Most visitors to Chatsworth are rightly impressed by its library, which is home to tens of thousands of books, some dating to as far back as the Middle Ages. Taken as a whole, the collection is more than impressive. Take a moment to consider, however, that many individual books also have their own unique and fascinating stories to tell.
The library is divided into four main sections: the main library, the gallery, the Ante-Library, and the Dome Room. In a bookcase near the window of the Dome Room, there is a brown quarto book with the title Narcissus Japonicus, or a Description of the Guernsey Lily. It is the second edition, printed in 1737, although this particular copy is missing a title page. This curious book tells the story of the beautiful pink flower with scrupulous attention to detail, beginning with the etymology of its old Latin and English names and tracing its origins in Japan and its introduction to Europe, before moving on to a meticulous botanical description of the plant.
Its author was the Scottish physician James Douglas (c. 1675-1742), who started his literary career in 1707 with a comparison of the anatomies of dogs and humans. Douglas had sent a gardener called Thomas Knowlton to Guernsey to undertake research for the second edition, who had returned with many colourful and sometimes implausible explanations for the introduction of the flower to the island. For instance, many of the islanders apparently believed that the flower had first arrived on the island aboard a wrecked Japanese ship:
The same gentleman told him further, that it was the general opinion in the island that they owe this beautiful plant to a shipwreck, and some roots being cast on shore by the waves were pickt up by the inhabitants taking them to be Onions, and accordingly planted in their gardens for such.
Very few copies of this eccentric book survive. What makes the Chatsworth copy really unique, however, is an architectural pencil sketch on the final page. This rudimentary sketch, over 250 years old, features two interlocking round arches. How did it get there?
The answer lies in the fact that a substantial percentage of the books now housed at Chatsworth once belonged to Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753), a notable architect famous, among other things, for designing the Palladian villa Chiswick House. Since Burlington had no male heir, his possessions were inherited on his death by his daughter (and subsequently by her husband, later 4th Duke of Devonshire). His library contained many books on architecture, most importantly those by Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones. His tastes were very broad, however, and he owned a variety of works, from French polemics to the works of Alexander Pope.
The archival team are working to discover which of the books now at Chatsworth once belonged to the Earl of Burlington. Although a contemporary catalogue of his collection has survived, the libraries of aristocrats can seem like carbon copies of each other, inevitably containing the same titles: the complete works of Virgil, the orations of Demosthenes, and various other classical, historical and theological works. Still, some books can be identified as Burlington’s with certainty, for instance, in the many cases where they feature his autograph on the title page. The presence of an architectural sketch definitely allows us to attribute Narcissus Japonicus to Burlington’s collection.
We can imagine Burlington sitting in his library with a copy of this book, who would have been 43 years old when it came off the press. He might have smiled at the amusing anecdotes and perused with wonder the drawings of the plant’s anatomy, before suddenly being struck with a design idea. Reaching for a pencil, he had no time to find a sketchbook for fear of forgetting the idea, so he was forced to draw it inside the book to hand. And to think: this is only one title, not obviously noteworthy, out of the multitude of books housed in the library at Chatsworth House. Many more of them must contain such secrets, long forgotten, waiting to be discovered.