I love this place... A cathedral of books snuggled away amidst Manchester’s sprawling urban chaos.
The John Rylands Library has been acclaimed as “the best example of neo-Gothic architecture in Europe” but standing outside it is hard to see why. Modern edifices of glass and steel crowd around like obnoxious school bullies, making it seem squat and obsolete: a relic that does not belong and perhaps never did. Even the original site was cramped, hemmed in by narrow streets, tall warehouses and derelict cottages. Today, modern redevelopments have revealed more of the library’s exterior than Victorian visitors could ever see — but here the stonework is plain, the buttresses stunted. Because the side elevations were obscured, the architect designed them economically. Meanwhile the exquisitely intricate façade, no longer used as entranceway, is unappreciated as passers by navigate narrow pavements and murderous Mancurian traffic.
But step inside, brave the minimalist lobby of searing white light, and a forgotten world of intricate detail unfolds. Vaulted corridors lead to lecture rooms panelled with exquisitely carved Polish oak. Grand stairways ascend beneath intricate fan vaults, light flooding in from the towers above. Beasts familiar and unfamiliar lurk in the stonework. Birds, bats, monkeys, dragons and creatures more fantastical stare out, and everywhere the red rose of Lancaster, John Rylands’ home county.
The jewel awaits upstairs.
After confined gloomy corridors, heavy oaken doors open into a vast cathedral-esque nave. Two great stained glass Gothic windows flood the reading room with light, adorned with figures historic and biblical. On either side, quiet alcoves offer secluded study space, lined floor to ceiling with books. Slender pillars ascend, past an upstairs gallery of oaken desks and shelves. 40 feet above the aisle, the pillars fan out into a magnificent vaulted ceiling.
Intricate yet more austere, rendered in rosy Cumbrian sandstone, the library revitalised the medieval Gothic style for Victorian Manchester. Bronze art nouveau fittings pioneered electric lighting whilst most of the city was still burning gas. Glass fronted bookshelves with elaborate locks secured the collection against grimy air and prying hands. Many Victorians had condemned Mrs Rylands’ decision to house invaluable manuscripts in “that dirty, uncomfortable city”. But Architect Basil Champneys pioneering ventilation system filtered out impurities to preserve the fragile collection.
And what a collection! Fragments of 5,000 year old Gilgamesh and John’s Gospel on papyrus, Shakespeare’s sonnets and Dante’s Divine Comedy, sacred texts from around the world and medical texts spanning centuries.
I love this place, its obstinate idealism.
In a city obsessed with profits and mass production, in an area overcrowded by warehouses and slums, Enriqueta Rylands defied contemporary critics to create a library loved by future generations. To this day, it remains a peaceful respite from urban clamour: a cathedral of books snuggled away amidst Manchester’s sprawling urban chaos. Though sirens wail and exhausts roar outside, 30 feet above street level the reading room is a haven of tranquillity. Here, two virtues of mankind are united: a dedicated pursuit of understanding and truth, and an undemanding love of the beautiful. Fellow tourists whisper, humbled by respectful awe.
Sadly, on the day of this particular day, I could not go on to explore the grand staircase, the lecture rooms or the remarkably preserved Victorian toilets. The lower floors of the library had been taken over by a filming crew for Netflix’s sensationalist The Crown. How typical of our present-day priorities.
As with anything, the simple search for the odd quote turns into a dragon’s hoard of curiosities and anecdotes: the sophisticated technology Champneys deployed to filter the filthy Mancunian air; the subtle details he and Enriqueta worked into the design; and Mrs Rylands formalised agreements with neighbouring landowners regulating the surrounding building heights (I wonder, doubtfully, whether these are still in place). For further reading, see Bowler & Brimblecombe (2000).
Bowler, C. & Brimblecombe, P. (2000) ‘Environmental Pressures on Building Design and Manchester’s John Rylands Library’, Journal of Design History, 13 (3), 175–191. The Design History Society.
Farnie, D. A. (1989) ‘Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843–1908), Founder of the John Rylands Library’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library.
Horne, C. S. (1908) ‘A Personal Tribute’, The Christian World, 6 February 1908.
Parker, J. (1899) ‘John Rylands of Manchester’ Daily News 7 October 1899, 8i.
Modern Society (1892), ‘Guppy correspondence’, John Rylands Library Archive, shelf 78, box 5.
The John Rylands Library (2013) Souvenir Guide, The John Rylands Library. The John Rylands Library.
The University of Manchester Library (2018) ‘Our History’, The University of Manchester Library. Accessed 16 February 2020 from: https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/about/our-history.