This series is called, ‘Figures of delight,’ after the title given to Sonnet 98 by Ken Burnley, Silver Birch Press. NOTE – missing sonnets will be supplied in the correct place as soon as photos are made!
This series is called, ‘Figures of delight,’ after the title given to Sonnet 98 by Ken Burnley, Silver Birch Press. NOTE – missing sonnets will be supplied in the correct place as soon as photos are made!
A web resource for schools, Stuarts Online, featuring materials from the Bodleian and Ashmolean has launched a video narrated by David Mitchell.
The Stuarts in Seven Minutes has been produced as part of the Stuarts Online initiative. Produced by academics at the universities of Cambridge, Exeter, Nottingham and Oxford, Stuarts Online includes twenty short films – each centred on a key text or artefact – which explore the stories, conflicts and personalities central to the history of Stuart Britain. It also provides lesson plans, biographies, timelines, and other learning resources. The films are enriched by privileged access to the holdings of the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library, of the University of Oxford. Their development was supported by further partnerships with the Historical Association and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
This blog post comes to you from Adrian Kerrison, Senior Collections Support Assistant, who has been supervising the Weston Library re-ingest move since September 2014.
When I am not working on the Weston move I have been listing the contents of the Lord Curzon collection of Napoleonic ephemera, a fascinating project assigned to me by the Rare Books department. Among the hundreds of engravings, portraits and satirical prints is a treasure trove of numerous letters from figures of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. Notable figures include Letizia Ramolino (Napoleon’s mother), Pope Pius IV, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Maximilien Robespierre, Rouget de Lisle (author of the ‘La Marseillaise’, also known as the French national anthem), Henri Sanson (executioner of Marie Antoinette among many others) and Giuseppe Garibaldi (one of the founders of modern-day Italy).
And of course, there are a few letters from Mr. Bonaparte himself. Pictured is a military despatch written by a 25 year old Napoleon serving as Commander in Chief of Artillery for the Army of Italy, dated 14 October 1794 (the date in pencil is probably wrong). What is interesting about this document is not only that it was written by a young Napoleon early in his military career, but also that he does not omit the ‘u’ from his surname. Born Napoleone di Buonaparte to Corsican-Italian parents, he began to omit the ‘u’ from his surname sometime in the mid-1790’s to make it sound more French in an effort to propel himself in a country suspicious of foreigners.
If anyone would like to have a go at translating and transcribing his handwriting, please send me an email at email@example.com and I will update this post!
More to come!
Guest post from Laurence Worms of Ash Rare Books, who visited with a group from the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA)
As part of our ongoing series of exchange visits between booksellers and rare book librarians (our friends and colleagues in the Rare Books and Special Collections Group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals), a party of ABA members assembled in Oxford in mid November. Old haunts for me – parts of downtown Oxford almost unrecognisable after all these years, but beyond the city centre, up towards St Giles, things virtually unchanged in almost half a century. Far more young women students nowadays and far more bicycles (nothing less cool than a cyclist back in the ’sixties), but still recognisable Oxford types on every corner.
There were a dozen of us: ABA President Michael ‘Oscar’ Graves-Johnston; Brian Lake and Carol Murphy from Jarndyce; honorary member David Chambers; Sam Jonkers from Henley; Anke Timmerman and Mark James from Quaritch; Richard Wells from Teignmouth; Ann Gate (Waterfield’s); Tom and Sue Biro (Collectable Books), and myself. Slight chaos and confusion as we assembled in the Blackwell Hall at the Weston Library – two disparate tours scheduled to start at the same time. We were the quiet and well-behaved ones – no, really, we were – we couldn’t be much else in a hall named in honour of that great bookselling family, whose splendid shop still stands next door. Benjamin Henry Blackwell was ABA President in 1912, his son Sir Basil Blackwell in 1926.
