Category Archives: exhibition

Bicentenary of Shelley’s expulsion from Oxford

On 25 March 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg were publicly expelled from University College, Oxford. On the following morning, after breakfast, they took their places on the outside of a London-bound coach. After only two terms as a first-year undergraduate, Shelley had been sent down.

Their offence was ‘contumaciously refusing to answer questions … and also repeatedly declining to disavow a publication entitled The Necessity of Atheism.’ This was the anonymous pamphlet which Shelley had privately printed a few weeks earlier and put on sale at sixpence a copy in a shop-window on Oxford High Street. A passing don spotted the pamphlet and immediately ordered the stock to be burnt. Shelley had also sent copies out to individuals – ‘every bishop in the kingdom’, head of Oxford Colleges, and other dignitaries – with letters under false names, inviting their response.

The reception from recipients was not rapturous. ‘A sixth enormous lie’, reported one of Shelley’s targets, ‘consisted in his saying [under the alias of Charles Meyton], that he had himself visited Palestine … and that neither angels nor martyrs should ever convince him, contrary to the evidence of his senses, that it had ever been a fertile land.’ The pamphlet, shockingly, contradicted the Anglican Church’s 39 Articles (‘There is but one living and true God …’), which Shelley and Hogg had signed only a few months earlier in the University’s matriculation register, on becoming members of the University.

On the 200th anniversary of the expulsion, visitors to the Shelley’s Ghost website can see many fascinating items relating to Shelley’s time at Oxford and to his subsequent career as poet and unacknowledged world-legislator. The final page of The Necessity of Atheism is shown with its provocative ‘Q.E.D.’, concluding the proof of God’s non-existence. With a letter identified only in 2008, Shelley sends a copy to William Godwin, his future father-in-law, under the alias Jennyngs Stukeley. Another of his Oxford letters discusses ‘the Spirit of Love, the harmonised intelligence of infinite Creation’ – not to be confused with God. The draft manuscript of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is also on show, with echoes of Shelley’s anarchic behaviour at Oxford – chemical experiments, wrong-coloured pantaloons.

Image credit: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Shelley’s Ghost is also open to visit at the Bodleian Library for just two more days until 5pm on Sunday 27 March 2011.

Shelley’s Ghost video competition

Alison Prince, Web Manager

Shelley’s Ghost tells the story of how the descendents of one of our greatest literary families worked hard to shape their posthumous reputations and widen appreciation of their work. Why do the works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft still appeal to us today? We are running this video competition to find out.

To enter, simply make a short video of yourself performing a text by one of our four featured authors and, importantly, tell us why you chose the author or the work that you did. Choose your own text or here are some suggestions.

Our favourite video will win a copy of the exhibition book, Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family, signed by the authors Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger.

See entries so far and find out more about the competition here.

Exhibition opening event with Andrew Motion

Alison Prince, Bodleian Libraries Web Manager

On Thursday evening last week (2 December) we had the opening event for the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition. As usual the invitations created by Bodleian Library Publishing were gorgeous and, apart from a few unfortunate people caught in the snow down south, everyone arrived at 17:30 to a beautifully lit Divinity School.

It was great to see so many people there who had contributed to the exhibition in so many ways and it felt like a good culmination to the whole project. Bodley’s Librarian, Sarah Thomas, spoke first, followed by the University Vice-chancellor, Prof. Andrew Hamilton. We were then treated to a short speech from Andrew Motion who recalled his own time at University College, Oxford (Shelley’s college) in the room next to the Shelley Memorial. He had some amusing tales of complete strangers / Shelley ‘enthusiasts’ knocking on his door and inviting themselves in on the assumption that it must have been the room Shelley occupied!

After the talks, the exhibition room itself was opened and all the guests got to go in for a sneak preview before the public opening the following day. I spent quite a lot of time staring at the computers in the corner of the room to make sure people weren’t having any trouble using the sites but did manage to tear my eyes away and spend some time looking at the exhibits too. Being surrounded by a combination literary masterpieces and very human (often incredibly moving) objects was a very special experience. It was such a treat to see everything come together on the night in this way too. Here’s to the success of Shelley’s Ghost!

