European studies blog

37 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

20 September 2016

Ira Aldridge's Polish Journey: Developing the Shakespearean Canon and Influencing Local Politics

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I was delighted to discover that the British Library’s recent exhibition Shakespeare in 10 Acts chose to tell the remarkable story of Ira Aldridge’s career – albeit only part of it. Although the famous black Shakespearean actor acquired star status in the UK provinces, he was never fully accepted in London by the cultural elites. Nevertheless his acting was celebrated on the Continent wherever he went. He toured extensively from 1852 to 1867: he went as far as Imperial Russia, including Poland and Ukraine, and visited Mongolia and Turkey.

Aldridge’s contribution to Shakespeare’s performance history was not limited to the question of race and his pioneering acting feats as Othello or King Lear (in whiteface). In the non-Anglophone reception of Shakespeare Aldridge is a very special case in the dissemination of his work. At the time not many proper translations were available to non-English speakers and thus Shakespeare was not staged frequently, in some places not at all (for example, in 1858 Aldridge brought Shakespeare to Serbia for the very first time with his Richard III) .

Ira Aldridge Lear 11797.a.32
Ira Aldridge as King Lear, from  S.Durylin, Aira Oldridzh  (Moscow, 1940). 11797.a.32

I will relate only one of Aldridge’s many continental success stories, one not mentioned in the exhibition, which took place in Poland (then occupied by Russia, Prussia and Austria). Some Polish scholars believe that Ira Aldridge is of unique importance in the reception of Shakespeare in Poland as his six visits, over the period 1853-1867, may not only have inspired more and better Polish translations of Shakespeare’s plays but also influenced the acting style of many Polish actors for years to come. Undoubtedly his first performances of Othello with German companies motivated Józef Paszkowski (1817-1861) to prepare a Polish translation of the original, which was used for the first time by a Warsaw troupe during Aldridge’s visit in 1863.

Ira Aldridge Othello
Othello and Desdemona from an edition of  Paszkowski’s Shakespeare translation (Warsaw,1875-1877). 11765.g.3. 

Most Polish reviews of his performances praised his realistic renditions of the roles. When touring, as a rule he performed in English with actors from a given country playing in their native languages but it is often claimed that because of his acting genius he proved that the imposed barriers of languages and cultures could be transcended, which he achieved by the ‘sweetness and softness of his voice’ and passion too.

In continental Europe Aldridge was awarded medals and honours wherever he went, including honorary memberships of many academies and arts societies. He consorted with kings, queens and emperors. But the famous black tragedian was also sensitive to the somewhat delicate political situation in partitioned Poland. When Poles boycotted him in Cracow because he played in a German theatre, for the first time he leaked to the press news of his involvement with the abolitionist movement in the USA, to prove that he sided with the oppressed, including Poles. As a result he was under constant surveillance by officials of Tsarist Russia who did not like it that Poles identified with Aldridge as an oppressed man in his self-professed exile. In the press he was often referred to as ‘our brother’ and his performances quickly became political events.

Aldridge died  in Łódz in provincial Poland where he was given a splendid funeral. A long funeral procession crossed the city, with members of the local theatre society carrying his medals and orders on red velvet cushions and a laurel wreath, while local people covered his grave with flowers. The grave is cared for by the Łódz Appreciation Society and many anonymous citizens decorate his grave on a regular basis with fresh flowers and candles. His tomb was renovated in 2001. In November 2014 a commemorative plaque designed by a renowned Polish artist, Professor Marian Konieczny, was unveiled at the entrance to the Museum of Cinematography in Łódz  (the former location of the theatre and Hotel Paradyz in which Aldridge was invited to perform); you can see a recording of the event made by Professor Sławomir Kalwinek of the National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre in Łódź, here

Ira Aldridge memorial plaque Memorial Plaque to Ira Aldridge, Museum of Cinematography, Łódz [Image from]

Two plays about Ira Aldridge in Poland have been written and staged to date: Maciej Karpiński’s Otello umiera [‘Othello Dies’], first published in Dialog monthly, 2003, no. 1/2 (P.P.4838.kob); and Remigiusz Caban’s Murzyn może odejść [‘The Negro must leave’] (2010). Both plays were staged.

Dr Aleksandra Sakowska (MA University of Warsaw, PhD King's College London) 


Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney and Maria Łukowska, eds., Ira Aldridge 1807-1867 on the Bicentennial Anniversary of His Birth (Frankfurt am Main, 2009) YD.2009.a.9405

Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney, Ira Aldridge 1807-1867: dzieje pierwszego czarnoskórego tragika szekspirowskiego (Krakow, 2009)

You can find out more about all aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works, including famous performances and performers on our Shakespeare web pages

17 August 2016

Umberto Boccioni 1882-1916

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On 17 August 1916 the Italian artist Umberto Boccioni, who was stationed in an artillery regiment near Verona, died from the injuries he suffered after he was trampled by his horse in a riding accident.

CM Boccioni Fig.1
A photograph of Boccioni taken shortly before his death. Reproduced in Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria, Edited by Francesca Rossi. (Milan, 2016). British Library LF.31.b.11722.

His untimely death – he was only 33 – deprived the Futurist movement of one of its key members. To mark the centenary of Boccioni’s death a major exhibition, “Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria”, was organised in Milan earlier this year, accompanied by a remarkable catalogue.

CM Boccioni Fig.2
Cover of the catalogue Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria

It was worthy tribute paid to the artist by the city he celebrated in some of his greatest paintings, making it the symbol of the modern metropolis. The rapid transformation and expansion of Milan can be seen in a series of works Boccioni painted between 1908 and 1911, which include his famous self-portrait showing him on the balcony of his apartment in Via Castel Morrone, in the Porta Venezia area.

  CM Boccioni Fig.3
Boccioni, Self portrait (1908) Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera.

In the background can be seen, in what were still the outskirts of city, several recently-erected buildings, one of them still under scaffolding. A similar urban landscape also features in two works painted in 1909 and 1910, Twilight and Factories at Porta Romana.

CM Boccioni Fig.4

Above: Twilight (Crepuscolo) 1909. Private Collection; Below: Factories at Porta Romana (Officine a Porta Romana) 1909-10. Milan, Gallerie d’Italia –Piazza Scala.

