Lady Hertford jazzed up her dining room with bird pictures cut from what is now said to be the world's most expensive book
When Lady Isabella Hertford sought to brighten up her 1820s dining room, cutting colourful birds out of a handy book must have felt like an inspired idea. The decision could in fact have cost £7.3 million. For the book she chose was not just any old ornithology survey, but a rare copy of John James Audubon’s famous Birds of America.
His ornate sketches of exotic birds from around the world now adorn the walls of Temple Newsam House in Leeds, in a decorating decision which has now lasted for nearly 200 years.
The full story of Lady Hertford and her Chinese Drawing Room will now be told, after the curators spent weeks undertaking “painstaking” protection and preservation work to help restore it to its best.
Similar first edition copies of the original book which have recently sold for more than £7 million at auction.
The rare nature of the books means that if Lady Hertford’s copy had survived, the current owner could have been in line for a multi-million-pound nest egg today. The house will reopen to the public in February, in time for spring visitors, as a new curator unveils the conservation work. Built in 1518 the stately home also boasts gardens designed by Capability Brown and 40 rooms which have held a notable selection of art and furniture.
Easily the most colourful is the Chinese Drawing Room, which was almost entirely decorated by Lady Hertford in the 1820s after she inherited the house from her parents. A mistress of the then-Prince of Wales, who went on to become George IV, she accepted rolls of “extravagant” wallpaper from him as a show of his affection. But once they were on the walls, experts said, she “decided it needed to be more lively”. She turned, naturally, to her copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America, carefully cutting out the creatures inside and pasting them onto the wallpaper. In 2012, the text was proclaimed “the most expensive book in the world” after a series of sales, with different copies making $8.8m at Christie’s New York in 2000, and £7.3m at Sotheby’s London in 2012, and $7.9m again at Christie’s.
In 2010, The Economist estimated that five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were for copies of Birds of America, when adjusting for inflation. Printed in the 1820s, its pages will be famous to anyone with even a passing interest in birds, with image after image plate of nature studies painted in bold colours.
The 43-room house, which was once home to Mary Queen of Scots husband Lord Darnley, was sold to Leeds Corporation by Edward Wood, the 1st Earl of Halifax, in the early 1900s, with Leeds City Council now overseeing its running. Its latest makeover, overseen by new curator Rachel Conroy, has seen all items of furniture and art work removed from the drawing room while specialist cleaning with brushes and miniature vacuums takes place.
Bobbie Robertson, principle keeper at Temple Newsam, told the Telegraph that both the wallpaper and the book are “rare and significant” in their own right, becoming “absolutely unique” in the hands of Lady Hertford.
“Both items are fantastic, but combine them in this rather humorous way and they become quite wonderful,” she said.
"We absolutely love the wallpaper and commend Lady Hertford for her flair and creativity as it’s created a total one-off and a real showpiece."
Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, said: “We absolutely love the wallpaper and commend Lady Hertford for her flair and creativity as it’s created a total one-off and a real showpiece. “However, if anyone at the time had realised the potential value of the beautiful illustrations, I’m quite sure they wouldn’t have become part of Lady Hertford’s DIY project.”
Born in 1759, Lady Hertford was the daughter of Charles Ingram, 9th Viscount of Irvine, and married Francis Seymour-Conway, the second Marquess of Hertford at the age of 16 before catching the eye of the Prince of Wales. The house was passed down the family line until the 1st Earl of Halifax, when it was moved to the authority of the council.
Had the book survived, it is likely that it would have been sold off as one of many items offered on tables on the lawns of the house in 1922.
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