If any one room in the Downton Abbeys of Britain came to symbolize the wealth, learning and sheer quirkiness of the English aristocracy, it was the library. Here, the nobleman could retreat into a private sanctuary where the earl of this and the duke of that could open a tome to enter the next rabbit hole of self-didactic enrichment.
Some of the papers in these libraries were tatty and loose, but for the most part they amounted to cultural gems, such treasures as illuminated manuscripts, early printed incunabula and skillfully bound volumes that explored everything from the classics to theology to cosmology. Each book came with its own provenance and patination of history and ownership. They were always expensive. Today, some of the finest — one thinks of a Shakespeare First Folio, for example — sell for millions of dollars.
For this reason, many of the grandest surviving libraries tend to be the part of the country house that ticket-buying visitors never get to see, or if they do, it's from behind a velvet rope. This may have contributed to the way these important and beautiful collections have faded from our cultural consciousness while other treasures in these palaces — and the palaces themselves — have not.
Mark Purcell seeks to correct this in his survey of historic and surviving country-house libraries of the United Kingdom and Ireland. "The Country House Library" is a book that seems long overdue. As the former longtime libraries curator for the National Trust, Purcell is singularly qualified to discuss these troves. The Trust owns and runs some of the choicest historic houses in Britain and is the steward of 170 or so such libraries in its care. If you add libraries still in private or other institutional hands throughout the British Isles, "at the most conservative estimate," Purcell writes, "we must be dealing with hundreds of thousands of books in hundreds of locations."
Among his conclusions: Libraries were a part of the country house earlier than generally thought. Their numbers have been underestimated, as has the "enormous range" of their form and function.
But it's not just the tourists who have ignored the libraries, it's the scholars, Purcell writes. Architectural and art historians, while poring over every aspect of the fabric and decor of these libraries, have forgotten to mention their contents. No one, he writes, "would have written about picture galleries or porcelain cabinets without saying anything about the pictures or the porcelain."
Looking at the pictures in the book, this oversight seems understandable. Some of the rooms are stunning. The library at Alnwick Castle is a two-story, floor-to-ceiling sanctum that manages to look both magisterial and cozy, with its roaring log fire, marble hearth, and cluster of fine upholstered chairs and settees. Who needs books!?
The library at Wimpole Hall is crafted to perfect Palladian proportion; at Syon House and Kenwood House, both by Robert Adam, the book rooms doubled as sublimely elegant gathering spaces.
With the rise in the wealth of the aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries, the libraries became such an important massing of fine books that some owners employed librarians. Or, as the 6th Duke of Devonshire put it, "I am not worthy of my own collection."
For some, rare books became an addiction. In the early 1700s, Edward Harley, the 2nd Earl of Oxford, went book batty, amassing 7,639 manuscripts, more than 14,000 rolls, charters and legal documents, 50,000 printed books, 41,000 prints and "an extraordinary 350,000 pamphlets," Purcell writes. Harley's extravagance eventually led to his ruination and the dispersal of his great collection.
Later, bibliomania became more widespread and created a bubble. At a frenzied auction in 1812, a nobleman named the Marquess of Blandford bought a supposedly unique 1471 edition of "Decameron" for an eye-popping 2,260 pounds. (At around the same time, Jane Austen sold the copyright to "Pride and Prejudice" for 110 pounds, Purcell writes.)
The greatest collector of the age was the 2nd Earl Spencer, a forebear of Princess Diana, who needed five libraries in his home at Althorp House to contain his books. That collection was sold in 1892 to the widow of a Manchester cotton magnate. The moneyed industrialists became the new bibliophiles. The library was a mark of pedigree that "no arriviste could do without," Purcell writes. Conversely, shifts in the economic and tax landscapes depleted the wealth of the blue-bloods. Selling off the incunabula was, as Purcell points out, a lot less obvious than unloading the Gainsboroughs and van Dycks.
It is easy to understand why an antiquarian book holds so much appeal. In what other object is there so perfect a confluence of art and craft, of mind and hand? Such books are tangible testaments to the skills of the engraver, the printer, the bookbinder and even the tanner. Today's keyboards and screens, with all their promise of data, can only be touched. A rare book, by contrast, is felt.
Adrian Higgins writes about the intersection of gardening and life for The Washington Post.
By Mark Purcell
Yale University Press. 352 pp. $55