CM Boccioni Fig.5

Sharing an identical viewpoint, this time from the balcony of the apartment in 23 Via Adige, in the Porta Romana area, where Boccioni now lived with his mother and sister, but painted a few months apart, they show the rapid changes in the city. “The city rises” (to mention the title of one of Boccioni’s most famous paintings) so to speak in front of our very eyes. By the time Boccioni painted The Street enters the House (1911), showing his mother looking from the balcony into the the street below, the area has been even more dramatically transformed. The mood of this celebration of the modern city, full of dynamism, movement and activity, is not unlike that of several early Impressionist depictions of Baron Haussmann’s Paris.

CM Boccioni Fig.6
The Street enters the house
(La Strada entra nella casa), 1911. Hanover, Sprengel Museum. 

The exhibition in Milan (which will also be shown in Rovereto this autumn) demonstrated the enormous variety of Boccioni’s output both before and after he joined the Futurist movement in late 1909 or early 1910 becoming, with Marinetti, its major theorist. It also showcased two major recent discoveries of Boccioniana, both of them among the papers of Guido Valeriano Callegari, Boccioni’s brother-in-law, bequeathed to the Biblioteca Civica di Bologna in 1955 by his widow, Boccioni’s sister Amelia. Callegari was a noted scholar of Pre-Colombian America and the Boccioni material had remained unnoticed and uncatalogued among his papers for over half a century until it was discovered in 2009 on the occasion of a small exhibition the library organised to commemorate the centenary of the first Futurist manifesto. As well as books from Boccioni’s own library, it also includes a group of 22 large sheets pasted on cardboard, on which were mounted 216 cuttings from illustrated magazines reproducing works of art.

CM Boccioni Fig.7
A sheet from the ‘Memory Atlas’, reproduced in Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916), genio e memoria

The images in this compilation – now called ‘Atlante della Memoria’ (‘Memory Atlas’) and reproduced in their entirety in the catalogue of the exhibition – a range from Medieval and Renaissance works of art to contemporary paintings and show the variety of visual influences on Boccioni between 1899 and 1909. Several works featured in the Atlas were included in the exhibition, where they were juxtaposed with works by Boccioni. After 1909 the compilation of the Atlas stopped and was replaced by a collection of cuttings of hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles about Futurist events, similarly pasted on large cardboard sheets. They were kept in three folders, the third of which was compiled after Boccioni’s death perhaps by his sister and brother-in-law.

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance Collections


Chris Michaelides, ‘Umberto Boccioni, Milan and Rovereto’, The Burlington Magazine, July 2016, CLVIII, pp. 578-80. P.P.1931.pcs.

Maurizio Calvesi, Ester Coen, Boccioni (Milan, 1983). LB.31.b.279.

Roberto Longhi, Umberto Boccioni (Florence, 1914). 7875.dd.31.

16 May 2016

One that got away. Daniel Urrabieta Vierge’s illustrations of Don Quixote (1906)

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Curating an exhibition inevitably involves a process of selection or, better maybe, de-selection. Items are chosen to support a coherent narrative, but practical considerations inevitably supervene. The copy of a particular book may be in poor condition, too tightly bound to open safely, or its dimensions prevent the inclusion of other books, as one simply has too many. In the case of the edition of Don Quixote illustrated by Daniel Vierge and first published by Scribner’s in New York in 1906-7, this could be included in the British Library’s exhibition ‘Imagining Don Quixote’ only at the expense of two smaller volumes. This was regrettable as his illustrations are highly original and stand out from many of those produced in the 19th century.

Daniel Urrabieta Vierge (1851-1904) was born in Madrid, but spent all his working life in France. He had an active early career illustrating events in the Franco-Prussian War and the third Carlist War. He also produced illustrations for works by Victor Hugo. However, in 1881 he suffered a paralysis to the right side of his body, which also affected his speech. He then taught himself to draw with his left hand and his career resumed.

Daniel-Vierge-Sketch-by-Himself-Engraved-by-Clement-BellhnDaniel Vierge. Sketch by Himself, engraved by Clement Bellenger.

Vierge’s involvement with Spain and with Don Quixote extended over some 30 years and culminated in the Scribner’s edition of Thomas Shelton’s 17th-century translation two years after his death (the British Library holds an edition published in London in the same year by Unwin). His earliest illustrations of the novel appeared in an incomplete part-work edition, published in Paris in 1875. None of those illustrations appear to have been re-used in the 1906 edition.

Vierge travelled to Spain in 1893. In this he was following in the footsteps of Gustave Doré, who had been in Spain in 1855 and 1861 before producing his highly successful illustrations for the 1863 editon of Viardot’s French translation of Don Quixote. Vierge executed a number of watercolours that were then used to illustrate the account of the Spanish journey of his friend, August F. Jaccaci.

Some of Vierge’s many watercolours and ink wash drawings were re-worked in pen and ink as a basis for the engravings of his edition of Don Quixote. The use of the new photogravure process permitted greater fidelity to the artist’s original and a finely detailed result. This is especially evident in the image of the preliminaries of the joust – which then never actually took place – between Don Quixote and the Duke’s lackey, Tosilos (Part II, ch. 56).


 Preparing for the joust, Vierge’s illustration from Miguel de Cervantes, The History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha … (London, 1906-07). British Library Tab.538.a.9

Another feature of Vierge’s illustrations is the impression that they create of a real, lived-in world, as in the drawing that appears in the preface of the Scribner’s edition (below).


The picture shows Don Quixote at home, with his housekeeper, his niece and the odd-job man (Don Quixote, I, ch. 1). His greyhound can be seen behind the curtain.

Vierge’s travels in rural Spain gave him access to a world which had changed little from the time of Cervantes.

Geoff West, former Curator Hispanic Collections


Daniel Urrabieta Vierge (1851-1904), creador de imágenes, ilustrador gráfico (Madrid, 2005). LF.31.a.2458.

