On 19th October 2017 a diverse group of academics, librarians, curators, collectors and members of the book trade descended on a rainy Strawberry Hill for a conference entitled Collectors and the country house library. Prompted by the recent filling of Horace Walpole’s bookshelves (empty since the 1842 sale) with a loan from
Aske Hall in North Yorkshire, the conference considered the ways in which books have been used and collected in the country house setting.
The day was spent in the splendid interior of the Gallery, where the white and gold vaulted ceiling was inspired by that of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey, and kicked off with a talk by Stephen Lloyd on the collections of the Earls of Derby at Knowsley Hall, where there is a family archive reaching back as far as the fifteenth century and evidence of book collecting back into the seventeenth (indeed, the family employed librarians from the 1670s right up to the end of the twentieth century). Next came Stephen Clarke on Walpole’s own library at Strawberry Hill; we heard about Walpole’s drastic building projects to transform what started life as a coachman’s cottage into his gothic palace, about his acquisitions at major sales (including those of Richard
Rawlinson, Richard Mead and James West, and about his interesting reading practices (in some cases lengthy notes on separate sheets of paper were bound into his books). After a short break Mark Purcell delivered the keynote paper, speaking broadly on the place of books in the country house over the centuries, inspired by his recent book The country house library (Yale University Press, 2017). Chief among the issues here seemed to be
the changing nature of library spaces, moving from private closets in the seventeenth century to grand showpieces in the nineteenth, and the sense that many families had book collections spread over a number of houses, portions of which may have been sold off over the years, or moved around as fortunes rose and fell.
Before a spectacular hot lunch in the public café Claire Reed spoke about Osterley Park House, reminding us that entire aristocratic collections can be sold off, only to be built up again by later generations. William Chambers (whose creations included George III’s magnificent gold coach, commissioned in 1760) may have had a hand in the design of the pre-Adam library, which at one point contained 11 Caxtons, sold in the great auction of 1885. During the lunch break attendees had free rein to explore the house, including the library, and the many rooms with windows containing sixteenth- and seventeenth-century stained glass, collected on Walpole’s behalf in Europe.
In the afternoon we heard from Giles Mandelbrote on the metropolitan collecting of Sir Richard Ellys, courted as a potential donor to the early library at Harvard. David Pearson turned our minds to the decoration of aristocratic book collections, particularly the curious insect-themed roll tools he has found on a number of eighteenth-century bindings at Wimpole, Blickling and Dunham Massey, as well as among George III’s books now in the British Library. Such naturalistic decoration was evidently characteristic in other parts of the decorative arts, but its presence in book bindings has been little studied. The day finished with Megan Aldrich on the antiquarian library as a work of art at Stowe, who pointed out that Sir John Soane – architect of the Bank of England building – had been employed by the family. Like Strawberry Hill’s library, the decoration of that at Stowe was inspired by Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey. The papers stimulated a good deal of discussion and attendees went away with a renewed understanding of the complex nature of aristocratic book ownership in the early modern period.
Liam Sims, University of Cambridge Library