World's most valuable book cut up for decorating project

Copy of Birds of America would have been worth millions

The wallpaprt at Temple Newsam House, complete with birds.

Curators at Temple Newsam House in Leeds have revealed how one former owner's efforts to brighten up a drawing room could have been the most expensive DIY project of all time.

Lady Isabella Hertford, who lived at the Jacobean house in the 1820s, was given some Chinese wallpaper by her lover - the then Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV.

But when 20 years later she came to put the wallpaper up, she decided that the overall effect was a bit dull. And in a bid to liven things up, she decided to paste on some colouful pictures of birds.

The only problem was that the 28 pictures were torn from a first edition copy of John James Audubon's famous Birds of America - now one of the most valuable books in the world.

There are only 119 copies still surviving, one of which sold three years ago for more than £7 million at auction. However, it wasn't particularly valuable at the time Lady Isabella cut it up, making her decision more understandable.

"It's such an extraordinary room and it's made all the more special because it's largely been decorated by a former resident of the house and most of the furniture which is still on display was chosen by Lady Hertford herself," says Temple Newsam House's new curator Rachel Conroy.

The book, which contains 435 hand-coloured lifesize illustrations of birds, was first published as a sort of 'part-work', with subscribers being mailed five pictures at a time.

Thanks to the incredible quality of the pictures and the book's extreme rarity, it's been described as the most expensive book in the world: indeed, in 2010, The Economist estimated that five of the ten highest prices ever paid for printed books were for copies of Birds of America.

After a winter's thorough cleaning, Temple Newsam House will reopen for the summer on February 12, giving the public the chance to see Lady Isabella's DIY job for themselves.

"The Chinese Drawing Room is just one of the many fascinating stories about the people who have called Temple Newsam home through the ages, and knowing how much work goes into keeping the house so beautiful makes it an all the more precious and important place," says Brian Selby of Leeds City Council.

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