Miguel de Cervantes, The History of the Valorous and Witty Knight-Errant Don Quixote of the Mancha, translated by Thomas Shelton; the illustrations by Daniel Vierge… (London, 1906-07). Tab.538.a.9

August F. Jaccaci, On the trail of Don Quixote: Being a Record of Rambles in the ancient province of La Mancha (London, 1897.), and available online

04 May 2016

The 'Shakespearomania' of Karl Marx

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Karl Marx's magnum opus Das Kapital (Hamburg, 1872; British Library C.120.b.1.) may have a reputation as an exceedingly dry and difficult book (causing William Morris to suffer acute ‘agonies of confusion of the brain’ in his reading of the great critique of political economy), but the toil is lightened by his frequent and often comic allusions to classical and European literature, from Aeschylus to Cervantes and Goethe.

His favourite though was always Shakespeare. Eleanor Marx, Karl’s daughter, described Shakespeare’s works as the Bible of the household, ‘seldom out of our hands and mouths’, and the German socialist biographer of Marx Franz Mehring pictured the whole family as practising ‘what amounted practically to a Shakespearian cult’. Marx reportedly read Shakespeare every day, and the family would entertain themselves on the walk back from their regular Sunday picnics on Hampstead Heath by dramatically reciting extracts from Shakespeare’s plays.

Marx’s friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, co-author of the famous Communist Manifesto (London, 1848; C.194.b.289), displayed a similarly fierce passion for the bard in a letter to Marx, with characteristic invective, after the German dramatist Roderich Benedix  criticized Shakespeare’s overwhelming popularity:

That scamp Roderich Benedix has left a bad odour behind in the shape of a thick tome against ‘Shakespearomania.’ He proved in it to a nicety that Shakespeare can't hold a candle to our great poets, not even to those of modern times. Shakespeare is presumably to be hurled down from his pedestal only in order that fatty Benedix is hoisted on to it…


Marx and Benedix: United by the beard, divided by the bard. (Images from Wikimedia Commons)

Much has been written of Marx's use of the ‘old mole’ from Hamlet as a metaphor for revolution in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (for an interesting discussion of this theme see the article by Peter Stallybrass cited below), but also noteworthy is Marx’s repeated use of a passage from Timon of Athens which, he says, shows how ‘Shakespeare excellently depicts the real nature of money’:

Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?
No, Gods, I am no idle votarist! ...
Thus much of this will make black white, foul fair,
Wrong right, base noble, old young, coward valiant.
... Why, this
Will lug your priests and servants from your sides,
Pluck stout men’s pillows from below their heads:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed;
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench: This is it
That makes the wappen’d widow wed again;
She, whom the spital-house and ulcerous sores
Would cast the gorge at, this embalms and spices
To the April day again. Come, damned earth,
Thou common whore of mankind, that put’st odds
Among the rout of nations.

ShakespeareMarxTimon1829 watercolour by Johann Heinrich Ramberg depicting Timon 'laying aside the gold'. (Image from Wikimedia Commons, original at the Folger Shakespeare Library).

Many literary critics have written interpretations of Shakespeare from a Marxist perspective, and several prominent commentators on Shakespeare (like George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht) drew on Marxian ideas in their understanding of his body of work. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, unusually steeped in European literary culture for a Bolshevik, sought to explain what was so interesting about Shakespeare to Marxists:

In the tragedies of Shakespeare, which would be entirely unthinkable without the Reformation, the fate of the ancients and the passions of the mediaeval Christians are crowded out by individual human passions, such as love, jealousy, revengeful greediness, and spiritual dissension. But in every one of Shakespeare’s dramas, the individual passion is carried to such a high degree of tension that it outgrows the individual, becomes super-personal, and is transformed into a fate of a certain kind. The jealousy of Othello, the ambition of Macbeth, the greed of Shylock, the love of Romeo and Juliet, the arrogance of Coriolanus, the spiritual wavering of Hamlet, are all of this kind…

For Trotsky, Shakespeare represents the birth of modern literature by placing the individual man, his own personal desires and emotions, in the centre of the narrative, symbolizing the equally progressive and destructive aspirations for personal emancipation characterizing the bourgeois revolt against feudalism. After Shakespeare, he writes, ‘we shall no longer accept a tragedy in which God gives orders and man submits. Moreover, there will be no one to write such a tragedy.’

Mike Carey, CDA Student


Julius Roderich Benedix, Die Shakespearomanie (Stuttgart, 1873) 11766.g.14.

Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (London, 1970). X.519/4753.

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, On Literature and Art (Moscow, 1976). X.809/42007.

Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of His Life (London, 1936). 010709.e.52.

Peter Stallybrass, ‘“Well Grubbed, Old Mole”: Marx, Hamlet, and the (Un)Fixing of Representation’, Cultural Studies 12, 1 (1998), 3-14. ZC.9.a.1419

Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (New York, 1925). 011840.aa.17.

The British Library’s current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

21 January 2016

Imagining Don Quixote

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‘Imagining Don Quixote’, a free exhibition focusing on how Cervantes’ novel has been illustrated over time, opened in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery on 19 January and runs until 22 May. It explores how different approaches to illustrating the work have reflected changing interpretations both of Don Quixote, the novel, and of its eponymous protagonist. The most significant shift has been in the perception of Don Quixote as figure of burlesque fun to noble idealist brought low. This blog post looks at the depiction of Don Quixote himself.

Miguel de Cervantes’ El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, published in two parts (1605, 1615), tells how Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, his squire, set out to win fame by righting wrongs and succouring the weak and distressed. Cervantes gives succinct descriptions of Don Quixote: ‘approximately fifty years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt’ (DQ I, 1); later Don Diego de Miranda was ‘amazed by the length of his horse, his height, his thin, sallow face… a form and appearance not seen for many long years’ (DQ II, 16). Even so depictions of Don Quixote have varied over time and differences reflect changing views of the novel. In the 17th century it was appreciated for its burlesque, often physical humour, and character was subordinate to narrative. Illustrators do portray Don Quixote as tall and elderly, Sancho as shorter and more stout, but the contrast is not an exaggerated one, as in this anonymous English illustration:

Don Quixote Cerv.336
Frontispiece of Miguel de Cervantes, The History of the Most Renown’d Don Quixote (London, 1687) British Library Cerv.336

In the 18th century the editors of the first scholarly edition (1738) saw the novel as a satire directed against fantastical literature which caused readers to confuse fiction with history. They restricted the physical humour in the illustrations and sought to elevate the character of Don Quixote. Here he courteously greets two women as noble ladies, although Cervantes’ text indicates that they are prostitutes (DQ I, 2).

