I’ll confess, it has been hard to find out about Leeds Central Library, even though there is a good website/blog to help shed light (more of which later).
I was lucky enough to experience a behind-the-scenes visit to the library when I had a fashion shoot there earlier this week. I took my own camera along and I’m so glad I did. In particular, I was fascinated by the “Baskervilles” style hounds carved onto the staircase posts. All emaciated looking with protruding rib cages and spines. But why? If anyone knows, please tell us.
Leeds Central Library was used for the filming of the new adaptation of Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, coming out right now. Can’t wait to see it. Anyway, here’s a little history about the origins of the library, at least as much as my brief research has been able to find.
The Italianate building was opened on 17 April 1884 as the Leeds municipal offices, so the administration of Leeds would be centred both here and in the Town Hall. There had been a design competition and the winning architect was Leeds-based Scot George Corson, who was said to be descended from Corsini, a medieval architect who came to Dumfries to build the Sweetheart Abbey there. George also designed the Grand Theatre and Opera House in Leeds, said to be a mix of Romanesque and Scottish baronial styles. His grave is in Lawnswood Cemetery, which he also designed.
The building is in Yorkshire stone which came from local quarries at Dacre Bank, Harehills, Meanwood and Weetwood. The roof is Westmoreland slate. The entrance steps are Shap granite, a tough, slip-proof material commonly used for kerb edges in Leeds. The Calverley Street entrance was originally the main entrance. The foyer pillars are Devonshire marble and the doors leading to the stairwell have alabaster surrounds, probably from Nottinghamshire. In the stairwell the carved areas are made of limestone from Caen in Normandy, the pillars are of Devonshire marble and there are beautiful stained glass windows, though their provenance is unknown. The blue and white tiles with a floral motif are made by Smith and Co, while the blue and white tiles near the lift are by Minton, Hollins and Co. The brown tiled border was probably supplied by Maw and Co. The main library reading room was described by The Yorkshireman as “a magnificent place. The floor is the finest parquetry in oak, walnut and ebony”. I think it’s the café now.
Those of you who grew up in Leeds may well know the library well. I did not, although I have worked in the city week in, week out, for 18 years. Ten minutes’ walk away, too. Unbelievable. It’s amazing and I loved it as soon I walked in. We were allotted lockable rooms on the top floor and one of them had this fireplace in it – the blue and white tiles look so vibrant and modern, and yet it felt spooky, like a scene from The Woman in Black. As if no one had been there for years.
And then there were all these bound copies of the Times Educational Supplement. Fascinating, although certainly no design flair in publications at that time.
The library clearly holds many memories for many people, not least Alan Bennett who, in 2011 remembered studying there, describing it as a “high Victorian building done throughout in polished Burmantofts brick, extravagantly tiled, the staircases of polished marble topped with brass rails, and carved at the head of each stair a slavering dog looking as if it’s trying to stop itself sliding backwards down the banister”.
How right. Yes. But tell me about those dogs …
He continued: “There were, too, the usual quota of eccentrics that haunt any reading room that is warm and handy and has somewhere to sit down”.
I suspect that’s not changed much. Good thing too. Anyway, there’s a good blog here, which is very informative and fascinating, but I’ve yet to find out why those dogs are there. Go to: http://secretlibraryleeds.net/category/building/
To find out all the history of the building, see many more images and access behind the scenes book on a heritage tour, go to: http://leedslibraryevents.ticketsource.co.uk/