A Priory Story

The Masterpiece Theater production "Downton Abbey," the fourth season of which premiers in January, has inspired many with a new fascination for England's great houses. This week's selection from the stacks, an auction catalog for August 11, 1834, gives insight into the story of one such great house: Lee Priory. The building is particularly remarkable because for 10 years in the early nineteenth century, it housed a private printing press.

Lee Priory was, oddly, not an actual priory, but a private residence thought to have been built during the reign of James I (1603-1625). The estate on which the house was built was created even earlier, probably in the reign of Edward I, between 1272 and 1307. It was owned by three different families before Colonel Thomas Brydges Barrett, the final owner prior to the auction, inherited it from a great uncle in the early 1800s. The private printing press was established in 1813 by Thomas's father, Sir Egerton Brydges, a founding member of the exclusive bibliographical society the Roxburghe Club, who resided with his son at Lee Priory after 1810. The press ceased printing in 1823, perhaps because the family's financial affairs were becoming increasingly troubled. Thomas Brydges Barrett died in 1834 in poverty and social exile on the continent. Dire financial circumstances led to the auction of Lee Priory's contents later that same year, which resulted in this catalog. The building was demolished in 1953.

The printing press at Lee Priory was lauded as one of the best private printing presses of its day. Not only were the books produced there remarkably beautiful, but the tracts printed were often unusual, long-forgotten, or rare. Examples include previously unpublished works of the poet William Browne, and poems by Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, copies of which are also housed in the Newberry Library's collection.

Books in general seem to have held a prominent place at Lee Priory. Many great houses had large libraries, but the library at Lee Priory was particularly remarkable. The catalog advertises the sale of Lee Priory's "Extensive and Valuable Library, containing upwards of 5000 volumes of Books." And, of course, some of the books in that library were direct from the house's press.

Many of the books printed at Lee Priory are illustrated with intricate woodcuts created especially for the press, which were also sold in the 1834 auction. Egerton Brydges' son-in-law, Edward Quillinan (who would later to become Wordsworth's son-in-law), composed verses for a compilation of these woodcuts that was published in 1820 with the title Woodcuts and Verses. Lot 18 of the auction catalog lists "a beautiful copy [of Woodcuts and Verses] mounted expressly for Colonel Barrett."

A copy of Woodcuts and Verses, and copies of all of the books mentioned above, can be found at the Newberry.