Mark Purcell, The Country House Library

Cover image for The Country House Library featuring a photo of a large private library

Mark Purcell.  The Country House Library. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.  352 p. Ill. ISBN 978-0-300-22740-6.  US$55.00 (hardcover).

Following work at the Bodleian Library, Mark Purcell became responsible for libraries in the care of the British National Trust, and he is now in the research-collections department at Cambridge University. With this background, and with his own scholarly focus on private and country-house libraries, he was eminently qualified to write this fine book. It has more than 225 illustrations, many of them in color.

Purcell writes that, while quite spectacular libraries are to be found in many country houses, many more have been lost to dispersals, to fire, and to violence: in some of the Irish ‘Big Houses’, ‘heavy ancestral books’ were used to ‘barricade windows against attack’ in the disturbances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 10). Still, in Ireland as in England, the decline of the privately-owned great house and thus of its library owed more to changing social and economic conditions than to arson or attack.

The author ends his opening chapter by pointing out that the creation of the country-house library has quite ancient beginnings, adding that many more libraries existed, and many more books were actually read by their patrician owners, than has been thought. “Surviving fifteenth-century English books are commonly well thumbed and covered with jottings and scribblings” (p. 49).

Significant levels of book ownership date to the thirteenth century. Purcell describes in some detail the voracious acquisitiveness of Richard de Bury, whose famous Philobiblon – apparently written around 1345, but only published more than a century later – might be seen as an example of bibliomania. Early collections of books were often largely devotional, of course – psalters and books of hours – but histories and “romances” were present, too, and some were very large and heavy volumes indeed: “coucher books” had to be laid flat on a table or propped up on a lectern. The author also devotes considerable attention to book “furniture”, showing how cupboards, closets, book-wheels and hanging desks gradually gave way to dedicated studies and rooms for reading. 

In the sixteenth century, a hundred books might constitute a private library, and institutional collections were small; Cambridge University had about 450 books and manuscripts.  Still, Lord Lumley’s mid-century library contained some 2,600 books. The wealthy Lumley was an accumulator rather than a true bibliophile, but scholars and society at large have always eventually profited from the activities of the Cottons, Harleys, Huntingtons, Morgans, Folgers, and other wealthy ‘bibliomaniacs’. By the early eighteenth century, the library proper was well established. Lavish displays of books, along with cabinets of curiosities and private museums, became more and more popular – and, regardless of any real use made of them by their owners, constituted an important part of rich houses. Later attention to sumptuous bindings reveals a similar combination of interest, care, and wealth.

The late seventeenth century marked the beginnings of serious and persistent book collecting among wealthy patrons. Many were influenced by Gabriel Naudé’s little book, published in 1661 as Instructions Concerning Erecting of a Library. A century later, Thomas Chippendale’s catalogue, the Director, would be consulted for narrower but increasingly important recommendations for library furniture of all types, including bookcases, shelving, tables, ladders, and “metamorphic” library chairs and steps. Librarians and cataloguers also now came into their own, as did the further development of the library into a sitting or receiving room. Although not mentioned by Purcell, the opulent double library of Highclere Castle – seen by millions as Downton Abbey – stands as an example of extended use and display. 

By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, changing fortunes meant that some important collections were being sold for much less than their purchase. The ever-increasing attention to the place of a library in a great country house, however, together with resurgent means, contributed to a renewed ‘bibliomania’ in the early nineteenth century. No account of this phenomenon can omit mention of the life and writings of Thomas Frognall Dibdin. Its title drawing upon an earlier coinage, Bibliomania was a very small 1809 publication, but two years later Dibdin had enlarged it to a tome of almost 800 pages. At the famous Roxburghe sale of 1812, a first edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron went for £2,260 – a huge amount, considering that newspaper advertisements of the time offered a piano for about £20, or a year’s lease on a very large London coffee-house for less than £2,000. Seven years later, the bubble having burst, the losing bidder bought the Boccaccio for £980. One of those present at the Roxburghe sale was Richard Heber, whose own collection of 150,000 books was housed in seven or eight houses in England and on the continent. It was Heber who famously argued that a gentleman required three copies of every book: one for show, one to read, and one to lend. 

The coming of the industrial age meant new money, new country-house owners, and new interest in private libraries. It also meant the rise of important booksellers, like Bernard Quaritch and Maggs Brothers, both established in the middle of the nineteenth century in London. Somewhat later, the famous Dr. Rosenbach of Philadelphia assisted many rich American collectors in the harvest of books from English country-house collections.

While interest in the cultural heritage of the country house slowly grew after the second world war, it took the sequential arrivals from the British Library of John Fuggles, Nicholas Barker and Mark Purcell himself for National Trust attention to the books and libraries in its care to reach a satisfactory level. Purcell’s overall conclusion is that, while the fortunes of important private libraries will continue to wax and wane with those of their owners, collections now owned or supported by public funding are likely to flourish, since their value for social and cultural research has never been so widely acknowledged.

Purcell’s book is an excellent example of a thoroughgoing discussion that is appropriately accompanied by pictures; it is not a picture book fleshed out with commentary. Its 300 pages of text and 50 pages of notes and reference provide a fine introduction to an important part of book history.

John Edwards

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia