But how did they get up there?

One of my favourite rooms (possibly my absolute favourite, although there are some strong contenders!) is the library. Visitors also love seeing all of the books from floor to ceiling, and often wonder what knowledge and surprises are contained within the books.

One of the most frequent questions that people ask us is how we reach the books on the higher shelves in the library. For the Billiard Room, where the shelves are really high, historically they used really tall ladders to get the top shelves (which probably didn’t happen very often). Unfortunately none of these tall ladders survive at Nostell.

In the Library we know what they used to reach the high shelves as we still have the piece of furniture that they used!

And here it is…

It’s a set of Thomas Chippendale George III library metamorphic steps. The invoice dates them to the 4th of July, 1767. They cost the grand sum of £14.

Fully extended, the steps dimensions are 1840 x 1250 x 580 mm. This makes them big enough to reach the highest shelves in the Library (but not the super high shelves in the Billiard Room).

We’ve decided to open up the metamorphic steps and have them as our ‘open cabinet’ for a while, as we all like seeing such an impressive piece of furniture opened up as the Winn family who lived at Nostell would have had it.

Here are some photographs of us putting it together (complete with much scratching of heads and re-reading of the instructions!):

We lift the seat up and part of the steps fold out to provide some initial structure. Then it’s a case of fitting all of the parts together and slotting them in correctly!

The metamorphic steps are made out of polished mahogany, although the inside of the steps aren’t polished like the outside, as nobody would see them!

Carefully positioning the steps

Attaching the top support

The seat of the steps (which becomes the back when it is opened out) is padded with horse hair

Looking up the steps – it’s a long way!

Metamorphic library steps, with the Library’s false door of books in the background

And there we have it – a fully functioning set of metamorphic steps that the Winn family would have used to get books from the top shelves in the Library.

Fully opened set of Chippendale metamorphic steps in the Library of Nostell Priory. The painting next to the steps shows Lady Sabine and and Sir Rowland Winn, 5th Baronet, standing in Nostell’s Library next to Chippendale’s library desk. It was painted by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, and dates to 1767. Sir Rowland commissioned the painting because he was enormously proud of the Library once it was finished, and wanted to show it off to his London friends, so hung it in their house in St. James Square.

Now, which book shall we look at first…?

Ellie

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7 thoughts on “But how did they get up there?

    • No problem – it’s one of my favourite pieces of furniture too! If there’s anything at Nostell you particularly want to see more detailed photos of, then let us know and I’ll post about them in the blog.
      Best,
      Ellie

      • Ohhh Ellie, now you’ve got me thinking! I’m familiar with Chippendale’s better known works at Nostell such as the library table, but it’s the nitty-gritty details like the interior of the library steps that really intrigue me as they offer an insight to the mind and methods of the great man.

        It would be fascinating to see more images of interiors of Chippendale’s furniture; drawer construction, dovetails, hinges, catches etc.

        I’m currently infatuated with Chippendale period brasses, so I would be very keen to see some close-ups of handles, mounts and escutcheons. I can’t quite make out the detail in the escutcheon on the bookcase door behind the metamorphic steps in the last image above and also here http://nttreasurehunt.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/ntpl_17774.jpg, I get the impression it’s more than just a plain escutcheon. Would it be possible to see a close-up of one of these escutcheons please? I understand my request may not be to everyone’s taste, so I’m quite happy to converse with you privately if you’d rather not narrow the focus of your excellent blog.

      • I’ve just been round Nostell and had a look out for our more interesting cabinet handles, chest handles, escutcheons, door handles and the like and it seems there are quite a few really interesting ones! It’s amazing what you see when you really start looking. This blog gives members of the public and our online visitors the chance to look at the ‘nitty gritty’ details of the furniture, so I’d be more than happy to write a blog post focussing on such details. The closer people can get to our furniture the more they’ll understand and help us to preserve it for future generations. Look out for it in the next few weeks (and thanks for your suggestion)!

        Best,
        Ellie

      • Just to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about your blog post request – I’ve just walked around Nostell taking photos of escutcheons and cabinet handles, so expect to see them up on our blog in the next few weeks!

        Best,
        Ellie

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