‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ at the British Library

I went round this exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection today. Any of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I got a bit distracted by finding birds in the margins. I found 17 species in total*, which is pretty good. And I mainly started looking for them because it was fun, but I do think it’s interesting that birds of clearly identifiable species seem to outnumber the invented, whimsical ones.

Admittedly, quite a few of the species were found on one particular page that seemed to have been illuminated by a genuine enthusiast, a medieval birder. Not only did it have a crane, a jay, a green woodpecker and a kingfisher, which are all striking birds, and the most unexpected bird of the lot, a seagull; it also had a pair of bullfinches. The brightly coloured male is an obvious choice to liven up a margin, but including the female seems like the work of someone who actually liked birds.

The exhibition is certainly worth a visit, even for non-birders, although personally I think I would have enjoyed it more with half the number of exhibits (as long as they didn’t discard any good birds, obviously). I just found that by the end I was losing concentration a bit.

*Great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, robin, jay, crane, peacock, green woodpecker, kingfisher, bullfinch, common gull, pheasant, hooded crow, redpoll, magpie, hoopoe and blackcap.

‘Points of View’ at the British Library

I just visited the slightly uninspiringly titled ‘Points of View’ exhibition at the British Library, which is an exhibition of nineteenth century photography. I’ve been very impressed with the BL’s temporary exhibitions since they moved to the new site; they obviously have an absolutely staggering amount of stuff in their collections and they do a good job of displaying it, with a thoughtful selection of material and lots of interesting information.

fisherman

Not all subjects are equally interesting, of course — I glazed over a bit going round their exhibition of modernist pamphlets — but C19th photography has a broader appeal. It starts with the early history, Fox Talbot and all that, and then the rest of the exhibition is arranged thematically: travel, portraits, science, industry and so on. I liked the way they manage to provide plenty of variety: some pictures chosen for artistic merit, others for historical, social or technical interest, and some a bit quirky, like spirit photographs taken by spiritualists. Or the staged picture taken by an Indian Army officer of an officer being woken by his manservant after a drunken night before.

mussucks

One thing that is striking is the explosive speed with which photography became popular: from Fox Talbot’s early experiments in the early 1840s, it was a major commercial enterprise within ten years, and being used in every conceivable way all across the world, from Brazil to the Himalayas, within twenty. Perhaps that isn’t surprising — the advantages are obvious — but when photographs were taken with fragile glass plates which had to be chemically prepared immediately before use in a portable darkroom, it is still remarkable.

The exhibition is kind of huge, but it’s also free, so you could always take a break halfway round and go for a cup of tea and a bun.

» ‘A Fisherman at Home‘ is from Peter Henry Emerson’s Pictures From Life In Field And Fen, a photographic record of life in East Anglia published in 1887.

The other picture is a section of ‘Mussucks for crossing the Beas River, Kulu‘, taken in India by Samuel Bourne in 1865. The ‘mussucks’ are inflated bullock hides used to cross the water.

‘Breaking the Rules’ at the British Library

I realised that Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937 was about to close, so I popped in today for a quick gander. As ever at the BL, the range of material was impressive: they really do own a lot of stuff. Eliot, Bretton, Man Ray, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Ernst, Rodchenko… you name it, they’ve got it.

I started out carefully reading all the labels and conscientiously looking at each item, because I thought it was probably the kind of exhibition where background information and context would make all the difference. And it was interesting, but I still started to speed up fairly soon. There were some items that were nice pieces of design in their own right and had an immediate appeal even for the non-specialist; but rather more that didn’t. Particularly as they were all in languages I don’t read.

Mayakovsky's For The Voice

The material was mainly grouped by city; Paris and Moscow/St Petersburg had the biggest displays, but 30 cities were included, from all over Europe — Milan, Belgrade, Vienna, Barcelona, Brussels, Warsaw, Kiev, and so on — which did give a strong sense of this as a genuinely widespread movement. Or group of movements. Mind you, I didn’t pay that much attention to the dates, but they weren’t all active simultaneously. The exhibition covered a 37 year period, which is plenty of time for artistic fashions to sweep from one side of Europe and back again several times over.

They even made a case for London as an avant garde city, but it wasn’t completely convincing, somehow. For example, there were successful exhibitions of the Surrealists and the Futurists in London: but that’s not the same as producing the stuff ourselves. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps I just find it easier to take all these Frenchmen and Russians seriously because they’re French and Russian. Still, there was a good gag from Wyndham Lewis: apparently he supported his application for a British Army commission by saying that he had masterminded the Cubist invasion of Britain ‘without losing a single cube’.

» The picture is the cover of Для голоса (‘For the Voice’) by Mayakovsky, designed by El Lissitzky.

Herba Parietis or the Wall Flower

Newgate

The text reads:

Herba Parietis or the Wall Flower
As it Grew out of the Stone Chamber
Belonging to the
Metropolitan
Priſon
of London Called
NEW GATE.

Being A History
Wch is Partly True
Partly Romantick
Morrally Devine
Wherby A Marriag
Betweene Reallity &
fancie is Solemnised
By Devinity

Written By: I: B: whilst he was A Prisoner therr.

