Those of us who love books very often have our own collections, carefully arranged on bookcases and shelves, or, in this modern age, stored in electronic devices. We correlate them by type (paperback or hardback), by author, by fiction or non-fiction, by subject. We caress them lovingly, re-read favourites over and over and admire glossy pictures in educational tomes.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, books were also a sign of status and wealth. A leather-bound volume was an expensive item – a far cry from the digital e-book of today. Many landowners gathered together large collections of books, sometimes from all over the world, just for the distinction of possession and with little interest in their contents. That said, there were many scholars who collected rare manuscripts, and a classical education – including, of course, the Grand Tour – were a pre requisite of the English gentleman. It was considered of enormous importance that a Regency gentleman had a sound knowledge of the Antiquities, of politics, philosophy, literature and science, so a wide a range of subjects as possible was collected by most. The owner could thus converse with authority at his Club, at House Parties and other social occasions. Even the bruising rider to hounds could turn his mind to more elevated concerns when in the company of such notables of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Sir Robert Walpole, John Locke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles James Fox and Thomas Charles Bunbury, to say nothing of the esteem conferred by ‘hob-nobbing’ with the Duke of Wellington, William Wilberforce, Lord George Byron and Beau Brummell.
The library was often a place of sanctuary for the master of the house, where he could smoke his pipe, indulge in a glass or two of brandy and contemplate upon his next speech in the Lords or how to persuade his lady not to bankrupt him during the course of his daughters’ comings out. It was usually furnished in a masculine style, with comfortable armchairs, robust cabinets and tables and a solid library table, the correct term for a flat-topped desk with drawers and knee space. As all aficionados of Georgette Heyer will know, a young lady desirous to ‘cut a dash’ in Society did not wish to be thought ‘bookish’. Too much book learning was not considered pleasing unless one was immensely wealthy, in which case one was likely to be indulgently deemed eccentric.
Sometimes, books were housed in specially constructed oak or walnut stepped units, such as at Boughton, where they were installed for the 1st Duke of Montagu. In earlier centuries, however, it was frequently the case that books were stored randomly and not placed with spines facing the observer as they are nowadays. At Charlecote Park in Warwickshire, early seventeenth century volumes are titled across the leaves between the opening edges of the covers. Furthermore, in Charlecote church, the marble tomb of Sir Thomas Lacy shows them carved in this way. By the Regency era, and the resurgence of classicism, many libraries became designed specifically to display the owner’s book collection. Pedimented bookcases to reflect the architecture can be seen at Holkham Hall in Norfolk, where they were a revolutionary introduction by William Kent. At Holkham, the fifty-four foot long library is part of Lord Leicester’s private apartments and is still used as a family room. I find it hard to imagine children and dogs rampaging around this elegance, though, as in the 1732 painting by William Hogarth of The Cholmondeley Family in a similar book room.
The painting belongs to a private collection and is currently on display in the Tate (Gallery).
|The long library at Holkham Hall by John Chapman|
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The original design for above the fireplace was an oval painting of Apollo with his lyre, but the lion depicted is an antique mosaic, brought back from his Grand Tour by Lord Leicester.
The pedimented feature on the bookcases was recreated at Berrington Hall in Herefordshire. Berrington was built by Thomas Harley, who inherited his library from his great-grandfather, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, who died in 1724. He was succeeded by his son Edward, who left this world in 1741. Sadly, much of the collection was sold in 1744. Edward Harley was ‘a close friend of Pope, Swift and Matthew Prior’ and was one of the first to instigate the practice of keeping large collections of books in the country, where there was greater opportunity to peruse and appreciate them. Unfortunately, those books enjoyed by Thomas Harley were sold by the 7th Lord Rodney, who turned the library into a billiard room.
|Library, Berrington Hall|
The library at Berrington has several interesting features for the historical author. The picture above (apologies for the quality) does not show the pediment on the fitted bookcases designed by Henry Holland, but it is reflected on the pier-table and over the fireplace, as are the narrow Ionic pilasters. A ‘Greek key’ decoration, embellished with mistletoe berries, links the various features. The frieze above has some lovely classical plasterwork to reflect the origins of the architecture, and on the ceiling there are ‘portrait medallions’, attributed to Biagio Rebecca, according to the guidebook, commemorating various famous authors. These are, clockwise from the fireplace, Matthew Prior (poet, political ally of Robert Harley), John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and Joseph Addison.
|Frieze, Berrington Hall|
|Fireplace, showing pediment and Ionic pilasters|
|Portrait Medallions, Library, Berrington Hall|
On Wednesday 27 September 1826, diarist William Cobbett visited Stanford Court, the Worcestershire seat of Sir Thomas Winnington, while on one of his Rural Rides. He arrived on the previous day, and had time ‘…to see the place, to look at trees, and the like, and I wished to get away early this morning; but being prevailed on to stay to breakfast, here I am, at six o’clock in the morning, in one of the best and best-stocked private libraries that I ever saw; and, what is more, the owner, from what passed yesterday, when he brought me hither, convinced me that he was acquainted with the insides of the books. I asked, and shall ask, no questions about who got these books together; but the collection is such as, I am sure, I never saw before in a private house.’
