“To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul”; the rise of the country house library

Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)
Long Library, Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire (Image: Eastnor Castle)

In country houses, perhaps the greatest indulgence is to be able to create on a much grander scale. Not for them a few flowers beds; no, there are acres of careful horticulture, nor do they have small dining rooms, or a few pictures.  Yet few rooms in a large country house are as impressive as one which boasts a well-stocked library; regimented rows of bound knowledge, reflecting the interests and passions of generations. Yet libraries are more fluid than many imagine; with their creation sometimes comes their dispersal, but this is a cycle, with those books then finding another shelf, helping build the portrait of their new owner, one title at a time.

Books have always had a greater intrinsic value than just the words or knowledge they contain.  Having developed from clay tablets, via way of papyrus, to animal skins, books became spectacular art works in their own right in the hands of the monasteries whose illuminated manuscripts spoke of their devotion through beautiful calligraphy and iridescent miniature paintings. The effort involved made them scarce so the wider collecting of books largely only became possible due to mass production following the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439.

Although books had formed part of the interests of the royal family since the 14th-century, it wasn’t until the rise of the post-Reformation Tudor bureaucrats who, influenced by the Renaissance, sought to use knowledge, rather than battle prowess, as their means to advancement.  Education was now seen as key and this was reflected in the growth and composition of the gentleman’s library for centuries to come.  Yet, there were still a remarkable number of the gentry who had little interest in books, a trend which grew stronger the further from Court they lived; Girouard notes that in the 1560s, ninety-two out of 146 Northumberland nobles were unable to sign their name, and that in 1601, Bess of Hardwick kept only six books at Hardwick Hall.

Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)
Library (1675), Ham House, Surrey (Image: Country Life Picture Library)

As intellectual pursuits became more acceptable so too did acquiring books in larger numbers.  Paintings of ‘gentleman’s closets’, which held all things most precious to the man of the house, often showed books, and in quantity; an inventory in 1556 for Sir William More at Loseley in Surrey records that he had amassed 273.  Earlier libraries are recorded for the fifth Earl of Northumberland who had created both ‘Lord’s’ and a ‘Lady’s’ libraries by 1512 at Leconfield Castle (demolished 17th century). By the late 16th-century there is the first written reference to the building of bookcases in the form we recognise today; two French craftsmen were working at Longleat in 1563 fitting out the library there (though it was sadly lost in the fire in 1567).  The earliest dedicated library to survive in a private house is at Ham House, Surrey which dates from 1675, installed for the Duke of Lauderdale.

Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)
Long Library, Holkham Hall, Norfolk (Image: Holkham Hall)

So how did we arrive at the grand, sumptuous libraries which grace many country houses?  As with so much of that which is beautiful, the elevation of the library can be largely attributed to the Georgians.  The right of passage that was the Grand Tour meant that, increasingly, a wealthy young man would return from several years in Italy having (hopefully) spent his days studying ruins, architecture, art, and sculpture – and, as with all good tourists, he accumulated souvenirs.  Not just any old trinkets; these mementos took the form of paintings and freshly faked statuary but also many books, not only for their education, but also as a way of demonstrating to those back home the wonders which they had seen.  This led to the creation of some of the finest libraries in the country, such as the Long Library created by Thomas Coke at Holkham Hall, as the intellectual interests of the owner found expression through the hundreds, if not thousands, of leather-bound tomes which now lined a dedicated room.

Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)
Nanswhyden House, Cornwall (Image: courtesy of Charlie Hoblyn)

Books were now not just the exclusive interest of the man of the house but had become a resource for the whole family and their guests. With the upper-classes now expecting a certain level of culture from those in their social sphere, education became an important part of polite society. To have a library was a reflection on the owner, who gained from them even if he hadn’t read them. Owners provided access to their books to their guests but, as the works were probably also the only significant source of knowledge for many miles, to a select few in local society.  One notable example was at the grand Nanswhyden House, Cornwall which was built in 1740 by Robert Hoblyn and featured a library which “…occupied two rooms, the longest of which was 36ft in length, 24ft broad and 16ft high…” and contained over 25,000 volumes.  Hoblyn intended that his books were “…designed as a standing library for the county, to which, every clergyman and author, who had the design of publishing, were to have the readiest access.”

Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)
Library (before the fire), Sledmere House, Yorkshire (Image: Country Life)

There was also unofficial access for the staff; at the beautiful Sledmere House, Micheal Kenneally, who arrived as pantry boy and rose to be butler, recalls that when he first arrived he was told to familiarise himself with the house.  In the Library, he noticed a book called ‘Miller’s Sexual Systems‘ on a shelf. “I thought, I’ll read that when I get the  chance. It was seven years before I got the opportunity, and when I opened it, it was the sex life of plants and flowers. After waiting for seven years!“.  The decoration of the Library at Sledmere was designed by the  celebrated plasterer Joseph Rose (b.1723 – d.1780) and completed in 1794.  So proud was Sir Christopher Sykes of this fine and elegant space, he commissioned local draughtsman Thomas Malton to record it.  Two hundred copies of the finished drawing were then created, which Sir Christopher sent to his friends, virally spreading the glory of a spectacular library.  Christopher Hussey, writing about it in 1949, said ‘architecturally designed libraries are a feature of several of Adam’s country houses, notably Kenwood. But this one surpasses them all in majesty of conception, suggesting rather the library of a college or learned and wealthy society; indeed in the space allotted to it, in the amount of shelf room, and in the beauty of its decoration it is surely the climax of the Georgian conception of the library as the heart and soul of the country house‘. Sadly, the original was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1911, though luckily the family still had the original plans, in addition to photographs taken by Country Life in 1897, and so it was rebuilt to exactly the same design as before – after all, how can one improve on such a fine room.

Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)
Library, Arundel Castle, Sussex (Image: Country Life)

The role of the library changed in the Regency and Victorian periods.  During the day it was the informal family sitting room, but during evening entertaining it took the mantle of drawing room for the gentleman, as opposed to the formal drawing room which increasingly became the domain of the ladies.  As such, it reflected the status of the man of the house, becoming more masculine, but also richly decorated and furnished to ensure that guests would be comfortable as they admired their surroundings.  Notable libraries of the period include the gloriously gothic Arundel Castle (see also: article in Country Life), the elegant Tatton Park, and the simply spectacular Eastnor Castle (see image at top of the article).

The county house library perhaps reached its zenith in the 1880s as often stable ownership had accumulated a wealth of some of the finest books ever produced.  The intellectualism of the Georgian and Victorian eras had elevated knowledge and learning and exploited them to create the wealth which now funded the artistic pursuits of the social elite.  For all the appreciation of books, notable libraries such as the collection at Stowe had been auctioned off in the 1820s, and following the agricultural depression of the late 19th-century, many libraries up and down the land were plundered as a source of income.  However, today, many still boast thousands of volumes on myriad topics, each part of the historical collage of the family, and creating what are often one of the most admired and beautiful rooms in any country house.

Feel free to add a comment below sharing which is your favourite country house library.

For lots of photos, the ‘Most Beautiful Libraries of the World’ website has a dedicated section: ‘Country House Libraries‘.


*NEW* – ‘The Library’ on The Country Seat

To coincide with this I have published a new page on the blog; The Library.  I regularly receive emails asking for book recommendations so this will provide a selection of books on UK country houses which hopefully readers of this blog will find of interest.  The links are to Amazon and I do get a commission if one is bought (though the price you pay is the same) but the money will be re-invested in my library which will benefit the blog.  I now have most of the ‘easier’ books to get hold of and now face the challenge of acquiring the scarcer, more expensive, volumes, so it all helps.

7 thoughts on ““To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul”; the rise of the country house library

  1. visitinghousesandgardens March 1, 2012 / 14:07

    Thank you for the library page.

  2. Jeff aldridge March 2, 2012 / 00:27

    I second that emotion!

  3. ldm March 2, 2012 / 01:01

    The late Duke of Devonshire in his memoirs wrote:

    “The Chatsworth library is famous. Guests gaze at it in rapt admiration, but I cannot remember a single one …. asking to take a book out to read.” (page 111 – Accidents of Fortune)

  4. James Canning March 3, 2012 / 00:48

    Great piece.

  5. Matthew Beckett - The Country Seat March 3, 2012 / 13:13

    Thank you for the kind compliments. As someone who loves books this one was a real pleasure to research.

    @ldm – that’s a great quote. If I see his Grace, I’ll have to ask to borrow one when I next visit!

    @B Howe – there are so many beautiful libraries it was a real struggle to decide which to mention; others of note include Syon House, Goodwood House small library with its double level of shelving connected by an elegant spiral staircase, any of the seven at Longleat, the lovely decorative work at Shardeloes, the flamboyantly Gothic at Strawberry Hill…I could go on and on. Surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a book dedicated to English country house libraries – an obvious opportunity for a publisher (Yale UP? Aurum?).

    For anyone who loves these special rooms, there is a dedicated section on the Most Beautiful Libraries of the World website: Country House Libraries

    For those on Facebook, there is a group run by the National Trust libraries team, with regular updates on their fascinating work: National Trust Libraries



  6. Andrew March 4, 2012 / 12:12

    Another inspiring article! The largest country house library, in size rather than number of books, would have to be the Long Library at Blenheim Palace, with the smallest possibly being Sir Walter Scott’s study at Abbotsford. The largest in terms of book numbers could be Chatsworth, with about 27,000 books, although this collection is spread over 6 rooms throughout the house. More library photos can be found in the Country Life Picture Library. For those interested in libraries globally, there is also the book The Most Beautiful Libraries of the World (2003).

    My favourite country house libraries are those with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, usually with an upper level balcony, such as Chatsworth, Hatfield House, Alnwick Castle, Muncaster Castle and Clumber House (demolished 1938), as well as the more modest Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey in the TV series), Tatton Park (Marchmain House in the Brideshead Revisited TV series) and Longleat. The London private clubs‘ libraries often mimic the style of country house libraries, such as The Athenaeum (frequented by Charles Dickens), Reform Club and Travellers Club.

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