“Metal poles shored up the ceiling of the library when I first saw it. We bought the house 12 years ago and it was in a state of some disrepair, but the bones of the place were so great. The Touche family of Deloitte Touche had previously owned it and they had also used this room as a library. They had painted it dark green and we painted it dark red – those are the two classic colours for a library.
All home design should be a reflection of the personality of the people who live there, and I think for me this room is that. The chairs are battered old leather ones and the coffee table consists of vintage Louis Vuitton trunks. On the table behind the sofa is a bust of James Watt. The room is enveloped with bookshelves, crammed with titles by Kipling, Churchill and GA Henty and my childhood collection of about 70 Ladybird books. My entire education is based on the rock of Ladybird books.
Sharing the shelves are all sorts of things from my travels: African tribal art, antique Buddhas, a collection of Chinese shoes for bound feet – pieces that are a kind of shorthand for a whole culture and history. I have a shocking weakness for collecting: not least old toys, and especially vintage Noah’s Arks. Sussex is inundated with great antique shops and there’s one in Petworth where I recently bought a 19th-century German Noah’s Ark. None of my vessels has a complete set of animals – and some have more Noahs than they should.
I call the library my Edwardian man cave. Man caves are such a big thing in interiors, but one usually thinks of them as somewhere with a huge TV and a La-Z-Boy reclining chair. This is a man cave from a different era. It’s a place for perusing the bookshelves and bringing down a volume of something: Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples or the story of some daring expedition. My history is rooted in the way the subject was taught years ago – not about social trends but about heroes. One of my favourite books ever is Eric Newby’s A Book of Travellers’ Tales, a compendium of excerpts from the stories of everyone from Marco Polo to Captain Cook and Mungo Park. I think it would inspire anybody. It’s impossible to read more than a few pages without thinking: ‘For God’s sake, I’ve got to get going!’
Libraries are where you can gather the family’s history. As you get older, you become much more interested in your ancestry. Suddenly you appreciate all those people who went before and you value the things they had. I’m particularly proud of my forebears’ role in ending the slave trade. Elizabeth Fry was my great-great-great aunt and I’ve got some signed notes from her tucked into my Elizabeth Fry Ladybird book.
The library isn’t just for me, though. Everyone in the family is allowed to come in. Sometimes I have to bully them to come in – to look at all these interesting things in which nobody but me has the remotest interest. Everything in there has a story. I remember my daughter dropping a dinosaur egg and breaking it in two when she was very little. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ she said. ‘We can mend it.’ That dinosaur egg is now much more valuable as part of our family history. Otherwise it would just be a boring old relic.”
This story was originally posted on 31 July 2018.