Built between 1667-1669, Cosin’s Library is the jewel in the crown of the University’s historic library buildings and collections, though from the outside you might not realise it.
John Cosin was the first Bishop of Durham after the Civil War, during which, as a Royalist, he had been in exile on the Continent. On his election in 1660, he found buildings which had been left in a parlous state by the occupying Parliamentary forces. Seeing an opportunity to place his mark upon Palace Green and history by renovating and renewing the buildings, he commissioned local master mason John Langstaffe, a local Quaker, to build a new library.
While the exterior is very conservative, fitting well with the exchequer building next door, the interior was modelled on the latest European style and thinking. This was a significant departure from the claustrophobic ‘Harry Potter’ style libraries of the past, with their protruding bookcases promoting isolation and private study. Cosin’s interior is the opposite; open and spacious, encouraging scholars to mix and freely exchange ideas. Here, the dark wooden built-in bookcases line the walls surmounted by portraits of famous theologians, philosophers, historians and classical authors.
Painted by Jan Baptist van Eersel, an otherwise unknown painter from the Low Countries, the portraits informed scholars of the books on the shelves beneath and are based on illustrations from books still in the library.
Apart from the insertion of a gallery in the interior and stair turret on the outside of the building in 1834, to allow the university to use the space for ceremonies, most of Bishop Cosin’s 17th century interior remains.