January 29, 2016
Lady Hertford and her £7 million book wallpaper
by Liam O’Brien
Inveterate book collectors all have at least one story about the rare book that got away. The signed copy sold off just before the author’s untimely death sent prices soaring; the mint-condition first edition that someone snatched out from under their nose; that Chipotle cup that was foolishly thrown out.
However, one early 19th century British noble took it to another level. From Hannah Furness at The Telegraph:
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.
This isn’t a new discovery, but a revisit to commemorate the painstaking restoration and cleaning of the house’s drawing room, which has been reopened to the public. As for the wallpaper—yes, that’s a lot of money, but remember: nobles have no perspective on cost, and the book was not, at the time of its repurposing, rare or valuable. So this isn’t exactly “lighting cigars with $100 bills”-level waste, and at least Lady Hertford recognized that the book had value as a DIY project. That’s better than painting over a Da Vinci fresco because you needed a flat surface.
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.
So, in conclusion: rich person could have been richer if she wasn’t such a devoted crafter (and was immortal). However, since the house and its contents were sold by the family in 1922, it’s possible the book could have still disappeared into the ether, or been sold for a pittance to one of the many poorer people who live near the estate.
In any case, please join me in a moment of silence for the many Pinterest users who, as you read this, are decorating their walls with wasted millions.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.