King's Library

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The King's Library gallery at the British Museum BM; 'MF' RM1 - The King's Library, Enlightenment 1 'Discovering the world in the 18th Century ~ View South.jpg
The King's Library gallery at the British Museum

The King's Library was one of the most important collections of books and pamphlets of the Age of Enlightenment. [1] Assembled by George III, this scholarly library of over 65,000 volumes was subsequently given to the British nation by George IV. It was housed in a specially built gallery in the British Museum from 1827 to 1997 and now forms part of the British Library. [2] The term 'King's Library' was until recently also used to refer to the gallery in the British Museum built for the collection, which is now called the "Enlightenment Gallery" and displays a wide range of objects relating to the Enlightenment. [3]

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".

British Museum National museum in the Bloomsbury area of London

The British Museum, in the Bloomsbury area of London, United Kingdom, is a public institution dedicated to human history, art and culture. Its permanent collection of some eight million works is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence, having been widely sourced during the era of the British Empire. It documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It was the first public national museum in the world.

British Library national library of the United Kingdom

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and the largest national library in the world by number of items catalogued. It is estimated to contain 150–200 million+ items from many countries. As a legal deposit library, the British Library receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and Ireland, including a significant proportion of overseas titles distributed in the UK. The Library is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.


The King's Library tower in the British Library, where the books now are. 2008 KingsLibrary London 2394541884.jpg
The King's Library tower in the British Library, where the books now are.

History of the library

In the reign of George III

Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus Frederick Augusta Barnard02.jpg
Bibliothecae Regiae Catalogus

When George III became king in 1760 he did not inherit a library of any size, as George II had given the Old Royal Library, including today's Royal manuscripts, to the British Museum three years earlier. As a learned man, George III had a genuine regard for learning, developed under the influence of his tutor the Earl of Bute. [4] On becoming king he quickly began assembling a new collection of mainly scholarly works, the project beginning in earnest in 1762–3 with the purchase of the library of Joseph Smith. [5] Smith had been collecting in Venice for several decades, acquiring books from a range of sources in north Italy and also buying through the international book trade. The collection was notable for its 260 incunabula, including many early Venetian and north Italian volumes with fine illumination and bindings. In total the king bought 6,000 volumes from Smith. These were not kept together in George III's library, but nevertheless can be identified by the word "Smith" marked in each volume by the king's librarian. [5]

George II of Great Britain British monarch

George II was King of Great Britain and Ireland, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Hanover) and a prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire from 11 June 1727 (O.S.) until his death in 1760.

Royal manuscripts, British Library one of the "closed collections" of the British Library

The Royal manuscripts are one of the "closed collections" of the British Library, consisting of some 2,000 manuscripts collected by the sovereigns of England in the "Old Royal Library" and given to the British Museum by George II in 1757. They are still catalogued with call numbers using the prefix "Royal" in the style "Royal MS 2. B. V". As a collection, the Royal manuscripts date back to Edward IV, though many earlier manuscripts were added to the collection before it was donated. Though the collection was therefore formed entirely after the invention of printing, luxury illuminated manuscripts continued to be commissioned by royalty in England as elsewhere until well into the 16th century. The collection was expanded under Henry VIII by confiscations in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and after the falls of Henry's ministers Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell. Many older manuscripts were presented to monarchs as gifts; perhaps the most important manuscript in the collection, the Codex Alexandrinus, was presented to Charles I in recognition of the diplomatic efforts of his father James I to help the Eastern Orthodox churches under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The date and means of entry into the collection can only be guessed at in many if not most cases. Now the collection is closed in the sense that no new items have been added to it since it was donated to the nation.

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute 18th-century Prime Minister of Great Britain

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, was a British nobleman who served as Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1762 to 1763 under George III. He was arguably the last important favourite in British politics. He was the first Prime Minister from Scotland following the Acts of Union in 1707 and the first Tory to have held the post. He was also elected as the first President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland when it was founded in 1780.

There do not seem to have been any further large purchases before 1766, perhaps because the library's staff were occupied with organising the books acquired from Smith. However, from 1766 onwards the king began to develop the collection significantly, spending an average of perhaps £1,500 per year on books for the rest of his reign. A particularly important period was 1768–71, when Frederick Augusta Barnard, one of the library staff, travelled extensively in Europe on the king's behalf, and made major purchases. [2] Important acquisitions later came from the libraries of James West, Anthony Askew, Richard Farmer and Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin as each of these came on the market. Significant donations to the library included 27 incunabula given by Jacob Bryant in 1782.The acquisition of further titles continued in the last years of the king's reign, when due to his mental illness his affairs were managed by trustees. [2] [4]

Frederick Augusta Barnard British librarian

Sir Frederick Augusta Barnard KCH FRS was principal librarian to George III during much of the British King's reign. Barnard developed the library collection systematically, seeking guidance from noted intellectuals including writer and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson.

James West (antiquary) President of the Royal Society

James West PRS was a British politician and antiquary, who served as President of the Royal Society between 1768 and 1772.

Anthony Askew English physician and book collector

Anthony Askew (1722–1774) was an English physician and is best known for having been a book collector. His collection was purchased by the British Museum and books purchased by George III of England were added to the King's Library.

The library was kept at the Queen's House, the residence later to be extended and renamed Buckingham Palace. There it occupied four specially built rooms. From at least the 1770s bookbinding was carried out on the premises, and by 1776 the bindery occupied five rooms in the basement. The library style of binding can be described as 'fine, but not extravagant'. [4] Richard Dalton, employed as a librarian by George III from 1755 onwards, was in charge of the collection until 1774. He was followed by Barnard, who was chief librarian until the collection's transfer to the British Museum. It seems unlikely that Dalton had any major influence over the way the collection was to develop, but that Barnard played a central role, for instance making many, or perhaps most, of the decisions about what books to buy. [6] Samuel Johnson also advised on the library's collection policy. [4] The library was open to anyone with a genuine scholarly purpose, and in George's lifetime was visited by John Adams and Joseph Priestley as well as Johnson. It is noteworthy that the king allowed scholars such as Priestley, whose political and religious opinions he disagreed with, to use the library. [2] [4]

Buckingham Palace Official London residence and principal workplace of the British monarch

Buckingham Palace is the London residence and administrative headquarters of the monarch of the United Kingdom. Located in the City of Westminster, the palace is often at the centre of state occasions and royal hospitality. It has been a focal point for the British people at times of national rejoicing and mourning.

Samuel Johnson English poet, biographer, essayist, and lexicographer

Samuel Johnson, often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. He was a devout Anglican and a generous philanthropist. Politically, he was a committed Tory. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes Johnson as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history". He is the subject of James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, described by Walter Jackson Bate as "the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature".

John Adams 2nd president of the United States

John Adams was an American statesman, attorney, diplomat, writer, and Founding Father who served as the second president of the United States from 1797 to 1801. Before his presidency he was a leader of the American Revolution that achieved independence from Great Britain, and also served as the first vice president of the United States. Adams was a dedicated diarist and regularly corresponded with many important figures in early American history including his wife and adviser, Abigail, and his letters and other papers are an important source of historical information about the era.

At the British Museum, 1827-1997

When George III died in 1820 it was unclear what he had intended to happen to the library after his death, and also whether it was now the personal property of his heir, George IV, or belonged to the Crown. [7] These issues were resolved in January 1823 when, after a period of negotiation with the government, George IV wrote to Prime Minister Lord Liverpool offering the library to the nation. In the intervening period rumours had appeared in the British press that he was considering selling the library to the Tsar; it is not known if there was any truth in these. [7] By giving away the library, the king was able to avoid the expense of its upkeep (over £2,000 per year) at a time of financial difficulty and also facilitate the redevelopment of Buckingham Palace, a project of great importance to him. He specified that the library was to be kept together, and separate from any other collection. [8]

The Crown is the state in all its aspects within the jurisprudence of the Commonwealth realms and their sub-divisions. Legally ill-defined, the term has different meanings depending on context. It is used to designate the monarch in either a personal capacity, as Head of the Commonwealth, or as the king or queen of his or her realms. It can also refer to the rule of law; however, in common parlance 'The Crown' refers to the functions of government and the civil service.

