The King’s Library at The British Museum
by A Latter-day Bluestocking
George III (1738-1820, reigned 1760-1820) was by no means an intellectual monarch but through a well-rounded education he developed an appreciation for learning. As Prince of Wales, heir presumptive, he was tutored in a broad range of subjects. He became well-read in literature, both English and non-English, spoke many languages, was interested in theatre, music, architecture, astronomy, and agriculture. Not only did he read and study these things but also contributed to various periodicals of the day, especially on topics of husbandry.
Upon ascending the throne in 1760, George III discovered that there did not exist a royal library. There had been an ‘Old Royal Library’ that had been added to since the 15th century but since the late 17th century was largely neglected. It had been given to the British Museum in 1757 by his grandfather George II. Almost immediately upon coming to the throne George III began an intense policy of collecting.
George III: Book Collector and Building the Collection
George III sought to found a Royal Library following a very distinct protocol. He did not just want a library of self-aggrandizement of his reign but one that followed the principles of Enlightenment, a ‘universal library’. He sought a collection which transcended genres, languages, periods, and subjects and through the study of its books would add to scholarship and not constrain or restrict.
The King spared no expense and working with his librarians sought the best from all over Europe and England. Early in his reign he acquired with the intent to build up the collection and did so without a disciplined approach. Still, some very important additions to the Library were made at this early stage of collecting. In 1762 he acquired the Thomason Tracts, a series of broadsides and pamphlets made during the Civil War and Commonwealth periods (1640-60) and in 1763 acquired from the collection of the British consul in Venice, Joseph Smith, many printed editions of Italian literature and history. Besides printed material, the King also collected drawings, prints and paintings.
By 1767, the adding to the Royal Library was approached in a more methodical manner. Intending the Royal Library to be a working library, the King avoided the mundane list of written material and instead sought English literature, early English printing, philosophy, and the classics, Italian, French, and Spanish literature, geography and topography, architecture, painting, and sculpture. Two magnificent acquisitions at this time were the Gutenberg Bible produced in Mainz, c. 1455 and Caxton’s edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales printed in Westminster, c. 1476 the first book to be printed in England. The King also included books on subjects which interested him personally, including agriculture, astronomy, and the natural sciences.
It was also a well-known fact that the King was advised by Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who met with the King at the Library in 1767. He suggested material in the classics, literature, law and topography. He also advised against the purchasing of whole library collections thus preventing the unnecessary acquisition of duplicates. It is a testament to Johnson’s knowledge of the world of letters that his advice for the collecting of material for the King’s Library was heeded.
Sir Frederick Augusta Barnard (1742-1830), the King’s librarian after 1774, was given the task of scouring the booksellers of France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, in addition to the purchases being made in the London book trade. By 1769 the collection kept at Buckingham House (the future Buckingham Palace) numbered over 10,000 books.
The Use of the Collection
As the Royal Library was established as a working scholarly library, it admitted those whose genuine credentials as scholars to use the collection. George III was especially generous by allowing even those he did not particularly agree with to have access to the library. Two such figures were the scientist Joseph Priestley (1773-1804) whose radical ideas of theology and politics were opposed to those of the conservative King and his former enemy, the American revolutionary and founding father, John Adams (1735-1826). Adams was deeply impressed by the Library and exclaimed his disappointment that he didn’t have more time to read in it.
Gift to the Nation
The King’s Library was built up solely from George III’s upon his own resourcefulness and solely with funds from his won privy purse but always with the intent to its use as a ‘national resource’ as a scholarly universal library. By the time of George III’s death in 1820 the library consisted of over 65,259 printed books, supplemented by periodicals, pamphlets, prints, drawings, musical scores, maps and topographical drawings, as well as coins and medals.
His son and heir, George IV (1765-1837, reigned 1820-1837), made it known that he wished to present the library to the British nation. On January 15, 1823 George IV wrote to the Prime Minister stating his intentions and the stipulation that it be housed at the British Museum and the library was to be ‘kept entire, and separate…in a repository to be appropriated exclusively for that purpose’.
The British Museum found its original building to be too small to accommodate the collection. A building project was undertaken. The King’s Library was the first wing to be designed and built by Sir Robert Smirke (1780-1867). It was completed in 1827 and is the core of the familiar Quadrangle building.
The King’s Library Today
The King’s Library has been housed since 1997 at the British Library at St. Pancras. It inhabits its own space at the heart of the building called the King’s Library Tower. It still maintains its function as a working library.
The rooms built for it at the British Museum are now used as a gallery space, still called the King’s Library, and houses the permanent exhibition Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century.
Jefcoate, Graham. “‘Most curious, splendid and useful’: the King’s Library of George III”, Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century (London, The British Museum, 2003)