THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

12 posts from May 2018

09 May 2018

Nature and War: Where Poppies Blow

One of our manuscripts is currently enjoying a much-needed change of scene in the Lake District, on display as part of the Wordsworth House and Garden's Where Poppies Blow exhibition.

Add MS 44990 consists of 62 manuscript poems by Edward Thomas, and is featured in the exhibition displaying his poem Adlestrop.

Add_ms_44990_f011rAdd MS 44990, f 11r

Where Poppies Blow explores the themes of nature, the First World War, and the British soldier. Whilst nature was always present in Thomas' work, the latter two themes would become central following his enrollment with the Artists' Rifles in July 1915. Thomas was killed on 9 April 1917 at the battle of Arras.

IWM_SoldierMagpieTommy with pet magpie. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Curated by historian, farmer and author John Lewis-Stempel, Where Poppies Blow also features original artworks by John and Paul Nash, items collected by soldiers during the war, and panel excerpts from Dave McKean's graphic novel Black Dog: the Dreams of Paul Nash.

JohnLewisStempelJohn Lewis-Stempel outside Wordsworth House. Photograph by Zoe Gilbert, National Trust.

The exhibition is open now until Sunday 8 July. 

 

08 May 2018

Senior Statesman of British Biology: John Maynard Smith

To publicise our upcoming event Dear John: The 'Kin Selection' Controversy presented by the British Library and Undercurrent Theatre, we present the last of three blogs by PhD student Helen Piel on evolutionary biologists George Price, William D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith. 

JMS_1John Maynard Smith c1965. © University of Sussex

John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) was one of Britain’s most eminent evolutionary biologists. His career spanned half a century, first at University College London, and then from 1965 at the University of Sussex. Educated at Eton, Cambridge (where he took a first degree in engineering, working as an aircraft stressman during and briefly after the Second World War) and UCL, he showed a remarkable ability to discern and describe biological problems and to ‘do the sums’: Maynard Smith brought his mathematical abilities and trust in models over into biology from his earlier education and training.

At UCL he studied and later worked under J B S Haldane, one of the founding fathers of neo-Darwinism (the merger between Darwin's theory of natural selection and Mendelian genetics). In the laboratory of Helen Spurway, Maynard Smith worked on genetics with the fruit fly Drosophila subobscura and later tackled the questions of ageing and sex. After his move to Sussex he focused increasingly on theoretical questions, and in 1973 published a seminal paper on ‘The Logic of Animal Conflict’, together with George R Price. The paper combined evolutionary biology and an idea taken from economics (game theory) to suggest a new way of studying animal behaviour: in evolutionary game theory, individual animals are pitted against each other like players in a game. In 1999, Maynard Smith was awarded the Crafoord Prize (biology’s equivalent to a Nobel Prize) for his work on evolutionary game theory. 

JMS_2John Maynard Smith c 1984. © University of Sussex

Maynard Smith was also known for his successful efforts to communicate evolutionary biology to a broader public, writing his first book The Theory of Evolution in 1958. He published various essay collections and The Origins of Life (1999), a ‘birdwatchers’ version’ of one of his books aimed more at a specialist audience (both co-authored with Eörs Szathmáry). From the 1960s he regularly appeared on radio and television, and was a frequent guest on the radio show Who Knows?, where a panel answered questions sent in by the public.

Smith also contributed as a scientific advisor to programmes, and narrated the Horizon episode ‘The Selfish Gene’, based on Richard Dawkins’ book of the same name, which itself was based on several of Maynard Smith’s ideas, particularly evolutionary game theory.

Although a theoretical biologist who avoided fieldwork throughout his career - his bad eyesight had dissuaded him from joining fellow undergraduates who went on to study under the famous ethnologist Niko Tinbergen at Oxford - his love for nature was obvious in his avid gardening. During summers he would open his garden to the public, and his Who's Who entry cites 'gardening' as one of his two favourite recreations. The second was 'talking'.

Helen Piel
Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) PhD student, University of Leeds and the British Library

 

Further reading:

Helen Piel (2017). Local Heroes: John Maynard Smith: (1920-2004): A good "puzzle-solver" with an "accidental career". The British Library, Science Blog.

Marek Kohn (2004). A Reason for Everything. Natural Selection and the English Imagination. London: faber and faber.

John Maynard Smith (1985). In Haldane’s footsteps. In: D. A. Dewsbury (ed.) Leaders in the Study of Animal Behavior: Autobiographical Perspectives (pp.347-354). Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

03 May 2018

‘Who on Earth is Anthony Meyer?’

Unless you are a political anorak, or one of his constituents, Sir Anthony Meyer’s long, but low key, parliamentary career probably passed under your radar.  However, in November 1989 he was briefly one of the best known men in the country.  His challenge to Margaret Thatcher for the leadership of the Conservative Party, and by extension the prime ministership, captured the public’s imagination: the backbencher versus the ‘Iron Lady’, albeit a backbencher who was ex-Eton, ex-Oxford, ex-Guards, and a baronet to boot.  Meyer was portrayed as David to Thatcher’s Goliath.

MeyerNewcastle Evening Chronicle 22 November 1989 British Newspaper Archive

The British Library recently acquired the thousands of letters Meyer received at the time of the challenge. They are overwhelmingly supportive.  Constituents, non-constituents, Conservative supporters, supporters of other parties, and the apolitical alike lauded his courage and criticised both Thatcher’s leadership style which they saw as increasingly arrogant and autocratic, and her policies, especially the poll tax and water privatisation.  However, Meyer also received a large number of letters opposing his challenge, and it these letters that make most interesting, and let’s face it, most fun, reading.

