The picture was painted to go above the fireplace in the library at Crewe Hall, Cheshire, now the country headquarters of the Wellcome Trust. Marks refers to it in his reminiscences as follows:
My picture of "The Bookworm", exhibited at the Academy in 1871, was painted for the library at Crewe Hall, and formed a panel over the mantelpiece - it is less decorative than pictorial. Lord Crewe had previously given me a commission for six panels of the "Virtues" - Truth, Temperance, Humility, etc. (sarcastic friends naturally remarked that the "Vices" would be more in my line).
While highly characteristic of Marks in its humour and ornithological references, the picture was generally considered to be an exceptional performance. It seems to have done much to ensure that the artist was elected an associate of the Royal Academy on 26 January 1871, Fred Walker and Thomas Woolner being honoured at the same time. Earlier that month it was mentioned by F.G. Stephens in one of his 'Fine-Art Gossip' columns in the Athenaeum, and when the Academy exhibition opened in April, he simply described it as 'Mr Marks's....best picture'.
Other critics agreed that The Bookworm was a masterpiece. 'It is a work', observed the Art Journal, 'well suited for its destination in the library of Crewe Hall. The old fellow, who would appear as much the naturalist as "The Bookworm", is lost in profound investigations. The table is crowded with strange-looking skeletons, as if this student were a disciple of Darwin. Quiet satire lurks in the picture, and yet the story is told with so much verisimilitude and circumstantial detail, that the eye seems to rest not on a fiction, but on a grave reality. The composition is well kept together; the execution is even solid; the brush does not show itself; it is not paint or even canvas that the spectator looks upon, the very room, as it were, is within the frame.
But the longest and most glowing account was given by Tom Taylor in The Times. 'Mr H. Marks', he wrote, whom we are glad to welcome to his well-won Associateship, has painted for a panel above the fireplace of the picturesque and stately library at Crewe-hall [sic], an appropriate picture, which he calls, "The Bookworm" (149), but which looks rather like a naturalist. The old sage, in black skull cap, reading gown, and slippers, sits absorbed in his book, amid a chaos of volumes and specimens, indicating a vast range of studies, geographical, ornithological, entomological, zoological, and geological. All this learned litter is painted with the utmost exactness, but with a studied arrangement of forms and colours underlying the apparent confusion, which makes the picture pleasant to the eye, while there is endless amusement in making out all sorts of pleasant plays of fancy and intention in the choice and juxtaposition of the elements of this litter, among which there is hardly room for the untasted luncheon which stands unregarded, seemingly, by the old sage as the foliage and sunny sky outside the window, in which the live birds are revelling. What room is there for living nature and its needs in that head so intently occupied on dead thoughts and dead things?'
Perhaps Marks was stimulated to excel himself by the knowledge that his picture would face stiff competition at Crewe Hall, notably the from fine family portraits by Batoni and Reynolds.