The Weston Library is the new name of the New Bodleian Library on Broad Street, after its recent major makeover, rebuilding and refurbishment – renamed in honour of a £25 million donation given by the Garfield Weston Foundation toward its transformation (the Blackwell family chipped in £5 million too). The original 1930s book-stack has been moved down to the lowest basement level. The central stack has been rebuilt along with the installation of three floors of secure storage below ground level. The stone façade has been cleaned. New internal spaces have been created. There are now extra reading rooms and a fine public entrance hall. Above all, the Library is now equipped to store material in conditions laid down by the National Archives’ Standard for Record Repositories. This is critical in allowing the Library to continue to hold major archival collections accepted in lieu of tax and to receive vital funding.
Formally opened earlier in the year, we were to be given a guided tour behind the scenes. Rare Books Assistant Curator Lucy Evans led us first up to the Conservation and Collection Care Department . We were about to be impressed. At the first work-station, Sabina Pugh, the Senior Book Conservator, was working on a mediaeval manuscript of biblical exegesis rebound for Henry VIII – a manuscript presumably acquired and bound for the King at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541). Rebound in a regal mustard-coloured velvet, but now in need of work to allow safe handling and study. “I like to think Henry once handled and studied this book himself”, says Sabina.
Elsewhere, someone was working on an original Shelley notebook – and not just any notebook, but the one with the original draft of that ode which starts “O Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being”. In another corner, work was being carried out on an extravagantly and exquisitely decorated Koran now starting to disintegrate – the vibrant and enticing green of the verdigris pigment the culprit, as so often. Lots of experimentation going on here with relatively new, virtually weightless and virtually transparent-in-use backing papers, and various types of adhesive. A mountain of thought before the intricate and time-consuming work can actually commence.
Fascinating for us booksellers and the source of some animated conversation later in the day. The whole thrust of library conservation is now towards as little intervention as possible – to render the material safe in handling but no more. No thought of restoration, refurbishment or replication of original glory – the Henrician binding to remain lacking some of its velvet, to remain lacking its original metal bosses – the repairs all visible and reversible. It’s a line of thought easy to understand: none of us would wish to intervene too far or to get things wrong. We have all seen disastrous examples of ill-conceived work – on the one hand, the clunky and charmless utilitarian rebinding which makes it fairly sure the book will not fall apart again, but leaves it almost impossible to open and deprives us of all sense of what it originally was, or, at the other extreme, the ruthless shearing off of catchwords and marginalia to present the book in the most finished and fashionable binding of the moment. Booksellers are often in a quandary here. We want to do the right thing, but we also want (and need) to sell the book. Our customers have their own expectations. We don’t exclude restoration or purely cosmetic repair. We don’t – at least most of us – exclude a complete rebinding in ‘period’ style or in a fine binding worthy of the text. Commercial binders can be exceedingly good at this – and there is, I believe, a duty on us all to ensure that the traditional skills of the bookbinder are kept alive. Perhaps time for a conference for all parties to exchange ideas and to attempt to achieve some kind of consensus about best (or at least allowable) practice?
Our tour continued with a special display of ‘treasures’ – chosen by the curators on hand to talk to us about them – some of their personal favourites, some prize recent acquisitions, etc. I was soon lost in contemplation of a wonderful recent bequest to the Bodleian – the exquisite ‘travelling library’ given to the young Prince Charles, later to become Charles I, in the early seventeenth-century. Sixty or so pocket books, worthy titles, the best of learning suitable for a prince’s education, uniformly bound and evidently intended to be a portable companion. So many questions unanswered: is the set complete, who assembled it and when, who bound the books – are these English bindings? French? – and, not least, where have the books been for most of the last four centuries, until they were put into their present red leather cases, made in the 1970s by Sangorski & Sutcliffe? What a research project in prospect.Dragging myself away from these adorable little books, I was soon equally lost in wonderment at the Bodleian copy of Shackleton’s extraordinary “Aurora Australis”, famous as the first book printed in the Antarctic, designed as a project to while away the long polar winter – but also, what I had never realised – a superb piece of printing in its own right.
Our afternoon ended with a complete tour of the building – up on the roof to catch the dreaming spires in an unexpected burst of late afternoon sunshine, a glimpse into the reading rooms and study areas, some encounters with the restored glories of the original 1930s fittings, furniture and ceilings designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (he of the Telephone Box and Battersea Power Station). A pleasant end to a very pleasant afternoon – thank you so much to Lucy Evans and her colleagues for organising things and taking so much effort to entertain us. Our turn next.
from Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections
‘We have watched this babe of four or five months, gazing on the moon with all the fixedness of attention belonging to an astronomer.’
