Block on sale of historical letters

Arts Minister Michael Ellis has prevented the sale of notebooks by Sir Charles Lyell - the renowned Scottish geologist who influenced Charles Darwin - in a bid to keep the important archive in the UK.
Arts Minister Michael Ellis has prevented the sale of notebooks by Sir Charles Lyell - the renowned Scottish geologist who influenced Charles Darwin - in a bid to keep the important archive in the UK.
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The sale of papers belonging to an influential Scottish scientist who corresponded with Charles Darwin has been blocked in a bid to keep the important archive in the UK.

The UK government said a decision on an export licence had been deferred to allow other bidders for the notebooks and letters belonging to geologist Sir Charles Lyell which are valued at nearly £1.5 million.

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Lyell (1797-1875) is a key figure in the history of geology and science whose research is known to have influenced Darwin’s own.

He is best known for writing the Principles of Geology, which presented the idea of uniformitarianism, the theory that changes in the Earth’s crust during geological history resulted from the action of continuous and uniform processes.

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The 294 notebooks and manuscripts contain Lyell’s conversations with fellow scientists including his transcribed correspondence with Darwin.

The archive also contain Lyell’s notes for his printed works and record his developing ideas on subjects such as climate change, extinction, and biodiversity.

Arts minister Michael Ellis said: “This archive reveals the workings of one of the most influential scientists of the last 200 years and provides us with an extraordinary insight into a time when science was changing long-held beliefs about the world.

“I hope a buyer can be found to keep the unique records of a British great in the country.”

The decision to defer the export licence follows a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, administered by the Arts Council.

Committee member Peter Barber said: “Charles Darwin once wrote that ‘I always feel as if my books came half from Lyell’s brains’.

“Lyell’s notebooks and papers are perhaps the most important source of information not only on Lyell’s own multifarious researches – including climate change as well as geology – but also on intellectual networking and networks in Victorian Britain and on numerous other, non-scientific as well as scientific, aspects of Victorian society.”

He added: “It is of the utmost importance that Lyell’s notebooks and papers are retained in this country so that they can, at long last, be made available to researchers.”

The decision on the export licence application for the notebooks and manuscripts will be deferred until July 15 and could be extended. Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price may be considered.