The British Library, in six objects

As a history graduate I think that the general opinion of people who love history (particularly from those that don’t) is that those who love history are obsessed with “dead people”, that historians “live in the past” and “wish that they could have a time machine”.

This post asserts the opposite. That some who love history actually love history because they;

a) have a good imagination and like to think about how various people felt whilst very much alive and want to think about why those people did they things they did (or didn’t do) before they died.

b) like to think about the present, and how our modern-day circumstances came to be as they are today, as opposed to yesterday, or seven hundred years ago.

c) are aware of the fact that they live in the present, and like to consider their own personal reaction to things that have happened, or people who have lived, in the past. This includes an element, or assumption of, a shifting (but perceivable) human experience or nature.

So it’s not all random objects and dead people then.

Yet there is a place where artefacts as far apart as Tudor poetry, medieval manuscripts, Beatles’ lyrics, Da Vinci’s sketches, and Victorian stamps commune with the living. Outside of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, The British Library is probably one of the best places to see these objects. Another benefit is that, concerning the so-called Treasures of the British Library (on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery) admission is free.

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The location of the British Library also recommends it; on Euston Road, in between Euston and St. Pancras train stations, with St. Pancras International itself being located next to another national transport hub – King’s Cross. Yet it never feels as busy inside as say, The Natural History or National Science Museum. Much like The Wallace Collection, the British Library contains some incredible treasures, yet in springtime it still manages to feel relatively under-the-radar (no guarantees for summer holidays though…)Probably because it’s still a centre of academic learning, there are fewer children around too, though you’ll be hard pushed to find a free seat during exam time, as students from UCL (University College London) and other branches of the University of London often come here to study!

I have chosen 6 objects that I saw on my last visit, and I’ll briefly explain why each left its mark on me. I should add that there is a lot more to see, but as with everything, people gravitate towards their own interests. In other words, I have chosen to write about these objects, because each of them demonstrates the small but significant marks left by individuals on history. Or rather, how the process of history is in fact made up of small marks and actions, made by individuals.

