While re-reading Carolyn Lambert’s book The Meaning of Home in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction (2013), I noticed a sentence that had previously escaped my attention which began: ‘William had bookshelves built to his own design’ (p. 34). As you can imagine I was intrigued, since during my six years as a volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, I had never heard this mentioned. It struck me that William’s customisation of this particularly male space adds a personal touch to the study and gives us further insight into the lives of this important Manchester family, so I took steps to investigate.
My first port of call, as always, was the extensive knowledge of our Chair of Trustees, Frank Galvin and our President, Janet Allan, our who were actively involved in the restoration process, and their answers proved fascinating.
It appears that during the restoration scraps of wallpaper were found behind the bookshelves to the left of the fireplace which indicated that these shelves at least were added after the Gaskell’s began renting 42, Plymouth Grove in 1850. Frank Galvin writes: There are at least two layers of wall paper behind the bookcase to the left of the chimney breast and so the Crick Smith report concludes that the bookcases were probably added by William.’ Frank also notes that: ‘some of the bookcases are slightly ad-hoc to the right and left of the desk and these have clearly been added later to expand capacity’, showing the emphasis that William and his family placed on knowledge and education. Samples of the wallpaper recovered from behind the bookcases in the study were examined by the Whitworth’s wallpaper curators and opinions given as to their date, which also supports the findings of the Crick Smith report.
Whether William had the entire shelving system custom built to accommodate what we know was an ever-growing book collection is, however, unclear. For example, the observant visitor might notice the outline of a window on the outside wall of the study, the one facing Hyde Grove. This is now a blocked or blind window, but whether it was always ‘blind’ is not clear. The construction of blind windows was common in houses in order to maintain an aesthetic and symmetrical appearance’ the two windows in the study would match the two in the Morning Room. However, it is possible that originally the study had two functioning windows, one of which had later been blocked. Clearly, if this had been the case, then bookshelves could not have been constructed across the length of the wall behind William’s desk, thus suggesting that all the shelves could have been commissioned by William. It would be nice to think that this was the case.
As a volunteer I have spent a great deal of time in William’s study and have always admired these shelves. Their construction shows high levels of craftsmanship, even down to the clever ladder system fashioned in wood to enable alterations in the shelf height – it puts our modern system of plastic dowel or pegs to shame. But what in my opinion makes theses shelves a stand out feature of the room is the graining. This has been done by Walter Riley who, in 2014, the same year that the Elizabeth Gaskell House opened its doors to visitors, won a prestigious trophy created by The Association of Painting Craft Teachers. For those visitors who love to search for little quirky details, see if you can find Riley’s signature on the outside of the front door.
Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
If you enjoyed this blog you might like these blogs about other objects in the Study