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Portraits in Cosin’s Library

One of the first things visitors notice when they come into Cosin’s Library is the portraits above the bookcases. What are they doing there and who are the people portrayed?

When the library was nearly finished in 1668, Cosin employed Jan Baptist van Eersel, a painter from the Low Countries who had settled in Durham, to create the portraits. The subjects depicted were not chosen at random: each trio indicated the subject of the books shelved below. They were in fact part of a classification system that was used in many other early modern libraries. For example, the manuscripts collected by Robert Cotton (1571-1631) were shelved under the busts of twelve Roman Emperors and two female rulers. If you wanted to find the Old English Beowulf manuscript (now British Library Cotton Vitellius A XV) for example, you would go to top or bottom shelf (A) of the bookcase headed by the Emperor Vitellius and retrieve the fifteenth volume.

Cosin’s portraits had a similar function, which today is obscured by the fact that they are not in their original locations. From a letter written in 1836, we know that at the time the portraits were displayed in a different order, which coincides roughly with the current subject arrangement of the books.

If it be of any use to you to have a list of the jolly faces in the frieze of the library presses…

George T. Fox, 26 October 1836. DUL UND/CA1/7c
Second page of a letter listing the portraits in Cosin's Library in 1836.

Each subject is represented by three portraits of scholars known for their work in that area. It starts with three Old Testament worthies (Samuel, King David, and Isaiah) and finishes with three classical scholars (Erasmus, Scaliger, and Grotius).