The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

Books, books, glorious books!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This beautifully produced and gorgeously, lavishly illustrated publication is far more than a coffee table book. It’s a comprehensive history of British bookishness from its beginning to the present day. The main thrust of it covers the 17th to 19th centuries – the period when the country house came into its own and wealthy people saw Libraries as an essential feature of their homes. Mark Purcell looks at both the books and the rooms they were stored in, and differentiates between them by calling the book collections ‘libraries’ with a small ‘l’ and the rooms ‘Libraries’ with a capital ‘L’, and I’m going to stick with that for this review.

There’s so much in the book that I’ll only be able to give a flavour of it. Purcell has clearly had a ball prying into the bookshelves and book catalogues of centuries’ worth of bibliophiles, and his enthusiasm is matched by deep knowledge, backed up with an immense amount of research. This results in a phenomenal amount of detail, which in the early chapters overwhelmed me a little and made the reading heavy going. Purcell doesn’t simplify by explaining bookish vocabulary which may be unfamiliar to the general reader (like me!), so at first I found myself doing a bit of googling.

The Great Library at Cassiobury Park

But I found that I gradually became fascinated, especially when I realised that the bookshelves of the rich – who, of course, were also the powerful – cast an interesting sidelight on many famous historical personages and the societies in which they lived. Because Purcell tells us as much about the storage of books as the books themselves, it also becomes an architectural history, and a history of the lifestyles, interests and leisure pursuits of these people – an aspect often not covered in standard histories which tend to be concentrated on politics and power.

Eighth century book storage

Purcell follows a fairly linear timeline throughout. He starts with the speculation that the tradition of libraries in Britain began in Roman villas, with scrolls, and discusses in depth what kind of books would have been read. In the next few chapters, he covers the period up to and through medieval times, showing that there was a considerable level of scholarship amongst the nobility. He also discusses how books were stored before Libraries became a feature – in chests or flat on shelves in small studies or closets set aside purely for the purpose of reading and study. Not unnaturally, the main focus is on the English since they comprise by far the largest population, but happily he ranges out to Scotland, Ireland and Wales too throughout the book, which I found tended to bring together the histories of those nations, showing a common Britishness that often doesn’t come through in histories or biographies of a particular subject.

Medieval study

He then goes on to discuss the foundations (and fates) of the great libraries of the late 17th and 18th centuries, some of which would later form the basis of many of our great national and public collections today (and some of America’s and even Australia’s too). By now, some of the collectors were including lighter, more entertaining books amongst the great classics and heavy religious texts – novels, but also lots of informative books, like cookery books, books on animal husbandry, etc. English was by now more common than Latin and Greek, and books in modern languages were beginning to appear on the shelves of the well-travelled. Illustrated books of things like foreign flora and fauna made me feel that this illustrated book is part of a long tradition, and while wikipedia and Google are fabulous alternatives for those of us with modest homes, I lusted for the libraries of the 19th century in particular.

Alnswick Castle

I also lusted for their Libraries! From the illustrations, the earliest ones look rather bare and functional – huge half-empty rooms surrounded by shelving. But by the 19th century, Libraries had become living spaces where people spent part of their leisure time. Railways had allowed for the tradition of the weekend house party to begin, and Libraries were becoming part of the attractions of the country house, sometimes even including billiard tables, or being situated next door to the billiard room. Comfy seats appear – and footstools, card tables, open fires and reading lamps. The nouveau riche in particular went for comfort and novels, and I found myself longing to either be a nouveau riche 19th or early 20th century country house owner, or at the very least to be invited to one of their house parties. Another place to be added to my ‘where to go when they invent a time machine’ list.

Purcell is a bit saddened by book collectors who had old books rebound – personally I think they’re gorgeous!

In the major houses, books regularly outgrew the space in the main Library, (don’t we all recognise that problem!), so that other rooms would gradually be co-opted into use as secondary Libraries. Purcell shows that many of the householders provided books and even occasionally specific Libraries for their servants, and some of the libraries gradually began to operate almost like public lending libraries for people in the surrounding countryside.

