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

Flashmob: A reading celebration. 12 July – Old Market Square

flash-crop1I hate Nottingham because there’s always so much going on it makes it impossible for me to leave and get that dream house overlooking the Yorkshire Dales that my heart claims I desire. This Saturday sees the Waterfront Festival bring a host of musicians to bars down by the canal as well as the beginning of the Sneinton Festival. There’s also a massive sandpit being erected in Market Square so that Dad’s can get pissed and pretend they’re in Skeggy while teenagers make phallic shaped sand sculptures in the rain.

At 12 noon I’ll be offering my contribution towards distractions from shopping in the form of a mass flashmob to celebrate reading. This is partly to promote Dawn of the Unread, an interactive graphic novel that brings back to life 12 writers from Nottingham’s past, and partly to show a bit of appreciation to the many authors, bookshops, libraries and publishers who have brought us joy over the years through the written word.

Reading is often a solitary process and usually takes place alone on a bus, in a bath, behind a desk at work when the boss is out the office having an important meeting. But for five minutes I want people to be alone together, reading in one designated place: Old Market Square.

Inspiration for this can probably go to Martina Conti’s choreography A Reading Sculpture, which celebrated the interaction between the human body and the book. She created this as part of WEYA in 2012 and is still the best artistic performance I’ve ever seen. A group of readers simply got out their books and then moved around a given space, reading in various positions. A Kama Sutra for book lovers if you like.

The flashmob is a joint collaboration between Dawn of the Unread, John Mateur and Robert Squirrell. We don’t want anyone to do anything contrived. Simply to turn up with a book, sit down on the first strike of 12 and then start reading. We’ve contacted all demographics from Mumsnet to asylum seekers to students and asked them to bring along a favourite or current book. My hope is to turn reading into a visual act, a kind of physical sculpture which hopefully will remind those who need to be reminded of the importance of stories in our lives.

BookedWe will also be yarnbombing the Cloughie statue to celebrate the launch of ‘Booked’ the fifth comic in the Dawn of the Unread series. This is written by poet Andy Croft and illustrated by artist Kate Ashwin and tells the tale of a monstrous but charmismatic hybrid called Byron Clough,

Please join us. Bring your Beano, Fifty Shades, or dirty Italian phrases handbook for that imminent summer holiday. We don’t care what it is as long as you’re reading.

And if you miss the event you can catch me on NottsTV on Monday, around 6.30ish, waffling on about the beauty of books.


dawnoftheunread website