Amgueddfa Blog

Blog Homepage

Richard Burton had many loves in his life but one of his less-known and lifelong was his love of books.

‘ ‘first love’ not the stage. It is a lovely book with words in it.’
Richard’s Diary, 20 March 1969

This ‘love’ started to take hold of the then Richie Jenkins during his school days in Taibach, Port Talbot. At the Eastern Boys School his teacher, Meredith Jones, taught him to appreciate the beauty of words and language, in both English and Welsh. Around the age of twelve Richard started collecting books, in particular Everyman’s Library pocket editions of classics. Years later, Richard notes in his diary that he had around 300 Everyman’s by the time he was in his twenties and it had been his childhood ambition to own the entire collection.

Even as a teenager, Richard had an appetite for books which he recorded in the diary he wrote from 1939-40 when he was fourteen. Richard mentions ‘staying in’ to read a book and claimed he was reading on average three books in two days. He would also frequent the town’s library conveniently located in Commercial Road, Taibach - his ‘favourite retreat’ according to his younger brother. Among the books Richard read as a teenager were works by Dickens and Shakespeare. But it was from 1942 onwards, under the influence of his English teacher and mentor, Philip Burton, that books and in particular, Shakespeare left a lifelong mark on Richard.

‘No other writer hit me with quite the same impact as William S. What a stupendous God he was, he is.’
Richard’s Diary, 14 July 1970

Another writer who had a profound influence on Richard was Dylan Thomas. Richard had admired his work from a young age and after playing First Voice in Under Milk Wood in 1954 his voice became forever associated with the poet. Thomas’ influence also appears in the few poems that Richard wrote and especially his 1964 book, A Christmas Story, which drew on his own childhood memories.

From 1965-72, when Richard was at the height of his film career, he kept a series of diaries which reveal the extent of his reading habit. The first entry in the 1965 diary refers to him reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica with his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. He was often given books as presents by family and friends who knew exactly what would please him. On his 46th birthday, Elizabeth bought him ‘the present of presents’, the Complete Oxford Dictionary in microprint with a magnifying glass:

‘To a bibliomaniac it is a thrilling present.’
Richard’s Diary, 11 November 1971

Elizabeth also bought him the entire Everyman Library in the pocket format and had them bound in coloured calf leather. In September 1969, Richard had the time and space to unpack the books in his library at Chalet Arial, Gstaad:

‘It is a fantastic reference library with the index in my head. I shall browse in that place for the rest of my life.’
Richard’s Diary, 29 September 1969

Years later, when Richard was married to Susan Hunt, she presented her husband with ‘a life-saving present’ on their fourth-wedding anniversary – a bespoke portable book-case painted red, his favourite colour:

‘...immensely durably strong which, at a rough calculation will hold a hundred or so really thick tomes and I suppose twice that number of paperbacks...I can’t stop musing at it.’
Richard’s Diary, 22 August 1980

There was no wonder that Richard needed storage for his books as the amount and rate of his reading was immense. When he had time on his hands, he would often read several books in a day and when he was working he would look forward to the next opportunity to buy more books.

‘[...] I am reading anything and everything. Most days I read at least 3 books and one day recently I read 5!’
Richard’s Diary, 24 April 1969

‘I can’t wait for my next day off to augment my library.’
Richard’s Diary, 5 November 1971

Richard had libraries in his various homes across the world in Switzerland, Mexico and on his yacht, the Kalizma. When he travelled he would carry a selection of books with him in his ‘book bag’, like a travelling library. Among the more lightweight paperbacks the book bag always contained The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Oxford Book of English Verse and various dictionaries, depending on which language he would be learning at the time. He also kept a copy of David Jones’ In Parenthesis at his bedside. Richard’s daughter, Kate Burton, recalled one occasion when he had lost In Parenthesis and while looking for it in his library in Céligny, Switzerland, it miraculously fell out of the shelf behind him.

Although only a small part of Richard’s once vast library is on display in the Becoming Richard Burton exhibition, it reveals the range of his reading. Richard’s greatest passion was for literature but he also enjoyed biographies, history, politics and detective novels. Many of the books have dedications inside from family, friends and writers who knew they would be appreciated and treasured by Richard in his library, his favourite retreat, in his words: ‘the best cell ever for a literary man’.

Richard Burton's library at Villa Le Pays de Galles, Céligny, Switzerland.

Richard Burton's library at Villa Le Pays de Galles, Céligny, Switzerland.
© Richard Burton Archive

Sioned Williams

Principal Curator: Modern History
View Profile

Leave a comment