Buying a bestselling thriller for an escapist read is one thing. Assembling an array of books for a library that is tailor-made to one’s own specific interests is something else altogether. Several friends I’ve talked with over the last month or so as the New Year approached insist that they’ll be reading more books in 2019, and a few have expressed an interest in developing collections devoted to subjects they particularly love.
To that end, there’s Heywood Hill, the legendary little London bookshop that was founded in 1936 by two entrepreneurial members of the era’s Bright Young People—George Heywood Hill, who had just turned 30, and his future wife, Lady Anne Gathorne-Hardy, an earl’s daughter, who was only 24. Anne’s sparkling personality, her 2007 obituary in The Independent, observed, led to the shop in the eternally fashionable Mayfair district swiftly enjoying a “reputation as a meeting place of the social and literary élite which it retains to this day.”
Heywood Hill is still located in the slender Georgian townhouse where it all began and where, during World War II, the future novelist Nancy Mitford once worked. (If you want to stay in the building—my dream, given that Heywood Hill occupies the two lower floors—check out the serviced apartments upstairs, which are run by Mansley.) The Curzon Street institution, located behind a coal-black ground-floor façade that is crossed by a brilliant blue awning, continues to sell titles old and new with, its website states, “an emphasis on literature, history, architecture, biography, and travel.” If you’re looking for the latest Scandinavian crime novel, one will likely not find it there.
Setting Heywood Hill further apart are the personal libraries that, with considerable aplomb and increasing prominence, it creates for readers of every conceivable stripe. Passionate about, say, great American novels? Aviation memoirs? The history of English architecture from Roman times until the present day? Heywood Hill has planned, assembled, and installed libraries dedicated to those very themes in recent years, under the energetic leadership of chairman Nicky Dunne, who has overseen the business since 2011. In several recent talks, including one lazy chat over take-out coffee in the nearby Berkeley Square Gardens, Dunne talked with AD PRO about Heywood Hill’s library division and how it works.
“I first encountered this library service at Chatsworth, where the late 11th duke of Devonshire had commissioned my predecessor to create a library on Ireland for him,” says the dashing Dunne. He was not a mere tourist, mind you, when this revelation occurred: A former political communications director, Dunne is married to Lady Jasmine Cavendish, younger daughter of Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th and current duke, who purchased Heywood Hill in 2013, about a decade after his own father had acquired a major stake in the beloved firm. Why Ireland as a subject? Well, in addition to Chatsworth, the family’s fabled seat near Bakewell, Derbyshire, another Cavendish address is Lismore Castle, a castellated enchantment in County Waterford that came into the family in 1753. Thus, books about Ireland made their way from London to Bakewell, among them volumes about “Irish literature, history, topography, natural history, and, indeed, politics,” Dunne explains of the library that his wife’s grandfather requested and which now resides at Lismore. “The shop created a core for him and kept refreshing it with new and old material, sending him additional books once he’d approved those purchases. That’s how we’ve worked with all sorts of people all over the world.”
Though Heywood Hill has been developing private libraries for decades, word of mouth has resulted in its becoming a bustling pillar of the business. “We have around 10 to 20 projects a year, anywhere in the world but largely in Europe and North America,” Dunne says. “They can vary in scale from a couple of hundred books to up to around 5,000 volumes.” A third of the assignments, he says, are for clients who are building a new home and setting aside a room for books or who have acquired or constructed a second residence, such as a holiday house—which can result in a fascinating library if the location sparks a theme. On a far smaller scale, Heywood Hill can cobble together a library as a gift. In 1963, for example, Nancy Mitford (a sister-in-law of the 11th duke of Devonshire) requested, as a wedding present for a Cavendish niece, “the nucleus of a library of English classics—the sort I enjoy myself, viz history & belles-lettres …Macaulay, Carlyle (Fred & Fr. Rev.); Byron’s Letters, Baskerville Prayer Book.”
Heywood Hill’s library-building process starts out a bit like a session of psychoanalysis. “The key is to sit down with a client to get a sense of what they want to achieve with library. What their interests are and their taste is, talking to them in depth about what they like to read, what they do with their time,” Dunne explains. “Very quickly you get a strong sense of someone’s personality. The thing all our clients have in common is that they understand the importance of good books.” That being said, those volumes aren’t meant to sit unopened, pristine trophies rather than well-thumbed diversions; Heywood Hill’s clients aren’t connoisseurs focused on the rarity of a binding rather than a book’s contents. “They’re not all super-rich people who don’t read a book—I’ve never ever met anyone like that,” Dunne adds. “Maybe they exist but the people we help do read books. It’s just not satisfying to work with people who don’t love books.”
Once the scope of the project has been established, a budget has been determined, and a deposit changes hands, Dunne says, “the real fun begins.” Bibliographies are assembled by Heywood Hill’s 16-member staff, sometimes in consultation with experts in a particular field, such as academics who can offer insights. “Sitting in somebody’s study, having a cup of tea, looking at his shelves, and asking him about which books he considers important and why quickly enables you to get a good feel for a subject,” Dunne says, adding that, for a library developed around the theme of polar exploration “we met with a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey.”
