Knowledge Matters blog

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.’