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Great books in our collections

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Image of Tim Pye
Tim PyeLibraries Curator, National Trust
Terracotta and black plate in Hamilton 'Collection of Etruscan Greek and Roman Antiquities' (Naples: 1766-1767), part of the Library collection at Tatton Park, Cheshire.
Terracotta and black plate in Hamilton 'Collection of Etruscan Greek and Roman Antiquities' (Naples: 1766-1767), part of the Library collection at Tatton Park, Cheshire. | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The National Trust looks after more than 500,000 books and manuscripts, held in more than 200 historic houses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Libraries Curator Tim Pye takes a closer look at some of the most significant works in our care.

'Lives of the Twelve Caesars', c. 1452

Blickling Hall, Norfolk

This handwritten copy of 'De vita Caesarum' ('Lives of the Twelve Caesars') by the ancient Roman writer Suetonius is the finest Renaissance manuscript in our collections. Suetonius was an inveterate gossip, and his book contains all the scandal and salacious tales about the Roman emperors, such as the Emperor Caligula trying to make his horse a senator.

Commissioned in about 1451 by Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio for his personal library, this manuscript was written in a very fine script on sheets of white vellum by his court scribe ‘Johannes de Maguntia’ (John of Mainz) and decorated beautifully by the artist Marco dell'Avogaro (fl. 1449–1476).

Detail from 'Lives of Caesars' manuscript by Suetonius 1452 at Blickling Hall, Norfolk
Detail from 'Lives of Caesars' manuscript by Suetonius 1452 at Blickling Hall, Norfolk | © National Trust Images/Horst Kolo

Jean de Planche binding, 1565

Kingston Lacy, Dorset

The binding of this book is one of the most remarkable from England in the 16th century. It's the work of Jean de Planche, a Huguenot immigrant binder from Dijon who worked in London from 1567 until at least 1575. Eight bindings by de Planche are known, but this is perhaps his masterpiece.

The binding was probably made for Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Elizabeth I, for it is his armorial device that adorns the front cover. Bacon’s family motto ‘Mediocra firma’ ('the middle ground is safe') appears on the back cover.

The book itself is the encyclopaedic ‘Theatrum vitae humanae’ by the Swiss physician and humanist scholar Theodor Zwinger. An enormous volume of 1,400 pages, it's perhaps the most comprehensive gathering of sources to be compiled by a single individual in the early modern period.

An early Welsh Bible, 1630

Chirk Castle, Wrexham

The complete Bible was first translated into Welsh by William Morgan and published in 1588 (Morgan’s birthplace, Ty Mawr Wybrnant, is a Trust property). This cheaper and smaller edition, 'Y Bibl Cyssegr-lan, sef yr Hen Destament a’r Newydd' is based on Morgan’s 1588 translation and was issued by the London printer Robert Barker in 1630.

It has a particular resonance at Chirk, as the publication was sponsored by Sir Thomas Myddelton, the man responsible for the purchase of the estate of Chirk Castle in 1595. Although this copy is not signed, it was almost certainly owned by Sir Thomas and is, therefore, a key item in Chirk’s old and distinguished library collection.

'The Coasting Pilot', 1671

Dunham Massey, Cheshire

'The Coasting Pilot', a series of atlases produced by John Seller in the 1670s, was a patriotic attempt to overcome what Seller considered to be an over-reliance on the maps and atlases produced in the Low Countries. Seller secured a royal licence to produce the books and was appointed hydrographer to Charles II in the same year that 'The Coasting Pilot' was published. This was quite the turnaround for someone who had been arrested for high treason in 1662 and implicated in a plot to overthrow the King and Church of England.

'The Coasting Pilot' is a large, handsome book but the copy at Dunham Massey is doubly so, having its title page and maps hand-coloured.

The Coasting Pilot, from the Library collection at Dunham Massey, Cheshire
The Coasting Pilot, from the Library collection at Dunham Massey, Cheshire | © National Trust Images /John Hammond

'Suz u Gawdaz', 1672

Tatton Park, Cheshire

This manuscript contains a popular work by the Persian poet, Muḥammad Rizā Khabūshānī (commonly known as Naw'ī Khabūshānī). The poem, the title of which translates into English as 'Burning and Melting', is set in Mughal India and tells the story of a Hindu bride who chooses to join her dead husband on the funeral pyre.