Heywood Hillers spend hours in the fabled London Library, thumbing card catalogues, perusing academic journals, and searching open shelving in pursuit of titles that answer a client’s desires. Other dealers and collectors are canvassed, too, Dunne says: “The book world is a very congenial one.” All this takes months, even years—and it involves more than merely making lists and tracking down the volumes, including those owned by private collectors that may or may not be open to letting go of a precious volume.
Developing a library also means becoming familiar with its ultimate location. Some of Heywood Hill’s libraries end up in existing rooms in houses and apartments where existing shelves await the latest tomes. Others involve newly planned spaces that have been conceived by owners in collaboration with leading interior designers and architects. “We have to know how the books are going to look in the final destination, so we usually have architectural drawings, drawings of bookcases to plan the layout of the books and how they will be organized,” Dunne explains. “Usually we leave a good proportion of space for any library to grow, where we can come in and expand the collection over time.”
Dunne recently arranged for AD PRO to visit and photograph several libraries that Heywood Hill has helped to create, two in London and one in Massignac, a village in the French countryside. Each is a testament to a client’s passion, a designer’s vision, and, above all, Heywood Hill’s expertise.
For London’s Artemis Fund Managers, chairman John Dodd wanted a library that would inspire his partners and associates in freedom of thought. “Thinking independently is a defining strand of the DNA of the partnership,” Dunne explains. Heywood Hill’s concept was simple and yet provocative, what Dunne describes as “a readers’ library that captures capitalism in all its layers and colors: the heroes, the villains, the groundbreakers, the headbangers, people with good ideas and bad, those who innovated and those whose ideas were in fact dead ends, people who moved markets in the past and who are moving them in the present.”
The space, Dunne continues, “is like a gentleman’s club, with beautiful furniture, overlooking St. James’s Place. It’s a room where you could go to have lunch, sit quietly, and stimulate your mind.” Historical world maps are displayed in shallow niches, joined by fragments of classical statuary, and Turkish carpets are stretched across dark parquet. Built-in oak shelves have been filled with everything from memoirs of Wall Street and an antique handbook about London’s bankers to bracing titles such as “Fraud” and “Copycats & Contrarians.” Says Dunne, “The majority of the books are on the core theme, with other secondary themes. For example, a good chunk, about a third, covers humanities, classics, philosophy, theology, politics, history, and literary arts, with plenty of literature, fiction, and visual arts, too. Ten percent are fun things that are vaguely relevant to risk taking and risk assessing, including a section on gambling.”
“Robin Birley is a unique and wonderful Mayfair figure who whose family have been Heywood Hill supporters for generations,” Dunne says of one of London’s most admired—and socially connected—entrepreneurs. Birley’s late father, Mark, was the founder of the club Annabel’s, itself named for Birley’s alluring mother Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, a marquess’s daughter who famously went on to wed financier Sir James Goldsmith. His grandfather Sir Oswald Birley was one of high society’s most celebrated portraitists in the first half of the 20th century, and his father’s sister was Loulou de La Falaise, Yves Saint Laurent’s right-hand woman. As for Birley himself, like his father, he is an connoisseur of art and antiques who has founded a handful of admired private clubs, among them 5 Hertford Street, where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle reportedly had their first date, and Oswald’s, an elegant wine club that opened last year. He’s presently eyeing clubbable outposts in New York City.
“Independent minded and extremely civilized,” says Dunne, Birley is passionate about history, so with the help of Heywood Hill, he is the owner of a stellar library—housed in the rambling Hertford Street complex, in classic bookcases painted the color of milky tea—that reflects his own lightly worn erudition. Subjects range from the 19th-century Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi to British statesman Sir Winston Churchill to architect Albert Speer’s memoirs of the Third Reich to a biography of Athenäis de Montespan, the French royal mistress.
“His interests are wide ranging but certainly a prime interest is British history,” Dunne says. “We keep him up to date with what’s been newly published and have for many years. We send him books that we know he will like, so he’s built up a really good modern history library.”
Heywood Hill spent two years fascinating dual libraries for the guests of Garance Primat, an oil heiress and modern art collector, at Domaine des Etangs, an 11th-century Primat family home in France’s Charente department that she transformed into a quietly chic hotel for the cognoscenti in 2015. “We weren’t attempting to be comprehensive but to find books about people who had done something exceptional and inspirational in all the arts and sciences over time,” Dunne adds. “It’s a place for reflection and study.”
Domaine des Etangs’ libraries are located on mezzanines that have been constructed at either end of a stone building, a former dairy, that was renovated by Paris designer Raphael Navot. In between is a vaulted exhibition space called La Laterie (The Dairy), and it is dedicated to what Primat has described as “the encounters between Art and Nature.” As for the more than 2,000 volumes, they “tell the story of human creativity and response to the natural world,” Dunne says, “each title addressing a different aspect of that story in the arts and sciences.” Recalling the phrase “books do furnish a room,” Heywood Hill acquired volumes that echo designer Nivot’s decors. In the dark, brooding Library of the Past, many of the books are largely bound in lustrous old leather, while numerous books in the Library of the Future—a creamy, glowing space that recalls a set from “2001: Space Odyssey”—are wrapped in shades of white.
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