Ed Potten

Shelf Indulgence


The use of sham books in England has a long history. In a famous satirical description of ‘Leonora’s library’, published in The Spectator in 1711, Mr Spectator writes of his visit to the ‘Lady’s Library’ of a widow named Leonora, ‘formerly a celebrated beauty’ who has subsequently ‘turned all the passions of her sex into a love of books’. There he found a number of ‘counterfeit books upon the upper shelves, which were carved in wood, and served only to fill up the number, like fagots in the muster of a regiment’. For this practice to be satirised, it seems likely to have already been well established by 1711.

The early years of the 18th century saw dramatic changes in the content, use and architecture of the private library. With a few notable exceptions, most early 17th-century private libraries in Britain were ‘closet’ libraries, small collections of practical books kept in a locked chest or a closet off a bedchamber. As such, they were wholly private spaces for study, devotion and contemplation. With the increase in printed output in the 16th and 17th centuries, books became more affordable and widely accessible, and libraries began to outgrow the closet.

New tastes in book collecting meant that the emphasis began to shift from content to materiality. For the first time a book’s age, rarity, status and place within the ‘canon of collectible books’ added to its value. By the 1720s the ‘architectural library’ was fast becoming a standard feature of the big house and the library was being transformed from a private space to a public one. William Kent’s glorious library at Holkham Hall, for example, completed in the mid-18th century, served a dual purpose, being at once a library and a family living room. The public library room became a space for entertaining – a canvas for demonstrating not only dynastic erudition and wealth but also an awareness of contemporary trends in book collecting and interior design.

The move was from the outset viewed with a degree of sniffiness. Writing in 1739, the anonymous author of a collection of prim Essays and Letters on Various Subjects noted:

When I came first into this family, I thought my master was a very learned man, and my lady much given to reading; for he had a large fine library, and she a closet of choice books curiously bound, gilt, and lettered; but I soon found my master never went into the library but to shew it to company, and my lady’s books were rarely taken out of the case but to be dusted … I was informed that a study is as necessary in a nobleman’s or gentleman’s house, although he does not read, as a chapel though he never hears prayers.

These changes in the function of the library were simultaneous with the peak of the Anglo-Palladian movement. The publication of the first volume of Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus in 1715 popularised neo-Palladianism and coincided with a boom in Whig country house construction. Symmetry was central to Palladian architecture, inside and outside. The unfortunate need for internal doors and windows, however, could really upset the Palladian ideal. A variety of ingenious methods for disguising openings were conceived. One was the ‘jib door’, defined by the OED as ‘a door flush with the wall in which it stands, and usually painted or papered so as to be indistinguishable from it’. When decorated with false shelves and false book spines, it at once maintained symmetry and gave the impression that one’s library (and hence one’s learning) was significantly more extensive than it was.

As with much else in the Palladian house, the use of false books stemmed from the influence of the Grand Tour. Tourists visiting sites would have been surrounded with the very finest examples of Italian intarsio, in which optical illusions of books, shelved in presses, artfully glimpsed through partially closed cupboard doors, as if in use, were central. Francesco Pianta, an intarsio master, described his work at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice as ‘the library whereof the librarian is deceit’.

Jib doors were a feature of the first generation of architectural libraries and became increasingly popular in the later 18th century. Kent’s plans for the library at Holkham are marked with the instruction ‘A halfe door to be contriv’d herein’, while fine early examples can be seen at Belton House, Felbrigg Hall, Osterley and Nostell, the latter executed by Thomas Chippendale, no less. By the turn of the 19th century the library jib door decorated with false books was very much de rigueur. There are superb examples from this time at Tatton Park by Lewis William Wyatt, and at Philipps House by Sir Jeffry Wyatville. The heyday for the private library jib door seems to have been the 1830s. Highlights include those at Charlecote Park, Castle Ward, Scotney Castle and Oxburgh Hall.

The choice of titles for false spines has long been considered a source of entertainment, and false spines abound with in-jokes and humorous puns. Perhaps most famous among these are those executed for Sir Thomas Dyke Acland in around 1820 to cover a cupboard door in the library at Killerton Park. It contains such essential titles as Hobble on Corns, Wig without Brains, Heavisides on Muscular Compression, Hard Nuts to Crack and Sermons on Hard Subjects. Near the hinges we find Squeak on Opening, Bang on Shuttings and Hinge’s Orations. In 1831, in response to a request from the Duke of Devonshire, Thomas Hood produced a list of suggestions for slightly more subtle puns for the entrance of a library staircase at Chatsworth. It includes Johnson’s Contradictionary, Cursory Remarks on Swearing, Shelley’s Conchologist and the truly awful Percy Vere (‘In Forty Volumes’). Even Charles Dickens succumbed to the fashion. On his move to Tavistock Square in 1851, he commissioned the bookbinder Thomas Robert Eeles to produce false books to fill two recesses, specifying exactly what he wanted on the imitation book backs. His ‘entertaining’ list included Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing, Heavyside’s Conversations with Nobody, Lady Godiva on the Horse and The Quarrelly Review.

