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.
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.
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.
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.