Don Quixote 86.l.2-5
Miguel de Cervantes, Vida y hechos del ingenioso hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (London, 1738)  86.l.2-5

John Vanderbank’s illustration adds a nobility of gesture to Quixote’s height, as prescribed by Cervantes. 

One artist was crucial in establishing a sympathetic image of Don Quixote: Gustave Doré (1832-1883). The illustrations of his monumental edition (Paris, 1863) have been reproduced in many later editions. Doré’s Quixote is elongated and thin indeed but his bearing is altogether more heroic, especially in outdoor scenes. This portrayal – looking upwards, lance pointing skyward - accords with the growing Romantic tendency to see Don Quixote as an idealist brought low by harsh reality and the mockery of others (DQ I, 3).

Don Quixote Doré 12491.m.2
Miguel de Cervantes, The History of Don Quixote…. (London, 1876-1878)

Until around the middle of the 19th century not only book illustration, but also prints, drawings and paintings had depicted specific episodes of the novel. However, Doré’s contemporary Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) focused almost exclusively on the two protagonists. The skeletal figure of the tall, thin knight on a painfully bony horse is instantly recognizable and has become part of our collective imagery. Here, Sancho Panza is represented only by the smaller, rotund figure in the background.

Don Quixote Daumier 2
Honoré Daumier, Don Quixote (1868). Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

Mention Don Quixote and Sancho today to most people and the image of a tall, thin man, accompanied by a short, fat man will come to mind. And that is without having read Cervantes’s novel. The image they are recalling, however vaguely, is most probably Picasso’s pen-and-ink drawing of 1955.

Don Quixote Picasso
Picasso  ‘Don Quixote’ (1955). (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Don Quixote is long of face and body; his horse, Rocinante, more haggard still; by contrast, rotund Sancho Panza sits comfortably on his donkey. Picasso’s drawing continues the restricted representation begun by Daumier in the previous century. Picasso also includes the windmills that appear in the best-known episode, when Quixote mistakes them for giants. The sun makes the drawing more emblematic of Spain.

Separation of the image of Don Quixote from the novel’s narrative has also enabled its use in many other contexts: propaganda, advertising, postcards, playing cards, ceramics, porcelain figurines…  All of which serve to keep the picture of the tall, thin knight and his rotund squire in our collective mind. 

Geoff West, former Head of Hispanic Collections

References/further reading

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman (London, 2004). Nov.2005/1526

La imagen del ‘Quijote’ en el mundo (Barcelona, 2004). LF.31.b.1670

Patrick Lenaghan, Imágenes del Quijote: modelos de representación en las ediciones de los siglos XVII a XIX (Madrid, 2003). LF.31.a.88

Rachel Schmidt, Critical Images: the Canonization of Don Quixote through Illustrated Editions of the Eighteenth Century (Montreal & Kingston, 1999 2708.h.767


22 July 2015

A stitch in time: embroidery as a force for social change

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With just a few days left to catch Cornelia Parker’s magnificent reinterpretation of the Magna Carta through embroidery, it is time to reflect on the curious paradox which it illustrates. Although embroidery may conventionally be regarded as a cosy domestic pastime with little relevance to issues of social or political importance, it has in fact served throughout the centuries to express, covertly or openly, messages about national identity, economic and gender issues, and human rights in their broadest sense. Rozsika Parker’s study The Subversive Stitch: embroidery and the making of the feminine  (London, 1983; British Library X.520/36489) ensured that it could no longer be belittled or dismissed as beneath the interest of serious historians.

Cornelia Parker's Magna Carta (An Embroidery) on display at the British Library. Photograph © Tony Antoniou

The materials and threads in which embroidery is worked reflect the climate and culture of its origin, as until the 19th century dyes were derived from plants which grew locally; rare or imported substances such as madder and indigo retailed for considerable sums. It was not until the industrial production of aniline dyes  that a wider (and gaudier) palette became available to the needlewoman as  ‘Berlin woolwork’  (see Jane Alford, Beginner’s guide to Berlin woolwork, Tunbridge Wells, 2003; YK.2004.b.2338)  was exported worldwide and with it commercial patterns facilitating the widespread transmission of designs conceived for the mass market.

This reversed the tradition by which distinctive forms of embroidery had evolved in rural communities, such as Hardanger  in Norway (Sue Whiting (comp.), The Anchor book of Hardanger embroidery; Newton Abbot, 1997; YK.2001.a.17530), Hedebo in Denmark (Hanne Frøsig Dalgaard, Hedebo; København: [1979]; X.419/4281)  and Mountmellick  in Ireland (Pat Trott, Beginner’s guide to Mountmellick embroidery;  Tunbridge Wells, 2002; YK.2003.b.7757 ). These were worked exclusively in white thread on linen with a variety of intricate cutwork and drawn-thread techniques which often produce a lace-like effect and, as in the case of Hardanger aprons, still worn as part of Norwegian folk costume, identify the wearer’s place of origin, like the Aran knitting patterns which had the slightly macabre property of enabling the identification of drowned fishermen.  

Emrboidery Books 2Books about embroidery from our collections

In other areas, such as Ukraine (Olena Kulynych-Stakhursʹka, Mystetstvo ukraïnsʹkoï vyshyvky: tekhnika i tekhnolohiia = The art of Ukrainian embroidery: techniques and technology; L'viv, 1996; YA.2001.b.341), whitework existed alongside other types of embroidery executed in cross stitch, predominantly in red and black, which, as in Hungary where the same colours frequently appeared, featured stylized motifs from nature such as birds, animals and the eight-pointed star which is found as far away as Iceland.

UKRAINIANFINALDSC_5870Traditional Ukrainian embroidery patterns, from A. and N. Makhno, Sbornik" malorossiiskikh" uzorov" (Kiev, 1885) J/7743.i.5.

The samplers worked by young girls often included edifying sentiments or Bible verses, and were not merely fancy-work but served the dual purpose of imparting moral virtues and the skills needed to mark and repair household linens. A particularly practical example of this is the samplers, which command high prices nowadays, made by the children taken into the care of George Müller’s orphanages in Bristol. Stitched in red, these provided evidence of the makers’ abilities, so that when they left the orphanage the girls would be well equipped for posts in domestic service as well as the running of their own homes one day.

