Philobiblon: The King's Library (A defence of George III)

Monday, August 30, 2004

The King's Library (A defence of George III)

As I say when working in the British Museum Englightenment Gallery, King George III of England is most famous for going mad and "losing America", but he did have his positive side.

He was a keen scholar and the British Library has an enormous amount to thank him for. The King's library "really began" with the purchase of 30,000 items from the collection of George Thomason (which will be familiar to anyone who has used the rare books room in the British Library.)

The next major addition was the library of Joseph Smith, the British Consul in Venice. "It was asserted in Venetian saloni that it was in order to get his hands upon the Consul's collection that John Murray, the unscrupulous English Resident of Venice, induced his sister to marry Smith when that by then 'curious old man' was over eighty."

The books were housed in four separate libraries in Buckingham House (then better known as the Queen's House), all of which could be entered only through the king's bedchamber: curious, when you think that he always regarded it as a national resource and scholars, even those of whom he disapproved, were welcome to use it.

King George allowed £1,500 a year to add to his collection, although purchases frequently went over budget, even though he directed that his agents never bid against "a scholar, a professor, or any person of moderate means who desired a particular book for his own use". The library eventually totalled more than 65,000 books and 450 manuscripts.

The king was particularly well read in history, being apparently keen on Gibbon, David Hume and Bishop Burnet.

There's now an exhibition about this at Buckingham Palace, in fact writing this has just reminded me that I meant to go to so it, and there's no time like the present .... expect a report later.

This account based mostly on George II: A Personal History, C. Hibbert, Penguin, 1998, pp. 58-62.


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