Literature of the English Country House: Nostell Priory and the 18th-Century Private Library

Learners on Literature of the English Country House this week are exploring the polite world of sociability and politeness that surrounded the country house during the 18th century. The main location used on the course week is Nostell Priory in Wakefield. Here on the blog we are joined by Co-Lead Educator Dr Adam James Smith who reflects on the lessons that the Priory’s 18th-century library can teach us about the value of community, gardens and books.

Nostell Priory (Photo by Adam Smith)

Nostell Priory (Photo by Adam Smith)

From 2011-2012 I worked as a Research Assistant on The Nostell Priory Library Project, a collaboration between the School of English at the University of Sheffield and the National Trust that was directed by Drs Joe Bray and Hamish Mathison. The project sought to match a collection of medical texts from Nostell Priory’s incredible 18th-century library to letters, bills, receipts and associated ephemera donated to the West Yorkshire Archive by the resident family. It was our goal to find out how this collection of books was actually used.

Nostell Priory is a great Palladian mansion, located some miles south-east of Wakefield. The house was originally an Augustinian priory dedicated to St Oswald that was founded in the 12th century. After the Dissolution in the 1530s, the monastic buildings were converted into a private house, which was subsequently bought by the Winn family in 1650. The house that remains today was started by Sir Rowland Winn, 4th Baronet in about 1735.

The library at Nostell is among the largest and finest in any Trust houses, and has courted a degree of fame thanks to Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s infamous of Sir Rowland Winn and his Swiss wife Sabine. Painted in 1767, this picture has subsequently become an iconic image of 18th-century civility (even providing the cover of John Brewer’s best-selling Pleasures of the Imagination). It is now also available on jam.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton's portrait of Sir Roland and Lady Sabine Winn. Jam available in the gift shop at Nostell Priory. Other preserves are available.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s portrait of Sir Rowland and Lady Sabine Winn. Jam available in the gift shop at Nostell Priory. Other preserves are available.

This image of the library has encouraged the perception that the primary function of the library was as a signifier of Sir Rowland’s prestige. Though the findings of the Nostell Priory Library Project do not dispute this assumption they certainly do complicate it.

We first looked at approximately three hundred items in the family papers from 1733-1795. Surprisingly little of the family’s material directly corresponded to the library, and items pertaining explicitly to the books made up the smallest category of material by a significant margin. Unsurprisingly letters relating to family matters made up the largest category. However, the sheer amount of material relating to health concerns (and horses) was less expected.

A vast number of letters are addressed to Sir Rowland’s and his wife, Sabine, and ask for medical advice. These results suggest that some of the books in the library may have been regularly consulted and that the library as a whole functioned partly as a practical resource.

A memorable example presents itself in a letter addressed to Rowland Winn, urging him to acknowledge that his Aunt needs urgent medical attention. The letter is sent by his sister, Charlotte (whose own ill health is the subject of many of Rowland’s letters). It begins:

Dear brother,
Having wrote you last week you will be surprised at hearing from me so soon but I am desirous of communicating to you a piece of intelligence I received yesterday. My Aunt was suddenly disordered in her head and continues in a state of insanity, throwing away her things having taken into her head that the workmen who are repairing a house next door are breaking in upon her to kill her or to put her in a straight waistcoat. She throwed her guineas to them out of a window to bribe their favour not to hurt her.

In the final paragraph the letter asks Rowland to suggest what might be the matter with their Aunt, before demanding that he take action. This is not the only letter that Rowland receives asking for his help in giving a diagnosis. In a series of letters to Ann Elizabeth Winn, Rowland repeatedly attempts to identify Charlotte Winn’s ongoing illness.

He is also seen to give medical advice on a number of occasions. For instance, the Pelhams are compelled the formally thank Sir Rowland in writing:

Mr and Mrs Pelham present their compliments to Sir Rowland Winn – feel themselves extremely obliged to him for his very kind advice – Mrs P has been much better for these 3 or 4 days past. Mr and Mrs P are vastly concerned to find Sir Rowland is so bad of the gout – but hope herein a day, or two, that his tedious companion has left him – when Mr P will certainly do himself the honour of seeing him.

Elsewhere Lord Rockingham of York asks Rowland for his advice on back disorders, claiming to be asking on behalf of their mutual friend, John Bourne. It seems that Rowland was known for his interests in medicine and that his family and friends were keen to get his opinion.

The majority of letters written with direct reference to the books in the library are penned by Rowland’s wife Sabine, who also collects recipes and seemingly manages some aspects of the garden. In one sequence of letters Rowland, who is in London at the time, writes to Sabine to complain about his heart burn, and Sabine responds by assuring him that she will plant rhubarb having identified this as a common treatment for angina. Similarly, many of the annotations and marginalia discovered within the library’s texts are in Swiss, and can plausibly be attributed to Sabine.

Nostell Priory (Photo by Adam Smith)

Nostell Priory (Photo by Adam Smith)

It seems that in reality the library and the garden each functioned in a very practical way. The priory is received letters from friends and family, both Rowland and Sabine were consulting the books in the library, and the garden was being managed in accordance with the advice they were discovering and disseminating.

The garden and the library both served a pragmatic function, not just for Rowland and Sabine, but for their broader community.

Discovering this now, at a time where our libraries are struggling to justify their existence are finding themselves increasingly under threat it is perhaps more important than ever to appreciate the value that such spaces have demonstrated in the past. Both the library and the garden can easily be regarded as non-essential space for artistic and intellectual activities, but if the Nostell Priory Library Project proves anything it is that these are also vital centres of community that provided very real benefits for all that used them.


Further Information

This work was originally carried out for The Nostell Priory Library Project. The project was directed by Drs Hamish Mathison and Joe Bray.

This post is adapted from a piece written for the 18th-Century Garden Project. This project was directed by Dr Jane Hodson with the support of Arts Enterprise at the University of Sheffield. You can visit the project’s website here, or follow the project on Twitter for up-to-date information on its findings.

To find out more about Adam’s research you can visit his own website or follow him on Twitter.

To find out more about Literature of the English Country House or to sign-up click here. You can join the course at any time whilst it is live and do as much or as little as you like!


Related Posts: