The 5th of December 1898 has a special place among lovers of the printed word as the day when The London Library first unveiled the amazing building in St James’s Square that we recognise today.
The Library (which was founded in 1841) had already been in existence for over 50 years, but it had long outgrown the unappealing Georgian freehold it occupied in St James’s Square and during the 1890s it had successfully raised money for a complete rebuild.
Overseen by President Sir Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father) and by Charles Hagberg Wright, the Library’s Secretary and Librarian, work began in 1895 and within three years had seen “the worst house in the square” transformed into the striking building the Library occupies today, with its Portland stone façade (developed as a result of a special fundraising drive), spacious Issue Hall, elegant Reading Room and beloved iron grille floor bookstacks.
The design was the brainchild of architect James Osborne Smith and involved the construction of one of the first steel framed buildings in London. In its cutting edge bookstacks it utilised the latest thinking about the use of steel flooring to achieve the optimum combination of space-saving and strength. The grille floor design was also implemented to aid ventilation – an aspiration which any contemporary user of the Backstacks can testify has not been realised!
Work continued intensively for three years and Leslie Stephen – an early pioneer of Alpine mountain climbing - could regularly be found clambering up the scaffolding to monitor progress.
The opening ceremony was held in the new Reading Room on 5th December 1898. Among the attendees were The Bishop of London; Lord Wolseley (the Commander-in-Chief); Irish historian and political theorist Mr Lecky MP; and the Liberal statesman Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Earl of Crewe. Sir Leslie emphasised that the project “was not undertaken from any desire for bricks and mortar, nor with the view of adding to the beauties of London. It was undertaken because of dire necessity”. Quite simply, with a collection approaching 200,000 volumes, the Library had outgrown its premises and “it was necessary to either build or burst”.
The new building immediately caught the public’s imagination. The Times reported that “The reading room which is some 50ft long and excellently lighted, is one of the finest of its kind in London, and the book exchange on the ground floor offers abundant room even for the rush of borrowers on a busy Saturday afternoon.… The iron book stacks, as American librarians call them …are planned to hold the largest possible number of volumes in the available space”.
The Times also praised the new classification system which “reflected great credit on the librarian, Mr Hagberg Wright who has carried it through”.
They concluded: “The transformation is … far more satisfactory than could have been expected. The books, which formerly crammed passages, garrets, and pantries, have now found proper shelf-room in accessible places; the latest methods of arrangement approved by the Library Association have been put in practice; everything is readily under the reader’s hand; the reading room is excellent; and in a word, the London Library is properly housed”.
After three years of hard work – during which, remarkably, the Library closed its doors to members for just three weeks - Sir Leslie Stephen reported with evident relief that they were now emerging from the chaos that had surrounded them for the last few years and he felt sure the public would appreciate the convenience of the new building.
But one person missed out on the accolades. The architect James Osborne Smith did not feature at the opening ceremony and his contribution in developing one of the best-loved libraries in the world was overlooked. Something current users may reflect on as they continue to enjoy the unique building that he designed and that remains strikingly unchanged from the day it was first opened over a century ago.
Thomas Carlyle - writer of works such as The French Revolution: A History - was also the founder of The London Library and this month, the Library’s Collection Care team have started an exciting conservation project to help restore and protect some of the books from his collection.
The books are owned by The London Library and have been on loan to the National Trust so they can be displayed - along with many other of Jane and Thomas Carlyle's possessions - in the drawing room of the Carlyle House at Cheyne Row in Chelsea.
With the house closed for annual winter maintenance and conservation, we're carrying out much needed repairs and conservation to 28 books originally owned by the Carlyles - many of them by classical authors, but some written by Thomas and Jane Carlyle themselves. Our Collection Care team are ready with special Japanese paper and wheat starch paste to give the books a new lease of life so they can safely go back on display at Carlyle's House in Cheyne Row next Spring.
Find out more from our latest blog.
Little Red Books have been in the news recently with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell raising eyebrows in the House of Commons by reading passages from Chairman Mao during the Autumn Statement.
Radio 4's Broadcasting House decided to do a follow up and came into The London Library to interview our Archive Librarian Helen O'Neill to find out more about the history and magnificence of small and miniature books.
In a fascinating five minute interview Helen takes us through some of The London Library's collection.
Featured books include 16th century Latin and Spanish Bibles; the UK's smallest authorised Bible, dating from 1896 and coming with its own magnifying glass; and one of our earliest small books printed in 1515 by Aldus Manutius, the originator of the printed pocket book and the inventor of the space saving italic typeface. Helen also discusses the beautifully illustrated A Simple Story by actress and novelist Elizabeth Inchbold.
Describing the collection as "a feast for the eyes" Presenter Paddy O'Connell marvels at some of the craftsmanship on display.Touring the Library, he records the silence in the Reading Room (a creaky floorboard is a good sign of our 175 year heritage!) and delights at the smell of books in the central bookstacks - "the smell here is gorgeous; breathe in this smell and you feel a lot more well-read than when you came in!"
Find out more about our collection of small and miniature books in our latest blog.
The latest issue of The London Library’s magazine is now available on-line and contains the usual fascinating mix of articles and insights by leading writers and thinkers - all of whom are Library members.
- Renowned historical biographer Flora Fraser looks at some of the Library’s books and eLibrary resources that have helped shape her latest biography George and Martha Washington: A Revolutionary Marriage.
Writer and Actor Ian Kelly’s play Mr Foote’s Other Leg is currently showing at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. He writes about how largely forgotten works in The London Library’s Literature Collection were the crucial chain of events that led him to write the play about the life of Samuel Foote - the most celebrated entertainer in Georgian London.
Philip Hook is a Director and Senior Paintings Specialist at Sothebys and is also a Trustee of The London Library. His article explores some of his favourite journals written by artists over the centuries, including Delacroix, Paul Klee and Andy Warhol.
Peter Stothard is Editor of the TLS, an author, and was Editor of The Times between 1992 and 2002. Here he turns his hands to reviewing the Library’s wonderfully varied Birds section featuring bold and glossy plates by JJ Audobon, Edward Lear and Peter Scott as well as 900 more modest but much loved books on the subject.
In his article Cities Built on Books Canadian writer Alberto Manguel looks at the ways in which books have shaped the identity of the places in which explorers, settlers and migrants have lived. The Spanish conquistadores carried with them the works of their age, shaping their interpretation of the world they were discovering. Mendoza and his men brought with them a small collection of books and a harrowing account of their settlement of Buenos Aires recorded their privations. The 10th century Grand Vizier of Persia would transport his library of 117,000 titles on the back of 400 camels. In the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, tents have been set up as makeshift book rooms. As Manguel writes, “Our constant migrations are pinpointed by reading. As exiles, as explorers, as refugees, as settlers we carry books in our chattel. Our ancestors brought with them cattle, tents, grains, weapons, but also their libraries. We travel with our paperbacks or kindles. The custom is very ancient.”
As well as a great read, The London Library Magazine is also a great way to catch up on other news about the Library, including finding out about the schedule of forthcoming Member events and our emerging plans for our 175th anniversary which we will be celebrating next year.
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