Books enhance our lives and it’s essential to have a library to do justice to one’s collection, says Daniel Pembrey


Creating a library is one of life’s great journeys. Daniel Pembrey meets the companies that can not only help amass a great collection, but create beautiful country house libraries to store them, too.

For more on country house interiors, carefully appointed lodges, clubs and interiors have become an extension of the sporting field. Read creating foxhunting interiors: 1750-1930. Or discover how hygiene meets decadence in luxury country house bathrooms: guests getting into hot water.


“Born of a deep and abiding love of Ireland and its history, my father, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, created a large library of Irish books at Chatsworth,” recalls the current duke fondly, speaking at Heywood Hill bookshop in London’s Mayfair. “I inherited not only the library but also a great interest in books generally. Now my son, owner of Lismore Castle in Ireland, has moved the library to the country that inspired it, creating another link between the generations.”

Those visiting Britain’s stately homes have good cause to marvel at the great libraries, in which the eye travels easily up high bookcases and ladders to ornately carved flourishes and gold-leafed motifs. Less attention tends to go to the leather-bound spines and glinting Roman numerals lining the shelves. Yet assembling a collection of books remains one of life’s great journeys and pleasures, as experienced in residences across the land. Such collections can also become an important way by which a collector is remembered.

Country house libraries

The library at Chatsworth, seat of the 12th Duke of Devonshire, the owner of Heywood Hill Bookshop.

Happily, there are specialist companies that can not only help develop collections but also provide for their physical accommodation. In the Duke of Devonshire’s case, he ended up acquiring outright the famous London bookshop that had assembled his father’s Irish collection. Heywood Hill, located in a Georgian townhouse on Curzon Street, was founded in 1936. Writer Nancy Mitford worked there during World War II, helping to place it at the centre of literary and social circles. Under the current supervision of Nicky Dunne, the 12th Duke of Devonshire’s son-in-law, it has come to specialise in both assembling libraries on myriad subjects and helping collectors acquire books one at a time.

These services are now sought out by clients from all over the world. Heywood Hill completed 25 library projects last year, ranging from 300 books on the Caribbean to 4,500 titles on the history of Western civilisation. “The key to creating a wonderful library is having not only rare books knowledge and expertise at the heart of the process but also a deep love of books,” explains Dunne. “Anyone can fill shelves. Very few people can do it well. Our Libraries Department lives and breathes good books and knows where to find them.”

Central to Heywood Hill’s success has been a set of relationships with out-of-print and rare-book suppliers, as well as subject matter experts, throughout the world. Because of this network, an American client might commission the London bookshop to assemble a collection on the Great American Novel, say. Equally, because of this network, Heywood Hill has come to deal in collections of books, sometimes placing entire collections at a time, and fascinating ones at that.


An example is the Rolleston Foxhunting Collection, comprising 534 titles (the majority being first editions) covering foxhunting from 1650 to 1950. It spans biographies, fiction, cartoons and more. Titles include Nicholas Cox’s The Gentleman’s Recreation (1674) and Peter Beckford’s Thoughts on Hunting (1781). The Rolleston family started the collection in the 19th-century and, last year, it became available to purchase for the first time.

“Many book collectors share a desire to see their libraries not only stay together but also to have a life beyond them,” says Dunne. “That’s where we can also help. We find new homes for established collections. Sometimes it’s a question of pairing a collection, or indeed an individual rare book, with the person or institution who will look after it and value it most. Every collection is different.”

Those setting out to accumulate new collections may seek out purpose-built settings that can wow in their own way. Based in the Somerset village of Cheddar, Artichoke is a design-build company that aims to create spaces “not only looking as if they were always meant to be there, but also adding value for future generations of a client’s family”, explains founder Bruce Hodgson. “We want to help build up Britain’s heritage.”

Country house libraries. Antony House

The library at Antony House, still the family home of the Carew Poles.

Hodgson has a particular interest in Victorian and Edwardian joinery detail and is a member of The Carpenters’ Company, the City of London livery company established as a medieval trade guild to look after the welfare of those working in the profession. Artichoke’s renown grew during the 1990s with its work at Parnham House, the Grade I Listed Elizabethan stately home in Dorset. But even this unusually well-suited background barely prepared Artichoke for a recent commission in Rutland, involving a magnificent late-17th-century, Grade II*-listed country house. The commission was to create a library in the Baroque style, extending to almost 5,000 cubic feet, using European walnut. It took Hodgson and his team on a journey to Prague, where inspiration was found in the Baroque Philosophical Hall at the Strahov Monastery built in the 1790s using wild-grain walnut and regarded as one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, and then on to Croatia, where the Artichoke team managed to locate European walnut with an extra metre of root ball. “Most European walnut comes from short trees, farm grown, which didn’t give us the length we needed,” explains Hodgson.

The swags, tails, acanthus leaves and other exuberantly carved features were entrusted to master carver Ian Agrell, who runs one of the few carving companies that never carves by machine. Surfaces were finished so as to facilitate the gesso work and the water gilding, a traditional method of applying gold that encourages the leaf to adhere, considered to be the highest quality of all gilding techniques. The gold leaf was then burnished and antiqued (rendered less bright) to make it look ‘in period’. Finally, the team installed a secret drawer, disguised with acanthus leaves – gilded, of course – as a ‘thank you’ gift for the commission. “When we invited the client to behold the finished library, he stood on the threshold with tears in his eyes,” recalls Hodgson. “Seeing his vision realised in this way was a highly emotional experience for him, and one he will doubtless remember for the rest of his life.”


