Auctions | November 17, 2014

Unknown Dylan Thomas Notebook Discovered, Estimated to Sell for $150,000-235,000 at Sotheby’s


As the world celebrates the centenary of the birth of the Dylan Thomas, Sotheby’s announces the most exciting manuscript discovery since his death in 1953. The exercise book, which contains 49 handwritten pages, will be the most important poetical manuscript by Thomas ever to appear at auction when it is offered at Sotheby’s London on 9 December.

This previously unknown and unrecorded notebook contains a series of 19 poems written during his urgent burst of creativity in the 1930s. The scratchings-out, doodles and revisions that mark the pages offer a unique insight into the creative process of one of the world’s most loved poets.

Thomas appears to have left the book behind during one of his many stays at the house of his mother-in-law, Yvonne Macnamara, during the 1930s. Evidently, Thomas had a fractious relationship with his mother-in-law, illustrated in a letter written by Thomas to a friend while staying at the home:

“...This flat English country levels the intelligence, planes down the imagination, narrows thea’s, my ears belch up old wax and misremembered passages of misunderstood music, I sit and hate my mother-in-law, glowering at her from corners and grumbling about her in the sad, sticky, quiet of the lavatory...”

This letter will also be offered as part of the sale on 9 December (est. £2,000-2,500). Perhaps glad to rid the house everything to do with Thomas, Yvonne Macnamara gave the exercise book to a member of the household staff, Louie King (c.1904-1984), with instructions to incinerate it in the kitchen boiler. King decided against it, sparing the precious book and recording the event in a note attached to the cover:

"This Book of Poetry by Dylan Thomas was with a lot of papers given to me to burn in the kitchen boiler. I saved it and forgot all about it until I read of his death..."

The book has remained with the family of Louie King, hidden in a drawer and unknown to Thomas scholars, only emerging now more than fifty years after his death.

Although not consistently dated, the notebook was presumably begun before 20 July 1934, when Thomas sent a copy of the book’s first poem, ‘All all and all’, to his lover Pamela Hansford Johnson, and was completed by August 1935. It was written during a crucial year in Thomas's life and work, when he firmly established a place for himself in the literary world. This period was marked by two major events: his move to London in November 1934 and the publication of his first collection, 18 Poems the following month. The notebook shows that he continued to write consistently through his months in London,but his most intense burst of creativity came when he left the city and its distractions.

Firstly, when staying with A.J.P. Taylor and his wife Margaret in Disley, Cheshire, and secondly during an August visit to County Donegal with Geoffrey Grigson. Notable poems from the book include the only known manuscripts for Thomas’s famously demanding sonnet sequence, ‘Altarwise by owl-light’. Replete with revisions and reworkings,these drafts provide a crucial new insight into Thomas's most challenging work.