Every time I start browsing the British Library collections online, I find lots of stuff I want to post. This is from George III’s collection of geographical material, so I guess it must be C18th. I’ve slightly reduced the size; you can see it full-sized here.

Deletionists, Inclusionists, and the joy of the trivial.

There is, I gather, an ongoing philosophical debate running behind the scenes of Wikipedia; one which will probably run forever. On the one side are the deletionists; on the other are the inclusionists. The question is how to deal with articles about less important subjects: one side generally favours deleting them, the other would prefer to include. The deletionists see Wikipedia as an attempt to create an online version of a traditional encyclopedia; only important subjects are worthy of an article. In the jargon, they have to be ‘notable’. The inclusionists would tend to allow articles on any subject, however obscure. They make a virtue of the fact that ‘wiki is not paper’: that there is no material constraint that prevents it growing indefinitely.

I’m on the inclusionist side. I just can’t see what harm it does if, for example, every primary school in Norfolk has its own article on Wikipedia. Or indeed every bakery or hairdresser’s in Norfolk. And I think that trivial information has its own value.

the West Sussex Dairy Company

I’m not trying to make a radically relativist case, that your local florist is just as important as Paradise Lost; of course Wikipedia should strive to have good coverage of the core encyclopedic subject matter. And I can completely see why some of the people who edit Wikipedia find it faintly embarrassing that the coverage of Doctor Who is so much more comprehensive than the coverage of Elizabethan drama (I haven’t actually checked whether that’s true; bet it is, though).

But I’d like to make the comparison with the Evanion Collection of Ephemera. Evanion was the professional name of the Victorian conjurer and ventriloquist Harry Evans. He collected trade cards, catalogues, advertisements, posters: all kinds of rubbish. It is, almost by definition, a collection of the sort of thing that deletionists at a Victorian Wikipedia would have rejected as non-notable. Now, proudly displayed on the British Library website, it is endlessly fascinating.

Steiner's Insect Powder

Or take a more recent example. If all has gone according to plan, just below this post should be a post with links to YouTube clips recorded from a Detroit TV station in the late 80s and early 90s. Some are from a dance show, with locals dressed up for a night out and dancing to Detroit techno; the others are recorded from ad breaks for the same show. They are only twenty years old, but already they have the same fascination as the Evanion material: a record of a very particular time and place through fashion, music, the adverts made by small local businesses; the ephemeral and trivial.

Wikipedia has only been running for seven years and is already an extraordinary success. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be going in a hundred years. There are two points I’d take from that. Firstly, taking the longer view, there is still loads of time to build up the serious encyclopedia stuff: Elizabethan drama, C16th Chinese porcelain, whatever. But also: who knows what people will find interesting, now or in twenty or a hundred years time. Just record it, let people sort it out for themselves.

» For more discussions about deletionism vs. inclusionism, check out this rather lovely article from the NYRB that I linked to before; or this blog post which I found via a post at Language Log. The ad for the West Suffolk Dairy Co. and E. Steiner’s Prime Dalmation Insect Powder are both from the Evanion collection at the British Library.

‘Sacred’ at the British Library

I went yesterday to see Sacred at the British Library. I nearly missed it; the exhibition closes at the weekend. I’m glad I didn’t, as it was extraordinary.

Maghribi script

It’s an exhibition of sacred texts from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and the selection is seriously impressive. For example, the show includes the Lindisfarne Gospels and a bit of a Dead Sea Scroll as just two exhibits among many. They also have one of the two oldest Christian bibles, from the C4th, an C8th Qur’an, the first printed Mishnah, Henry VIII’s psalter, copies of the Qur’an made for various sultans, a Tyndale New Testament and so on. They haven’t even bothered to include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, presumably because they have one of those on display in their permanent exhibition anyway.

The Holkham Picture Book

Staggeringly, with a very few exceptions like the Dead Sea Scroll, all these books were part of their own collection. It’s odd to think of all these books, culturally interconnected but originally separated by many centuries and thousands of miles, having made their way, by who knows what means, from monasteries and mosques in Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia, India; and all ending up in a basement in North London.

Micrographia

Whatever my disagreements with religion, I do feel a reverential instinct towards ancient artefacts and books, so I had no difficulty feeling a sense of the sacred. And many of them are extraordinary objects in their own right. I have a new-found passion for Syriac script.

Syriac writing

There are zoomable high-resolution images of 67 of the texts available on the website, so those of you who can’t make it London this week can take a look. That’s where all the images illustrating this post came from. I have to say, generally, kudos to the British Library; all the exhibitions I’ve seen there have been excellent (and free).

» Pictures, from the top: 1) An example of Maghribi script from a C13th Spanish Qur’an. 2) One of the people drowned in the Flood in the C14th Holkham Bible Picture Book. 3) Micrographic decoration (i.e. made up of tiny writing) from The Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, c. 1300. 4) The bible in Syriac, dated by the scribe to 463/4 AD.

The British Library online collections

The BL’s online collections are very pleasing, because there’s such a mix of stuff: English accent samples, Victorian newspapers, illuminated manuscripts, sheet music, photographs, watercolours, maps, wildlife recordings.

St Mary's Church, Clonmel

So when you put something into the search box, you never know what might turn up in the results.

ticket for an anatomy lecture

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