The Country House Library by Mark Purcell - review by John Martin Robinson

John Martin Robinson

Notes to Shelf

The Country House Library


Yale University Press 352pp £45 order from our bookshop

This is the first book devoted to the history of the British country house library. Mark Purcell was the libraries curator at the National Trust from 1999 to 2015, and his text is naturally arranged around libraries now in National Trust ownership. The National Trust owns over 300,000 books disposed in 160 historic libraries across the country. Its collections include several first-rate libraries, notably those at Blickling in Norfolk and Lanhydrock in Cornwall.

Purcell has, however, also researched the most important privately owned country house libraries, so his book is well balanced and general. The three greatest private libraries in England remain those at Longleat (for rarities of all kinds), Chatsworth (for incunabula and bindings) and Holkham (for Italian illuminated manuscripts and 18th-century bindings), all well described and illustrated here, though there are some curious lapses. Purcell states that Henry Holland’s beautiful neoclassical library at Woburn Abbey ‘does not survive’. It does, and contains one of the finest collections of colour-plate natural history books in the country. There is no mention of the wonderful Arundell Library at Stonyhurst, a complete Georgian collection bequeathed by Everard, Lord Arundell of Wardour, to his old school. It still contains a Shakespearean First Folio, illuminated books of hours and other treasures.

Such omissions do not impede the overall success of this well-researched book. The range is breathtaking. Purcell begins with villa libraries in Roman Britain, and makes a good case that the first country house libraries in Britain were collections of papyrus rolls in Roman villas. In the early medieval period,

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