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The Compulsive Collector Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741) Judith Dunn Except where otherwise noted, all images are courtesy Ivor Hughes. They were taken in situ, under glass. E dward Harley was born into a powerful, wealthy family. His father, Robert Harley, 1 st Earl of Oxford, was a prominent Tory politician who fell from power when the Hanoverian George I came to the throne after the death of Queen Anne. He had been one of Queen Anne’s closest advisors. Edward Harley felt his father’s disgrace keenly but was never particularly interested in public affairs, although he dutifully sat as a member of Parliament for six or seven years. When he inherited the earldom in 1722, he entered the House of Lords and gave himself fully to his passion for collecting. Books and manuscripts were his abiding interest. His father had created a significant political and genealogical library and Edward expanded it to the tune of 50,000 printed books, 350,000 pamphlets, 7,639 manuscript books, 4, 000 engraved prints and 14,236 early rolls, deeds, charters and other legal documents. Quite the collection! Edward Harley’s marriage in 1713 to Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles, daughter of the Duke of Newcastle (and, incidentally, a direct descendant of Bess of Hardwick, see NEAJ March, 2014), had brought him Wimpole House in Cambridgeshire, which became their family home. The library necessitated the building of an entire new wing. However, along with the library, Edward had also inherited his father’s debts – to which he also added exponentially. He collected far more than books and prints: Portraits (both full size and miniature), gold and silver, ivory, jewelry and textiles. He – they had other properties – but Harley was so distressed when he fully realized the scale of his financial mismanagement that he did the traditional thing and took to drink, dying two years later, aged only 52. Lady Henrietta retired to Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, another of the properties she had inherited. Sales of the Harley library inevitably followed, very much at a loss – and most of it left the UK over time. However, the manuscript collection was the subject of a public lottery and was acquired in its entirety by the government. As the Harleian Collection, it is now the core of the British Library’s manuscript collection. Lady Henrietta managed to retain many items relating to her family history. They are now part of the Portland Collection at Welbeck and demonstrate just how wide was the scope of Edward Harley’s taste. What is left of his collection forms a fascinating exhibition at the Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate, running until the end of 2014. Godfrey Kneller, Edward Harley, 2 nd Earl of Oxford, 1716. Kneller was the leading court and society painter of the day. He worked at a furious rate, holding as many as 14 sittings in a day. bought them all with no regard to cost, regularly paying well over the odds for items he wanted and becoming a dream client for dealers. Quite the collector! When things got really out of hand, Lady Henrietta was forced to take control and she sold the Wimpole estate in 1739. Naturally, that hardly left the couple homeless The items on display at any one time in the Harley Gallery at Welbeck represent only a fraction of the treasures in the Portland Collection. A new gallery is planned for 2015. The Edward Harley Exhibition was scheduled to finish in May 2014, but has been extended until the end of the year as a “taster” for what is to come. Further details of the gallery and links to the wealth of facilities at Welbeck are on the website For more items in the collection, particularly the seventeenth-century silver inherited by Lady Henrietta, visit Online Exclusive. Page 44 ◆ Antiques Journal ◆ April 2014