This note is written on the manuscript of a poem recently acquired by the Bodleian. Its author is Manley Hopkins and its subject his infant son, Gerard, who sadly saw little in print during his own short life but is now celebrated as one of our greatest poets. The poem was first published in 2010 in a special issue of the Hopkins Quarterly when the manuscript was still in private hands. It is now available for study along with another poem mourning the death in 1854 of Manley’s fourth son Felix and a letter of 1840 from Kate Smith (later his wife) to a member of their family. The manuscripts join the Bodleian’s extensive collection of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetical manuscripts.
Manley was at this time a prosperous twenty six year old, well established in insurance and fervidly developing his lack of formal education through reading, writing and music. His poetry is not technically distinguished but I find this hymn to his son moving in its mixture of fear, joy and humility. As it closes, the child becomes, rather recalling Wordsworth, a father to the man, thrilling his father’s soul with the purity of his devotion to light. The idea carries poignancy from where we stand, knowing that the son would die long before his parents, having blazed far beyond them in religious intensity and scintillating expression. The scene also curiously brings to mind Coleridge’s account of his son Hartley, hurt from a fall: ‘I caught him up crying & screaming—& ran out of doors with him.—The Moon caught his eye—he ceased crying immediately—& his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the Moonlight!”
Manley’s verses of course bring to mind one of Gerard’s most ecstatic poems, sent as a present to his mother on her birthday in spring of 1877 when he was at his happiest, studying to become a priest at Beuno in Wales. That poem is ‘Starlight Night’. Was the son thinking of his father’s tender tribute, so carefully preserved in the manuscript?
To my child, Gerard Manley.
Christmas Eve 1844
Hail! Little worshipper of Light!
Most sunny is thy sunny face at noon:-
Why dost thou fix so earnestly thy gaze
Upon the wandering Moon, –
And thy young eyes upraise
Adoringly to her that melts the night? – *
Why do thine impotent hands
Seek, – seek for ever
To clasp the lamp-flame bright
And everything that flings thee lucent rays?
Why if it chance in darkness thou awaken
Utter thy earnest, plaintive cry
As tho’ the fateful bands
Of thy imprisoning gloom to sever, –
While fancy gives thee words – ‘Mother, I die
By light, and thee forsaken!’
Does thy quick-beating heart
Back with an instinct start,
And own the tyrant fear –
Lest life, whose tenure is so frail and new, –
With nothingness so near –
Has snapped beneath thy tiny weight,
And thou relapsed into thy former state,
Like a young flower
Snatched in its opening hour
From where, upon its stem, so joyously it grew? –
Or, is it, child, that beauty and that light
Are infancy’s true nourishment? – its eyes
As steel unto the lode-rock bend their sight
In sympathy , to all of pure and bright; –
That clouds are afterthoughts; – darkness a blot
That in creation is, – yet should be not.
And childhood, like the Huma, has no feet
To settle mid the shadows of the earth,
But hovering o’er it, still drinks in the dew
Of heaven, its land of birth;
While its wings catch the all-surrounding hue
Of liquid sapphire, where they ever beat?
If so, then worship on. No Gebir’s best wrong creed
Stains thee with error. Drink of light thy fill:
And tho’ thy feet in after-life may bleed
As whose do not? – upon Time’s stoney way,
The first warm impulse of thy heart obey,
And love it still!
Yes! Love it as it rises o’er the East,
Love it in all the glowing hues of Even
Love it reflected over Earth’s wide breast,
And trembling in the starry lamps of Heaven.
Seek it in gemmy caves, and snowy mountain tips,
In Friendship’s eyes, on sweet Affection’s lips.
Thou’lt often find it where thou dreamest not, deep hid
‘Neath surging waves, in mines, – in human hearts.
And many a ray
Will meet thee on thy way
Cherished in bosoms that the world has chid, –
And which that chiding world has mainly turned astray.