While the Industrial Revolution made the large-scale production of textiles possible, handmade items retained a certain status because of the hours of intense labour and dexterity which they required. The comparative crudity of colour, texture and design already noted in mass-produced embroidery materials did nothing to raise the prestige of the medium, and it fell to William Morris to reverse this trend. His wife Jane and daughters Jenny and May were all gifted embroiderers and executed many of the designs which he created. In keeping with his belief in the importance of arts and crafts as a means of social reform, the Ladies Work Society was established in 1875 as part of the wider Arts and Crafts movement which  aimed to foster the applied arts, including textiles,  as worthy artistic disciplines. The Society provided a respectable means of employment for gentlewomen who had needlework skills and education but no other means of making a living and were commissioned to produce decoratively embroidered clothing and textiles through the Society or for sale at its premises in Sloane Street, London. By ensuring fair payment, the Society replaced the exploitation of female textile workers by recognizing and rewarding their talents and helping them to achieve autonomy and economic independence.     

Fittingly, in view of this vision of needlework as a means of stitching one’s way to dignity and self-respect and of the message conveyed by Magna Carta itself, much of the embroidery in Cornelia Parker’s project was carried out by members of Fine Cell Work, an organization set up in 1997 to send volunteers into prisons to teach the inmates, both male and female, needlepoint as a way of enabling them not only to pass the long hours in their cells profitably but to earn an income while in custody. Lady Anne Tree, its founder, also believed strongly in the therapeutic and meditative quality of needlework, and after many years of lobbying the Home Office changed the law to allow prisoners to earn money during their sentences. While the discovery that such activities have physiological benefits, lowering the blood pressure and heart rate, is comparatively recent, the ethical and social values which Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery transmits are timeless, and it continues the message of those who throughout history have understood that craft and creativity serve a purpose far beyond the mundane and material.

Chris-parsons-embroidery-magna-carta-cornelia-parkerChris, a member of Fine Cell Work, at work on Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. Photograph by Joseph Turp

 Susan Halstead, Content Specialist Humanities & Social Sciences

17 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay and Tristan Tzara

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The Sonia Delaunay exhibition which opened this week at Tate Modern shows her prodigious output over some seven decades. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) worked in a variety of media – paintings, drawings, prints, fashion and fabric designs, posters, mosaics, bookbindings, and book illustrations. She is best known as the creator, with Blaise Cendrars, of one of the greatest livres d’artiste, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, for which she provided pochoir illustrations to Cendrars’ poem.

This famous book, published in 1913, has tended, however, to overshadow similar collaborations with other poets, especially the two books she produced with Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism.

Tzara moved to Paris from Zurich in 1919 and it was apparently one of his manifestos that made Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who had lived in Spain and then Portugal since 1914, aware of the renewed artistic vitality of Paris after the end of the war and determined their return to France. Tzara first met the Delaunays soon after their return to Paris in 1921. Their apartment at 19 Boulevard Malesherbes quickly became a fashionable gathering point for the literary and artistic avant garde, its walls covered with multi-coloured poems and other works of art by Philippe Soupault, Vladimir Mayakovsky, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean  Cocteau, and René Crevel. As well as embroidering waistcoats for her friends, Sonia also decorated the interior of Au Sans Pareil, the Dadaist and Surrealist bookshop.

Tzara soon became a close friend of the couple and in 1923 Robert painted his portrait in which he is wearing a scarf designed by Sonia A monocled Tzara also features in one of Robert Delaunay’s best-known paintings, Le Manège aux cochons, painted in 1922. 

CM DELTZA Retrato_de_Tristan_Tzara_(Robert_Delaunay)Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara took various forms. It included robes poèmes, dresses with texts from Tzara’s poems woven into their fabric, all made in 1922, and Sonia’s bookbinding for Tzara’s De nos oiseaux in 1923. Sonia had by then become well known for her textile designs, the main focus of her work over the next 15 years, and it was in that year that Tzara asked her to design the costumes for his play Le Cœur à gaz, a three-act absurdist provocation described by its author as “la plus grande escroquerie en trois actes” (“the biggest swindle in three acts”).

The play had already had a single, disastrous performance during a soirée dada in 1921 with a cast that included Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Philippe Soupault, and Tzara himself. It gained lasting notoriety, however, by the circumstances of this 1923 revival, when it was included in Le Cœur à barbe (“The Bearded Heart”), another soirée dada organised by Tzara and Iliadz. The evening marked the culmination of the ongoing conflict between Tzara and Breton and finally split the Dadaists and led to the foundation of Surrealism by Breton and his followers. It also included first performances of new compositions by Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as films by Charles Sheeler and Hans Richter. The two groups came to blows during the performance of the play. Several people were injured and the actors, encased in Sonia’s heavy cardboard costumes, found themselves unable to move. A photograph showing René Crevel (Oeil) and Jacqueline Chaumont (Bouche) has survived, and their costumes can be compared to Sonia’s original designs.

CM DELTZA Coeur Costume 2  CM DELTZA Coeur Costume 3
Sonia Delaunay, Costume designs for Le Cœur à barbe, 1923: Left, Bouche; right, Oeil (British Library  C.108 aaa.14.). A copy of the photograph can be seen here.

The text of the play had been first published in Der Sturm on 5 March 1922 but did not appear together with Sonia’s costume designs until 1977, when they were published in association with the exhibition La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris  by the art critic and publisher Jacques Damase, a close friend of Sonia who promoted her work in the last 16 years of her life. The volume includes ten lithographs, seven of which are full-page, colour reproductions of the gouaches of the 1923 costume designs; the others comprise an additional title-page and two decorations in the text. 125 copies were printed, all signed by the artist. An additional set of the full-page lithographs, individually signed by the artist, was issued with each of the first 25 copies.

CM DELTZA Coeur t.p.
Additional title page of  Tristan Tzara Le Cœur à barbe (Paris, 1977)

The friendship between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara lasted until Tzara’s death in 1963, although they grew apart in the 1930s, when Tzara joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and Sonia was for several years busy with the mural paintings commission for the 1937 International Exhibition. They were next brought together, with other ‘undesirables’, in Toulouse in 1944, three years after the death of Robert Delaunay. After the war Tzara once again became an habitué of Sonia’s studio, now at Rue Saint-Simon on the Left Bank.

