Forget roses. Forget cars. Or even houses. It is no coincidence that in Beauty and the Beast, what really sells the bookish Belle on the Beast – what reveals the depth and thoughtfulness lying beneath his rough exterior – is his fine library. Nor that his response to her evident love for it is to give it to her.
Individually, books are sensual, beautiful things. They may be bound in a rich, tactile substance: silk, leather, or vellum. They may be rare: first editions, perhaps. Leafing through a fine book releases a distinctive, evocative fragrance. They may be designed or illustrated with flair and attention. They may contain beautiful imagery or artwork: easier to appreciate, at times, than the original.
Heywood Hill, for instance, an old and much-loved bookshop in Mayfair owned by the Duke of Devonshire is the only place in England to sell an extraordinary, limited-edition set of reproductions of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the first of which was presented to His Holiness the Pope last year. While being in the Chapel itself may be more overwhelming (and a private tour is thrown in), quiet perusal of the books does allow for more leisurely study of one of the most remarkable and famous artworks in the world.
En masse, though, books become only more sensual, more beautiful, more romantic. Philip Blackwell – founder of a company called Ultimate Library that specialises in designing and building, as well as stocking, private libraries – considers this the last word in ‘intelligent luxury’. “A private library”, he says, “truly has a ‘wow factor’. Books add soul. A simple wall of them can create colour, texture and cosiness. It is important to avoid sunlight, damp and poor lighting: elements that are not books’ friends.”
Books should look good, of course. They should complement the décor. But they should not do just this. They should also “inform, educate and inspire”. And this, of course, requires that a collection be put together with what the Duke of Devonshire – speaking of the bespoke private libraries curated by Heywood Hill for private homes and other institutions – calls “thought and effort”.
A home in Denman Place, photo courtesy of Ultimate Library.
Assembled with care, a room set aside as a private library is the most wonderful thing: a place of calm and contemplation, of dreaming and limitless possibility, a place where time drifts past, unnoticed. The various patterns and colours of the covers – as well as the promise of what lies inside – create a wonderful statement. Little says more about a person than the books upon their shelves. They speak, well, volumes.
Hotels, corporations, embassies and other institutions have long understood that a library adds gravitas, distinction and style – luxury hotels like The Savoy or distinguished private members’ clubs such as 67 Pall Mall are among these. What did Cicero say? “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
Peter Harrington Rare Books is another well-known shop in London that helps those who want to establish, or to maintain, a library. Their expertise lies in identifying and sourcing hard-to-find old volumes, first editions, or volumes signed by the author, as well as in rebinding others, beautifully, at their Chelsea Bindery. From Robert Graves’ Poems about love to Arthur Quiller-Couch’s translation of The Sleeping Beauty and other fairy tales they can provide classic and beautiful books about love (or about anything) as part of a private library. Creating a reading room with shelves of books reflecting a particular interest is perhaps, they say, “the ultimate gift”.
Book collection by Peter Harrington, photo courtesy of Peter Harrington.
What all who stock private libraries understand is the importance of appreciating individual interests and tastes. Selecting books for someone else requires care. It requires knowledge of the recipient. And it is precisely this knowledge, of course, which makes the gift of books such a wonderfully romantic gesture.
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