Mount Stewart House, Newtownards, contains the only known example of a set of shutters decorated with sham books. Moreover, the choice of false titles reflects an unprecedented degree of thought and care. In 1804–5 a wing was added to the west end of the house by Robert Stewart, Lord Londonderry (1739–1821). The shutters were commissioned for the new library room, which formed the south-most end of the new extension. Their date can be established with certainty. Two receipts in the estate papers record that on 18 February 1805, Londonderry paid £14 7s 7d for ‘binding mock books for window shutters’, then on 29 April 1807 a further £16 17s 2d for ‘mock books for the doors and windows’.

The surviving false spine titles at Mount Stewart appear at first glance to be a rather drab selection, with no obvious puns. A great many are identifiable as specific printings of real works and fall into clear categories, reflecting a well-stocked and up-to-date library, replete with books of Irish interest, polite literature, travel and biography.

Fifteen volumes in the false library relate to the works of Edmund Spenser, nine of which are labelled ‘Spenser’s Comedies’. These are the first indication that all is not quite as it might appear. Spenser’s surviving published works make reference to other works that are today lost or perhaps never existed. The creator of the false spines at Mount Stewart was well aware of this and created a subtle in-joke in the selection of titles. Spenser’s ‘nine English Comedies’ are known only from reference made to them in the letters he exchanged with Gabriel Harvey. Likewise, the Epithalamion Thamesis, another title to appear on the spines, is unknown save for Harvey’s mention of it. Purgatory, A Sennight’s Slumber and The Hell of Lovers are similarly lost, while The Court of Cupid, The Dreams and The English Poet are known only from The Shepheardes Calendar.

The population of the false shelves with lost works continues in the selection of titles by ancient authors. Sixty-three works are identifiable from the surviving spine labels, and in every case they are either fictional or known to us only from fragments or from references to them by later authors. Podalirius’s Opera Chirurgica, for example, merits twenty volumes, while Hesiod’s lost poem Heroogony sits alongside his Catalogue of Women, Aegimius and Astronomia. The majority of the false spines chart the supposed works of authors whose entire output has subsequently been lost. En masse, the list of authors reads like the Pinakes, Callimachus’s catalogue of the lost library of Alexandria: Pyrrho of Elis, Antiochus of Ascalon, Arete of Cyrene, Alexinus of Elis, Anaximenes of Miletus, Phaedo of Elis, Polemon, Menedemus of Eretria, and so on. Many are obscure: Sotion, for example, was one of Seneca’s teachers and is mentioned in passing only twice by Seneca, while Anaxis was an obscure Boeotian author of a history of Greece of uncertain date, now lost. The false spines at Mount Stewart present a library of ancient philosophy, satire, comedy, drama, history and biography wholly lost – a modern-day library of Alexandria.

The in-joke was so subtle, however, that it was lost with the death of Londonderry in 1821. The shutters were later moved around and chopped up; some had their spines replaced, others were discarded. Happily, what does survive allows their story to be pieced together and demonstrates unexpected connections between the Stewart family and Belfast’s Presbyterian mercantile elite at the turn of the 19th century. Londonderry’s father was an elder in the First Presbyterian Church and was on intimate terms with some of the leading intellectuals within Irish Presbyterianism. Compiled by William Bruce (1757–1841), a polymath scholar and a powerful figure in Belfast society, the list of lost ancients fitted well with the Presbyterian advocacy of classical learning and with the long Irish tradition of self-referential academic humour and the playful use of erudition that stretched back to Columbanus.

Although the motivations of those who commissioned them may have changed, the use of false books is still widespread. Exact replica book spines now grace the shelves of the King’s Library at the British Museum (the real books are housed elsewhere). There is still a healthy trade in false books for private libraries, one sufficiently buoyant to support several specialist companies, and recent examples suggest that the long history of punning and in-jokes is alive and well. The new facade for an existing jib door at Boynton Hall, near Bridlington, is replete with carefully selected titles, including Newton’s Fall of Apples, Pollen on Sweet Peas and Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum. On a more modest level, gastro-pubs across the land are covered with wallpaper bearing a repeating book design, creating a uniform, if slightly ghastly, impression of a room lined with ancient tomes. Anglo-Palladianism has much to answer for.     

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