This manuscript at Tatton Park was written in 1672 and is lavishly illustrated in ink, wash and gilt. It's likely that Wilbraham Egerton, 2nd Baron Egerton of Tatton (1832–1909), who had a keen eye for bindings, acquired the manuscript for its covering rather than the textual contents. It's one of more than 30 Islamic manuscripts scattered across our libraries.

'Castle of Otranto', 1791

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

This copy of Horace Walpole’s 'Castle of Otranto' (1791) - often considered to be the first Gothic novel – is a luxury edition printed in Parma, Italy, by the Bodoni press. Like many of the books at Anglesey Abbey it is housed in a fine binding, in this case by the celebrated Edwards of Halifax. To accompany the binding, Edwards added two 'secret' fore-edge paintings. The pictures disappear when the book is closed but fanning the leaves in either direction brings them back into view.

'The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala', 1843

Tatton Park, Cheshire

James Bateman created the fantastic garden at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire between 1842 and 1869 as a home for his collection of plants from around the world.

His passion for exotic plants led him to publish 'The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala'. Published in London in 1843, in an edition of only 125 copies, Bateman's 'Orchidacea' is the largest and arguably the finest orchid book ever produced. The 40 life-size, hand-coloured lithographic plates were created predominantly from designs by two botanical artists, Sarah Drake (1803–57) and Augusta Withers (c.1793–1864), and are accompanied by two vignettes by George Cruikshank (1792–1878).

Sadly, there is no copy of Bateman’s book at Biddulph Grange; however, there is one in the library at Tatton Park, the former home of the Egerton family. Bateman may have been acquainted with this library through his marriage to Maria Sybilla Egerton (although she is not directly linked to the Tatton Egertons).

Sangorski & Sutcliffe bindings for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (1871) and 'Through the looking-glass' (1878)

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and its sequel 'Through the Looking Glass' feature characters that are beloved and recognisable today: the White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter, The Cheshire Cat and, as seen in these striking and colourful bindings, the Queen (and King) of Hearts and Alice.

These editions were published in 1871 and 1878 respectively (neither is a first edition) and were rebound in the early 20th century by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, one of England’s foremost luxury binding firms.

20th-century editions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, with bindings by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, in the Library at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
20th-century editions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Sangorski and Sutcliffe | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

'Vera; or, The Nihilists', 1880

Smallhythe, Kent

In her autobiography, 'The Story of My Life' (1908), Dame Ellen Terry writes that, ‘The most remarkable men I have known were, without a doubt, [James Abbott McNeill] Whistler and Oscar Wilde ... there was something about both of them more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to describe.’

Oscar Wilde felt similarly about the famous actress, writing several sonnets to her and presenting her with a copy of his first printed play, 'Vera; or, The Nihilists' (London, 1880). In contrast to his later plays, 'Vera' was a flop, running for just one week in 1883 in New York City.

Wilde inscribed the title page of Ellen Terry’s copy of 'Vera', writing, ‘To Miss Ellen Terry / from her sincere admirer / The author’. In the letter that accompanies the book, Wilde writes that ‘perhaps some day I will be fortunate enough to write something worthy of your playing’.

Unfortunately, and despite their close friendship, this never happened.
Ellen Terry’s collection of books at her home, Smallhythe in Kent, includes numerous association copies highlighting her friendships with the great and the good of the day.

'Just So Song Book', 1902

Wimpole, Cambridgeshire

Most of Rudyard Kipling’s 'Just So Stories' began their life as tales that he invented to entertain his oldest child, Josephine. Serialised from 1897 and collected together in book form in 1902, their success spawned spin-offs, including painting books and this collection of songs. The lyrics, by Kipling, are set to music by Edward German, one of the great composers of his age and who was knighted in 1928.

As is the case with many of Kipling’s works, a great number of the 'Just So Song Book' was printed. However, the Wimpole Hall copy is particularly special as it's a presentation copy from Kipling to his two children, Elsie and John (Josephine had sadly died in 1899 at the age of six). It's inscribed 'Elsie & John / from their Daddy.'

Elsie Kipling (later Elsie Bambridge) bought Wimpole Hall in 1938. In addition to her own collection of books she transferred some of her father’s books from Bateman’s, East Sussex to Wimpole, thereby creating an important Kipling library.

A volunteer looks at a book in the library at Tyntestfield with bookshelves stacked with gold bound books in the background.

Books and libraries collections guide

Take a closer look at the libraries that we care for, from the grand libraries of Blickling Hall and Belton House, to the personal collections of writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Agatha Christie. Discover more about the books held there and the historical significance of the collections.

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