Jemina Durning Smith was a Victorian heiress and philanthropist who lavished money on medical charities and this curious spiky library in darkest Kennington. She seems to have had no direct link with the area, as she lived in leafy Ascot, but her brother-in-law Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence was a library commissioner for Lambeth. The sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate was building libraries in the borough (he lived in Streatham) and the pair seem to have persuaded Jemina to join the enterprise.
As must have seemed logical, she employed Tate's tame architect Sidney RJ Smith to design the building - he also built Tate's libraries and his gallery on Millbank.
The library was built in 1888 and includes lots of rather nice ceramic ornaments by the local firm James Stiff and Sons. Stiff learned his trade at Doulton's and branched out on his own in 1842.
A portrait roundel of Jemima is located in the spandrel of the main ground floor window.
Above, a dragon holds a shield showing a lamb, a book and a castle. The lamb is the symbol of Lambeth (as one would expect), the book indicates the library and the castle may be a reference to the London County Council whose shield was 'ensigned with a mural crown or' ie a crown in the form of city walls in gold.
In the tower, a panel shows a shield with an ostrich holding a horseshoe in its beak, flanked by a wyvern and a swan. I have been unable to find any explanation for this, though the shield is said to be the badge of the MacMahon family.