Like Sonia, Tzara had a strong interest in illustrated books and worked with numerous artists – including Matisse, Kandinsky, Léger, Mirò, Arp, Giacometti, Villon, Klee and Ernst – on illustrated editions of his poems. There were two collaborations with Sonia: for Le Fruit permis (1956), her first book since La Prose du Transsibérien, Sonia contributed four pochoir compositions, and for Juste présent (1961), a collection of 11 poems written between 1947 and 1950, she made eight full-page colour etchings  and an additional colour etching for the slipcase, printed in the right sense on the front and upside down on the back cover.



Above: Two of Sonia Delaunay’s etchings for  Juste présent ([Paris], 1961).; Below: etching for slipcase cover of Juste présent

CM DELTZA Juste Slip 

140 copies of Juste présent  were printed, all signed by the poet and the artist. The British Library’s copy is no. 124. In both publications Sonia’s colours are strong and pure, with a predominance of vermilion, indigo and black. The compositions, with their interplay between flat colour and black, hatched areas, are typical of her post-1945 output (for example, her various Rythme-couleur paintings).

Jacques Damase, who did so much to promote Sonia Delaunay’s art, did not live to see her final consecration: he was tragically killed in an accident in July 2014, just three months before the opening in Paris of this major exhibition of her work, now at Tate Modern. Perhaps the exhibition should be dedicated to his memory? 

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance collections


Tristan Tzara, Juste présent  [Poèmes]. Eaux-fortes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1961).

Tristan Tzara, Le cœur à gaz; costumes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1977). C.108 aaa.14

La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara. Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, avril-juin 1977 / [commissaire: Danielle Molinari].  (Paris, [1977]).  YV.1987.a.344

Annabelle Melzer, Dada and Surrealist Performance. (Baltimore & London, 1994) YC.1994.a.3134 & 98/01171

Sonia & Robert Delaunay [the catalogue of the Delaunay donation to the Bibliothèque nationalede France]. (Paris, 1977). j/X.415/2418. 

Sonia Delaunay, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil.  (Paris, 1977).  X.429/7809

Sherry A. Buckberrough, Susan Krane, Sonia Delaunay: a retrospective. (Buffalo, NY, 1980) f80/8227.

Sonia Delaunay [the catalogue of the exhibition at Tate Modern].  London, 2015.

Chris Michaelides, ‘Robert and Sonia Delaunay’, review of the exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, The Burlington Magazine,  February 2015.  P.P.1931.pcs.    

 Cécile Godefroy, Sonia Delaunay : sa mode, ses tableaux, ses tissus (Paris, 2014) YF.2015.a.8284.

20 February 2015

Overwintering: the Dutch search for the Northwest Passage

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The phrases  ‘Overwintering on Nova Zembla’ and ‘The Saved House’ are ubiquitous in Dutch culture. They refer to one of the most remarkable events in Dutch maritime history that took place at the end of the 16th Century. To this day every Dutch schoolchild learns about Willem Barents and Jacob van Heemskerck’s ill-fated expedition of 1596, which saw its 17 members stranded on Novaya  Zemlya  for ten months during the polar winter.

Novaya Zemlya, detail from Caerte van Nova Zembla, de Weygats, de custe van Tatarien en Ruslandt (Amsterdsm, 1598) British Library 436.b.18.(3.)

The aim of the expedition was to find a passage through the Arctic to Asia, thus shortening trade routes, as well as avoiding the Portuguese, who were still masters of trade in the East. For centuries efforts were made to discover a route through the Arctic, based on the mistaken belief that sea water could not freeze.

Our current exhibition ‘Lines In The Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’  tells many stories of adventure, bravery and extreme suffering, endured in search of a Northwest passage through the Arctic. A previous post on our Americas blog discusses how British crews dealt with the cold, darkness and boredom that came with staying the winter in the Arctic during the 19th century. 250 years earlier Barents’ and Van Heemskerck’s  expedition had ended up on Novaya Zemlya (or Nova Zembla as the Dutch know it) for the winter, after their ship also got stuck in the ice. One of their fellow-officers , Gerrit de Veer,  kept a diary during the expedition, from 16 May 1596 to 1 November 1597, which was published in Amsterdam in 1598 and is one of the first items in the exhibition.

Illustration from Gerrit de Veer’s Waerachtighe Beschrijvinghe van drie seylagien... (Amsterdam, 1598, British Library C.133.e.34)

In his diary Gerrit de Veer also describes the previous two polar expeditions undertaken by Barents, in 1594 and 1595. It must be every historian’s dream to be locked up for months with the person whose travels you are writing about.

The illustrated title-page of Gerrit de Veer’s account

De Veer writes fluently, in an almost literary style, which makes for a gripping read.  He vividly depicts how the ships had to navigate skilfully to avoid icebergs, whilst sailing ever further North.  The commander of one of the ships, Jan Cornelisz Rijp decided not to continue and returned to Amsterdam. The following year he would meet the survivors of the expedition on the Kola peninsula.

Barents and Van Heemskerck pressed on further North. Although they managed to round the northern tip of Nova Zembla, they did not get far after that.  They had to turn back because of the ice and eventually their ship got stuck and they could go no further.

We feel their horror as they realise they are trapped, with winter approaching. We follow in detail how they built a cabin (‘Het Behouden Huys’, i.e. ‘The Saved House’) from fallen trees and some wood from the ship. Then they hauled the cargo from the ship into the cabin, including a clock, which they managed to keep running until it froze due to the extreme temperatures. The crew kept track of time using the ship’s navigation instruments and the twelve hour glass.

Hauling wood to build ‘The Saved House’

On 7 December they narrowly escaped death from carbon monoxide poisoning when they burned coal, whilst having plugged every hole in the cabin to keep the cold out. They just managed to open the door. By Christmas despair gripped the men - the cold was almost insufferable, they got snowed in and they couldn’t wait for the sun to return. The firm leadership of Barents and Van Heemskerck kept the discipline and the men’s spirits were lifted by a ‘feast meal’ on Epiphany of rations they had put aside. On New Year’s Day they started using the wine; because there was no end in sight to their adventure some men kept this ‘for emergencies’(!). 

