American Collections blog

10 November 2011

'the most elegant Thing I ever saw': royal libraries and republicans

In the autumn of 1783, following the signing of the definitive treaty of peace with Britain, John Adams and his son, Quincy, visited London. After spending several years apart from his wife, Abigail, he resolved to tempt her over to Europe.  In November 1783, he wrote,

'Come to Europe with Nabby [Abigail, Adam's firsborn daughter] as soon as possible, and Satisfy your Curiosity, and improve your Taste, by viewing these magnificent Sceenes. Go to the Play -- see the Paintings and Buildings -- visit the Manufactures for a few Months -- and then, if Congress pleases return to America with me to reflect upon them.'

These scenes, the letter reveals, included a visit arranged by the painter Benjamin West to Buckingham House, which contained an 'inestimable Collection of Paintings'.  But, he continued, even considering the collections of Rubens, Van Dykes, Wests, etc.,  'The Library is the most elegant Thing I ever saw.'  And here, Adams was best pleased — and in this he probably shared the tastes of George III — by the 'Collection of Plans', which is now largely housed in the British Library and can be seen on the Online Gallery.

Perhaps it worked: Abigail (to whom he signed the letter, 'with Tenderness unutterable') and Nabby joined him in 1784.

Many of Adam's papers are currently available via the University of Virginia 'Founders Early Access Programme', but the November letter itself is held, along with a wealth of other materials, by the Massachusetts Historical Society.  It is available online as part of their Adams Electronic Archive.

You can read more about the contents and history of the George III collection here.  As well, of course, as enjoying the sight of the King's Library Tower in the heart of the Library's St Pancras building.

And, from tomorrow you can 'Satisfy your Curiosity' about earlier royal libraries, when the exhibition, 'Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination', opens.

[Matthew Shaw]


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