Tsar title given to a male monarch in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia

Tsar, also spelled czar, or tzar, is a title used to designate East and South Slavic monarchs or supreme rulers of Eastern Europe, originally Bulgarian monarchs from 10th century onwards. As a system of government in the Tsardom of Russia and the Russian Empire, it is known as Tsarist autocracy, or Tsarism. The term is derived from the Latin word Caesar, which was intended to mean "Emperor" in the European medieval sense of the term—a ruler with the same rank as a Roman emperor, holding it by the approval of another emperor or a supreme ecclesiastical official —but was usually considered by western Europeans to be equivalent to king, or to be somewhat in between a royal and imperial rank.

Within months Parliament had agreed that the museum was to be the collection's new home, although some newspapers and public figures still argued for the establishment of a new library to house the books in a different part of London. [7] The museum lacked the room to house the collection, but plans for a significant neoclassical extension of the museum's buildings had already been drawn up by the architect Robert Smirke. While the government had for some time resisted the museum's requests for money for this project, the need to provide a fitting home for the library meant that it now agreed to fund the building work. Thus the arrival of the King's Library was a catalyst for the growth of the museum into the grand building we see today. [8] With few changes to the original plans, the east wing of Smirke's extension to the museum became the library's new home. Constructed in 1823-7 and measuring 300 feet (91 metres) in length, this gallery has been called 'one of the noblest rooms in London'. [2] [9]

Neoclassical architecture is an architectural style produced by the neoclassical movement that began in the mid-18th century. In its purest form, it is a style principally derived from the architecture of classical antiquity, the Vitruvian principles, and the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio.

Robert Smirke (architect) English architect

Sir Robert Smirke was an English architect, one of the leaders of Greek Revival architecture, though he also used other architectural styles. As architect to the Board of Works, he designed several major public buildings, including the main block and facade of the British Museum. He was a pioneer of the use of concrete foundations.

The library was a major addition to the museum's book collection, adding 65,000 volumes to an existing 116,000; the museum estimated that only 21,000 of these were duplicates. Furthermore, many of the King's Library's strengths, such as geography, theology and Spanish and Italian literature, were areas which so far had been rather poorly represented among the museum's books. [2] George IV retained 33 printed books from the library for himself. These were mostly incunabula, including a Mainz Psalter which is now in the Royal Library, Windsor, but also included a Shakespeare First Folio. George IV also kept back two manuscripts: one by Samuel Johnson, containing plans for projected books, and a copy of the Vedas in Sanskrit, made in Benares in 1776. [2]

During the 1840s approximately 13% of the books consulted in the museum were from the King's Library. This percentage declined at the museum's book collection grew in subsequent decades, but the King's Library remained well-used. From 1857, the gallery was used to display notable volumes from the whole of the museum's printed books collection. [2] Towards the end of the First World War, an increased number of air raids led the museum to move the most valuable books out of London, many going to the National Library of Wales. This precaution was repeated just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In September 1940 a bomb hit the museum, leaving 428 volumes from the King's Library either destroyed or damaged beyond repair; the museum had duplicate copies of 265 of these elsewhere in its collections. In addition a further 1000 volumes from the King's Library were in need of repair. The rest of the collection was moved to a safer part of the building, and finally evacuated from London to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1943. Repair work to the gallery was finally carried out in 1950-1. [2]

