21 Apr 2023
by Yvonne Lewis

An open page of a book showing a coloured drawn atlas, showing the earths rotation.
'Harmonia Macrocosmica’ is a 17th century atlas from the library at Blickling Hall. (© National Trust)

For tens of thousands of years humans have been finding ways of communicating their ideas to each other using images and written languages to represent the spoken word. From the earliest cave paintings to computers, people have sought to describe the world around them and to better understand how it works. The book format found in many bookshops has been the most enduring way of packaging up ideas, which makes them both portable and available for sharing with others. The National Trust cares for over 420,000 books in around 200 places. Each of those places has its own distinct identity, often reflected by the books within. Different owners have books for various reasons: for pleasure, for reference, in order to write down what happened during their travels, as a reflection of their personal beliefs, or as souvenirs of far-flung places. Here are just a few examples...

Cavalry manual becomes travel souvenir

A rather tatty binding hides a wonderful book within. This is one of a small handful of hand-written 14th century texts on horsemanship used by Mamluk cavalrymen. The Mamluk Sultanate ruled over much of Egypt, Syria and Palestine between 1250 and 1517, using Cairo as its capital. From here it oversaw many military victories involving its superb cavalry, including the defeat of Hulagu Khan’s Mongol army in 1260. A strict educational régime produced an élite cavalry, including prescribed equestrian exercises, also developed into publicly held competitive games. Alongside the text are images made of triangles illustrating various formations and manoeuvres. A loose slip of paper inside the book with notes in William John Bankes’s hand, suggest that he brought it back from his travels in North Africa and West Asia in 1815-19. (Collection of Mamluk Treatises, c.1308 / Kingston Lacey/ Catalogue reference - NT3242980)

Open book showing illustrations on both pages of triangles in different pattern formations.

Dating from the 14th century the earliest paper book in the Trust collection contains these beautiful diagrams. (© National Trust)

Dancing king

Lavish, beautiful and a little quirky, this volume containing the stage designs and costumes for the 'Ballet Royal de la Nuit' gives a glimpse into the extravagant lifestyle of the court of Louis XIV (1638-1715), known as the Sun King. The 1653 performance of this ballet combined artistry with state propaganda in an all-night, 13 hour, four-part extravaganza. Hand-coloured illustrations show complicated costume and set designs, which must have taken months to complete. Central to the whole performance was the appearance at dawn of Louis XIV as Apollo, the sun god, bringing light and peace to end the night’s chaos. (‘Ballet Royal de la Nuit’, 1653 / Waddeson Manor / Catalogue reference - Waddesdon 3666.1-.3)

Painting of a man in a black theatrical costume sitting on a cloud.

An illustration of the costume for 'La Nuit' from the Sun King's play of 1653. (© National Trust)

Hand-coloured heavens

There is something wonderful about opening up a hand-coloured book which has been sitting on a shelf for hundreds of years. The colours from this star atlas are still incredibly vivid after over 350 years. Designed as a companion volume to a set of atlases of the world and another of its oceans, this atlas of the heavens was a historical account of astronomical discoveries which changed perceptions of the earth’s position in the known universe. In the mid 17th century the Dutch were the greatest map-makers, producing the most accurate and up-to-date maps for travellers and book collectors. This star atlas documents the opposing views of whether the earth or the sun was at the centre of the solar system. The beautiful plates also include images of biblical events and the signs of the zodiac, all imposed upon hemispheres of the heavens. (‘Harmonia Macrocosmica’, 1661 / Blickling Hall / Catalogue reference - NT3242709)

Complex illustration of a mixture of celestial and biblical scenes.

Stunning hand-coloured maps of the heavens fill this 17th century atlas. (© National Trust)

Memories to keep

Travel has often been used to broaden the mind or finish off an education. George Harry Grey (1765-1845) went further than most in keeping a detailed journal of his travels through Europe in 1786-9. A mix of factual information as well as his own observations, the diaries are padded out with printed maps and illustrations relating to the places he visited. The diaries were made on the eve of the French Revolution, which would see Europe descend into chaos and travel restricted again. At a time before cameras made holiday snaps much easier, the diaries serve as a record of Grey’s journey and a visual reminder of everything he saw. (Grand Tour Diaries, 1786-8 / Dunham Massey / Catalogue reference - NT3052076)

Scrapbook laid open with images and notes related to architecture

An 18th century scrapbook of one gentleman's 'Grand Tour' of Europe. (© National Trust)

Advertising the royal shampooing surgeon

This is a wonderful example of using a book as a self-promotional device for a businessman. Soldier turned entrepreneur, Deen Mahomed (1759-1851) emigrated from India to Ireland. He then moved to London to set up a steam bath and the first Indian restaurant in England. His Hindoostanee Coffee House and baths both failed, causing him to decide to move to set up the baths in Brighton, not far from the Royal Pavilion. A royal warrant as shampooing surgeon to King George IV (1762-1830) helped his business become successful. This second edition of his book was published with the help of financial backing from various wealthy subscribers. It includes thanks and praise from satisfied customers, as well as adverts for his services to attract new customers. (‘Shampooing’, 1826 / Hardwick Hall / Catalogue reference - NT3161994)

Engraving of a 19th century man in a jacket and high collard shirt. To the left is a separate printed advert for shampooing business.

When an advert becomes a book! Filled with testimonials this edition was owned by the 6th Duke of Devonshire. (© National Trust)

For the love of science

Mary Ward (1827-1869) is one of those rare people who are incredibly enthusiastic about their own subject but also want to share it with others. A pioneering female scientist, she wrote and illustrated books for children in an age when there were few books for children. Her 18th birthday present from loving, open-minded parents was a powerful microscope. During the 19th century colour illustrations in books were becoming cheaper and more common. You can see that the books she wrote are based on her interests and close observations of insects and plants. (‘Sketches with the Microscope’, 1857 / Castle Ward / Catalogue reference - NT3082063)

Illustrated pages of a book showing insects and science equipment.

Mary's illustrations bring her book, and the science it describes, to vivid life for children of all ages (© National Trust)

The coldest printing shop

Huge advances in desktop-publishing software and printing technology during the 19th and 20th centuries mean we often forget the challenges faced by earlier writers and printers. Across many properties, the National Trust has many examples of books produced completely by hand, from the earliest days of hand-printing, through to more recent mass-produced works. Ernest Shackleton’s Aurora Australis is amazing as much for where it was produced. Written by his expedition crew to alleviate the boredom of being cooped up during the Antarctic winter, getting the book printed was a test of advance planning and ingenuity. A hand-press, pieces of metal type, ink, paper and silk cord all had to be taken from England. In the extreme cold of the Antarctic winter the crew had to somehow keep the ink warm enough to print with, then dry the wet printed sheets in their cramped conditions. Illustrations within give a glimpse into how they managed it, as well as into their lives in winter quarters.  (‘Aurora Australis’, 1908 / Sissinghurst Castle / Catalogue reference - NT3212787)

Illustration of men in a utilitarian hut. One is reading a book from a shelf. A broom is in the foreground.

Not just a beautiful book, but a stunning production story as this was printed in extreme conditions at the South Pole! (© National Trust)

Find out more

Read our earlier posts for more highlights from the Trust's collections:

Related topics