The Nottingham Essay: Edward Harley and the birth of the British Library

Robert Harley (1661-1724) was a proper toff and like proper toffs he spent most of his life buying up as much culture as possible. His particular penchant was books and manuscripts which were procured by Humphrey Wanley, an über bibliophile and Harley’s personal librarian and agent. By 1721 he had an incredible personal library that contained 6,000 volumes, 14,000 medieval and later charters, and 500 rolls. This meant he accumulated massive debts, all of which were passed down to his son Edward Harley (1689-1741).  

Robert Harley was a pretty important fella too, responsible for guiding the Act of Settlement through parliament in 1701, which is the main constitutional law governing the succession to the throne of the United Kingdom, as well as the other Commonwealth realms. This would be instrumental in paving the way for the Union with Scotland in 1707. But things went pear shaped in 1715 when he was impeached and accused of treason with the French, and banged up in the Tower of London for two years while awaiting trial. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the experience took its toll and he passed away a few years later in 1724.

Unlike his father, Edward wasn’t a particularly good scholar and was renowned only for skipping lectures. But he inherited the family gene for collecting books, and, naturally, building up debts. Clearly incensed by the state’s ingratitude towards his father, he commissioned Joseph Goupy to copy a painting of Belisarius, which featured a Roman general forced to beg at the gates of Rome. The painting was a blatant two fingers up at the establishment for not knowing when their bread was buttered.  

Although Edward dabbled with politics – doing a brief stint in the House of Lords and Commons – art and culture offered a more viable means to express and reflect his ideas. The problem was he didn’t have much money. Fortunately this could be resolved by marrying the right woman, which was anyone with multiple barrelled names. The lucky Lady in question was Henrietta Cavendish-Holles who, after a right ding dong in the courts surrounding her inherited fortune, had a purse of £500,000. Robert wasted no time in squandering £400,000 of this on his obsessive collecting. They would later have a daughter, Lady Margaret Cavendish Harley (1715–1785), who married William Bentink, 2nd Duke of Portland (1709 – 1762)

Edward was well liked but he was a pretty rubbish landowner, neglecting his duties in pursuit of his pleasures. He was warned on numerous times by close advisors to be more frugal with his money but he just couldn’t help himself, often paying well over the odds for some of his books. If alive today, he would definitely be one of those people caught in a bidding frenzy on eBay, paying silly money for tat because the desire to own something outweighed the material value. Matters would not have been helped by his wife’s family being illustrious collectors, thereby feeling the social pressure to emulate or usurp their collections. But let’s not over psychologise him. He was a bit of a greedy guts.

Edward was known for his Grand Tours of Britain, all caustically recorded in his diaries where we discover Stonehenge was ‘unpleasant’ and Salisbury ‘an exceedingly nasty town’. He had his own arty farty circle too, surrounded by painters and writers. These included Alexander Pope, satirist Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe (1719) which is widely recognised as the birth of the novel. But let’s be honest, they were all after a bit of patronage to fund their works.

He was a man of principle, though, and led a group of friends who helped publish the collected poems of Matthew Prior in 1718. This was done through a subscription of 1,445 people. But this wasn’t complete altruism. Prior had previously been accused of treason while under his father’s leadership (during the Treaty of Utrecht) and so bringing his work to the public domain was a means of sticking it to the Whigs and the establishment.

The Harley’s were responsible for creating an unprecedented collection of books that would see the library of Welbeck Abbey and manuscripts from the family home at Brampton Bryan converge during Edward’s life. There were even workshops set up in the family’s London home where books were lovingly bound and preserved. But unlike a lot of collectors of the period, Edward was keen to share his fetish, opening up his private collection to fellow bibliophiles and scholars. The problem was he simply didn’t have the money to maintain his passion.

In 1739 Lady Henrietta was forced to sell the Wimpole estate and Edward turned to the fizzy pop, drinking himself to death by 16 June 1741. After his death a vast majority of his collection was sold to pay debts, many of it going abroad. But there is a happy ending. A large chunk of his collection was sold to the nation for £10,000. This would become the foundation of what we now know as the British Library.

Source: The Great Collector: Edward Harley 2nd Earl of Oxford by Derek Adlam and The Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire S80 3LW

Other visual essays in the Nottingham Essay series

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About James

James is the Literature Editor of LeftLion magazine. He is also an academic and a writer who has been published in various magazines and books. This means he spends most of his time in front of a computer screen writing about life instead of living it. Therefore, do not trust a word he says.