When they did go out they kept themselves busy building traps to catch arctic foxes for food (they made hats from the fur), inspecting the ship and playing sports. They killed several polar bears, but did not eat the meat, apart from one time when they cooked a liver. That made them very ill with hypervitaminosis A, which De Veer was the first to describe.  After that experience they left off the bear meat and only used the fat to burn oil lamps.

Killing and butchering polar bears

De Veer was also the first to describe a natural phenomenon that is now known as the Novaya Zemlya Effect.  Two weeks before the sun was due to re-appear he and others saw it rise. De Veer describes how he tried to verify his and other’s observations by making calculations of their position. He was not to know that the sun he saw was only a mirage.

De Veer’s image of the Novaya Zemlya effect

The men suffered from scurvy, and one fell ill and died. When the sun finally did return they waited to see if the ship would come free of the ice. When this did not happen they prepared two open boats and set sail for Kola. Again De Veer details their progress from day to day in milage. When they arrived they were warmly greeted by some Russians - and by their fellow explorer Rijp!

Welcomed by the Russians on Kola

Only 12 of the original 17 crew made it back to Amsterdam. Four men, including Barents himself died during that perilous journey  in open boats, exposed to the elements. Their graves have never been found.

No wonder then that Gerrit de Veer’s account of the overwintering became an instant hit. It was published in Dutch in 1598; in the same  year  Latin and French translations were published in Amsterdam by C. Nicolaas , and a German translation appeared in Nuremberg . An  English translation, followed in 1609 (The full text is available via Early English Books Online).

De Veer’s account has also been published by the Van Linschoten Vereeniging, a publisher specializing in accounts of explorations by the Dutch (Ac.6095.), by and its English counterpart, The Hakluyt Society (Ac.6172/12).

However, arguably the best known depiction of the overwintering on Nova Zembla is the work by history painter and illustrator Johan Herman Isings (1884-1977), pictured below.  Printed on a large format, mounted on canvas like a map these plates were used in history classes to illustrate the topics discussed.  

From: J.A. Niemeijer, J.H.Isings. (Kampen, 2000) Reproduced with kind permission of Kok Uitgeverij


Gerrit de Veer, Waerachtighe Beschrijvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort, drie jeeren achter malcanderen deur de Hollandtsche ende Zeelandtsche schepen by noorden, Noorweghen, Moscovia, ende Tartaria, na deconinckrijcken van Catthay ende China, so mede vande opdoeninghe vande Weygats, Nova Sembla, eñ van't landt op de 80. gradẽ, dat men acht Groenlandt te zijn ... (Amsterdam, 1598) C.133.e.34. and  436.b.18.(3.)

French translation:  Vraye description de trois voyages de mer ... faicts en trois ans par les navires d’Hollande et Zelande au Nord ... vers les royaumes de China et Catay ... Par G. Le Ver  (Amsterdam, 1598). G.6617.(3.) and 455.b.10.(3.)

Latin translation:  Diarum nauticum, seu vera descriptio Trium Navigationum ... factarum a Hollandicis & Zelandicis navibus ad Septentrionem, supra Norvagiam, Moscoviam & Tartariam, versus Catthay & Sinarum regna ... [Translated by Charles de l'Écluse.] (Amsterdam, 1598) G.6832.(2.) and 566.k.15.(5.)

German translation: Warhafftige Relation. Der dreyen newen unerhörten, seltzamen Schiffart, so die Holändischen vnd Seeländischen Schiff gegen Mitternacht, drey Jar nach einander, als Anno 1594. 1595. vnd 1596. verricht. Wie sie Nortvvegen, Lappiam, Biarmiam, und Russiam, oder Moscoviam ... umbsegelt haben. [Translated by Levinus Hulsius] (Nuremberg, 1598) 978.d.1.  and C.114.c.9.

English translation: The true and perfect description of three voyages so strange and woonderfull, that the like hath neuer been heard of before: done and performed three yeares, one after the other, by the ships of Holland and Zeland, on the north sides of Norway, Muscouia, and Tartaria, towardsthe kingdomes of Cathaia & China. ... (London, 1605)  303.c.5. and G.2757.

Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries studies


23 January 2015

Avant-garde Russian theatre in the 1920s

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Having just viewed the excellent exhibition Russian Avant-garde Theatre at the Victoria & Albert Museum, I was reminded that many of the images on display appear in items held by the British Library. For example Ignaty Nivinsky’s  designs for a production of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot can be found in a book on Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s  production of the play at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1923.

Turando Carlo Gozzi, Princessa Turandot. (Moscow, 1923). Cover by I. Nivinsky. British Library Cup.410.c.86.

This book, which is particularly well-produced for the early Soviet period, contains coloured plates of set and costume designs together with production photographs. Vakhtangov, in common with other radical innovative directors such as Tairov, Evreinov and Meyerhold, rejected the naturalistic style and showed a preference for simplicity of setting with a synthetic mix of tragedy and farce including clowning and acrobatics. In Princessa Turandot Vakhtangov also drew inspiration from the commedia dell’arte and oriental theatre and made use of alienation effects where characters changed costume on stage and sometimes came out of character and talked to the audience.  

Turandot2Set design for Vakhtangov’s production of Princessa Turandot.

Vsevolod Meyerhold’s  designers were equally innovatory in applying Constructivist principles to stage design. In The Magnanimous Cuckold Liubov Popova created a three-dimensional form like stage architecture bridging the audience/stage divide, and in Restive Earth made use of the whole auditorium with multimedia, film screens and montage.

Cuckold Popova’s design for The Magnanimous Cuckold. From Joseph Gregor & René Fülöp-Miller, The Russian Theatre, translated by Paul England. (London, 1930)

In the V&A exhibition there are several examples of theatrical designs by Anatol Petrytsky, who was a central figure of the Ukrainian avant-garde. Petrytsky studied at the Kyiv Art School and the Advanced Artistic Theatrical Workshop in Moscow, where he worked with the  ballet-master Kasyan Goleyzovsky, designing costumes for his innovative Eccentric Dance. Costume designs for this ballet appear in a deluxe album called Teatral'ni stroi [Theatre designs]. (Kharkiv, 1929; C.185.bb3.)

