Even by the early seventeenth century representations of authors, whether as paintings or as busts, were a prominent feature of library furnishings in England. In the eighteenth century they became more so, both in private dwellings and in institutions. The Chesterfield portraits are a group of portraits of British poets brought together by the Whig politician and diplomatist Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773), best known today for his Letters to his Son (1774), and kept in his library in Chesterfield House, the home he built in Mayfair from 1747 onwards, on what is now the corner of South Audley Street and Curzon Street. George Vertue (1684-1756), an engraver and antiquary whose notes for a planned history of painting and sculpture in England form a cornerstone of British art history, recorded in 1748:
Poets pictures, Lord Chesterfield haveing a fine room in his new builded house he intends to call <it> the Poets room therein he designs to have the portraits of many most memorable Poets heads of this nation Chaucer Shakespear Johnson Milton Cowley. Dryden &c <Spencer Waller Rochester Rowe.> amongst he has some originals from the life he bought at several times from ld Oxford, Lord Hallifaxs collection. &c. one particularly of Otway. painted by Ryley --- from the life[.] many others are Coppyd to the size he wants.
Chesterfield bought paintings regularly. He had purchased some of the Chesterfield portraits before he built Chesterfield House, from the sale in March 1739/40 of portraits acquired by the politician and literary patron Charles Montague, first Earl of Halifax (1661-1715). Others, also purchased (via a Captain Boden) before the building of Chesterfield House, came from the sale of portraits previously acquired by the book collector and patron of the arts Edward Harley (1689-1741), the second Earl of Oxford, who had bought portraits to accompany his books at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. Chesterfield furthermore commissioned copies of portraits.
The library was one of the first two rooms in the new house to be completed. As Chesterfield recorded in a letter to his son of 31 March 1749 that the library was finished, he had presumably installed the portraits there by then. The library contained a bookcase for each letter of the alphabet, beneath a lacy ceiling and a motto from Horace’s sixth satire (Nunc veterum libris nunc somno et intertibus horis / Ducere sollicitae jucunda oblivia vitae: “when shall I be permitted to quaff a sweet oblivion of anxious life, now from the books of the ancients, now from sleep and idle hours”), which ran in capital letters a foot high around the walls. The Chesterfield portraits were in ornate frames for twenty-four pictures set in above the bookcases, each frame bearing tragic and comic masks at the bottom, and clustered musical instruments on top.
Chesterfield called this library "the finest room in London". A century later, an anonymous reviewer of Chesterfield’s Letters agreed:
In the magnificent mansion which the earl erected in Audley Street you may still see his favourite apartments, furnished and decorated as he left them – among the rest, what he boasted of as “the finest room in London”, and perhaps even now it remains unsurpassed, his spacious and beautiful library looking on the finest private garden in London. The walls are covered half-way up with rich and classical stores of literature; above the cases are in close series the portraits of eminent authors, French and English, with most of whom he had conversed; over these, and immediately under the massive cornice, extend all round, in foot long capitals, the Horatian lines: [cited]. On the mantelpieces and cabinets stand busts of old orators, interspersed with voluptuous vases and bronzes, antique or Italian, and airy statuettes, in marble or alabaster, of nude or semi-nude opera nymphs (Quarterly Review, 76 (1845), 484).
The portraits remained in place for two centuries. In 1869, the Chesterfields sold the house to the city merchant and politicians Charles Magniac (1827-1891), whereupon the portraits moved to the library of the Chesterfield country house at Bretby. The contents of that house were sold on the premises by Leedam and Harrison, 15-25 July 1918. Henry Lascelles, later husband of HRH Princess Mary and 6th Earl of Harewood, bought seventeen of the portraits (he missed five others, which were sold in separate lots). In 1922 the Lascelles family bought Chesterfield House, which became Princess Mary’s town residence. The portraits returned to the library.
Having been sold to a property developer, Chesterfield House was demolished in 1934 and replaced by flats. The portraits (by now in plain frames) moved to Lascelles houses in Yorkshire, firstly to Goldsborough Hall near Knaresborough, and then to Harewood House, near Leeds. Following the demise of Henry Lascelles in 1947, leaving massive death duties, Goldsborough Hall was sold in 1951. The Chesterfield portraits, too, were sold, at Christies on 29 June 1951. The purchaser was the EMI director and book collector Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958), who gave his books to the University of London in 1956 and paid for the space behind the Paleography Room to be built to house them. The portraits returned to London, where Sterling sent them immediately to Senate House Library, on the conditions that they must be hung in the Sterling Library and kept in perpetuity. Six were hung in the Sterling Library and the remaining eleven in the adjoining Paleography Room.