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John Rylands Library, Manchester, by Basil Champneys

John Rylands Library, Deansgate, Manchester, by Basil Champneys (1842-1935). 1890-99; extended to the rear, also by Champneys, 1912 (see listing text). Listed Building. Built of red sandstone, the library's three-bay frontage stands at a slight angle off Deansgate, an important thoroughfare which had seen much rebuilding in the 1870s and 80s (see Hartwell 27). Its length follows the line of Wood Street to the north, and goes back along Spinningfield to the south. Despite its relatively short frontage, and the fact that its chief glory (the first-floor Reading Room) is unobtrusively set back behind and between the two octagonal turrets and taller rectangular towers, the building was felt to have fulfilled its purpose of being "in every way appropriate to the priceless collection of treasures it was intended to enshrine"; iIts librarian proudly considered it to be "one than which no finer has been erected in this or any other country during the present generation" (Guppy 39).

John Rylands and his wife Enriqueta, by Debenham, Ryde, from a newspaper clipping, courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Image id: 2015121

The textile manufacturer and philanthropist John Rylands (1801-1880) was Lancashire's first millionaire and then Manchester's first multi-millionaire (see Farnie). A Nonconformist who increasingly believed in non-sectarianism, he had collected a great many valuable theological books. To these, his widow Enriqueta added two further private collections. Having admired Champney's library at Mansfield College, Oxford (originally a Nonconformist college), she commissioned its architect to design a library to house them. Praising its "marvellous spaces, extraordinary atmosphere and lovely detail," the architectural historian James Stevens Curl describes the resultant building as "perhaps an even more exquisite example of Arts-and-Crafts Gothic" than John Dando Seddings's Holy Trinity, Sloane Street.

Left to right: (a) Tower and octagonal turret on the Spinningfield corner. (b) Deansgate frontage (source: Guppy, frontispiece illustration). (c) Library seen from further north along Deansgate. In the middle of the Deansgate frontage is the Reading Room's main window, which is set back, as described above, as if protected by the turrets, towers, and battlements of the complex superstructure. The contrast between the stout towers and intricate openwork around the turrets, and the delicately worked "gable" (not solid, but openwork again) and screen above this window, is very striking. Note, in the left-hand picture, the flying buttresses linking the octagonal turrets with the towers. The whole effect is unusual, a mixture of the robust and the delicate, the formidable and the picturesque. The listing text describes the net result as "like a church raised on a crypt" or (more aptly, when seen from the front) looking like "the gatehouse of a monastery."

Left: Detail of the Spinningfield elevation. (b) Right: Detail of the front (Deansgate) elevation. Along the upper storey of the Spinningfield side, the tiered oriels provide light for the Reading Room's study bays, and are punctuated by tall narrow buttresses culminating in pointed caps, all very Gothic. The front elevation is "Decorated" in every sense, with heraldry and fine stone-carving, and an Arts and Crafts flavour.

Left to right: (a) Close-up of carving on and above the double door of the main entrance. (b) Stone-carving on the arched portal. (c)The library's name in gilded lettering. Immediately over the doorway are two coats of arms. The one on the right is that of St Helen's, Merseyside, where John Rylands was born. It bears the motto, "Ex Terra Lucem," or "Out of the Earth, Light," in reference to that town's position on Lancashire coalfield. The arms on the left are the combined ones of Mrs Rylands and her husband's families (see Guppy 43 and "The Building"), this time with the motto, "Nihil nisi Labore" or "Nothing without Effort." Above and between these are John Rylands' entwined initials. All this "lovely detail" (Curl 140) is a great part of the building's attraction. More heraldry, mottos, and nature carvings can be found inside the building. They are very much Arts and Crafts features, popular at the time. As for the lettering, see for example William and George Audsley's medieval alphabet.designs, in which the capital "T" is very similar to the one shown here.

M. S. Briggs calls the John Rylands Library Champney's "masterpiece.... a really noble design carried out in every detail with consummate skill in late Gothic style and with considerable regard for practical requirements." For example, the main part of the library is raised, not an a whim, but to distance the noise of the horse-drawn traffic outside (see "The Building"). And there really are treasures to be guarded here, including illuminated manuscripts and, even in the earliest days, over 2,500 volumes printed before 1501 (see Guppy 12). The result is a fascinating building, a library like no other. This brings up an interesting issue: do its special qualities make it more important, or less important, than a building that has had a lasting influence? Whatever view we take, surely our architectural heritage would be much less inspiring without unique structures like this.

Related Material


Archer, John H. G. "John Rylands Library." In Manchester, by Clare Hartwell. Pevsner Architectural Guides. London: Penguin, 2001. 96-101. Print.

Briggs, M.S., rev. Michael W. Brooks. "Champneys, Basil (1842-1835)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 1 August 2012.

"The Building."The University of Manchester: The John Rylands Library. Web. 1 August 2012.

Curl, James Stevens, Victorian Architecture. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1990. Print.

Farnie, D. A. "Rylands, John (1801-1888)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition. Web. 1 August 2012.

Guppy, Henry (Librarian). The John Rylands Library: A Brief Historical Description. Manchester: Manchester University Press / London: Sherrat & Hughes, 1906. Internet Archive. Web. 1 August 2012.

Hartwell, Clare. Manchester. Pevsner Architectural Guides. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.

"John Rylands Library and Attached railings, gates and lamp standards." British Listed Buildings. Web. 1 August 2012.

Last modified 5 August 2012