John Rylands Library opened in 1900 with 70,000 books and about 100 manuscripts. Today it houses 250,000 volumes and over 1,000,000 manuscripts and archival items. On March 2nd, six very excited reading group members met for a specially arranged Explorer Tour. It was built by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John, Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, and a manufacturer of cotton goods who was born in St Helen’s. She wanted to build a public memorial which would both enhance Manchester’s architecture and enrich the lives of its people, so in 1889, the year after John’s death, she engaged the architect Basil Champneys.
The library took 10 years to build, during which time Enriqueta oversaw every detail, even choosing the individual chairs which you can still see in the Historic Reading Room. She also bought the Spencer collection in 1892, from Diana’s forbears. This was widely considered to be the finest privately owned library and consists of 43,000 books; 4,000 of which were printed before 1501. Enriqueta further added to the collection in 1901 with the Crawford collection of 6,000 manuscripts in 50 languages.
I have been in the Spencer and Crawford rooms on previous visits to the library, but was thrilled when Gemma took us behind a locked gate and up a stone spiral staircase to a beautiful mezzanine over the two rooms. Not only was this a chance to see even more books normally out of sight, but you can also get very close to the beautiful bottle glass windows and admire the once futuristic art nouveau electric lights.
We then made our way through the #JRLMagic exhibition – Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World (running until 21 August 2016), admiring the beasts and plants in the bosses of the vaulted ceilings and the beautiful linen fold screens on the walls along the way. A couple of the group were very taken with the magnificent statues in the original entrance hall, depicting Theology Directing the Labours of Science and the Arts by John Cassidy, which illustrate Enriqueta’s philosophy and her intention for the library. But with so many treasures to admire we couldn’t stop long…as well as fabulous gothic columns and arches at every turn, even the plain walls are stunning – their red Cumbrian sandstone or ‘shawk’ makes every brick a unique pattern of stripes.
The main staircase is breathtaking and it’s an achievement to get up the stairs without tripping, because the view of the intricate Lantern Gallery above you is extremely distracting. At the top of the staircase is the Historic Reading Room and, although the entire building is overwhelmingly beautiful, this is the room where I can really feel the love of Enriqueta. It is a cathedral to learning – its vaulted ceiling soars to heights that remind me of York Minster and other great churches; the gallery is lined with figures from religion, literature, science and printing, including William Shakespeare, John Wesley, William Caxton and Sir Isaac Newton. Thrillingly, we got to walk along the gallery of the reading room, getting very close to the southern stained glass window facing Deansgate, which depicts giants of art and literature ranging from Aristotle to Beethoven. The northern window shows biblical figures including Moses and Isaiah. A great deal of thought was put into choosing who was represented in this room, and they tell you a lot about Enriqueta’s values.
Statues of Enriqueta and John Rylands face each other from opposite ends of the room, and of course, it is full of even more books! You are welcome to use the room for quiet study today and if you do go into an alcove, make sure you look at the beautiful roses on their ceilings. There is a handy supply of mirrors to save your neck while you look at the ceiling of the reading room.
Of course we had to round off our trip with a pilgrimage to the original toilets, designed to accommodate the bustles of the Victorian ladies and unchanged to this day. They do have a curious atmosphere, as though being hidden in the depths of the original entrance hall they have somehow been left behind the rest of the building and I feel here more than anywhere that you could almost step back in time when you step through the doors.
If you would like to visit this gorgeously Gothic building, please use the official visitors guide to plan the date and time of your visit. Also please note that there are regular behind the scenes tours. If you’d like even more detail about the building and its history, you can find it in The John Rylands Souvenir Guide and there are more images from our trip on our Bury Libraries Pinterest page.
So if you haven’t been to before, what are you waiting for? I hope we’ve whetted your appetite to discover the library for yourself. If you have, why not go back and find something new – there is so much detail you can’t avoid it!
Finally, many thanks to the wonderful, accommodating staff at the library and especially to Gemma for her wonderfully insightful tour.
Fiona (Reader Development Team).