Knowledge Matters blog

7 posts from June 2023

30 June 2023

The Library in biscuit form

British Library Biscuit Set - Ella Hawkins (002)

What good is a 50th birthday without sweet treats? Dr Ella Hawkins, a design historian, author and artist, brought some of our most iconic and unique collection items new life – in biscuit form.

Each biscuit was decorated completely by hand, even down to the incredibly small, intricate, readable text. Read on for a closer look at each biscuit and the items that inspired them.


1918 24 cents ‘inverted Jenny’ stamp


In 1918 the United States issued a philatelic set of six 16 and 24 cents stamps for use on air mail letters. The 24 cents stamp was printed in blue and carmine, which required printing from two separate plates, one for each colour. In error, one of the sheets of 100 stamps was printed with the blue aircraft upside down.

This stamp is one of the most famous errors in American philately, and is one of the most highly prized objects for philatelists.


The Lady’s Newspaper


The Lady’s Newspaper (1847-1863) was a news publication marketed exclusively at female readership. In 1848 it incorporated the Pictorial Times (1843-1848) and later itself merged with The Queen (1861-1863) to become The Lady’s Newspaper, The Queen & Court Chronicle (1863).

‘The Lady’s Newspaper was one of the earliest newspapers produced for an exclusively female audience. It included all the items you’d expect in a 19th century women’s magazine, such as features on London and Paris fashion; sewing and knitting patterns; book and theatre reviews; poetry, short-stories and serialised fiction. However, these appeared alongside surprisingly graphic accounts of wars and imperial uprisings, as well as in-depth political analysis and articles on current events. This newspaper was a revolutionary step forward in women’s publishing.’

  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Lead Curator of News and Moving Image Collections


Alice’s Adventures Under Ground


‘One of the most beautiful and popular treasures at the library, ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ is the original manuscript version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s captured the imaginations of generations of readers since Reverend Charles Dodgson – later to be known by his pen name Lewis Carrol – created this first manuscript in the early 1860s, writing and illustrating it himself.

‘The manuscript was made for the original Alice (Alice Pleasance Liddell) in 1854. Later owned by a series of collectors in North America, the manuscript was purchased by the Librarian of Congress, Luther Harris Evans, with the help of private American contributors, and presented to British Library in 1948.’

  • Alexandra Ault, Lead Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts.


Shakespeare’s First Folio

Biscuit blog images (5)

Shakespeare’s First Folio was published in London in 1623. It contains 36 plays by William Shakespeare, 18 of which had never been published before, and which might not have otherwise survived. It was produced seven years after the playwright’s death under the direction of John Heminges and Henry Condell, the last remaining senior members of Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men. The First Folio opens with The Tempest, and it’s one of the 18 plays printed here for the first time.

‘2023 isn’t only the 50th anniversary of the British Library, but also the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio – probably the most famous book of English literature. We’re the custodian of five First Folios, the largest number of a single institution in Europe.

‘Most of the folios we look after were probably kept on the bookshelves of eminent writers and collectors in London. The Clifford-Phelps First Folio, however, appears to have spent most of its life at a small manor house in Gloucestershire. The portrait of Shakespeare on its title page reflects the artist’s work before adjustments were made to the engraving early on In the course of production. As such it’s exceptionally rare: only three other such portraits have been recorded worldwide. The Clifford-Phelps First Folio is the first that we’ll be publishing as a luxury facsimile edition in October.’

  • Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections, and Tanya Kirk, Lead Curator of Printed Heritage Collections.


Cotton Mappa Mundi


This world map is part of a bound volume of 11th century texts and images relating to astrology, astronomy and geography. It was drawn between 1025 and 1050 in Canterbury. By 1598, the map was held by statesman Robert Cotton; the Cotton Collection became one of the founding collections of the British Museum two centuries later – and hence the British Library too.

‘It’s one of the most recognisable of the Library’s map treasures, with the olive green and vermillion hues. The British Isles appear at the lower left of the biscuit. It’s been reproduced in countless books, magazines, webpages, etc. since the 19th century, so I was keen to see how it looked in this new and innovative format!

‘This map is special because it’s the earliest surviving world map to have been produced in England. And it’s a unique surviving example of what a world map from the Roman era might have looked like.’

  • Tom Harper, Lead Curator of Antiquarian Maps, and Julian Harrison, Lead Curator of Medieval and Historical Manuscripts


Wax Cylinder Casing


It first became possible to record music in the field in 1877, thanks to Thomas Edison’s portable recording equipment. Recordings made with this technology were cut directly onto wax cylinders. It’s surprising any have survived, given how prone to breakage and melting these cylinders were – never mind the breakage and melting of its iced biscuit form!

‘Depicted on the biscuit is one of the forms – patented materials – used for the publication of commercial recordings by Edison. We have a large cylinder collection of recordings from the early 1890s to some made only a few years ago, both commercial and privately made. Many are ethnographic, but there are also recordings of famous writers and politicians of the 19th century.’ – Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recording.