On the right: Vita Sackville-West’s tower room library

Purcell finishes by discussing the 20th century, when many of these libraries were sold off or donated, sometimes as a method of paying off swingeing inheritance taxes. He himself works with the National Trust, the body that has taken over responsibility for maintaining many of these great country houses on behalf of the nation, and he tells how they’ve gradually realised the bookish treasures they’ve acquired along with the houses. A sad and also happy end – the passing of a great tradition, but hopefully these rooms and books will be maintained and made available to scholars and the public for years to come, even if we’re not allowed to actually read them.

As you can hopefully tell, I loved this – it might have been heavy going in places, but I learned lots about a subject dear to my bookish heart. And those illustrations are to die for…

Chatsworth: Darcy’s Library!!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

Amazon UK Link
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56 thoughts on “The Country House Library by Mark Purcell

  1. I need this more than oxygen. That is all I can say about that.
    Also, I wouldn’t mind being one of the present day nouveau riche, quite frankly – but those of 19th century are definitely more appealing! Imagine the house parties and whatnot. If Agatha Christie novels can be believed, there might even be the odd murder! I hope they hurry up and invent that time machine…

  2. I have to get this book! When I was at Library School (too long ago now to remember details) one of the courses was library history and this book would have been fabulous then as I don’t remember seeing anything like it then. When I visit NT properties etc the library is always where I spend the longest, but in most of them you can’t get to see the books properly – so frustrating.

    It’s going on my wishlist straight away!

    • Isn’t it gorgeous? And interesting too. I believe it’s actually the NT’s Book of the Month this month – so I picked up from the publisher’s twitter feed. I have a feeling that the author – who I think is kind of their top book man – might try to make the libraries more accessible to visitors – to view anyway. He was quite critical of privately owned houses that don’t let people in.

  3. When you manage the time travel, do make sure you can also track down a really good baker. Obviously care will be needed not to transfer buttered crumpet and fruit cake to the magnificent tomes, but if we all promise to don gloves before book touching, can you keep a little portal open for bookie chums to come for chat and toasty crumbs, sitting round the fire, and then, replete with tea, we will don gloves and browse the shelves…….I hate to say it, but you might have to check our reticules to ensure a slim tome or two has not been forgetfully secreted, before we depart, burping in satisfaction, back to the twenty-first. (Memo to self, if your stays are loosely laced, it not only allows space for more consumption of the tea and bakes, but would offer space for the hiding of a larger tome, as FictionFan will I’m sure be far too well-bred to insist on body searches. Must remember to check any tome for the presence of bookworm first though. Not a nice thought to get insects beneath stays)

    • That sounds delightful! I’m saving up to buy Chatsworth, so of course you’ll be welcome to come to my opening ball and stay on for the bookish delights afterwards. I shall ask the servants to provide tea and crumpets, but they may well be too busy in their own Library to comply. I do hope they’re not too busy to do the general housework though – I feel it could eat into my time quite a bit if I had to dust and hoover Chatsworth every day…

    • Isn’t it gorgeous? One of the illustrations is of a library which has had all the books removed, and I salivated at the thought of all that lovely shelf-space… 😉

  4. Oh, what a fabulous book, FictionFan! I can absolutely see why you were so drawn in! Those libraries are absolutely gorgeous. And that’s not to mention the stories behind them. I honestly want to dive into a few of those ‘photos. Not that I need to add to the TBR, but this is sorely tempting…

    • It’s gorgeous, Margot! My superficial side wanted it for the lovely pictures, but it turned out the text was just as interesting – not always the case in this style of book. A bibliophile’s dream… 🙂

  5. I think I might actually die of jealousy reading this. I don’t covet much, but a collection like some of these in some of these buildings – a little piece of Heaven!

    • Hahaha – I know! It kinda had that effect on me too – especially some of the cosier, more comfy ones. I could spend the rest of my life quite happily in one of them (especially if servants popped in to clean the room and feed me on a regular basis… 😉 )

  6. I’m not sure I would have relished reading this, but looking through all those stunning pictures would have been a delight! It must have been next to Heaven to have a whole room filled, floor to ceiling, with books. And then to have comfy seating, a fireplace, a cup of hot tea, and perhaps a furry pet cuddled up in your lap — ah, just imagine!

