A new chapter for the book collection at Mount Stewart
A project to catalogue over 4,500 books at Mount Stewart is uncovering some hidden treasures while revealing the intricate link between these historical texts and the people who owned them.
Unlike a famous portrait or an item of furniture that can easily be put on public display, historic books are much harder to showcase, often left stacked in book shelves, rarely seeing in the light of day. Thanks to a £45,000 funding grant from the Foyle Foundation, Mount Stewart is challenging the status quo with an ambitious project to catalogue at least 4,500 texts and make them digitally accessible to the public, revealing their stories for the benefit of all.
The fully funded project will look at books and monographs housed in the sitting rooms of Lady and Lord Londonderry, documenting them in detail and revealing for the first time, the true importance of this historic collection.
A book collection of international importance
‘Mount Stewart has an extensive collection of books dating from the early 18 century right up to the twentieth century,’ explains House and Collections manager Neil Watt. ‘And yet because we don’t have a physical space called The Library, it’s easy to overlook the fact that we do conserve thousands of books, many of which are of international importance.’
A team of book cataloguers, Ed Potten, Harvey James and Daniel Westerhoff are doing amazing work uncovering the secrets of the Mount Stewart book collection and already there have been some incredible finds, as Neil explains: ‘Just before Christmas we found an 18th century garden design book, inside of which were handwritten notes by Edith, Lady Londonderry commenting on different formal gardens and structures which she would eventually bring to life here from 1921.
‘The gardens as we can see them today directly correlate with the books in Lady Londonderry’s collection, we even found tracing paper in some texts where she would have traced out designs and taken them to show her workmen.’
‘The project allows us to showcase a house and gardens that are connected. Both are Edith, Lady Londonderry’s creations and should be appreciated as one. It’s only when you take the books down from their shelves and start to look at them in detail, that you realise they were bought or given to inform, educate and inspire Edith to create the amazing world-class gem that is Mount Stewart House and Gardens.’
An unrivalled collection of Irish literature
Edith’s extensive collection includes books on garden design and her other great passions in life - Celtic Mythology and Irish literature. The archivists have found books from Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and other prominent 20th century Irish authors that have been personally presented to Edith and signed by the authors.
There’s also a copy of a book that Lord Londonderry signed just after his stroke where his signature is clearly very shaky. ‘It’s finds like this that bring the humanist story to the fore and help us forge real personal connections with the people behind the house,’ says Neil.
Personal insights revealed
As well as revealing insights into the influences behind the Londonderry family, this vital project is enabling public access to the book collection in a number of ways. Firstly by cataloguing the books and creating a comprehensive picture of the collection, but also by detailing and photographing them and making this information digitally accessible. Museum-standard book supports have also been purchased so books can be put on public display without the risk of damaging them.
‘The project is enabling us to take one more aspect of our collection and make it accessible to the public forever, for everyone,’ Neil adds. ‘It reinforces our commitment to the National Trust’s core message of Move, Teach, Inspire, making our artefacts and beautiful treasures accessible to all.’
Throughout 2017 at least ten volunteers will be educated in the skill of cataloguing books and will have the opportunity to interact with the texts and monographs on a one-to one basis while receiving coaching and induction from experts on their field. ‘Within the year these 10 volunteers will be highly skilled in dealing with historical texts and will develop an in-depth knowledge of the collection that they can share with the visiting public,’ explains Neil. ‘Our hope is that they will then be able to use these skills to catalogue the 20th century collection. This project isn’t just about the books, it’s allowing us to inform, educate and up-skill a team of volunteers.’
Visitors are encouraged to watch the cataloguers and volunteers in action when Mount Stewart House reopens in March and take the opportunity to engage with the team and view the books on display.