After reading The Seven Lives of John Murray before leaving for London, I became a little bit obsessed with the story of the John Murray publishing dynasty; I was thrilled to learn that we would be visiting the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland. There are a lot of interesting aspects to its history, starting with the publishing house itself. It was begun in 1768 by John Murray I, a Scot who moved to London to seek his fortune. It was passed down through seven generations of John Murrays, moving early on from its first home on Fleet Street to its famous location on Albemarle Street, until it was finally sold 242 years later. It was the longest-lived privately-owned publishing house in the world, a feat which had become more and more difficult over the years as business changed with the times.
One of the most colorful characters in the Murray history came during the time of John Murray II: Lord Byron would prove to be not only one of John Murray’s most popular authors, but also a close friend of John Murray II. The letters between them have been a rich resource for Byron biographers as well as historians of the John Murray dynasty and publishing history. In addition to the many poems written by Lord Byron during his short life, John Murray had an opportunity to bring yet another Byron work to the public, but that manuscript met a mysterious end. Shortly after Byron’s death, there was some dispute over Byron’s memoirs, which he had instructed to be published posthumously. However, they were considered so scandalous by the few who had read them, that a small group, including John Murray II, met in John Murray headquarters on Albemarle Street to discuss the situation. The memoirs were burned in the drawing-room fireplace in order to protect Byron’s memory. One can only guess at the contents.
After the sale of the publishing house, John Murray VII insisted that the famous and priceless Murray archives should not go along with the rest. Instead, it should go to a special collection where it could benefit many people. Therefore, in 2002, part of the John Murray archive was donated to the National Library of Scotland. In 2006, the NLS bought part of it for 31.3 million pounds. Though this is a large sum that NLS needed a great deal of support to raise, it is a mere fraction of the actual value of the John Murray archives. In addition to that, the money raised from the sale went into a charity trust for the upkeep of the John Murray collection, the NLS, and others.
The four million items of the John Murray Archive are a great draw – they are exhibited so as to engage visitors with the stories of John Murray and the famous authors published by them. As well as the ever-popular Lord Byron, Dr. Livingstone, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley are popular characters, among many others. Some items are displayed in the NLS, while at times others go on tour or out on loan to other locations.
At the NLS, most items are in storage, but there are always some on display, with an interactive tablet program to help engage the viewer. Authentic artefacts combine with contemporary set pieces in large glass cases, where John Murray treasures are displayed in specially lighted and climate controlled conditions, where they can be carefully protected. They are very careful to preserve the items in the collection, but not at the expense of destroying accessibility. There is even a reconstruction of the infamous fireplace where Byron’s memoirs were burned, complete with bookshelves stocked with period copies of John Murray books for the public’s perusal. Though the original furnishings from the famous Albemarle Street residence are still in their original location, in Edinburgh they try their best to recreate the feeling of being in the legendary drawing room. They seek to draw people in with the perfect balance of history and drama, which is fitting, really, when you’re talking about a collection in which so many different cultural threads intersect.