In his Guide to Worcestershire of 1868, John Noakes wrote: ‘The Court is delightfully situated, and contains some good paintings and an extensive modern library, with also an ancient one, with panel paintings of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in the attics, where Sir Thomas frequently brings to light MSS. of great value and interest.’
The house was almost destroyed on 5 December 1882, with only the ashlar-faced North Front surviving. The collection of manuscripts and books was sadly lost.
Indeed, by the close of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the library reached its height as a book room. It seems that Robert Adam was ahead of the game when he designed a library-sitting room combined at Kenwood House for Lord Mansfield. This was in a side wing, but was nevertheless designed to be a gathering place for guests as well as close members of the family. There are various allusions, in literature of the time, to rooms of this type containing such amusements as billiard tables, piano fortes, paintings, card tables and even French windows leading to gardens and/or conservatories. Paintings show groups of people conversing or engaged in other occupations. Lovers of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will recall the scene where Lizzie and Miss Bingley patrol the room when Mr. Darcy is writing a letter.
In his Fragments, Humphrey Repton is said to have considered this switch of use of the library to a ‘general living-room’ and ‘the best-parlour… of late years the drawing-room, is now generally found a melancholy apartment, when entirely shut up and opened to give the visitors a formal cold reception’ an occurrence of fairly recent usage. However, this might not be the case. At Houghton Hall, Sir Robert Walpole installed his library next to his bedchamber and dressing room, while at Petworth in 1774, the King of Spain’s Bedchamber on the ground floor was converted by the 3rd Earl of Egremont into the present White Library.
|The Drawing Room, Calke Abbey|
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Comfortable clutter was, at times, overshadowed by architectural importance in the form of statuary, literary busts and portraits of men of letters and learning. This was often a conscious reflection of the philosophers, poets, playwrights and scientists whose works adorned the shelves. The Georgians had ever an eye for placement and design. Already mentioned in this article are the plaques on the ceiling at Berrington Hall. At Chesterfield House, a set of literary portraits, beginning with Chaucer and finishing with Dr. Johnson, were displayed in the library, while at Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, there are busts by Peter Scheemakers of Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare and Spenser, as well as a portrait of Pope by Jonathan Richardson.
Henry Holland’s library at Woburn Abbey is a warm, inviting room, in direct contrast to the austere and grand proportions of the same room at Sledmere Hall in Yorkshire, which looks more like a ballroom, especially since the carpet (lost in a fire that gutted the room in the first years of the twentieth century) was replaced with parquet. The bookshelves here are recessed into the wall, almost forgotten, whereas at Woburn they are proudly a part of the room’s architecture. Alongside the dry reports of parliamentary proceedings and matters of law, one-time necessaries in an Englishman’s library, march the 6th Duke of Bedford’s own volumes about the wildlife and plants to be found on the estates. Such tomes were surely far more inviting reads!
As remarked at the beginning of this piece, the library was considered a male preserve, as was also the case with the dining room. Lady Bessborough, a visitor to Woburn in 1797, is quoted as being very taken with the furnishings, describing the ‘…finest Editions magnificently bound…’, ‘…some very fine pictures…’, ‘…three great looking glasses, all the ornaments white and golden, and the furniture blue leather.’ Leather was often chosen as the upholstery for the library, since it would, in the way of a saddle or a fine pair of Hoby’s boots, mature and be the better for use, unlike the fragile velvet and silk fabrics employed in the saloons and drawing room. Not only would they speedily show signs of wear, they would need to be replaced according to the dictates of fashion.
Very little changes, it seems. Beautiful Georgian furniture can be picked up for a few pounds nowadays, while modern ‘designer’ suites will cost the purchaser a small fortune and last a quarter of the time – perhaps. I know which I would prefer.
Unless otherwise stated, photographs are the property of the author and may not be copied without the owner’s expressed permission.
© Heather King