History

The Book Collection

The Entertainment of Charles II - page from the book about his coronation

The Portland Collection is home to an extraordinary array of historic books.

Generations of the Portland family have added to the book collection, with 17th century works collected by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle (patron of the playwright Ben Johnson) and his brother, mathematician Sir Charles Cavendish. Further works were added in the 19th century by family members such as the 4th Duke of Portland, whose manuscripts can also be found in the department of Manuscripts and Special Collections, The University of Nottingham and the Nottinghamshire Archives.

The most notable book collector in the family was Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford. Edward was one of the great 18th-century collectors and bibliophiles, and bought books and manuscripts on a massive scale.

The Harleian Collection

The Harley Foundation is named after Edward Harley, who married Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, the heiress to Welbeck, in 1713.

“[Harley] had inherited his father’s unbridled enthusiasm for collecting books, prints and manuscripts, and his wide circle of friends included such celebrated literary figures as Jonathan Swift, Matthew Prior, Daniel Defoe and Alexander Pope.
By the time of his death Harley owned the greatest private library in Britain – over 50,000 books, 41,000 prints and an astonishing 350,000 pamphlets.The expense all but bankrupted him and in 1739 Henrietta had to sell Wimpole to meet his debts. Harley died only a year later; the humiliation was said to have killed him. His widow sold his books for £13,000, less than he had spent on having them bound, but kept his manuscripts until 1753, when she generously sold them to the nation for £10,000, a small fraction of their value, out of respect for her husband’s wish that his manuscripts should be kept together.
As the Harleian manuscripts they became one of the founding collections of what is now the British Library.”
Michael Hall, Treasures of The Portland Collection

(Detail) The English Atlas, 1680 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

 

Digitised Books

We’ve digitised some of the books from the Collection for you to explore. Click through to read them in Issuu.

The Entertainment of King Charles II, 1662

A panorama drawing showing the Coronation of King Charles II, ‘with a description of the Triumphal Arches and Solemnity’.

The English Atlas, 1680

Volume 1 of The English Atlas, dedicated to James II. This volume features hand-drawn and coloured double-page maps, heightened with gold: ‘a description of places next to the North Pole, as also of Muscovy, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and their several dependencies’.

The Masquerade Ball, 1758

Watercolour drawings of 30 costumes from an 18th-century ball.

The Birds of Greal Britain, Vol II, John Gould, 1873

One volume of a 5-part series by John Gould, with beautiful hand coloured illustrations. ‘The most sumptuous and costly of all British bird books’ (Mullens and Swann).

 

Rebecca Hardy

Rebecca Hardy

Rebecca Hardy trained as a fine artist and has been working in the culture sector for over a decade. She writes for a number of publications on topics such as art history, contemporary exhibitions, and museum marketing.