The opposition to Meyer’s challenge broke down into distinct categories.  The more considered correspondents picked apart his views on Europe and the economy and insisted that Meyer would divide the party, handing encouragement, and possibly the next election, to Labour.  Others preferred to focus on Thatcher herself, both in a political sense - 'the best Prime Minister we have ever had' - and a personal one - 'the greatest woman who has ever lived on the Planet Earth'; 'neat, wears right clothes and is attractive'.  One cannot help feeling that the latter were hardly prerequisites for leading the country.

Some correspondents attacked Meyer the man rather than his message.  He was a nonentity, the unpopular boy at school trying to get noticed.  He was ordered to 'Stop showing off!' and put a stop to his 'childish antics'.  Much was made of Meyer’s low-key career: 'WHO ON EARTH IS anthony meyer?'; 'Dear Sir Anthony Who!!!'   His opponents dispensed with such niceties as getting his name right.  One card was addressed to Sir Thomas Meyers but he was also Myers, Myer, Myner, Mayer.  To be fair, even some of his supporters wrote to Sir Peter, Sir Ian, Sir Robert, Sir Charles, Sir William, and Sir Alfred.

Another category of opponent comprised those who saw Meyer’s challenge as treachery.  He was likened to Julius Caesar’s assassins, Judas, and memorably one letter writer reckoned Meyer 'and Quisling would have been ‘good pals'.  Finally, there were those who simply resorted to personal abuse, but even this had a genteel feel to it.  'Silly old twit', 'a DRIP of the first water', and 'your [sic] nuts' was about as bad as it got.  Even the correspondent who told him to 'get lost' prefaced it, very politely, with 'kindly'.

As a ‘stalking horse’ candidate (predictably changed to 'stalking donkey' and 'stalking sheep' by his opponents) Meyer was never expected to win, and he did not.  He was resoundingly defeated by 314 votes to 33 but, as was the plan, he laid the groundwork for a party ‘big gun’ to mount another challenge at a later date.  Less than 12 months later Margaret Thatcher resigned as Conservative party leader and Prime Minister.

Michael St John-McAlister
Western Manuscripts Cataloguing Manager

Further reading:
The Papers of Sir Anthony Meyer, Add MS 89310.
Anthony Meyer, Stand Up and Be Counted (London: Heinemann, 1990).

 

01 May 2018

May Day in the Olden Time

Today we bring you another surprising discovery from the India Office Records.  In a volume of correspondence for the Surveyor’s Department in 1868 is a report on a watercolour painting entitled May Day in the Olden Time by Henry Stacy Marks. 

May Day in the Olden Time. V&A  FA.677Panel of a triptych watercolour painting by Henry Stacy Marks entitled May Day in the Olden Time, 1867 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London  FA.677

The appraisal is the subject of a letter written by Matthew Digby Wyatt, India Office Surveyor, to Henry Cole, director of the South Kensington Museum.  Cole had asked Wyatt to visit the Dudley Gallery to inspect Marks’ painting because the Department of Science and Art was interested in reproducing it as a mural decoration for the Museum.  The procession of 16th-century figures in May Day in the Olden Time was described by one contemporary critic as ‘a favourable example of Mr Marks’s transition manner –a  manner which lies halfway between an easel-picture and a wall-picture, which reconciles a figure composition to the conditions of architectural construction and the requirements of mural decoration’.

Not everyone who viewed the painting at the Dudley Gallery was appreciative.  The London Daily News wrote of ‘general quaintness and affected imbecility’.  Wyatt reported to Cole : ‘In my opinion its artistic merit is considerable as it is well composed and with the exception of a few faults in proportion of parts of some of the figures, carefully drawn in a somewhat conventional manner, while the subject is cheerful, suitable as a picture for a private room of moderate dimensions, and treated with less caricature than this Artist is generally in the habit of introducing into his work’. 

Wyatt did not think the asking price of £168 was excessive and went on to consider two aspects of the painting’s suitability: the subject matter and the technical fitness for reproduction.  Wyatt was struck by ‘the want of harmony between the subject and the scope of such an institution’ as the Museum.  He thought a ‘graver aim’ would be more desirable.  However he believed that the painting was technically ideal for copying onto earthenware slabs or plaques, indeed it ‘seemed expressly intended for some such object’.  In conclusion, Wyatt suggested that Marks should be commissioned to design a composition in the same style but limited to a much smaller number of figures.

May Day in the Olden Time. 3 panels V&A  FA.677Triptych watercolour painting by Henry Stacy Marks entitled May Day in the Olden Time, 1867 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London  FA.677 

The Department of Science and Art did purchase May Day in the Olden Time and it is now in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The painting was copied onto three porcelain panels by a student from the South Kensington Art School.  The panels were then incorporated into a decorative buffet placed in the Green Dining Room of the Museum.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
India Office Surveyor’s Department correspondence IOR/L/SUR/2/7 ff.28-31, letter from Matthew Digby Wyatt to Henry Cole 6 February 1868.
English painters of the present day – Essay on H S Marks by  by J Beavington  Atkinson (London, 1871)
British Newspaper Archive e.g.  London Daily News 8 February 1868