Great books in our collections
We look after more than 400,000 books and manuscripts, held in over 160 historic houses across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Tim Pye, Libraries Curator, takes a closer look at some of the most significant works in our care, from the medieval Lives of the Twelve Caesars to the 20th-century Just So Song Book. Discover some of the treasures in our collections, from elaborately decorated manuscripts and books with exquisite bindings to the more 'common' books with unique, personal connections to our places.
'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 of the scandal and salacious gossip about the Roman emperors that make them so memorable, 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).
In the 17th century, the manuscript belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden. Christina was somewhat tight-fisted and was notoriously slow in paying her staff their wages, so perhaps this book was taken by her librarian Nicolas Heinsius (who signed his name in the book) as part payment of the debt. It was subsequently acquired by Sir Richard Ellys, probably in the Netherlands, and is one of the 12,500 volumes that make up Blickling Hall, Norfolk, arguably the finest library in our care.
Jean de Planche binding, 1565
Kingston Lacey, Dorset
The binding of this book is one of the most remarkable to be executed in 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 humanae vitae’ 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. Our copy of Morgan’s Bible is in the collection at his birthplace, Ty Mawr Wybrnant, Conwy, Wales. This cheaper and smaller edition, 'Y Bibl Cyssegr-lan, sef yr Hen Destament a’r Newydd' was 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. It's also probable that the supervision of the printing and the writing of the preface was the work of a Chirk clergyman, Robert Lloyd.
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.
Hobbes’ 'Leviathan', 1651
Springhill, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland
Thomas Hobbes’ 'Leviathan' contains one of the most iconic title-pages in the history of printing. A giant figure rises from behind some hills, his body composed of a multitude of human figures. The giant’s crown, sword and bishop’s crook symbolise his authority over the mass of people he represents.
The margins of the Springhill copy are full of jottings and notes, both from before and after the book was acquired second-hand by George Butle Conyngham in 1733. It's just one of the more than 3,000 books at Springhill, constituting the most important library we care for in Northern Ireland.
Hobbes’ relevance to our libraries is seen particularly at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire where he lived and undertook the role of librarian.
'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. As is the case with many country house libraries, there is an extensive collection of maps and atlases at Dunham including sumptuous examples of the Dutch atlases that inspired Seller. These large format atlases were acquired as much for the magnificence of their printing as the factual information contained within.
'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.
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) at Anglesey Abbey features a 'secret' fore-edge painting. The picture disappears when the book is closed but fanning the leaves brings it back into view. It's a remarkable example of a Gothic novel with such hidden delights.
The library at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire is a magnificent collection of nearly 5,200 books with fine bindings and colour-plates (there are a couple of thousand more elsewhere in the house) lovingly assembled between the 1920s and 1960s by Huttleston Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven (1896–1966). The majority were acquired not as collector's items but as reading copies. Indeed, Lord Fairhaven liked to note the date he had read a particular book on the flyleaf.
'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, with 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, we do have this example in the extremely fine 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' abound in 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.
In 1911 Francis Sangorski (1875-1912) and George Sutcliffe (1878-1943) famously produced an extravagantly decorated and bejewelled binding on a copy of ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ which was lost on the Titanic. These volumes, inlaid with multicoloured leather to create vibrant pictorial scenes, are among several sumptously decorated bindings acquired by Lord Fairhaven for Anglesey Abbey.
A closer look at Lord Fairhaven's collection
Often described as the rarest of all English bird books, 'Birds of Great-Britain' (1789) was limited to 60 copies. William Lewin hand-painted every plate, nearly 20,000 illustrations for the whole print run.
François Le Vaillant's 'Histoire naturelle des oiseaux de paradis' (1806) features stipple point engraving, a process where colours are applied individually to the engraved plate, a first in book publishing at the time.
Ackermann’s lavishly illustrated 'Microcosm' (1808-10) featured drawings of figures in contemporary dress by Thomas Rowlandson and renditions of famous London sights by A.C. Pugin.
St Helena is famous for being the island on which Napoleon was exiled from 1815 until his death in 1821. An earlier visitor was George Hutchins Bellasis whose 'Views of Saint Helena' was published in 1815.
This remarkable panorama (1853) depicts the Duke of Wellington's funeral. One of the longest hand-coloured prints ever produced, it measures over 20 metres when extended, about the length of two London buses.
'Vera; or, The Nihilists', 1880
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.
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
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.'
Tucked inside the volume are two additional manuscript song sheets presented (and perhaps penned) by their governess, Miss ‘Hanky’ Hankinson.
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.
Some of our most notable libraries
Blickling Hall, Norfolk
Blickling’s library is one of the greatest private libraries in the British and Irish Isles and is the largest collection we care for, consisting of some 15,000 manuscripts and printed books.
Belton House, Lincolnshire
One of the great country house libraries, Belton is home to over 10,000 volumes, giving a 400-year history of the reading habits of successive generations of the Cust and Brownlowe families.
The library of Agatha Christie’s holiday home consists of some 4,000 books. It includes books given to Agatha with inscriptions from friends, such as Eden Phillpotts and P.G. Woodhouse.
Townend houses a small but very extraordinary library built by a family of yeomen farmers over four centuries. It provides a unique insight into the way in which books were acquired many miles away from major cities.
Quarry Bank, Cheshire
The Styal Community Library at Quarry Bank, a rare example of an intact Northern workers’ library showing the reading habits of working-class men, women and children in the first half of the 20th century.
Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire
Thanks to Lord Fairhaven being an avid book collector, Anglesey Abbey houses about 5,200 books in the library, with another 2,500 or so, in other rooms of the house.