Osterley’s library restocked

The Osterley Library before the recent rearrangement of the books. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

National Trust curators Lucy Porten and Mark Purcell have just told me about an exciting project underway at Osterley Park, west London, to revive the identity of the library there.

The collection of books at Osterley was one of its chief glories, but it was sold in 1885 to fund repairs to the fabric of the house. Other books had been brought in to dress the shelves, but they were not particularly appropriate to the room designed by Robert Adam in 1766 and did not really reflect what had been there previously.

Subtle difference: the Osterley Library with the Norris books added - and with an opened jib door. ©National Trust/Claire Reed

However, in 1991 a collection of antiquarian books was bequeathed to the National Trust on the death of Norman Norris, a slightly enigmatic Brighton book collector. Norris came from a family of collectors and antiquarians, and his book collection was largely assembled during and immediately after the second World War, when many British country house libraries were being dispersed.

Virginian Eared Owl, in a copy of William Hayes's "Portraits of Rare and Curious Birds and their Descriptions from the Menagery of Osterley Park", 1794, purchased at auction for Osterley in 2010 with the help of the V&A Purchase Grant Fund. ©NTPL/John Hammond

As Mark Purcell says in his article in The Book Collector (vol. 55, no. 4, Winter 2006), the collection includes topographical books, sixteenth-century Italian books, early novels, fine illustrated books, classical texts, books in French, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English books and a group of early library catalogues.

Fold-out illustration of Copt Hall, Essex, in Farmer's "History of ...Waltham...", 1735, with an Osterley Park bookplate and purchased at auction for Osterley in 2009. ©Sworders

Some of the books from the Norris bequest were used to restock the similarly depleted library at Ham House. The remainder have now been added to the shelves at Osterley by Lucy, Mark and House Manager Claire Reed, where they give a good impression of the kind of books that would have been there pre-1885. In addition (and as mentioned in a previous post on the Osterley library), we occasionally have the opportunity to buy back some of the books that were actually at or are associated with Osterley. 

Amazingly, it was discovered that the Norris collection includes a catalogue of the Osterley library, including listings of the books laid out on the tables and desks. This will now allow us to recreate the look of the library even more authentically.

11 Responses to “Osterley’s library restocked”

  1. Andrew Says:

    There is such a wealth of knowledge in the libraries of the National Trust, but I often get the impression that the books are used as expensive wallpaper – pretty to look at, but locked away and untouchable.

    Is there a comprehensive catalogue? Are they available to scholars? Are there plans to scan them to make their contents available to the public?

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, you make several pertinent points.

    Yes there is a catalogue, which Mark Purcell and a number of collaborators have been working on for the last few years. It is not quite complete yet but they are getting there. It can be consulted through the COPAC library catalogue site (http://copac.ac.uk/ – choose “Main Search” and set “Library” to “National Trust”).

    The reason National Trust libraries are not normally consultable like public or academic libraries is that these books are not just valuable for their printed contents, but also for the other physical evidence that links them to a particular house: the bookplates and other ownership inscriptions, the bindings, the scribblings in the margins, etc. This evidence can tell us all sorts of things about the history of a family, their tastes and allegiances and intellectual preoccupations, and more generally about the history of ideas.

    The primary importance these historic house libraries (both the books and the rooms in which they are housed) is therefore as collections of historical objects, and they need to be looked after as such. Their decorative appearance, which you allude to, is one aspect of that, but not the only aspect.

    Mark’s recent book on Irish libraries (http://bit.ly/jaljdo) is an extremely instructive and entertaining example of social and cultural and political history as seen through country house book collections.

    Most of the books in National Trust libraries are consultable in the various national and academic libraries, but if they are not and if people have reasons for needing to see them then access can always be arranged. Groups of books are also regularly brought out for exhibitions and talks and so on.

    So basically you could say we regard books as objects rather than as books :)

  3. graham daw Says:

    So the art of leaving books lying around on surfaces has a good pedigree and is not as I imagined a more recent trend encouraged by World of Interiors.Architects designs for libraries would show books upright and every so often on the slant.Was this to alleviate the tedium of drawing so many books or was it a picturesque effect that the occupants would follow?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Graham, that question about the degree of ‘picturesqueness’ is very interesting. I suspect that the way the library was used would have been a factor: if the owner was scholarly the library would presumably be more messy and ‘picturesque’ than if it was used primarily as a reception room.

    And there was a trend in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century for libraries to change from being a male preserve to becoming a ‘coed’ reception room – although in the morning it would still be the sitting room for the men, according to John Claudius Loudon in his “Suburban Garden and Villa Companion” of 1838. I have this from Peter Thornton’s “Authentic Decor”, 1984, p. 220.

    Thornton also illustrates the library at Cassiobury Park in about 1815 (plate 245), in which one can see some gaps among the books, but no books actually leaning to one side. There is a pile of books visible on a sofa table, and there are specialised types of library furniture as well, such as a stand for reading a book while standing up, a table with a cantileverable surface and an x-framed folio stand. There are two women in the room (one reading, the other writing) as well as three dogs; a door and one of the windows are open, all seeming to hint at an atmosphere of cultured relaxation.

    I will ask Mark what he can tell us about how libraries were displayed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

  5. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    How wonderful for Osterley that a catalog was made and that it ended up in the right hands. Such conscientious accounting has been a godsend for so many restoration projects. I remember visiting Colonial Williamsburg years ago and hearing that the chairs in the Burgess Chamber were authentic down to the number of tacks used — all because of the detail of colonial accounting. (Of course metal tacks were more costly then, too.)

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Mark, indeed, three cheers for the inventory clerks and the tack counters :)

  7. Parnassus Says:

    Your laudable efforts to recreate the library at Osterley are quite impressive. Even though the appearance is similar, the aura is quite improved. The original designers and owners often had a quite specific appearance and usage in mind, involving every detail. Samuel Pepys was meticulous about the exact appearance of his books, and even made small blocks of wood to support his books so that the tops were even. (I understand his library has been recreated at Cambridge).

    Original books are one of the most effective windows into the minds of the original owners and their way of life. The new books at Osterley are an appropriate succedaneum, and incidentally a good tribute to Mr. Norris.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Parnassus, thank you – Mark and I would clearly agree with you that books say something about their owner’s mind and personality. That is also why I am so amused by your story about Pepys and his book-blocks: how wonderfully precious :) It’s a bit like the late David Hicks sorting his books by colour…

  9. style court Says:

    Emile, isn’t there…well, to paraphrase the commercial…an app for that?

    I think Jennifer Boles wrote about this. Contemporary collectors may scan their shelves with an iPhone or iPad. Instant inventory.

    In the blogosphere the subject of books — collecting and living with — is a hot button issue. Book design is a field of its own, and as you say it’s part of our material culture — tells us so much about ourselves. But sometimes I think there’s a mistaken perception that those who appreciate the outside of books never actually open them :)

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, what an interesting and useful app – something for the book fetishist who has everything :)

    But luckily we also still need the uniquely human skills of Mark Purcell and his cohorts in the case of historic book collections, to identify rare or unique books, odd personalised bindings and idiosyncratic marginalia, etc.

  11. style court Says:

    Definitely need Purcell and co’s uniquely human skills!

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