    • I went through it again yesterday to pick pages to photograph without reading any of it, and it was lovely – so many illustrations, of beautiful books and lovely rooms. I know, I’d kill for a library like that… and servants to keep it clean and feed me regularly! Heaven indeed!

  7. Absolutely fascinating! How can I not be jealous? I derive much joy in periodically looking up images of old books and libraries on the internet, including Wikipedia, but this is something else. I take consolation in the belief that there’s probably no fun in being rich and powerful and having old, rare and new books at one’s disposal, anytime. There is equal joy in spotting (and grabbing) a couple of vintage paperbacks in a stack of books at a secondhand book sale. Who am I kidding?!

    • Hahaha – you nearly had me convinced for a second there! The ideal would be both – you could have a second library just for the vintage paperbacks. My major problem was that I couldn’t decide which of the libraries I loved most. Chatsworth because of the Darcy connection? Or one of the smaller, cosier ones? Oh well, I don’t suppose I have to decide any time soon… 😉

    • Thank you! 😀 This is one that’s interesting for reading once, but is lovely to just flick through for the pictures. I’m saving up to buy Chatsworth, so you’ll receive an invite to my library-warming weekend house party… 😉

  8. I don’t know how I missed this the other day. This book would feel right at home with my other coffee table books. I’m going to start throwing out hints to friends and family that I want this book.

    • It is gorgeous – nothing like a well produced coffee table book to put a smile on my face, especially if the text happens to be interesting too. I hope your friends and family are paying attention… 😉

  9. I think I could look at pictures of other people’s libraries all day. Even more, I long to step into them and examine all the books. The older libraries remind me of when certain museums (old houses or schools) have the bookshelves with the glass – and you’re not allowed to touch. I always love looking to see what books are on the shelf.
    I’m glad you included all those nice pictures!

    • This one feels just like peering at other people’ bookshelves – lots of detail! But I must admit one of my favourite pics was of a library where all the books had been removed – all that glorious shelf-space set me dreaming of how I’d fill it… The pictures in this one make it a gorgeous physical books as well as being an interesting one. 🙂

  10. Oh how gorgeous! And what a beautiful book to display on a coffee table beside your own stack of books 🙂

    I could see how some of this would be a big of a slog to read through, but the pictures make it all worth it!

    • Absolutely! I love well produced coffee table books for flicking through, and even better if the text is interesting too as it is in this one, even if it can be a bit heavy at times… 🙂

  11. Holy crap. I actually just packed my boredom box for work this weekend with some rulers, magazines, and graph paper, because i want to design my (small) dream house. And what’s the best part? Two-story library/office with built in bookshelves. I want the library to be bigger than any other space.

    • Ooh, sounds wonderful! I hope your dreams come true one day! Some of the pictures in this book show library extensions people have built on to existing country houses, and some of the libraries are as big as the original house. One is even built to look like a castle… 🙂

  12. Coffee table books often intimidate me because I feel like they’re not really designed to be read like other books (thus the coffee table part?). They tend to be big, dense, and informational. How long did it take you to read this, and how did you approach reading it?

    • I’ve read a few recently and some of them are surprisingly interesting, especially the ones produced by University presses or the British Library. I always read factual books in small chunks each day before I allow myself to move on to fiction, so they always take me a while. This one took about 3 or 4 weeks, I think.

  13. Apart from the pleasure of being immersed in many wonderful book rooms, I’m also taken by the bookish and social history in this book. Must check if the local library has this; if I find I love it enough, I might have to ponder getting it myself.

    • I hope you manage to get hold of a copy. I found the history aspect fascinating once I got used to the level of detail he goes into. You could tell he’s fascinated himself – nothing more attractive than a knowledgeable enthusiast!

    • Oh, that would be interesting to see. This book talks about some of the various places some of these collections ended up and I’m sure Getty was mentioned, but I can’t remember whether it was the LA one…

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