“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.

Country House Rescue: the weight of history – Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire

Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)
Kentchurch Court, Herefordshire (Image: mhaswell / flickr)

For some who inherit, the weight of family history can easily overcome the burden of running a historic home on a limited budget.  As we saw in the previous episode of Country House Rescue at Trereife House in Cornwall, the desire to not be the generation which loses the ancestral home, a prospect which faced the Le Grice family who had been there since 1799.  So imagine the weight of responsibility facing the Lucas-Scudamore family who have lived for ten centuries at Kentchurch Court in Herefordshire.

The house itself was originally a Saxon tower with further additions in the 14th-century.  However, the main style of the house as it stands today is due to work commissioned from the famous Regency architect John Nash (b.1752 – d.1835).  More importantly, Kentchurch is a significant as one of a number of houses built in the area around that time which were a visible expression of a new wave of architectural fashion; the Picturesque.

Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)
Strawberry Hill, London (Image: D Kendall / EH Viewfinder)

When thinking of Georgian architecture many think of the symmetrical classical façades and strictly proportioned Palladian designs which were so prevalent in that era.  Yet one house, Strawberry Hill in Twickenham, south London, was to be the catalyst for a new way of thinking, breaking these patterns and ushering in a more organic way of viewing architecture. This saw the house as part of a landscape with the design playing its part in the beauty of the view as much as the lakes, gardens and parkland. Originally an unremarkable house, it was bought in 1747 by the wealthy Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford and fourth son of Walpole the Prime Minister, who was an astute observer of society, art, and architecture. Walpole contributed little to art but was particularly well read and as he pursued his academic studies decided to start experimenting with alterations to his house.

Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)
Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire (Image: John Rutter (1823) / RIBA)

His original changes from about 1749 were uncontroversial and, importantly, followed the convention for symmetry.  However, from 1753 onwards the interiors were fashioned in a gothic style with the help of what he called his ‘Committee of Taste’ comprising a few of his equally well-read friends.  This experimentation was confined to the interiors until, in 1759, he broke with architectural convention and had a great circular tower constructed but which, radically, had no matching pair.  The house was to continue to grow in a rather free fashion which can still be admired today (particularly so following the completion of phase one of a fantastic restoration by the Strawberry Hill Trust, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the World Monuments Fund). The house became famous, attracting day trippers in large numbers and spawned imitators; though it was James Wyatt’s Lee Priory (built 1785-90 – dem. 1955) which was said to the be first ‘child of Strawberry’.  Also considered worthy, and also designed by Wyatt were the fantastical Fonthill Abbey (collapsed in 1825) for William Beckford, and Ashridge Park for the 7th Earl of Bridgewater.

Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)
Downton Castle, Herefordshire (Image: gardenvisit.com)

One man particularly taken with this new style was Richard Payne Knight, a Herefordshire MP and intellectual with a large inheritance.  Using his wealth, in 1774 Payne Knight started the construction of a new home, Downton Castle, which bore similarities to Strawberry Hill, with the asymmetry and a large circular tower, and an irregular plan which was quite radical for the time.  This house was a prototype for a new ‘castellated’ style of house which was to be popular for fifty years from about 1790.  Driving this new style was the publication of three key books, the first two in 1794; ‘The Landscape, a Didactic Poem‘ by Payne Knight, and ‘Essay on the Picturesque‘, a brilliant reply in support by Uvedale Price (another local landowner), and, in 1795, ‘Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening‘ by the landscape-gardener, Humphrey Repton, who formed a successful and highly influential partnership with the architect John Nash that same year.

Nash had moved to Aberystwyth after his bankruptcy following a failed speculative buildings scheme in Bloomsbury in London.  Yet, the contacts he was to make in Wales led to Nash becoming one of the leading architects of the Picturesque.  The early development of his interest in the ideas of the movement can be seen when he designed a castellated triangular lodge for Uvedale Price sometime between 1791-4.  He also worked for Thomas Johnes at the spectacular Hafod estate where Johnes had planted 3 million trees to paradoxically create a more ‘natural’ looking Picturesque landscape.

For Nash, the ideas he developed in that short period from 1790 until he left to go back to London in 1796, were what made him one of the most significant architects of the period. The influence of Downton Castle and Nash also created a strong regional collection of these mock castles – Garnons (dem. 1957), Saltmarshe Castle (dem. 1955), Goodrich Court (dem. 1950), Garnstone Castle (by Nash, built 1806-10 – dem. 1958) Hampton Court Castle (alterations 1830s-40s) and extending down to Devon where Nash designed perhaps one of his best creations; Luscombe Castle (built 1800-4), and into Cornwall, where he designed Caerhays Castle (built 1807-10).

Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)
Kentchurch Court from "Views of the Seats, Mansions, Castles, etc. of Noblemen and Gentlemen" (London : 1829-1831)

By their very nature these were large houses and often a little impractical which sadly meant many were demolished.  This is why Kentchurch Court is important – not only is an early work by Nash in the style of house which was to become his trademark, but it’s also one of the survivors of the tragedy of the many demolished country houses.

Perhaps the current Mrs Lucas-Scudamore should be grateful, in some ways, that their branch only inherited some fine carvings from the sale of the other much grander family seat, the grade-I Holme Lacy House (now a hotel) rather than the house itself with its 9 fine rooms with plaster ceilings which Pevsner though to be some of the best in the county.  The story of Kentchurch Court today is a familiar one of a family with an incredible history and a fine house and estate struggling with the usual demands for maintenance and £120,000 per year running costs.  Mrs Lucas-Scudamore and her two children (Mr Lucas-Scudamore being estranged and living away) battle on with determination but managing a house like this requires a money tree not a family tree – but this house is too important to be neglected.

Country House Rescue: ‘Kentchurch Court‘ [Channel 4]