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Durham University

Special Collections

How was the Bamburgh Library created?

Earliest representation of a natural history cabinet of curiosities, originally published in 1599

Engraved title page for Ferrante Imperato, "Historia Naturale" (2nd ed. Venice, 1672; originally published 1599), Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg

The Bamburgh Library was created over several generations between the late 17th and the early 19th centuries. It reflects the different interests of successive owners, whose names – and sometimes their scribbled notes – give a sense of what caught their eye.

The origin of the collection as it exists today lies with John Sharp, Archbishop of York (1644-1714). Sharp’s meteoric rise during his political and religious career also came with a substantial income to spend on intellectual improvement and collecting cultural artefacts. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, a gentleman’s private closet, library, or study did not just contain books and manuscripts, but also objects that would not be out of place in a modern museum – from coins to stuffed animals, Greek or Roman sculpture (often plaster copies) to scientific instruments. Exotic animal and plant specimens, rocks, shells, and even human remains presenting unusual features could become part of a gentleman’s private collection. A number of notable British museums started life as private collections, such as the British Museum, the Ashmolean and the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Inventories of country house libraries of the period similarly list a range of artistic and scientific objects alongside books, manuscripts, maps and engravings.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that the Bamburgh Library contains not only a significant amount of theological and devotional material, but also works on politics and current affairs, science and medicine, natural history, literature, ancient languages, and history. Archbishop Sharp also collected coins and medals. Some of these he left to the Yorkshire antiquary Ralph Thoresby to become part of the latter’s celebrated Musaeum Thoresbyanum (dispersed at auction in 1764), while others remained in the family and were added to by the next generations. There are still a few books on numismatics in the collection, while Gloucester Archives hold files showing the Sharp family’s interest in coins. The Sharps also built up a substantial collection of music scores and the Archbishop’s grandchildren are known for their musicality, not least due to the conversation piece painted by the artist Johan Zoffany (ca. 1780), which shows the family with their musical instruments. The scores are now on deposit with Durham Cathedral and feature a number of local composers.

Logo of the Lord Crewe's Charity Palace Green Library Logo

Contact details

Special Collections
Palace Green Library
Palace Green
United Kingdom
: +44 (0)191 334 2972