The Butes

Over three generations, an 18th-century aristocratic family built up an extraordinary collection of early playbooks.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) is a glamorous, dramatic figure - the epitome of the Georgian court lady who dazzled with her beauty and brilliance, enjoying legendary feuds and friendships with wits such as Alexander Pope. She is also celebrated as the first western European woman to travel to Constantinople and write of her experiences. And it was on this journey that she discovered the practice of inoculation against smallpox, which she introduced to Britain in the face of much opposition.

But there was another Lady Mary behind this vivid image. Born Lady Mary Pierrepoint, she was an enthusiastic reader who spent hours with her books from childhood onwards – like William Drummond, particularly enjoying French and English literature. Daringly for a lady of the times she was not afraid to pass judgement on what she read – her books can be annotated ‘trash’ or ‘intolerable’ – but she was one of the rare early 18th-century critics who praised Shakespeare above the rule-bound drama of her own age.

John Stuart, (1713-1792) the third Earl of Bute, was born in Edinburgh and educated in England and the Netherlands. He married Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's daughter, also called Mary, in 1736.

In 1747 he became friends with Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of the then King George II. He joined the Prince and his circle in performing Shakespearean and other plays at their country house parties. After Frederick's early death in 1751 the Earl became tutor and confidant to his son, the future George III, and a controversial Prime Minister in the early 1760s once his pupil had succeeded to the throne.

He was also a patron of prominent Scottish Enlightenment figures, and had wide-ranging intellectual interests. The Edinburgh minister and dramatist John Home sought Bute's advice on his writing, and later became his secretary. Bute also established the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres – what we would now call English Literature – at Edinburgh in 1762. As he had remarked in a letter the previous year, 'most of our best writers are devoted to me'.

John Stuart, (1744-1814) was the eldest of the Earl of Bute’s eight children. He married a wealthy wife who inherited her family estates in Cardiff, so that with Scottish Mount Stuart and the Butes’ English home at Luton Hoo, he had homes throughout mainland Britain. He inherited his father’s title but soon after was created first Marquess of Bute in 1796, as a reward for his diplomatic service.

His grandfather Edward Wortley, Lady Mary’s husband, had chosen to leave his vast wealth not to John but to his younger brother. Lady Mary’s books were perhaps his only inheritance he received from his mother’s family.

The Marquess lived during a golden age of book collecting – the age of ‘bibliomania’. He added some of the most interesting early Shakespeare quartos to the family collection, acquiring them from the sales of some legendary libraries. He also had many of the playbooks rebound in a uniform style, splitting up many of the volumes that Lady Mary had originally assembled, before his death in 1814.


The Bute Family

‘From the books Lady Mary Wortley died possessed of, which were but few, she appears to have been particularly fond of that ancient English drama lately revived among us; for she had several volumes of differently sized and wretchedly printed plays bound up together, such as the Duke of Roxburghe would have bought at any price; the works of Shirley, Ford, Marston, Heywood, Webster, and the rest, as far back as Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and coming down to the trash of Durfey. … Dryden … was also one of her favourite authors. She had his plays, his fables, and his Virgil, in folio, as they were first published; Theobald’s edition of Shakspeare, manifestly much read; and Tonson’s quarto Milton’(From Biographical Anecdotes written by her granddaughter, 1837)

‘the library is one of the finest & the most agreeable I ever saw. It consists of three rooms: the collection of Books amazing, but tho’ there is nothing wanting of the inside, I desire you will tell Lord Strafford that the Plan is so unfinish’d on the outside that I told Ly Bute I wonder’d She cou’d be content…’(Journal of Lady Mary Coke, 2nd September 1774)


Shakespeare portrait

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