Oh worship on! See yonder orient gates
Whose half-oped leaves the streaky dawn disclose;
Where soft, diffusive light impatient waits,
And on the verge, with tender lustre glows.
Behold! The Light of Light – the Righteous Sun upsprings
With balmy healing dripping from his wings!
Before His beams, all other radiance pales.
Fountain and Source of light, and heat and love
The dim horizon lift thyself above,
And haste to our dark world, that thy bright Coming hails!
Gaze on, my child, thy fill.
Yet stay! – an instant turn on me thy innocent sight,
Pour thro’ thine eyes my heart full of delight,
And all my being thrill –
Thou Worshipper of Light!
*We have watched this babe of four or five months, gazing on the moon with all the fixedness of attention belonging to an astronomer.
The Starlight Night
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then! – What? – Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
from Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections
“A little townlet on the coast under the lee of the Sussex Downs – this was Littlehampton. With its old-fashioned Harbour, its irregular network of streets, its quiet, conservative atmosphere, it represented to us at the time a miniature Paradise. Long stretches of sandy beach, sandhills and the surrounding Downs, all added to the charm of the place in which we lived and about which I have attempted to write.”
So begins ‘The Troops’, the Bodleian’s latest acquisition, hooked from the book trade. The book is a private production of June 1935. No other copy has yet been identified, though I suspect it was distributed to the seventeen or so childhood friends whose blissful existence it celebrates between 1923 and 1929. Crudely but lovingly produced, with no pagination or publisher’s imprint (unless one counts the embossed address, Warwick House, Littlehampton), it includes pasted in photographs of ‘the troops’ and provides a charming and moving narrative of their journey through childhood, from the ages of about ten to the late teens.
The author, looking back in his early twenties, traces out the activities of the expanding ‘gang’ during Prep school holidays. They start as kids playing with mud pies, eating ‘sticky sweets’ and puzzling out Meccano before establishing a cycling club, organising races on the beaches and through the town: ‘bicycles and nothing but bicycles, with a concentration of which only children are capable.’ Then it’s hockey, followed by theatrical performances and even a cine film before grownups, interspersed with tennis, swimming, picnics and meetings in a club house, all enabled through the kindness and financial support of one parent in particular, ‘Mrs Mitchell (Treasurer and general big-noise).’ The personality of various members emerges sweetly. ‘Evan Hayes and Podge Porter were the mad men’, Austin Harmer is the sensible time-keeper, Jeffrey Quill turns out to be a natural actor and ‘Jane always insisted on being barmaid – this sounds awfully naughty but it was only Orange crush and cider.’ The poignancy of such innocent fun is sharpened when we realise that real troops – those of the marines – would later use the beach at Littlehampton to train for D Day landings.
An elegiac note develops towards the end: ‘we were growing up without realising it – awful business that growing up – the big cry was £s. d., and at that age the demand was greater than the supply.’ The author, I think one Tom Murphy, ‘started clerking it in London’ at the end of 1929 after a final dinner together. ‘I suppose’, he reflects with melancholy wisdom, ‘thousands of others have spent, and will spend, their youth in a similar way – similar but not quite the same – nobody could be happier than I was during that time.’ The group had agreed, earlier that year, to meet again on the 1 January 1939 with the proviso that ‘anybody bringing along a husband or wife should pay a fine towards the champagne.’ Our author notes, ‘at the time of writing that dinner is still four years away, and it looks as though there is going to be plenty of champagne.’
That reunion seems to have happened. A sheet of paper enclosed with the book features a poem dedicated to Jane and signed by various members. The book is also inscribed to her and must have been her copy:
The Troops are gathered once again
To celebrate – but where is Jane?
While nursing someone else’s mumps
Herself has caught the horrid lumps,
Which proves, alas, that those who serve
Don’t always get what they deserve.
We’ll think of you and drink your health
Wishing you happiness and wealth,
And all hope you’re not feeling rotten
Assuring you you’re not forgotten.
Who were these troops who shared such lucky times together? One or two I think I have identified. Podge Porter, may have become head of French at Magdalen College School Oxford (and a friend to the author John Fowles and Marxist to boot). Jeffrey Quiller turned out one of our most celebrated test pilots of Spitfires – all that speed on the beach! But of the others, what trace? I list the names I have identified below. We’d love to know more.
