[Edith Wharton's library at The Mount. Photo by John Bessler from Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms: Architecture, Interiors, Gardens by Theresa Craig.]
[First edition 1924 book cover from Wharton's Old New York series
with artwork by Edward C. Caswell.]
I don't think I've ever organized my books according to conventional logic -- like by obvious category. For me, it's always been accessibility first (most referenced books within easy reach), then size (ginormous tomes squeezed in wherever I can find room, etc.) and then aesthetics (playing with alternating horizontal and vertical groupings to accommodate other fave things -- boxes, ceramics, pictures and so on). But this week I'm taking inventory. To prep for a furniture rearrange, a lot of my books have to come down off the shelves (and benches, and stools, and chairs), so I'm taking the opportunity to reorganize them a bit. The new plan won't be coherent enough to please a librarian but at least Matisse and Picasso will be hanging out together.
[Wharton library again. Image via The Mount.]
In the past we've gone over contemporary bookshelf aesthetics -- everything from the heavily styled to the more chaotic ready-for-The-World-of-Interiors-shoot look. This time, I thought it would be interesting to revisit Edith Wharton's libraries.
[Lilly Library, Indiana University archive photos of Wharton's St. Claire terrace and library from Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms by Theresa Craig.]
Because, in the 21st century, we've all seen some oddly designer-fied shelves (books with spines so obscured that actually reading them seems prohibited), a lot of people are starting to recoil when decoration and books are mentioned in the same breath. But Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer and design revolutionary Wharton apparently enjoyed reading and looking at her sea of books.
[Screengrab from Bob Vila's 2002 tour of The Mount.]In The Decoration of Houses she advocates rooms lined with built-in bookcases as the most efficient and aesthetically pleasing approach; this way books are very accessible and do double duty as part of the decor. Of course, she was working with gorgeously bound volumes -- often sets of them, in fact. Accidental color-blocking, if you will. To really emphasize the visual appeal, she advised keeping other decorative elements in a library restrained. There's a nice clear of view of The Mount's library in 2002 -- when Henrietta Spencer-Churchill was asked to do a special installation -- in this video. Since it was filmed, Wharton's own books have returned to the house.
[More Lilly Library, Indiana University archive photos of St. Claire from Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms. Pictured below, Wharton with her housekeeper Catharine Gross circa 1920s.]
During WWI, Wharton lived in France and became immersed in relief work on behalf of injured soldiers and orphans. For these volunteer efforts she received the title of Chevalier (knight) of the French Legion of Honor, and in the 1920s remained in Europe, renting and ultimately buying a former convent, Saint Claire, along the Riviera. In Edith Wharton: A House Full of Rooms Theresa Craig explains that Wharton created a new library for herself there, part of a major remodeling project, pictured above in black and white. Less formal than The Mount's library, it had a brown brick floor with small scattered rugs, light-colored wood bookcases (some were set into the walls and some protruded out), and long tables for reading.
I decided to add Wharton's 20s-era Saint Claire hallway to the mix because of the Chinese-inspired wallcovering. Having seen her share of super-heavily-patterned 19th-century interiors, she tended to eschew wallpaper, so this was a less expected choice. Craig notes that the walls (whether fabric-covered or papered) compliment Wharton's Chinese painted-glass lantern.