I have always loved books. My Uncle Michael would (and still does) present me with illustrated wonders such as Kit Williams’ “Masquerade” for birthdays and Christmasses: this began my love affair with monochrome print and colourful photographic plates sandwiched between hard covers. By the time I left home for university I already had quite a collection, covering science, invention, nature and literary classics. I read Lord of the Rings for the first time before I was 14 and have read it six times more since then.
Despite the march of technology, books still arouse a sense of childlike wonderment in me. When I pick up a new book I never cease to marvel at the time, commitment and talent that’s gone into bringing the razor-sharp pages into being. In their own way, books are works of art. I cannot bear to part with them, nor can I resist rescuing unloved books from second-hand shops, which is why I have so many of them.
Over the last few years collecting books has become an obsession. I won’t pretend to you that I’m very good at reading the books I collect, in fact I’m hopeless at finding the time, but I keep collecting in the vain hope that one day I might break a leg or be otherwise confined to the house for long enough to enjoy a sustained period of reading indulgence.
In April 2015 I got the chance to buy a small property backing on to my home, The Watch House. This presented me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to extend my home, creating new bedrooms and a bathroom on the first floor. I already had two living rooms and a dining room, so what was I to do with the additional ground floor space? Looking around at the stacks of books cluttering every surface, it didn’t take long to reach the conclusion that a library would not only be a stately addition to my humble fisherman’s cottage, but also a practical one.
After a birthday meal at the Ham Yard Hotel in London I stumbled upon the resident’s library, designed by Kit Kemp. Although my library wasn’t going to measure up to the magnificent scale of this airy room, I was instantly inspired by the symmetry, light and layout of the space. I too had a generous central chimney breast and large windows, and I wanted storage as well as shelving. The library at Ham Yard was to provide the blue print for my room, giving me every excuse to keep returning there for a cocktail or two whilst finalising my plans.
I refer to my library as “botanical”, which is a liberty as it is strictly a horticultural library. However there is more to the botanical concept than just books. As the library takes shape I am incorporating as many references to plants and botany as I possibly can, whether that’s in the form of plaster ceiling roses shaped like sunflowers, vines carved into the profile of the fireplace or botanical prints on the walls. I have given myself the task of sourcing vintage glass terrariums, microscopes and antique glass domes to add a decorative flourish and break up the serried ranks of books. The library links seamlessly to a garden room (neither a conservatory nor a greenhouse … and definitely not an orangery) on one side, making the horticultural theme even more appropriate.
Now, in late November 2018, the library is decorated, the books are in place and I finally have blinds at the windows. The ceiling is painted the palest heather-grey (Farrow and Ball ‘Calluna’) and the woodwork is a deeper shade from Paint and Paper Library, named ‘Erica’. It appears to be a rich lilac by day and a mid-grey by night. The blinds and window seat cushions were made for me locally from a pure, slubby linen which I found online for a bargain price. The colour is ‘Eggplant’, but it resembles no eggplant I have every seen.
I am missing a fireplace, and the chandeliers are still in their boxes in the garage. I should really get them fitted before Christmas, but have discovered that they need fixing through the floor of the bedrooms above. The tiresome task of taking up the carpets may have to wait a little while longer. The fireplace of my dreams is fashioned from green serpentine marble and that’s where it will probably remain for the foreseeable future. One of the narrower bays in the bookshelf has become a bar, stocked with a wide selection of spirits, including a dozen or so gins. It’s the section of the library I tend to gravitate towards after a hard day at the office.
Some design-conscious friends (they know who they are) suggested I arrange my library according to the colour of the books’ spines. This is absurd on two counts: first I could never recall the position of a book based on its colour, and second because the majority of books about plants and flowers are green under their dust jackets. I have broadly organised them by subject – for example practical gardening, encyclopaedias, wildlife gardening and landscape architecture – so that books on a similar topic are grouped together.
I am very aware that a library is an enormous luxury, both in terms of space and expense, so I spend as much time as possible in it, when I am not outside in the garden. Thanks to an enormous wood burning stove it is warm and cosy in winter. Large, sash windows and a north-westerly aspect mean it’s cool and comfortable in summer. Financially, my botanical library has almost broken me. Do I regret it? Not one bit.
Follow this link for a list of the books I find invaluable and enlightening in my fledgling library. If you have any gardening books that you can heartily recommend, do please leave a comment below. Happy Reading. TFG.