Category Archives: bodleian

On display for the first time: portrait identified as Mary Shelley

Bruce Barker-Benfield, Curatorial Associate

One of the most exciting exhibits is the portrait identified as Mary Shelley, never before seen in public and now the latest addition to the Bodleian’s Shelley collections. Some months ago its owner, Mr. Patrick Bedford, kindly agreed to lend the portrait for display; then, just a few weeks before the exhibition’s start, he generously converted the loan into an outright gift to the Bodleian.

I first saw the portrait about ten years ago, when Patrick’s wife Katy brought it to Oxford for comparison with the Bodleian’s miniature of Mary Shelley by Reginald Easton. The larger portrait, painted in the 1840s, shows a woman in middle age. The later Easton miniature, painted after Mary’s death for Sir Percy and Lady Shelley, idealizes her as she might have been in her younger days. Katy and I agreed that there were strong points of similarity between the two younger portraits (and with the one in the National Portrait Gallery), especially in the sitter’s hair-style and in the shape of her mouth.

On Wednesday, 10 November 2010, Dana Josephson and Alistair Orr of the Library’s exhibitions staff visited Patrick and Katy at their home to collect the portrait. They took the opportunity to photograph Patrick and Katy with the picture (below), just taken down from the wall where it had been hanging for many years. In an informal interview, Partick recalled that he had ‘bought it in a tea-chest full of second-hand books’ at a London sale around 1955-6. The sale had been organized for Harrods by one of the smaller London auction-houses, Debenham Storr [later Debenham Coe, finally taken over by Christie’s South Kensington]. The sale contained ‘nothing but a lot of rubbish except for this one lot’; so Patrick bought the tea-chest, because he ‘quite liked Shelley, and used to buy books and poetry’. It was only later on that he ‘pulled out the portrait’ from the chest … it had ‘nothing to remind you of anything, except that it had on the back that it was of Mary Shelley – rather good, I suppose!’

Katy explained that many of the goods being sold in this way around that time had come from the Harrods Depository, the huge warehouse near Hammersmith Bridge; during the 2nd World War, many people had used the Depository to store their possessions, which were being sold off from there in the 1950s. Patrick felt that there was some advantage for the portrait in having been left forgotten: apart from some slight damage, it is in bright and original condition, completely untouched and unrestored – ‘Lucky it was thrown in that tea-chest, because it didn’t get messed around with!’ When Patrick found it in the tea-chest, it was unframed, so an appropriate frame was found for it later.

In due course Patrick visited the National Portrait Gallery to study Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Shelley there, just as Katy later came to the Bodleian to see the Easton portrait. They are delighted that, alongside the Easton miniature, the gift of the portrait to join the Bodleian’s Shelley collections will allow middle-aged Mary to be exhibited and studied ‘next door to her younger self. They belong together, don’t they?’

How many words does it take to curate an exhibition?

Stephen Hebron, Exhibition Curator

Pages and pages of prose were first condensed into an accompanying book that eventually totalled around 35,000 words. A further 25,000 words then went into writing the introductory text and object descriptions for the Shelley’s Ghost website. Finally, 10,000 more words were needed for the exhibition labels that will be displayed in the exhibition room at the Bodleian.

So 35,000 + 25,000 + 10,000 = 70,000 words to date and counting…

The idea behind the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition

Stephen Hebron, Exhibition Curator

After fifteen years of producing literary exhibitions (on, among others, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Tennyson and Dante) I was delighted to be asked by the Bodleian to curate Shelley’s Ghost. I remembered the great exhibition at the Bodleian, Shelley’s Guitar, from 1992 (the bicentenary of the poet’s birth) but after the Library’s purchase of the Abinger papers in 2004 I could see an opportunity for an exhibition on the whole family: not just Shelley himself but Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, and two less well-known but fascinating figures, Sir Percy and Jane, Lady Shelley. As well as the wonderful manuscripts, books and relics in the Bodleian, there was a chance to exhibit things that had never been seen before: the new portrait identified as Mary Shelley, and her travelling dressing-case. And the chance to work with The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at New York Public Library as well made the whole thing more attractive.

Behind the scenes of Shelley’s Ghost

Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family is the winter 2010 exhibition from the Bodleian Libraries in partnership with the New York Public Library. As well as the physical exhibition that you can walk around, Shelley’s Ghost is also supported by an online exhibition ( and an accompanying book of the same name.

The exhibition brings together manuscripts, letters and personal relics associated with one of our greatest literary families: Percy Bysshe Shelley; his wife, Mary Shelley; and her parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Exhibits include Shelley’s notebooks, Mary Shelley’s hand written draft of Frankenstein, the suicide letter of Shelley’s first wife, a necklace made of Mary Wollstonecraft’s hair and Godwin’s Political Justice.

An exhibition is all about celebrating and sharing treasures, literary treasures in this case, and telling their stories. What you often don’t hear is the story of how an exhibition is conceived and created, and the stories of the people that make it happen.

This blog tells those stories and aims to provide a snapshot of life behind the scenes of a major exhibition.