William Bell Scott Letters

Scope and Content

This small collection contains 146 letters from William Bell Scott to W.M. Rossetti, 1850-1890, together with three related letters from Alice Boyd to W.M. Rossetti, 1890. Six letters are appended from Rossetti's daughter Mrs Helen Rossetti Agresti to Professor C.C. Abbott of the University of Durham, 1949, concerning the acquisition of the collection by Durham University Library.

The subject matter of the letters is largely literary, artistic and domestic, with numerous references to the work and lives of members of Scott's wide circle of acquaintances and friends, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti and other leading Pre-Raphaelites. The letters fall into two distinct groups: the first up to 1863, when Scott was living in Newcastle, and the second from 1864. During the first period the letters tend to be discursive, with extensive comment on his current reading and gossip concerning friends in London. After Scott's return to London in 1864, there was no longer a need to write to keep in touch, except while at Penkill, and the letters sent at other times are largely occasioned by specific incidents or transactions.

Apart from the light which the letters shed on Scott himself, their greatest significance lies in the information they contain on Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Also of importance was Scott's role in introducing W.M. Rossetti to the work of Walt Whitman; Rossetti's subsequent article on Whitman, and edition of a selection of his poems, introduced him to the English public and helped to establish his reputation in Europe. The letters also contain references to the work and personalities of a wide range of the leading figures in Victorian literary and artistic circles. Among the most notable of those mentioned are Alma-Tadema, Ford Madox Brown, the Brownings, Carlyle, Holman-Hunt, the collector James Leathart, Millais, Patmore, Ruskin, the spasmodic poet Alexander Smith, Swinburne, Tennyson, Turner, Whistler, Walt Whitman and the sculptor Thomas Woolner.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Bell Scott (1811-1890) was born in Edinburgh, the son of the engraver Robert Scott, and initially trained in his father's profession, but from an early age was drawn to the writing of poetry. He migrated to London in 1837, where he turned to historical painting, and gained many friends and acquaintances in literary and artistic circles. In 1839 he married Letitia Margery Norquoy, and in 1843 accepted the post of head master of the School of Design in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he lived until his retirement and return to London in 1864.

While in Newcastle Scott was befriended by Pauline, Lady Trevelyan, and commissioned to paint the major work of his artistic career, the decoration of the hall at Wallington (Northumberland), including eight large panels depicting Northumbrian history. After his return to London, he was commissioned to do part of the decoration of the South Kensington Museum, and he continued to paint and exhibit, and to contribute regularly to periodicals such as The Academy and the Athenaeum. He published five volumes of poetry, a number of works on art, and contributed editorial matter and illustrations to editions of the Romantic poets. His Autobiographical notes, published posthumously, aroused much controversy because of his adverse comments on some of his associates.

Scott's poem, The year of the world, published in 1846, aroused the enthusiasm of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he became a close friend of the Rossetti family, including Dante Gabriel's brother William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), the recipient of these letters. In 1872 Dante Gabriel Rossetti suffered a severe breakdown, followed by attempted suicide, and Scott was intimately involved in this crisis. Scott's marriage was not a satisfactory one, and in 1859 he formed a relationship with Alice Boyd. This lasted until his death, while preserving the facade of his marriage. In 1864 Alice Boyd inherited Penkill Castle in Ayrshire, and thereafter the Scotts regularly spent the summer at Penkill, while Alice lived as their guest in London for the rest of the year.



Access Information

Open for consultation.

Acquisition Information

Purchased from Mrs Olivia Rossetti Agresti, 1949


Part of : Additional Manuscripts


Other Finding Aids

Online catalogue available at online catalogue.

Related Material

Add. MSS 338-339 (William Bell Scott manuscripts), Add. MSS 839-842 and X Microfilm Misc. 18 (facsimiles of William Bell Scott manuscripts elsewhere)


Substantial extracts from the letters, extracts from related correspondence, and biographical information on William Bell Scott have appeared in the following works: Autobiographical notes of the life of William Bell Scott, ed. W. Minto, 2 vols (London, 1892)Selected letters of William Michael Rossetti, ed. R.W. Peattie (University Park, 1990) Fredeman, W.E., A Pre-Raphaelite gazette: the Penkill letters of Arthur Hughes to William Bell Scott and Alice Boyd, 1886-97, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 50 (1968), 34-82 Fredeman, W.E., Prelude to the last decade. Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the summer of 1872, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 53 (1971), 75-121, 272-328 Fredeman, W.E., The letters of pictor ignotus: William Bell Scott's correspondence with Alice Boyd, 1859-1884, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 58 (1976), 60-111, 306-352 Walker, Vera, The life and work of William Bell Scott, 1811-1890, University of Durham M.A. thesis, 1951