Behind the drama of such settings lies a set of technical considerations for any would-be custodian of rare, and in particular old, books. Halstock is a design-build cabinetmaker working on some of the most exclusive interiors in the world, including The Glebe, an ultra high-end residential development in London’s Chelsea. In this world, requirements can be exacting.

“At the heart of what we do is a deep understanding of the practical requirements,” says Paul Walton, the company’s design director. “Books are damaged by direct sunlight and the wrong atmospheric conditions, so lighting, air circulation, temperature and humidity control are key. Interestingly, Georgian houses often addressed the light issue with shutters in angled window reveals. Today, we may rely more on blinds when the library is not being used. We often build in lights, for example, in pilasters between shelving units, which make the books easier to locate and are also aesthetically pleasing.”

Country house libraries. Bespoke

A bespoke library by Artichoke, a chance to showcase your ‘beautifully rare interests and passions’.

Ideal conditions are neither too dry or damp, nor too hot or cool. Walton considers 50% relative humidity and 20°C to be good targets. Older books tend to have a high acidic content and can easily become discoloured and brittle. In warm conditions, leather bindings are equally prone to cracking. At the same time, damp may promote fungi or mould growth, potentially encouraged by dust, a food source. Regular dusting is advisable and some libraries incorporate features such as a decorative leather fringes below shelves to prevent dust from settling on books beneath.

Stowing the books might seem like a final, straightforward exercise, but books need to be stored appropriately. Ideally, books should be kept upright at a 90-degree angle to the shelf on which they rest and should be supported on either side by other books or stands of similar size, to prevent covers becoming warped. The books should not be packed in too tightly, as covers and spines can be damaged upon being removed from shelves, while large, folio-size books need to be stored flat.

“Where and how the books are stored and accessed can become a giant, fun puzzle,” says Walton. “We find ourselves incorporating sliding ladders, pull-out surfaces and folio or map chests. A cataloguing system is often required, which could be a card-based Dewey Decimal system or a computer-based system employing a barcode reader. A simple shelf-numbering or naming system can work for some, while, for others, arranging the books by size or colour is desirable. Everything depends on the client. And it is important not to overlook security. These books can often be irreplaceable.”

Country house libraries. Francis Terry

Architect Francis Terry believes in doubling up, his dining room also serving as a library.

Meanwhile, others warm to the idea of simply being surrounded by books. Classical architect Francis Terry is a proponent of doubling up room functions. His dining room is also a library. “It’s nice to be able to lay out books or plans on the dining room table,” he remarks, “though I considered it prudent to store the books behind glass, in case a dinner party gets too boisterous.”

All manner of details and eccentricities might enter in. Brian Purnell, founder of Distinctive Country Furniture, reports brisk trade in secret library doors. “Sometimes they serve a functional purpose such as leading to a gun room or another room that the client wishes to keep secure,” he says. “At other times, a client simply likes the idea of a secret door.”

You may find as many combinations as there are individuals and, indeed, individual books out there. “The only thing that you absolutely have to know,” ruled Albert Einstein, “is the location of the library.”

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Titles recommended to Field readers by Heywood Hill’s Rare Books Department

The Shooting Directory, by RB Thornhill
Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, London, 1804; first edition, £595
Contains engraved diagrammatic plates of gun mechanisms (one of which is folding). Lacks pages 215-220, which were cancelled in the later two issues because, “the author had been a little too outspoken over a controversy concerning the Manton Patent Breech, that arose between Mr Manton and the Duke of Richmond”.

Trout Fishing from all Angles, by Eric Taverner
London, Seeley, Service & Co, 1929; first edition, number 30 of 375 large paper copies, signed by the author, £1,500
Taverner has written widely on all aspects of modern fishing. This, a large work of some 450 pages, is one of the most complete studies of the subject ever made.

Savage Sudan: Its Wild Tribes, Big-Game and Bird-Life, by Abel Chapman
Gurney and Jackson, London, 1921; first edition, £495
Chapman was a hunter-naturalist who maintained that the sport of big-game hunting and conservation could go hand in hand. He was instrumental in the establishment of the first game reserve in South Africa and is credited with saving the Spanish ibex from extinction. Contains 248 illustrations, chiefly from rough sketches by the author.

The Complete Sportsman; Or, Country Gentleman’s Recreation, by Thomas Fairfax
J Cooke, London, circa 1760; early edition, £495
With engraved frontispiece of a stag hunt, attractively hand-coloured. Contains a wealth of practical information on animal and game husbandry, horse racing, hunting, dog breeding, angling, shooting, fowling et al.

Alten Red Letter Days: the Salmon Fishing Diaries of Colonel Sir North Dalrymple-Hamilton, by Roy Flury (editor and compiler), Cambridge, MA
Privately printed at the Ascencius Press, Maine, by Charles B Wood III, 2009; first, standard edition, number 93 of 150 copies, £225
Finely printed and well-illustrated edition of these diaries on the sporting waters of Alten in northern Norway, leased to the Colonel’s friend, the Duke of Roxburghe. The diaries cover 1913, 1920-23, and 1929, with a chapter on subsequent trips.

For more rare sporting book suggestions, readers might consult CFGR Schwerdt’s Hawking, Hunting, Shooting, Illustrated in a Catalogue of Books, Manuscripts, Prints and Drawings, 4 Volumes, 1928 and 1937 (the fourth volume published at the later date).