The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Libraries


Augustus Charles Pugin, Ackerman’s Library for Works of Art 
Yale Center for British Art

Our alphabetic tour of the decorative arts continues today with one of the most classic and historied interiors within the home: the library.  Today our focus is on the room known as the library (rather than the collection of books itself), which is a space of great importance and with a rich cultural history.  We have selected a few paintings, drawings, and watercolours depicting both public and private libraries to illustrate this post.


John Smibert, Benjamin Moreland, High Master of St. Paul’s School
Yale Center for British Art

Ancient libraries appeared as early as 2600 BCE, and the most famous ancient library was the Egyptian Library of Alexandria.  This library, founded during the reign of Ptolemy of Lagus served, as a centre for scholarship from the 3rd century BCE through the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE.  The Romans were the first to open public librarie, with the first example established by Asinius Pollio, a lieutenant of Julius Caesar.


Frederick Mackenzie, The Bodleian Library
Yale Center for British Art

Moving lightyears forward to the Enlightenment in 17th and 18th century England brings us to what is known as the golden age of libraries.  Famous libraries from this period include the Bodleian Library in Oxford (originally dating back to 1602) and the British Library, which opened in 1753.


Georgiana Jane Keate, Hall’s Library at Margate
Yale Center for British Art

Private libraries within the home were created to provide an opportunity for study and learn when the public libraries were far away.  These treasured rooms were decorated with great care and splendour, with ornate bookcases, lecterns, desks, and chairs to allow for long periods of study and learning.

The furniture made for the library features the perfect balance of form and function: the form and decoration of library furniture is often steeped in classical vocabulary, and the function of these pieces is very much central to their construction.  After all, no one wants to peruse his or her collection of books and manuscripts on an uncomfortable chair at a desk that is the wrong height.

We have put together a selection of pieces from our collection that are perfectly suited for the modern library.


One thought on “The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Libraries

  1. Pingback: The ABCs of Decorative Arts: Marquetry | The Source

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