We asked Ella…

What’s your process in creating your biscuit art?

‘I always begin by creating a design plan. All my biscuit sets have a theme, and I like to know exactly how the shapes and colours will work together before I get out my mixer and start baking. I was very lucky when making this particular set, as I was able to meet with the British Library’s fantastic team of curators and see some of the actual collection items that I would be recreating in biscuit form.  

‘Next, I bake the biscuits themselves, creating new templates as needed to cut out the shapes that I want to use. I then ice the baked biscuits with royal icing and use a projector to help me transfer the outlines of each design onto the icing surface by hand. Finally, I spend lots of time adding all the colour and detail to each biscuit using tiny paintbrushes and food colouring gels. Vodka acts as a thinning agent: I use it to clean my brushes between colours, and to thin the gels to the right consistency for painting.’

Can you tell us about the techniques/methods used?

‘I used a simple piping technique to ice the biscuits, and then lots of hand-painting to create the designs. A couple of the biscuits feature a sgraffito technique: there are tiny scratch marks on the surface of the ‘sound’ biscuit to give it an aged effect. I made the newspaper, manuscript, and folio biscuits look old by adding age spots in thinned-down food colouring.’

What served as inspiration for the flavours?

‘Popping to the café and grabbing a hot drink is a key part of the British Library research experience, so it felt right to reflect that in the flavour of the biscuit set. Coffee was an alternative option, but tea won in the end. I included Yorkshire Lavender as a nod to the British Library’s Boston Spa site (and because lavender with Earl Grey is delicious).’

Have you used the collections of the British library in your own research/career?

‘I have! I first used the British Library reading rooms back in 2014, when I was an undergraduate student. I spent a wonderful week working with an early printed festival book dating from 1625. I’ve since been back many times to work with collection items and to visit exhibitions.’


Finding Forgotten Women in the Collection | User Stories


Zing Tsjeng used the British Library to write the Forgotten Women book series. The four books contain the stories of almost 200 unsung women: the leaders, artists, writers and scientists who’ve shaped our world. The series was reissued as an anthology in March 2023. Zing is the Editor in Chief of VICE and VICE UK. 

The Forgotten Women books were the first books I've ever written, so they have a special place in my heart. I think the process politicized me in a way that I didn't quite grasp at the time. There was something about the impact of reading about so many women's lives that meant my brain started automatically making connections and finding patterns. 

I talk about freedom fighters and resistance fighters; left-wing political activists; LGBTQ+ activists. While my politics were always like that to begin with, I think something about reading about the twists and turns of these women's lives made me engage even more. I might not have the same background or heritage as these women, but I could see all the commonalities that I share with them, and that felt really empowering. 


Who is this woman?

When I pitched the series to my publisher, Octopus, the editor, Romilly Morgan, was talking about archiving women's history. At the time, I'd just seen a terrible Pirates of the Caribbean sequel on telly. You don't normally see Asian people in these big blockbuster franchises, but I spotted one elderly Asian woman in the background, and I wondered, who is this woman? 

It turned out that she was based on a real-life woman called Ching Shih, who had married into a pirate dynasty in China. When her husband died, she took over the whole thing. She brought the fleet together under her leadership, and went on looting, and eventually she got so good at it that the Chinese government actually paid her to retire. Rather than chasing her down and bringing her to justice, they were like, we literally cannot work with this. Please take this big bag of money and disappear. And she did. 

She was the first woman who came to mind when Romilly was talking. Because, in a way, she is remembered, enough for somebody to think it would be a fun cameo for her to appear in Pirates of the Caribbean, but she was never the main focus of the story. When really, to me, that story is way more interesting than anything else in Pirates of the Caribbean. Also, the area she's from, around Guangdong, is where my family originates from. 


Nobody’s looked at this in so long

Forgotten Women was the essay crisis of a lifetime. Initially, I went to the British Library because I just needed somewhere quiet to work, which I think is how most people approach the British Library. 

Then for Forgotten Women: The Writers, a lot of the books that I needed to refer to were the forgotten women’s original works, some of which were out of print. So I ended up using the collection quite a lot. I’d never really used it before, so it was a real discovery process in how to use the Library and how to call up books. 

I would do eight-hour, nine-hour sessions in the Library. Stop for lunch and then not leave until it closed. It was fascinating to see what I could call up: a lot of stuff that I had thought wouldn't exist anymore.


This shouldn’t be out of print

There’s this long-forgotten poet, Valentine Penrose, who was part of the whole crew around photographer and war correspondent Lee Miller in the first half of the 20th century. She'd written really interesting, very abstract poetry, and a lot of it was completely out of print. In the British Library, chunks of her poetry were quoted in a different book, about Lee Miller. 

