Kingston Lacy – Books do furnish a room
Lorraine Gibson looks at the work of Kingston Lacy’s book conservation team
Published in July ’12
Endless examples of rare and antiquated books line the sumptuous walls of the library at Kingston Lacy House, the elegant 17th-century home near Wimborne, perhaps more widely famed for its lavish interiors and collection of Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian and Brueghel paintings.
The library is a marvellous cocoon of a room that is unapologetically dark and furnished for purpose with deep, wing-backed reading chairs, rich brocades, heavy, claret, velvet drapes and solid, stately desks.
An array of large iron keys, which once locked the doors of Corfe Castle and were given to Lady Mary Bankes as consolation for the loss of the imposing home she so fiercely, but unsuccessfully, defended – and to which she believed she would return one day – now hang somewhat accusingly around the library’s ornate fireplace.
The Bankes family was in residence at Kingston Lacy for 300 years until 1981, when Henry John Ralph Bankes, unconvinced that the family could maintain the house, unorthodoxly bequeathed the house to the National Trust. As well as taking over the preservation of the property, the Trust trained a dedicated team to preserve its important and eclectic contents, not least the priceless collection of books that reflect the history and interests of the Bankes family over the centuries.
The books, of which there are hundreds, are aesthetically grouped along the walls according to size and appearance, rather than by any ordering system as mundane as subject matter, title or author.
Most of them are bound in either vellum or leather, the latter tending to fare better as they can be repaired or restored; the former can merely be preserved. All these fragile volumes, as well as the fixtures and furnishings, are subjected to an extensive care and maintenance programme which goes on all year round, both in front and behind the scenes.
In the first instance, everything is protected from the ravages of natural and artificial light by the use of the heavy drapes and thick blackout blinds, which are drawn much of the time. The window coverings, though utilitarian in their purpose, merely add to the room’s air of hushed calm.
An array of measures are taken to keep the dreaded damp at bay, including the use of moisture monitors, temperature control – within the confines of what is practical in a period building. Each one of the hundreds of books is ‘aired’ on a three-yearly basis, at which point their condition is also reviewed.
The collection comes under the wing of the Collections Manager, Rob Gray, who has a dedicated team of expert carers and repairers, including married couple, Martine and David Cheale. They in turn take their inspiration and guidance from Mark Purcell, who is the National Trust Libraries Curator and a frequent visitor to the property for talks on the subject.
To say that the Cheales are passionate about their charges is a bit of an understatement: ‘For David it really is a labour of love because he mainly goes from one end of the library to the other, just dusting the books,’ explains Martine. Her white gloves gesture towards the immaculate shelves where evidence of her husband’s latest project – to clean every single book in the library – is clearly evident in the subtle divide between the books with bright spines which have been ‘done’ and those with dull ones that patiently await David’s attention. Martine’s gloves are not just worn for effect, they are routinely used when handling items from the room’s contents in order to help to prevent any potentially damaging oil from her fingertips coming into contact with the books and furnishings.
As well as avoiding damaging the contents of Kingston Lacy, Martine has a much more positive role: ‘I do restoration and repair work,’ she says. ‘I completed the National Trust’s course, which was fantastic as it taught me how to do the job properly using the correct tools,’ she adds, holding up the wax paper that she sandwiches between vulnerable pages and then, surgeon-like, she lays the numerous other implements that she uses to keep the books in perfect condition. These include ‘bone folders’ and, more intriguingly still, rolls of bandages. ‘I use them to wrap the books in for 24 hours after repairs,’ says Martine, who carries out most of her intricate work in a small and far-from-glamorous room, away from the opulence and grandeur of the public areas of the house.
She and the other library conservators are deeply knowledgeable about their subject and do not hoard their knowledge, but are keen to share it with the public. There is usually a talk for visitors on the last Saturday of each month.
A treasure trove of the written word, the library contains gems far too numerous to list, but outstanding items – leaving aside the aged tome dedicated entirely to the humble cucumber, include an antiquated yet beautifully preserved copy of the works of Euripides, which dates from 1503. It has had to be re-covered in its original style of tooled leather and gold, but its interior is original and pristine.
Then there is William John Bankes’s immensely personal, hand-written travelogue from his ‘Grand Tour’ in 1840, which makes for a fascinating read. It is neatly penned in French throughout the French leg of his journey, insightfully detailing dinner menus, wine prices and all manner of other delightful minutiae. Then, as he travels into Italy, it becomes clear that he struggles with the language and so he reverts back to writing in English to recount, among other things, the details of his purchase of the two magnificent Rubens paintings that still take pride of place on the walls of Kingston Lacy today.
Being French, Martine confesses to having a particular soft spot for this book. But then she also loves a very rare and exquisitely detailed 17th-century medical book on the topic of human anatomy. One look inside its pages and the heyday of human dissection in the name of science is brought back to life through a series of elaborate drawings featuring finely-crafted, wafer-thin flaps which lift to reveal the innermost workings of the human body. Dated 1645, internal organs, musculature, skeletons and nervous systems are revealed in all their gory detail and yet, tellingly reflecting the mores of the day, carefully constructed fronds of foliage, à la Adam and Eve, are coyly placed over nether regions in order to preserve the modesty of the book’s male and female subjects.
Then she selects a large, majestic volume and opens a page to reveal stunning colour plates featuring seasonal flowers month-by-month.
It is one of the library’s fabled Furber books, a rare pair of richly-illustrated ‘calendars’ dating from 1736 with elaborately-painted floral and vegetable scenes by the artist Peter Castile. Beneath their wax shrouds, the colours are as brilliant, the detail as sharp as the day they were printed and Martine takes on the expression of a proud mother showing off a charming child.
A charming little cook book, that was penned by a close friend of King Charles I and somewhat ponderously entitled The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digby Kit. Opened: Whereby is Discovered Several Ways for Making of Metheglin, Sider, Cherry-Wine, &c. Together with Excellent Directions for Cookery and also for Preserving, Conserving, Candying &c. probably instructed the head cooks of the gentry’s households of the day on the best methods for making perfect mince pies and cheesecakes – and, of course, the titular Metheglin, a honey drink similar to mead. Aside from the obvious snapshot of social history the book provides, it is a rather unusual library find, as cookery books were almost exclusively confined – and lost – to the rigours of the kitchens.
Later items of note include a copy of The Mayor of Casterbridge, inscribed: ‘Mrs. Bankes, Kingston Lacy. Thomas Hardy, 23 Sept. 1926.’
Perhaps one of the most evocative library items is a dark-green tooled-leather bound annual from 1912 and bearing the initials of the last of the Bankes children to properly occupy the schoolroom: Ralph, Daphne and Viola.
Filled with their own drawings and funny stories written in their lovely copperplate hands, it features a series of tales entitled Gleanings From Schoolroomland and is illustrated according to the seasons, with springtime scribblings awash with sketches of fluffy chicks and the festive season’s tales accompanied by snowy winter scenes. All the library’s books are stories in themselves and none more so than this thoroughly unique example, which poignantly reveals a year in the lives of three young siblings in a way that no stiffly-posed photographs or digital downloads ever could.