At the British Library, 1997 to present

In the 1970s preparations began for the move of the museum's book collection to the newly established British Library. The museum's Trustees argued that the King's Library should remain where it was, but were unsuccessful in preventing its transfer to the new institution. [7] The collection is now housed in the King's Library Tower, a six-storey glass and bronze structure in the British Library's entrance hall; the tower was designed specially by the building's architect, Colin St John Wilson, and also contains the Thomas Grenville collection. Items from the collection remain available for reading by the public. [1] [2] The collection's old home at the British Museum, restored in 2000-3, is now known as the Enlightenment Gallery and houses a permanent exhibition about the Age of Enlightenment, opened to celebrate the museum's 250th anniversary in 2003. [9]

Scope of the library

Historians agree that George III intended the library to be a comprehensive resource for scholars, rather than a collection of rare volumes or fine bindings. In other words, this was a working library rather than a showpiece, although it did contain some notable rarities. These include a Gutenberg Bible and many English incunabula, including a copy of Caxton's first edition of the Canterbury Tales. [4] [6] The purchase of Thorkelin's library meant that there was a notable collection of over 2,000 works on Scandinavian language and literature. [2] The collection also includes the first four Shakespeare folios. [6]

The oldest-known catalogue of the library was compiled in 1769. [2] The Bibliothecae Regiae catalogus, a catalogue of works organised by author, was published in five volumes between 1820 and 1829, its compilation being overseen by Barnard. A hand-written subject catalogue also exists; work on this subject catalogue may have started in the 1790s, and it was kept updated through several subsequent decades. The library's pamphlets were catalogued for the first time following the Library's move to the British Museum. [2]

In 1769 the library contained 11,200 printed titles, in 19,500 volumes. By the time it passed to the British Museum in 1827 it had grown to 65,000 printed volumes, as well as 17,500 pamphlets and 446 manuscripts; the manuscripts mainly date from the reign of George III and few are of particular note. [2] [6]

Analysis of the subject catalogue shows that as of 1820 44% of the titles in the library were concerned with history, and 16% were literature of various kinds. An extensive range of subjects was represented by smaller numbers of works. [2] Recent literature was not particularly well represented, with, for instance, no works by Jane Austen being listed. It seems that library policy was only to collect novels once it was clear that the author in question had gained an enduring and positive reputation. [6] 260 editions of the Bible were included, and works from other European countries were well represented. For instance, 57% of the history titles had been published outside Britain. [2] There was a good selection of library catalogues from other collections, and runs of the official publications of parliament. For an eighteenth-century library there was an unusually good selection of periodicals, although newspapers were not collected. [6]

See also


  1. 1 2 British Library, George III Collection: the King's Library accessed 26 May 2010
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Harris, P. R. (2009). "The King's Library". In Mandelbrote, Giles; Taylor, Barry. Libraries within the Library: the Origins of the British Library's Printed Collections. British Library. pp. 296–317. ISBN   978-0-7123-5035-8.
  3. British Museum, Enlightenment Gallery: Room 1, accessed, 3 February 2012]
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Jefcoate, Graham (2003). "'Most Curious, Splendid and Useful': the King's Library of George III". In Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett. Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. British Museum Press. pp. 38–45. ISBN   0-7141-5020-7.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  5. 1 2 Hellinga, Lotte (2009). "The Bibliotheca Smithiana". In Mandelbrote, Giles; Taylor, Barry. Libraries within the Library: the Origins of the British Library's Printed Collections. British Library. pp. 261–79. ISBN   978-0-7123-5035-8.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Brooke, John (1977). "The Library of King George III". Yale University Library Gazette. 52 (1): 33–45.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Goldfinch, John (2009). "Moving the King's Library: argument and sentiment 1823-1998". In Mandelbrote, Giles; Taylor, Barry. Libraries within the library: the origins of the British Library's printed collections. British Library. pp. 280–95. ISBN   978-0-7123-5035-8.
  8. 1 2 Knox, Tim (2003). "The King's Library and its architectural genesis". In Kim Sloan with Andrew Burnett. Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. British Museum Press. pp. 46–57. ISBN   0-7141-5020-7.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  9. 1 2 British Museum, King's Library accessed 14 July 2010

Further reading

Coordinates: 51°31′10″N0°07′35″W / 51.51958°N 0.12630°W / 51.51958; -0.12630

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