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Edward Harley, son of Robert, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, married well to the only daughter and heir of the 1st Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne, who brought a fortune of half a million pounds. An extravagant man, he collected on a grand scale so that at his death he was estimated to own 7,639 manuscript volumes, 14,236 original rolls, charters, deeds and other legal documents, 330,000 printed pamphlets, 41,000 prints, over 17,000 books, plus antiquities, coins, medals and pictures. He bequeathed the library to his widow Henrietta, née Cavendish Holles (1694–1755), during her lifetime and thereafter to their daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), Duchess of Portland. The manuscripts were sold to the nation by the Countess and the Duchess in 1753 for £10,000 (a fraction of their contemporary value) under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum, the books having previously been auctioned.
Edward Harley (1689–1741), 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer
1728 or after
oil on canvas
H 150 x W 122 cm
gift from the Dowager Duchess of Portland, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, née Harley, 1768; on loan to the British Library, since 1990