The Compulsive Collector
Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford (1689-1741)
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
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
For more items in the collection, particularly the seventeenth-century silver
inherited by Lady Henrietta, visit Online Exclusive.
Page 44 ◆ Antiques Journal ◆ April 2014