Collection Care blog

03 March 2014

The Brickish Library

The British Library opened its doors at the current St Pancras site in 1997 having legally separated from the British Museum in 1973. It was purpose built to match the neighbouring St Pancras hotel and station whose red bricks came from a patent brick fired from a supply of Keuper marl clay in Mapperley, Nottingham, and New Red Sandstone from Mansfield. The impressive St Pancras station site has over 50,000,000 red bricks. The British Library’s matching red glow is found both inside and outside the main library with the brickwork complemented by a variety of other rock types.


A view of the british library from the front entrance. The picture  is taken on an angle to show both the facade of the British library, as well as part  of the cafe on the square outside of the  library
A view of the exterior of the British Library


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Røyken Granite

Entering the Library through the main gates from Euston Road visitors will notice a russet red granite from Norway called Røyken Granite forming the initial entrance steps and the base of the brickwork.


A close-up of the exterior corner of a building. The corner is in the middle of the picture with both sides ascending away. The top ⅓ of the external walls are red bricks, while the rest of the wall is granite slabs. On the right side there is a small glimpse of granite steps ascending upwards, with a flat path on the left. e
Granite steps lead visitors into the British Library, casually reminding users to never take librarians for granite


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To the left of the entrance gate is a granite stone inset into the brickwork commemorating its unveiling on 7 December 1982 by HRH Prince of Wales.


Square marble plaque with text reading “The British Library/H.R.H The Prince of Wales/Unveiled this stone/7 December 1982.” The plaque is large, appearing roughly 2 metres by two metres. It has a speckled pattern of dark grey, terracotta, and light pinks. The plaque is inset into a brick wall. There is a small black convex security camera in the top right corner.
Granite entrance stone


CC zero Granite is an igneous rock produced by slowly cooling magma. The same granite has been roughened to provide a non-slip surface in the piazza. Granite forms a major part of continental crust and consists mainly of quartz, mica and feldspar. These three minerals are seen everywhere at the base of the walls around the courtyard and in the Conference Centre walls. Feldspar is the most abundant mineral and presents as regular rectangles giving the rock its red appearance. Quartz is dark and fills in the feldspar gaps, while mica presents as tiny black specs.

Detail zoom of a sample of granite. The pattern is speckled with lots of tones and shades of grey, black, muted oranges, grey-blues, and cream. The speckled pattern at this close range gives the appearance of a rough texture, the darker grey and blacks looking like shadows, and the lighter colours appearing as highlights.
Close-up of Granite slab which is composed of feldspar, quartz and mica

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New Red Sandstone

Over the entrance gate are several large red slabs of New Red Sandstone from Dumfriesshire. The slabs were cut from a larger square block at the quarry. The slabs facing onto Euston Road have been carved with the words The British Library (in case anyone is confused about where they are!).

A view of the entrance to the British Library Piaza, with a close-up focus  on the granite slabs at the top of the gated entrance with “The British Library” carved out in relief. Red bricks flank either side. The perspective of looking up gives a view of the passageways white ceiling, which  creates a graphic and geometric pattern of triangles and diamonds with accidents of black stone at the tip  of each triangle. Just the tip of the iron gate leading into the open piazza is visible which also reads “BRITISH LIBRARY.”
New Red Sandstone at the British Library entrance

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New Red Sandstone comes from the Permian period (298-252 million years ago) while Old Red Sandstone is from the Devonian period (419-359 million years ago). The red colour is a result of iron oxide which is indicative of formation in a desert-type climate. Sandstone forms by sand grains being blown into large moving sand dunes by prevailing winds.

Red bricks

The clay red bricks we most associate with the architecture of the British Library come from Hampshire achieving their fiery red colour through use of Southern England’s finest red clays. These clays are high in pure alumina and devoid of gypsum. The iconic red colour is produced by controlling the oxygen concentrations while heating in a kiln to high temperatures. As the bricks are heated their colour burns through various red hues before turning brown or grey at maximum heating.

The red bricks forming paving in the piazza are similarly formed, but close inspection will show curved line cavities at the surface. These are a result of gas escaping during heating.

Close up of the brick wall, showing one brick in the middle with the bricks surrounding it cut off from the image. The close up reveals the texture and cracks in the bricks appearing like old leather. These are created due  to gas escaping during heating. The grey grout shows off the thin shadow made by the slightly protruding bricks.
The Brick walls of the British Library

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Hauteville Limestone

The red paviour bricks in the piazza are bounded by strips of white Hauteville limestone which originates in the high ground of the French Jura – in fact it is so high that delivery of the stone to the Library was delayed due to the quarry being snowbound! It is a heavy crystalline material and the observant passer-by may notice some fossilised sea sponges in the stones around the conference centre.

A view of the base of a pillar in the piazza. The pillar is red with vertical ribs all around. The base is granite, with a dark grey speckled appearance, made up of segments fitted together like  a pizza, with centre tips covered by the red pillar. The ground is composed of white marble with slight dark grey veining, as well as large islands of red brick inset throughout the white marble.
On the piazza is a combination of red brick paviours set between Hauteville limestone strips. Granite is rock bottom at the base of the pillars

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An open view of the British Library Piazza looking towards the main entrance of the library. The perspective is enhanced by the pattern created  in the white marble and red brick flooring, which has created a grid like pattern. All the lines in the grid point your eye to the main entrance with a  view of the red brick walls and red cladding overhang. The red pillars supporting the overhang are just visible but dark, and the rest of the details behind are very dark with shadow and not much detail is visible. There is a raised garden bed with green shrubbery to the right, with a man sitting on a bench placed in front of it. To the left between two lamp posts is a banner strung across, but two far away to see much more than two pale painted figures on a dark background.
View of the British Library from the piazza
Close-up detail of the limestone used for the floor of the piazza. A rich network of dark blue-gray veining runs throughout the off-white marble, with thick and thin long and short markings.
Weathered Hauteville limestone with dark regions of lime mud

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Inside the building, the geology changes again including Portland stone, Italian Travertine and Purbeck stone. You can read more about these rocks and the piazza feature known as Planets by Antony Gormley in Eric Robinson’s A Geology of the British Library.

Christina Duffy


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