This Traditional English Library Has Ties To The Royal Family
At the recent wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the Spencer clan were front and center. Princess Diana’s sister, Lady Jane Fellowes, gave an emotional reading, but the best-known Spencer (after Diana) is her younger brother Charles, lord of the family’s ancestral home, Althorp. Since 1508, Althorp has housed 19 generations of British nobility. But despite its grandeur and history, for Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer, the 13,000-acre Northamptonshire estate is above all a family home.
Among Althorp’s 90 rooms, Earl Spencer’s favorite spot to unwind is the family’s traditional sitting room, the library. Here he takes us on an intimate tour and shares memories of life inside the historic home of one of England’s grandest families.
“I was 27 when I inherited Althorp… my first job was to make it a livable home,” says Earl Spencer. “A lot of the ancestral estates in England are no longer in private hands and everything is sort of wrapped in plastic. I get that, you need to look after these things but I am not sure how good it is for furnishings not be used. I think you can actually pay too much respect to pieces of wood, as long as you are not slap happy with them they should be fine, they are meant to last.”
“The library is very well designed because it is a large room, but it doesn’t feel huge and sort of tapers off at both ends to break up the space. I think the architect, Henry Holland, who designed it in the 1770s and 80s, recognized that he didn’t want a library that looked like a public facility. He wanted something where people would feel welcome to rest awhile, and maybe pick up a book or chat together, and it works.”
“These are childhood portraits of my mother and sisters. We had them done every year by a terrifying Polish artist — she smelled of old porridge. It was a rite of passage and there are 22 portraits of me. I had one done at six months up until I was seven and then I stood up and said no.” From left are siblings Princess Diana, Lady Jane Fellowes, their mother Frances Shand Kydd, Lady Sarah McCorquordale, and Charles.
There are 10,000 books inside Althorp’s library, at one time the largest private library in the world. “I always loved history, it’s what I majored in in university, so to be surrounded by it has been a great privilege. My favorite piece of furniture is a chest that belonged to George Washington’s family. I store my tennis gear in there and it’s a very much loved and used piece of furniture. They weren’t designed to be museum pieces, they were designed for function, I think it’s good for them to used frankly.”
“My father put a TV in the library and it’s such an incredible surrounding to watch TV in. In the middle of a match between Britain and Scotland, my brother-in-law jumped up and smashed the chandelier with his fist by accident when England scored.” The ornate plaster ceiling was added by John MacVicar Anderson in 1877.
“It was the first room I redecorated after my father died in 1992. My late stepmother had very ambitious tastes: the white pillars were covered in a 1980s fake malachite and even though the floors were a perfect oak, they were laid with a very busy dotted carpet,” according to Earl Spencer. A pair of globes anchor the library, one depicts the earth and a map of the heavens. “It’s a beautiful piece and is pretty accurate but they run out of ideas when they get to the western half of North America, so California is a squiggle. We had to put a glass dome over it because people can not help spinning it!”
A series of drawings by artists such as John Singer Sargent depict the Spencer ancestors. “I think there are 650 paintings in the house and of those 32 have been collected by me during my relatively short tenure of 20 years. I bought a little known work by British artist Edward Burra with my very first pay cheque when I was a correspondent for the NBC’s Today Show, back in the 80s. Nobody had heard of him and now, goodness, you wouldn’t be able to buy one for $200,000 so I was lucky I ended up with five or six of his paintings.”
These reproduction pieces are part of The Althorp Collection, a line of furnishings based on 650 items from the estate available through Kennedy Galleries. “The furnishings in Althorp have been through a very thorough selection committee once every generation to see if they should remain part of the house’s collection. We might put a richer upholstery on it, but these pieces are easily identifiable. It’s not a pastiche, it’s a tribute. All the proceeds from this venture are plowed straight back into the house. For five centuries the house has looked after the furniture, and now the furniture is paying its dues,” says Earl Spencer.