So I called that up, and even that book hadn't been used very much. It was really old, almost falling apart. Being able to see the original poetry, I was like, this is really good. This shouldn't be out of print. But what I've learned from publishing, unfortunately, is that things go out of print all the time. 

In a way, I really enjoyed the research element. The hard bit was actually in synthesising all the information into each short biographical profile, so that it told a gripping story but didn’t try to oversimplify anything. 


It feels really airy and peaceful

I wrote most of the books in Social Sciences I. I've never worked in any other reading room; I don’t know why. I think I found my reading room. I just love the way it's built and designed, with that mezzanine floor and enormous height. It feels really airy and peaceful, and is, obviously, completely silent. I just felt it was a really contemplative place to do work – other than the time I brought in a pen by accident and it was taken off me. But once I got to grips with the rules, everything was fine. 

I think I must have visited the British Library when I was a really little child. When I started writing the books, I hadn't been in the Library for years and years, but somehow I knew where things were. So I think I must have some sort of residual memory of being brought there as a tourist. Because once I entered the Library to write Forgotten Women, I thought, I'm home! Once you find your space – once you know where the locker rooms are – you relax, and you're like: this is it, this is my library.

You can read more about and purchase Forgotten Women here.


As told to Lucy Peters.

Bringing Inspiration from the Reading Room to the Catwalk | User Stories


Fashion student Mihai Popescu won the 2022 Fashion Research Competition run by the British Fashion Council and the British Library. He recently completed his degree in Fashion Textiles and Design at Middlesex University. 

I was always into art. When I was young, I made a little book in which I could draw clothes and shoes and headpieces. I was obsessed with Lady Gaga, and I drew a lot of inspiration from her outfits. But I never thought I was actually going to study fashion. 

After college, I decided to take a gap year, and moved from Romania to London. Being in a big city, with so much going on, I felt the need to pursue what I’d always loved, so I applied for a foundation course in fashion textiles and design. My great-grandmother was a weaver, and she’s the reason I decided to study textiles. She died when I was quite young, so I never had the chance to spend time with her and learn her craft. 

I hadn’t heard of the British Library x British Fashion Council Fashion Research Competition until one of my tutors told us about it. The brief was to go to the British Library and use its resources to look into my heritage, and to use that research to propose a collection. When I visited the Library, I found out so many things that I hadn’t known about my culture. I was actually a bit upset that I hadn’t thought about going there earlier on in my degree. 


It made me understand who I am as a designer

You could find books there that would tell you every single detail about traditional Romanian dress. One thing that I really liked was traditional pattern cutting. Traditionally, people would use embroidery to make rounded necklines and different types of ruffles. I’d never imagined that you could make so many intricate designs from a square piece of fabric. I’d seen the finished garments before, but I never knew how you got there. 

The process really made me understand who I am as a designer, and realise that I have something unique to offer. The project was inspired by everything that’s happening in Romania at the moment. A lot of political parties are trying to use traditional Romanian dress to say that gay people do not belong in Romania. As in, these outfits are traditional, but being gay is not traditional. They even had a referendum to try and change the constitution of Romania so that marriage is only legal between a man and a woman. They use the phrase, ‘the traditional family,’ which is also the title of my final collection.

Mihai designs 1

One of Mihai's designs, taking influence from an image found in the Library's collections.


It’s okay to be gay and Romanian

I wanted to tell them that it's okay to be gay and Romanian, and that any family is a traditional family. I’ve been living in London for six years now, and it's very hard for me to go back home, and be myself, because of the situation. So this collection has a very special place in my heart. I was debating whether to make it, because of how people might react, but I don’t regret it: it really helped me find out who I am.

The British Library is absolutely incredible. It's so calming. I spent three, four hours at a time going through books, taking everything in. I think it's an amazing place, and I would recommend it to anyone who does design. I think it's very important that we have places like that in London. 


I cried when I got the prize

The fact that I won the competition gave me a lot of confidence in what I’m doing. In my opinion, telling a story with your designs is very important. It’s one of the reasons I decided to do fashion: it’s more than just clothes; it’s political. I cried when I got the prize. It was a very intense day: we had to go for interviews, and the judges were very nice, but they weren’t giving anything away, so I didn’t know how it had gone. When I heard my name, it was probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me. 

The competition had a prize of three thousand pounds. I invested the money in my final collection. I think it gave me the freedom to experiment. The financial aspect of this course can be challenging, so winning the competition gave me a head start. 

The final result is inspired by my time partying in London. When I did the styling for the show, I went for a cyberpunk, club kids feeling. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I was happy until I saw everything on the runway. We had so many people coming to see the show, and when the models came out, everyone just started to scream! Now, I’ve started to apply for jobs, and I hope to have time to work on my own label as well. I’d like to develop my ideas further. I’m really inspired by the British conceptual designer Craig Green. His collections are like pieces of art. 


As told to Lucy Peters