Monday 16 September 2019

Secrets of the Georgian country house library

The mahogany breakfront bookcase
The mahogany breakfront bookcase

Eleanor Flegg

'What's that?" The object catalogued as a "George III painted lignum vitae tipstaff" for the forthcoming Irish Library sale looks very much like a cosh. James O'Halloran, auctioneer, concurs. "It's for hitting people," he says, wielding the murderous weapon. "It feels wonderful in the hand." But, tempting as it is to think of the tipstaff as the means of creating the body in the library, it probably had a ceremonial role. It's for sale (Lot 65: est. €300 to €400) as part of Adam's auction, The Irish Library, on April 17.

Tipstaves were in fact most usually carried by court officers and were often used to disable those subject to a warrant for arrest - by bopping them on the head. Named after the metal "tip" which screwed on to a hollow stave, it served a double purpose. When the subject of the warrant was suitably disabled, the top was screwed off and the warrant, stored inside for safekeeping, was shown to him. The country house library was two things at once: a collection of books and the room where they were housed. Furnished with bookcases, desks, library tables and comfortable armchairs, the library was often the most comfortable room in an Irish country house. It was also the place for interesting curiosities: globes, telescopes, postboxes, clocks and taxidermy. And then there were the books.

As the contents of country house libraries are dispersed through the auction rooms, so is the myth that the gentry, rich and thick, purchased their "books by the yard", This is largely untrue. Most people read their books, apart from the 19th-century owner of an "unusual metamorphic liqueur box" (Lot 36: est. €1,000 to €1,500). It looks like a pile of leather-bound books but opens to reveal two decanters and four shot glasses.

Most country house libraries were not just showrooms; they were a precious source of reading material that was otherwise hard to come by. In 1828, Prince von Puckler-Muskau, undertook a tour of Britain and Ireland in search of a second wife wealthy enough to finance his grandiose landscape gardening schemes. He spent two years philandering around these islands and returned to Germany wifeless, but published some astute comments about his travels. Of Galway, he remarked that: "in a town of forty thousand inhabitants there was not a single bookseller's shop."

In 1885, the Public Libraries Act was extended to Ireland and, between 1897 and 1913, 66 libraries were built around the country with the help of money donated by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919). Until then, the gentry relied on country house libraries. The rest of the population had fewer options.

Designed to house as many books as possible, as elegantly as possible, the bookcases were monumental. Witness a George IV mahogany breakfront bookcase, three metres tall, displayed in the hall at Adam's (Lot 257: est. €3,000 to €4,000). "We couldn't get it up the stairs," O'Halloran admits. "You'd definitely need a set of metamorphic library steps to reach the top shelf."

There are two of these in the sale: a set of Gillows-style library steps which transform from a stool (Lot 101: est. €2,000 to €3,000); and a chair in the manner of AWN Pugin that also folds over to become a set of steps (Lot 189: est. €400 to €600). Alternatively, you could access out-of-reach volumes with a Georgian mahogany library long-arm (Lot 24: €300 to €500), the predecessor of modern grabber sticks (€14.99 from Woodies - just saying).

Other interesting metamorphic library accessories include a 19th-century gout stool (Lot €169: est. €600 to €1,000). The upholstered stool is raised on brass castors and can be cranked up or down so as to support the inflamed limb at the least painful angle.

A wider, but slightly less tall, George IV mahogany breakfront bookcase did make it up the stairs (Lot 113: est. €10,000 to €15,000). It's cleverly crafted by James Winter and Sons of London, with moveable shelves and drawers that remain easy to open 200 years after its construction.

Nothing says "library" like a secretaire bookcase, a piece of furniture that combines the functionality of book shelves and a desk. An Irish George III secretaire bookcase (Lot 181: est. €15,000 to €20,000) is attributed to Christopher Hearn who opened his shop on Fishamble Street, Dublin, in 1753.

But it wasn't all about the books. Mark Purcell, author of The Country House Library, tells the story of Sir Edward Dering of Kent (1598-1644), who used to call his library "Utopia". It was the only place where he could welcome his wife without drawing the attention of the servants. Centuries later, our friend Prince von Puckler-Muskau observed that country house libraries were the site of "many a marriage or the seduction of the already married."



In the Salerooms

Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers

A portrait of one of Ireland’s earliest pioneers of aviation is coming up for sale at Fonsie Mealy’s auction of the contents of Fortgranite, Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, the former home of the late MP Dennis. The life-size portrait (Lot 516: est. €3,000 to €5,000) shows Godwin Meade Pratt Swifte standing by his horse in a landscape, with Foulksrath Castle, Co Kilkenny in the distance. Swifte fancied himself as an aeronautical engineer.

It was from this very castle that, in 1854, he launched his “aerial chariot” or flying machine with his butler in the pilot’s seat. The contraption failed to fly and the butler lived to tell the tale (but only just). Swifte also patented a type of propeller, known as “aerial screw” and adopted the title Viscount Carlingford, apparently held by a former family member who died without male heirs.

The Dennis family, occupants of Fortgranite, were related to the author of Gulliver’s Travels, but changed their name from Swifte to Dennis to inherit a property in the 1780s. The auction takes place at the Mount Wolseley Hotel, Tullow, Co Carlow, on Tuesday at 10.30am. Viewing is at the premises of Fortgranite on Sunday (11am to 6pm) and Monday (10am to 6pm). See


Dolan’s Art

Dolan’s Spring Auction of Art & Antiques will take place on April 21 (Easter Sunday), in Ballyconneely, Connemara. Potential highlights include a number of paintings by well-known artists: Cecil Maguire’s Galway Shawlies (est. €6,000 to €8,000); Barges on the Liffey by Norah McGuinness (€6,000 to €8,000); and Cottage at Moyard by George Campbell (est. €5,000 to €7,000).

Viewing is from Thursday (10am to 7pm on each day) until the morning of the day of sale. The auction begins at 2pm. See

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