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13 November 2020

ACE is pleased to present another in our series of short cultural insights, taking a familiar topic and delving into detail, with the aim of inspiring cultural curiosity. This week’s theme is something to which we often turn as the winter draws in – a good read. Today and tomorrow, we shine a spotlight upon two noteworthy English country house libraries and explore what makes them so fascinating, before making some reading recommendations of our own for ACE travellers.

 

 
The country houses of North Norfolk are famed for their fine interiors and eminent collections of art – from the Old Masters of Holkham Hall to contemporary sculpture in the grounds of Houghton Hall. The area is also home to two historically important libraries, both in the ownership of the National Trust – at Felbrigg Hall and Blickling Hall.
 
Felbrigg Hall
Somewhat surprisingly for those visiting for the first time, the exterior of Felbrigg Hall showcases two quite distinct architectural styles of the 17th century. The earlier east wing is typically Jacobean, whilst the later west wing demonstrates a progression in taste from later in the century. This variety in design continues inside, as much of the interior of the hall was remodelled in the mid 18th century. 

It was at this time that a Gothic Library was designed by Palladian architect James Paine, who was also involved in the decoration and remodelling of many other great town and country houses – from Nostell Priory in Yorkshire to the now-demolished Northumberland House in London. It is believed that the library at Felbrigg was previously the Great Chamber of the Jacobean house. 
What is perhaps most remarkable about this library, however, is its contents. Featuring over 5000 books, the collection was amassed by Felbrigg’s owner William Windham II, and includes many volumes once in the ownership of the famed writer Dr Samuel Johnson. William intended the books to be read – not just to serve as decorative showpieces imbuing his country home with a scholarly air.

Dr Johnson bequeathed him two books upon his death – a New Testament and a copy of Poetae Graeci Heroici per Henricum Stephanum – and William later acquired more books from the great poet and essayist’s collection when they were sold at auction. During this period, collectors would often send an agent to auction to purchase artworks or artefacts on their behalf, and it seems that William enlisted a bookseller to purchase books for him from the sale, rather than attend in person. 
Samuel Johnson by John Opie

Featuring over 5000 books, the collection was amassed by Felbrigg’s owner William Windham II, and includes many volumes once in the ownership of the famed writer Dr Samuel Johnson

These books now form part of the collection in the library at Felbrigg, and research is currently being undertaken by the house’s Librarian to identify the particular books that were once owned by Dr Johnson. Although it is often difficult to ascertain precise provenance in the absence of reliable notes or inscriptions, one theory is that certain bindings might hold a clue to the books’ past lives.

Whilst this historical research is ongoing, there are also stories relating to the library at Felbrigg without empirical evidence, but which are, for some, no less compelling. Staff and volunteers who have worked at the hall say that the ghost of William Windham III, who inherited Felbrigg in 1749, will appear in the library – but only when books are arranged in a certain combination on the table. It is said that he still visits the library so as to catch up on the reading he was unable to complete during his lifetime! 
 
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