 1800 would have been possible.

The volume formally concludes the research project The Codifiers and the English Language: Tracing the Norms of Standard English financed by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, which ran from 2005-2010 and was directed by Ingrid Tieken. It includes a variety of articles on various topics related to Lowth and his grammar, both within an English context and a wider European one.

Table of contents:

  • Robert Lowth as a Codifier of the English Language: An introduction (Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade)
  • Robert Lowth and the Critics: Literary contexts for the “Critical Notes” in his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) (Carol Percy)
  • Lowth’s Legacy in Teaching English to Foreigners: The case of Thomas Connelly’s English grammar in Spain (Maria E. Rodríguez-Gil)
  • ‘Lowthian’ Linguistics across the North Sea (Gijsbert Rutten)
  • “My imperfect attempt towards an English Grammar”: Lowth’s indebtedness to James Harris in revising his grammar (Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade)
  • Lowth and ‘Perfect Time’: The periphrastic have-perfect in 18th-century English grammars (Jim Walker)
  • Heinrich Christoph Albrecht’s Versuch einer critischen Englischen Sprachlehre : Tracing Robert Lowth in an 18th-century textbook for the teaching and learning of English (Göran Wolf)
  • Lowth Holdings in Winchester College (Geoffrey Day and Suzanne Foster)
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Who was Harriet Knatchbull?

In an earlier post I put the question who Harriet Knatchbull was, the little girl, or so it seemed to me, who had been given a copy by Lowth himself of his grammar. This grammar is now in Chawton House Library.

Checking the Knatchbull family tree in Burrows and Dunhill (2002:1126), however, did not produce a girl of that name. The only Harriet Knatchbull found was the wife of Wadham Knatchbull, fellow prebendary of Lowth at Durham. This Mrs Knatchbull, née Parry, died in 1760, according to the index to the book.

Mrs Knatchbull occurs twice in Lowth’s correspondence, once in a letter Lowth wrote to James Harris (1709-1780) to consult him about a problem he had encountered when writing his grammar (“P.S. Dr. & Mrs. Knatchbull have been for some time in London”, Durham, 28 April 1760) (Tieken-Boon van Ostade forthcoming), and the second time in a letter to Joseph Spence (1699-1768), also a fellow prebendary from Durham, dated Durham, 29 September 1761 (“Mrs. Knatchbull is just got into your house, & desires her humble Service & thanks to You.”). Wadham had died the year before, so Mrs Knatchbull was by this time a widow, and presumably in need of accommodation. Spence mostly lived in Byfleet, Surrey, though according to the entry for Spence in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he did spend “more than the minimum of three weeks’ residence annually atDurham”.

The Knatchbulls had two children, according to the family tree in Burrows and Dunhill, Wyndham and Catherine. Only Catherine’s year of birth is given, as c. 1753, but from the brief mention of the Knatchbull family by Le Faye in her edition of Jane Austen’s letters we know that Wyndham was born in 1750. Le Faye also mentions another son, Charles, born in 1747 (Le Faye 1995:540-541).

All this suggests two things: Harriet Knatchbull, Wyndham’s wife, did not die in 1760. Secondly, if she was indeed the only Harriet Knatchbull, she may have been the one who had been given a personal copy of Lowth’s grammar. The inscription “Hart Knatchbull her Book the/ Gift of Dr Lowth Fuaby ye 11 1762″ may therefore have been hers. Lowth may have presented her with a copy to use when she would be teaching her children grammar, as had been his original purpose for his grammar to begin with. If all this is true, Harriet Knatchbull cannothave been a very experienced writer, as the handwriting itself suggests but also the misspelling for “February”. The use of a periphrastic genitive (“Hart Knatchbull her Book”) rather than the more standard apostrophe s construction (“Hart Knatchbull‘s Book”) suggests non-standard usage for the period. Lowth, in any case, corrected the construction in his grammar.

The Chawton copy of the grammar, however, doesn’t show much signs of use: Harriet Knatchbull may never have got that far into the book, nor does she appear to have used it for the purpose for which Lowth may have presented it to her. But it is, ironically, thanks to the fact that she didn’t that the copy still exists today.


Burrows, Donald & Rosemary Dunhill. 2002. Music and Theatre in Handel’s World: The family papers of James Harris, 1732-1780.Oxford:OxfordUniversity Press.

Le Faye, Deirdre (1995). Jane Austen’s Letters (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (forthcoming). “My imperfect attempt towards an English Grammar”: Lowth’s indebtedness to James Harris in revising his grammar. Historiographia Linguistica 39:1/2 (2012).



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