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  1. Sketches by Leonardo Da Vinci, c.1504. Amongst what appears to be a tangle of cogs and levers, there is a smudge. A smudge, which upon closer scientific examination, proved to be an erased sketch of David, the Biblical figure. Around that time, a committee in Florence was meeting to decide who should build the proposed statue of David (who had long been seen as a symbol of the city of Florence, standing up to the giant, Goliath, who was for the Florentines, a representation of the Papacy, specifically, Medici power). There was fierce rivalry between the two proposed candidates, who were Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Michelangelo had a temper to the extent that he actually dared to challenge the Pope (whilst working on the Sistine Chapel) yet Da Vinci had a bad habit of leaving projects unfinished. In the end, Michelangelo’s bid for David was accepted, and as Giorgio Vasari records, the rest is history. Da Vinci would ultimately leave Florence. In this single blur then, is encapsulated an entire patronage network, a moment in Florentine history, and the tantalising outline of an unfinished possibility.
  2. Draft edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, 1891. The novel which went on to achieve lasting fame originally appeared in serialised version (with a part of it published in succeeding issues) in the illustrated newspaper The Graphic. This is much like some of Dickens’ most famous work, including Oliver Twist. The draft held by the British Library shows us Hardy’s own workings, and, more tellingly, the censorship imposed by the editors. Not only is material crossed out, but suggestions for alternative phrasing and words are recorded. In an age where private morality was public business, this butchered manuscript sheds light on Victorian attitudes to sexuality, women and sin, and how Hardy might well have been at odds with the status quo.
  3. Wyatt’s Sonnet book (1537-1539). At the time an ambassador in Spain (think Holbein’s The Ambassadors) Wyatt took to composing poetry, partly because there was a lot of downtime involved. Seeing Wyatt’s actual handwriting, in all its spidery, Tudor form, gave new meaning to the polished texts that I had studied from official-looking Penguin editions during 2nd year. His sonnet “In Spayne” shows a lot of re-working (hardly the image of a spontaneous art form in the composing of verse, which all courtiers aimed to extrude!) On one of the pages is written a name: Petrarch. The inspiration for all Italianate style sonnets, with their 14 lines, strict rhyme scheme and crucial turning point (“volta”) moment between the 8th and 9th lines. Once again, Wyatt’s poetry is proven to be a calculated effort, with Petrarch’s name acting as a reminder to anchor Wyatt’s thoughts, much like a student naming critics and scholars in an exam essay.
  4. Margaret Beaufort’s Book of Hours, 15th century. At a time when most women were usually presumed to be either praying or quietly waiting on someone, this illuminated prayer manuscript is a symbol of subversion. Books of “hours” are actually guidance for prayer, corresponding to the time of day, especially in line with the Catholic monasticism which dominated the medieval religious scene in England. Certain prayers were said at various points in the day to fit with the strict monastic schedule. However, this manuscript has notes of a different kind recorded in it. It becomes a political chronicle of the rise of the Tudors, and Margaret records next to one date (besides the saint associated with that day) that “king harry vii landed” – and would soon begin the march to the Battle of Bosworth (1485), in which the Tudors would emerge victorious, and take the throne. All this scribbling then, is fitting from the woman, who was, after all, the mother of the man who would become King VII.
  5. Joint letter from Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, August 1528. The subject matter is that of virtually everyone’s school history lessons. What did Henry VIII want? A divorce. When did he want it? NOW! (well, then, around 1528). Who did Henry want to marry? ANNE BOLEYN OF COURSE. Yet there’s more to be seen here, and it really only can be seen in the physicality of the letter itself. Yes, it’s addressed to Cardinal Wolsey, and there’s a certain dramatic irony in thinking about the fruitlessness of badgering Wolsey (whose own fate hang in balance on this matter) or the Pope at this stage (and all that would come of this…) but it’s really still the letter itself that matters. It’s not from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. It’s written by both of them. By the looks of it, Henry started writing it, got bored, left it lying around somewhere (or just got stuck with what to say) and Anne finishes it. It was a joint effort, and provides a rare insight into their personal relationship, they both spent time writing this letter, and perhaps discussed what each other had put, much like signing off a family card. Perhaps they were in the same room when writing, or maybe it was constantly handed between the two as they struggled to put into words the urgency of their “great matter”. Either way, things almost ended as disastrously for the letter as they would eventually for Anne Boleyn. One side of the letter is badly damaged by fire. Who tried to destroy it, and when, and why? Was it seen as evidence that the King had ever relied too much on Wolsey? Did it make the later Defender of Faith seem weak, and at the mercy of the Pope? Or was it simply taken for what it is, physical evidence of the relationship between Anne and Henry, in that they composed letters together like a married couple, crucially before they were actually married.
  6. Philatelic Collections, 19th and 20th century. Ok, so I did sort of cheat on this one. It’s not a single object, it’s a collection, and a Victorian one. It contains some of the rarest and oldest stamps from the time of the British Empire. These hail from every part of the globe and remind us of the sheer scale of Imperial logistics. Highlights for me include recognising places that I’ve visited, on quite different business. There’s Majorca (here called “Balereas”) and stamps marked “Gwalior”, the fort city of Madhya Pradesh. There’s a postcard from the Lama Temple, where I stood as recently as 2014, and Beijing, where I was last year. In the context of the early 20th century, “Peking” (as Beijing was previously known in English) was strategically important not just as the Chinese capital, but as being en route to “Tietsin” (now Tianjin), a British-held treaty port, one of five entrepots held by the British in Qing dynasty China. These scraps of paper then, represent the everyday workings of the largest empire on Earth, their photos and pictures are trivial, aesthetically pleasing, and a long way removed from the suffering of millions. Maybe that is what makes them as artefacts so passively deceptive.

 

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*Another good read – a great article from TimeOut LONDON which lists 12 intriguing, but relatively unknown, facts about The British Library.

 

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