The nucleus of Mead’s library was formed during his grand tour of Italy in 1695. The small number of books that he brought back with him eventually grew to an extensive library of great renown.
Having moved to 49 Great Ormond Street after the death of the renowned physician Sir John Radcliffe, its previous occupant, Mead decided to build a library in the garden to house his growing book collection, to which was added Radcliffe’s collection of over two hundred volumes.
Mead employed for this the architect James Gibbs, who also designed the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford and Trafalgar Square’s St. Martin in the Fields. His library was built between 1732 and 1734 and became a prime destination for scholars, as well as for visitors just wanting to see the building and Mead’s collection of curiosities.
William Macmichael (1783-1839), one of Mead’s biographers, wrote
“Mead threw open his library and art gallery to the humble student, the unrecommended foreigner, and the poor enquirer, who derived as much pleasure from them as their owner did.”
Above the grand fireplace at the far end of the library hung Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Prayer to Aesculapius on the Isola Tiberina; a painting that Mead commissioned especially for his library. The painting depicts a prayer at the shrine to Aesculapius, the ancient Greek god of healing, in the city of Rome during a deadly plague epidemic. Mead also had a statue of the god to the right of the fireplace. This centrepiece recalled Mead’s work on contagion and prevention of the plague, as well as setting the tone for Mead’s erudite collection. He also had busts of Pope, Shakespeare and Milton on display.
Mead was not only a scholar; over his career he became a powerful patron in his own right. At least thirty-five books were dedicated to him, all of course displayed in his own library. He had a fine collection of medical books, but it was nothing compared to his collection of literature and the classics. Mead had one hundred and forty-six incunabula (books, pamphlets, or broadsides printed in Europe before 1501) including the works of Aristotle, Hippocrates, Terence, Horace, Livy, Ptolemy, Strabo and Pliny.
One notable book in Mead’s collection was a second folio of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies published in 1632, which had belonged to King Charles I. He supposedly read this folio while imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight before his trial and eventual execution. On the fly-leaf he wrote ‘Dum Spiro Spero’ (While I Breathe, I Hope). Mead bought the folio from the Herbert family, descendants of Sir Thomas Herbert, the Master of the King’s Bedchamber, to whom Charles presented it before his death. The book is now in the Queen’s library at Windsor.
The only novel in the library was Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones – the full title being The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. The book was first published in 1749 and perhaps reflects Mead’s commitment to the Foundling Hospital.
His library grew to over 10,000 books and, along with his collection of paintings, sculpture and other artworks, took 56 days to auction at his death.
49 Great Ormond Street, as well as its library, were transformed in 1852 into a new children’s hospital, now the Great Ormond Street Hospital. At first the original buildings were preserved, and what had been Mead’s library became the first hospital ward.
By 1870 the hospital buildings had become cramped and over-crowded, and so in 1871 they were demolished to make way for a new and purpose-built hospital. So it is no longer possible to visit Mead’s house and library. However, I’m sure he would have approved of the organisation that now occupies the site.
Key items from Mead’s life and collection have been reunited for the exhibition, The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead, including a number of Mead’s own publications and works from his renowned art collection. The importance of Aesculapius to Mead, as a symbol of learning and medicine, is present in Ramsay’s magnificent portrait, in the form of a statue of Aesculapius’ daughter Hygieia, a goddess of health.
My next post will explore the scourge of smallpox in the eighteenth century and Mead’s role in its treatment.