Stobart, J. (2012) Buying books: networks, knowledge and the Georgian country house. Paper presented to: Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution Conference (CHORD) 2012, University of Wolverhampton, 05-06 September 2012.
Luxury is central to the material culture of the country house and to many conceptualisations of the elite. Commentators from Adam Smith to Werner Sombart to Arjun Appadurai have distinguished luxury as a particular form of consumption, drawing a close link between luxury, status and honour. But luxury is a slippery and complex idea: a category that is contingent upon time and space, as well as culture and wealth. It links to public displays of wealth and status – and thus to the idea of positional goods used to distinguish elite groups – and to private pleasures of the mind and body. Books have long occupied a particular place in the pantheon of luxury goods. They fulfilled all of Appadurai’s register of consumption, being costly and often difficult to acquire; commanding semiotic virtuosity and specialised knowledge; and often being closely linked to the personality of the consumer. However, they were far from being straightforward luxuries, not least because different owners conceived and deployed their books in very different ways. For bibliophiles, the collection was all important and books were precious objects. Status came from owning rare volumes or first editions, and pleasure through possession rather than use. For the learned gentleman or antiquarian books were important as tools of learning: they represented the world of enlightenment understanding and were for reading. For others, books were about wealth and status: the library formed a forum for display, with the contents intended for show rather than consumption. In this paper, I want to explore these different readings of the book as luxury through the libraries and consumption practices of two members of the English provincial elite. Sir Roger Newdigate (1719-1806) had his family seat at Arbury Hall in Warwickshire. A renowned scholar, MP for Middlesex and later Oxford University, Sir Roger spent much of his long life remodelling his home in the gothic style. His near neighbour, Edward, fifth Lord Leigh (1742-86), lived at Stoneleigh Abbey. Also with a reputation as something of an intellect, Edward spent lavishly in a burst of activity following his coming of age in 1763, completing the interiors of the Abbey in a conservative neo-classical style. Both men bought and owned a huge number of books, and their libraries were integral to their identity and status. Here, I draw on household accounts, receipted bills, catagloues and correspondence to reproduce a detailed picture of their different patterns and practices of book buying (including their relationships with booksellers); the number, type, quality and condition of the books purchased, and the ways in which they were stored, displayed and used. I argue that both men straddled the divide between the different types of book owner identified in the literature. Newdigate and Leigh were both men of learning and yet were concerned with the quality and presentation of the books which they bought: content and cover were both important in communicating something of their identity. Both used their libraries to construct and communicate social and educational status, investing in books as cultural and symbolic capital, and drawing on that capital in their dealings with their peers. Moreover, these libraries had a spatial expression within their houses: rooms that were planned and designed as spaces of learning and places to display knowledge, wealth and power. Perhaps most significantly, because their books survived them, they had the power to enhance status post-mortem – in the form of family heritance, important bequests or wider cultures of learning. In sum, I present the book as a multi-faceted and complex luxury, with particular and overlapping significance to the (elite) consumer