Eccentric dance2
Costume designs by Petrytsky for the ballet Eccentric dance, from Petrytsky, Teatral'ni stroi

These sketches exemplify the Constructivist approach to costume design, reducing the human form to basic geometrical shapes and emphasising the machine-like qualities of the human body and its movements. The album also includes designs for productions based on works by Gogol, the opera William Tell and the ballet Nur and Anitra (1923), including this design for a warrior.

Petrytsk'yi warrior costumeWarrior in a constructivist design costume from Teatral'ni stroi

The British Library has also acquired some issues of Zrelishcha (Spectacles), an early Soviet-period equivalent of Time Out, listing musical, theatrical and dance events. On one of the covers appear the Electrical dances of Nikolai Foregger. He applied Constructivist and biomechanical acting ideas to dance, producing machin-like dance creations which combined the styles of cinematic action, circus acrobatics and the music-hall.

Zrelishcha   Cover of Zrelishcha no 26 (Moscow, 1923), showing Foregger’s  “Electrical Dances”. RF.2005.b.46.

Our Russian and Soviet theatre webpages contain a list of works in Russian relating to Russian/Soviet theatre published between 1910 and 1935 and held by the British Library, including books about theatre, theoretical works, manifestos and criticisms of individual productions of both classics and new plays of the period (but not the texts).

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian studies

Useful sources

Kamernyi teatr i ego khudozhniki. Kamerny 1914-1934 [Theatre and its artists 1914-1934]. (Moscow, 1934).

K. Rudnitsky, Russian & Soviet Theatre. (London, 1988). LB.31.b.1503.

Joseph Gregor, René Fülöp-Miller,  Das russische Theater. (Zurich, 1928). L.R.255.a.16. [Translated by Paul England as The Russian Theatre (London, 1930)

Peter W.  Hellyer, A catalogue of Russian avant-garde books 1912-1934 and 1969-2003. (London, 2006) YC.2008.b.251

Russian avant-garde theatre: war, revolution & design. Edited by John E. Bowlt. (London, 2014). Awaiting shelfmark.  There is a review of this work by Vera Liber in  East-West Review, Winter edition 2014, p.49-50. ZK.9.b.28654

Breaking the rules: the printed face of the European Avant-Garde 1900-1937. Edited by Stephen Bury. (London, 2007). YC.2008.b.251.

21 January 2015

Memories of a Nation: British Library loans at the British Museum

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The British Museum’s exhibition ‘Germany – Memories of a Nation’ and the accompanying BBC Radio series have followed on from Museum Director Neil McGregor’s earlier ‘Histories in Objects’ projects, using artefacts from 600 years of German history “to investigate the complexities of addressing a …history which is full of both triumphs and tragedies.”

The objects in question include many spectacular loans – from Tischbein’s famous portrait of Goethe in Italy to Barlach’s hovering angel from Güstrow (and not forgetting a VW Beetle in the Museum’s Great Court). The British Library also lent a number of items, and as they prepare to return home after the exhibition closes on 25 January, here is a brief description.

Among the first exhibits visitors see is a map of Germany, printed in Eichstätt in 1494 (British Library Maps C.2.a.1), one of the items used to illustrate Germany’s changing borders over six centuries. A far larger map of a far smaller area is the ‘Seld Map’ (Maps *30415.(6.)) showing the city of Augsburg in the early 16th century, which is used to exemplify the power and importance of the ‘Free Imperial Cities’ of the Holy Roman Empire. It is easy to become lost in both maps: in the Eichstätt one trying to work out the geography and identify the different cities, and in the Augsburg one simply enjoying the meticulous detail of the streets and buildings and of the small figures passing to and fro among them.

One of the Library’s two copies of the Gutenberg Bible is placed in the section of the exhibition highlighting German technological achievements and inventions, in this case the printing press, perhaps the most influential invention in Western history. This is the copy printed on paper from King George III’s library (C.9.d.3-4); the other is on vellum and belonged to the collector Thomas Grenville(G.12226).

Gutenberg Bible
The opening page of the Gutenberg Bible (Mainz, ca 1455) C.9.d.3.

Another Bible, printed less than a century after Gutenberg’s invention, shows how far printing technology had advanced in that time. However, it is not in the exhibition primarily as an example of printing but rather to illustrate the huge influence that its translator, Martin Luther, had on Germany’s religious life and on the German language. This particular Luther Bible from 1541 (679.i.15 and 679.i.16) is one of my own favourite British Library treasures. It is a large-format edition, bound in two volumes, each bearing a handwritten inscription by Luther himself; the first volume also has inscriptions by fellow-reformers Johannes Bugenhagen, Georg Major and Philipp Melanchthon.

Luther Bible
The Bible in Martin Luther’s translation: Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift (679.i.15). Luther’s inscription, starting with the opening of the 23rd Psalm, is on the left

Our other printed books in the exhibition may be less visually exciting, but still tell important stories. Three of Goethe’s works are exhibited in a case which illustrates both his literary career and his scientific interests. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (Leipzig, 1774; 12547.aa.21.) is the work which brought him international fame at the age of 24 and became the cult novel of the day. The drama Iphigenie auf Tauris illustrates the more mature classicism which followed the young Goethe’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ years, while an edition of Faust (Heidelberg, 1832; published in the year of Goethe’s death represents the drama that became his life’s work and has often been seen as the quintessential work of German literature.

In the section of the exhibition looking at political developments in 19th-century Germany is a work which has a particular connection to the British Museum itself: Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (Hamburg, 1872; C.12.b.1.). Marx famously worked on the book in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum, and he presented the copy on display (although sadly he didn’t see fit to inscribe it) to the then British Museum Library, now part of the British Library. It is appropriate that this book should be displayed in an exhibition gallery now situated above the Round Reading Room; indeed, although I wrote earlier about the items ‘coming home’ to the British Library, for almost all of them this exihibition marks a temporary return to their previous home in the Museum. An exception is the Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei (Communist Manifesto; London, 1848; C.194.b.289), shown alongside Das Kapital. This was acquired by the Library in 2010, filling a long-felt gap in our holdings.

Communist Manifesto
Cover of the Communist Manifesto, published by German political exiles in London

For those unable to get to the exhibition in its last days, some of the items described here are pictured in the accompanying book and some are discussed in the BBC series, where you can also hear BL curators among others discussing Gutenberg, Luther and Marx. And, although some are restricted from general use on account of their value, all will, of course, soon be back in the British Library.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies