DAVY, Sir Humphry, letters, autographs, documents, manuscripts

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DAVY, Sir Humphry (1778-1829). Chemist and inventor.
Autograph Letter Signed ('H. Davy') to James Burton [snr.], 2 pages small 4to with endorsement on the fourth side 'dated 'Apl. 1/21, '31 March', no year, watermark 1820.

Apologising for having been out when Burton called on him and for having delayed writing 'till I had seen Mr Rennie', who had promised to provide Burton with a letter to 'Mr Briggs, the merchant who is to negotiate the affair for the Pasha of Egypt', and adding that he had recommended Burton's son to Rennie.

Davy's correspondent, evidently James Burton (1761-1837, born James Haliburton) 'was the most successful property developer of Regency and Georgian London' [Wikipedia]. He was a founder member of the Athenaeum (1824), and was the father of Decimus Burton, the Architect of the club. He was responsible for building the clubhouse to his son's design. Burton's son, also James (1788-1862), who rather confusingly was born a Haliburton, changed to 'Burton' with his father, and then reverted, was an early Egyptologist. After his father had threatened to disinherit him in 1819 'unless he found gainful employment ... [George Bellas] Greenough recommended him as assistant to Sir Humphry Davy, then employed to develop a method for unrolling papyri in the collection of the king of Naples. Burton failed to arrive in time and forfeited the job.' (Neil M.R. Cook in Oxford DNB). Wikipedia provides a rather more colourful picture of Burton's life in Egypt 'where he enjoyed marsala, rum, brandy, opium, and the company of slave girls'. He was invited in 1822 by Pasha Mohammed Ali 'to work as mineralogist in the Geological Survey of Egypt'. In 1835 at Christmas he reappeared in England 'with various animals, servants and slaves including Andreana [sic], a Greek slave girl whom he had purchased in Egypt and subsequently married, as a consequence of which he was disowned by the Burton family.'

Davy had been in business together with the elder Burton and with his friend J.G. Children in the manufacture of gunpowder. The business did not prosper, however, and Davy withdrew from it in 1813. Another participant in the venture is said to have been 'the Scottish engineer James Rennie' (The Experimental Self; Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science by Jan Golinski, note 42, quoting Humphry Davy and Gunpowder Manufactory by June Zimmerman Fullmer pages 174-179.
'... It is also worth noting that Davy wrote on [9] October 1813 to the Scottish engineer James Rennie, who had also been involved in the gunpowder project, that his motive for quitting was that "I was not in want of any addition of income".'

Davy had written to Children on 22 July 1813 'If the gunpowder is called Sir H. Davys powder it must be stated in all cases where my name is used that it is so called in honour of my discoveries in chemistry & because I have given my gratuitous assistance in making the expts & investigations on which the process is founded' (British Library, MS. Add.38625, ff.19-20). Later the same year (9 October 1813) he wrote to 'James Rennie' that he was 'settling all affairs ... connected with my short partnership with Messrs Childrens & Burton' (National Library of Scotland, MS 19828, see Letters , online).

No other letters from Davy to James Burton snr. appear to be known. An undated letter to James Burton jnr., inviting him to dinner, is held at Harvard. Davy wrote another letter on 31 March 1821, to Berzelius (thanking him for a book in Swedish, which he can't read)

'Dear Sir
I am sorry I was not at home when you did me the honour of calling.

I have delayed writing to you till I had seen Mr Rennie. He informed me yesterday that if you would call on him He would give you a letter to Mr Briggs, the merchant who is to negociate the affair for the Pasha of Egypt.

I have already recommended Mr James Burton your son to Mr Rennie.

I am my dear sir / very truly yours H. Davy
31 March.'

Note by the editors of The Letters of Sir Humphry Davy (2018):
'This letter concerns efforts to bring the ancient obelisk known in Britain as 'Cleopatra's Needle' from Egypt to London. The affair began with a letter of April 1820 from Samuel Briggs (1767-1853), the former British consul in Alexandria and a wealthy merchant whose company imported Egyptian cotton and grain to Britain and financed Egyptian naval contracts. Briggs wrote to the British government on behalf of Muhammad Ali (1769-1849), the Pasha of Egypt, offering the obelisk to Britain as a token of gratitude for gifts received from the British crown in 1811. The British government accepted the present, and sent a captain of the Royal Engineers to Egypt to assess how the obelisk could be transported to London. Here Davy assists James Burton Sr (1761-1837), a London builder and financier who wished to have the obelisk placed in the new, fashionable area he was developing - Regent's Park. Davy first consults John Rennie, Jr (1794-1874), son of the great civil engineer, and one of his social circle in Rome in 1819, because Rennie, had, earlier in March, returned to London from a tour of Egypt, where he had observed the obelisk in situ. He recommends James Burton Jr to Rennie because Burton Jr, formerly a traveller and investigator of ancient sites in Italy (where Davy had met him in 1819) now desired to explore Egypt. In 1822 Burton Jr would be employed there by the Pasha to survey the country's natural resources, with a view to development. Burton Jr subsequently investigated a number of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, becoming a pioneering Egyptologist. The obelisk, however, remained in Egypt until 1877, successive British governments proving reluctant to finance its removal.
[No: 26658]

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