Taking Shelley’s Ghost into the classroom

Alison Prince, Bodleian Libraries Web Manager

Although the Shelley’s Ghost exhibition website was primarily targeted at interested adults, we recognised early on that the material we were showing had some links to the National Curriculum and could also work for a range of curriculum enrichment activities. We started to think about how we could demonstrate the possible uses of the website in the classroom and, in this way, extend access to the materials and the outreach impact of this project even further.

We met with a few colleagues from different departments around the University in order to assess our options. Given the tight timescale we were working to and the fact that the website was primarily aimed at an older audience, we decided that the best course of action would be to create “suggested activity” sheets for teachers to demonstrate how the material might be introduced to their students, and also show the syllabus links.

We were very lucky to make contact with Cressida Ryan, the Classics Outreach Officer for the University of Oxford. Cressida had valuable experience of working with young people and an understanding of how to demonstrate the value and relevance of an idea or activity to schools. If that wasn’t enough, she also had a whole heap of knowledge on the themes and the people showcased in our exhibition.

In what seemed like an impossibly short time, we had a pack of sheets put together based on individual objects in the exhibition or more general themes. My personal favourites include “It’s all Greek to Shelley!”, “A Vindication of the Vindication” and “Editing Frankenstein“. I’m actually tempted to have a go myself…

Shelley’s Ghost – the chocolate

Shelley chocolate, you ask? What could that be?

The Shelley’s Ghost exhibition is accompanied by a full range of merchandise, including – you guessed it – chocolate. Shelley liked a bit of dessert as much as the next person, and he wrote to Maria Gisborne in 1820:

‘…We’ll have tea and toast;
Custards for supper, and an endless host
Of syllabubs and jellies and mice-pies,
And other such ladylike luxuries.’

The Shelley chocolate bars are produced by Farrah’s of Harrogate for the Bodleian exhibition.

Chocolate isn’t the only choice, however; we are also offering ‘Liberty and Free Election’ and Frankenstein merchandise, ranging from cufflinks to bags. All items are available through the Bodleian Shop.

If you’re interested in learning more about Shelley and the exhibition itself, the book Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family is available for purchase on the exhibition website. Written by Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C. Denlinger, the book explores the lives and reputations of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary Shelley, and Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley, haunted by the past, directly sought to enhance the public’s appreciation of her husband and parents by the selective publication of relevant manuscripts; she passed along her legacy to her son and his wife. As guardian of the archive until giving part of it to the Bodleian in 1893-4, Lady Shelley too helped shape the posthumous reputations of these important writers.

The book uses the Bodleian’s collections – from manuscripts to cherished objects – to illustrate the Shelley family history. In a final chapter, Elizabeth C. Denlinger of the New York Public Library looks at the material that the family was unable to control.

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?’

Exhibition installation day one

Madeline Slaven

The changeover period between exhibitions starts mundanely enough with maintenance visits by contractors to check the environmental monitoring equipment, air handling units, and alarm systems. The last thing you want is a malfunction after opening. Lifting the floor and descending into the ‘pit’ is an interesting reminder of what lies below and behind the carefully placed items seen by visitors to the exhibition.

For Shelley’s Ghost we want the visitors to the exhibition to be able to try out the exhibition website on their visit, but we first must lay ten metres of new cabling and move a data point. By mid-morning the contractors have left and we can re-lay the carpets, clear the room and start moving in the exhibits. This is always an exciting moment. First item out of the truck is Shelley’s guitar, securely if improbably housed in the kind of black and silver flight-case Oxford’s other famous poets, Radiohead, would use for their electric guitars.

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…

Choosing exhibits for Shelley’s Ghost

Stephen Hebron, Exhibition Curator

Curating an exhibition is, like writing, a proces of looking things over and leaving things out. There are many 100s of items in the Shelley collections at the Bodleian alone, from notebooks, journals and letters to portraits and personal relics; Shelley’s Ghost contains just 117 exhibits in total and includes 12 on loan from The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, New York Public Library. Often what seems particularly fine early on gets rejected later on as the seemingly endless lists of possible exhibits gets steadily whittled down. You have to be ruthless. Does the object help with the story that the exhibition is telling? Is it interesting to look at? More prosaically, but just as importantly, will it fit? But, going back to the writing analogy, if rejected words get struck out, rejected exhibits are not, of course, disposed of – they remain on the shelves, ready to be consulted by researchers and, maybe, displayed in future exhibitions.

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.