Mrs Mitchell, Hon. Treasurer
The Bodleian’s Curzon Collection includes a large number of political prints, both British and Continental, from the period of the Napoleonic wars and on the subject of the history and destiny of Napoleon I. Among these are both British and French cartoons depicting Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.
Many of these items are available to view online at digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk as part of the collection, Political Prints from the Curzon Collection.
George Nathaniel Curzon (1859-1925), chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1907 to 1925, bequeathed his collection of Napoleoneana to the Bodleian Library. The books and printed cartoons form one part of this collection.
Most of the prints were bought by Curzon in bound volumes from the estate of the lawyer and journalist Alexander Meyrick Broadley (1847-1916), author of Napoleon in caricature (1911) who compiled extra-illustrated copies of his own work as well as J. Holland Rose’s Life of Napoleon I (1902), the Earl of Rosebery’s Napoleon: the last phase (1900), and Guillaume Craan’s Notice historique sur la bataille de Waterloo (the English translation, 1817).
The historical works are extra-illustrated with autograph letters and tokens including a tricolour cockade, which is described in the blog, The Last Stand: Napoleon’s 100 days in 100 objects.
from Alexandra Marraccini. Alex is a PhD student in the History of Art at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses on alchemical/Hermetic images and their role in constructing Early Modern intellectual history. She is currently doing doctoral research and is a visiting member of Corpus Christi College.
For scholars in the Weston’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room, catalogue entries are our northernmost stars, the fixed constellations by which we arrange our research. My work typically considers alchemical and hermetic images in the Library’s Ashmole fond, and I can remember to the day and hour when I found the entry for each of my manuscripts in the fond catalogue. There they were, set in a rounded Victorian type and sometimes annotated by a neat scholar’s hand, each the promise of beauty or mystery or truth, each known but still inscrutable, until each manuscript came into my hands and unfurled onto my desk. If this language sounds swoony and romantic it is, because the experience of working with manuscripts truly is transformative; it is history at its must tangible, piercing immediacy, cradled in your own hands.
Of course, there are more prosaic days too. On just one such day, I was bent over MS. Ashmole 1423, dancing silently at my desk to Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and staring at a clumped-up bit of 16th-century English handwriting. Fun pop songs are some of my favourite paleographic instruments, and I can often be found swaying along in my grey and pink noise-cancelling headphones at the long readers’ tables. There was a weird ligature, and then, a rather fateful email. Following an earlier discussion about my work on the Ripley Scrolls, Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield, curator of medieval manuscripts here at the Bodleian, now told me about an Hermetic scroll that needed a description. It had been given to the Bodleian with the papers of E. M. Bickersteth and his family in 1976, but its mysterious contents had since then defied cataloguing. I was invited to take a look.
Shortly thereafter, one of the Bodleian’s grey storage boxes emerged from the circulation desk with my name on it. I was ecstatic but also nervous. A manuscript like this, a known unknown, is a rara avis indeed in this day and age. I unfurled it, all twelve feet of it, and gasped. Many manuscripts are beautiful. Many manuscripts are strange. This one is both. One side has stunning roundels of the genealogy of the Prophets starting with Old Testament creation and ending with Christ. There is dense ink, covering almost the whole of the writing surface, in black-brown, green, and red inks, in both German and Latin. The roundels are surrounded with angelic sigils, like those in the Clavicula Salomonis, and the back of the scroll is decorated as well, this time with dense fields of sigils, some of which bear signs of repeated touch and use. The Ripley Scrolls I work with at the Library have no illumination on their backs. The other comparanda in magical books (MS. Rawl. D. 252, MS. e Mus. 173, MS. Rawl. D. 253, and MS. Douce 116) aren’t even scrolls at all. This object is, to my knowledge, a total unicum.
For the uninitiated (in this case, perhaps literally), sigils are geometric symbols designed to call the angelic (or demonic) spirits from the heavens. Sigil comes from the Latin sigillum, which explains why many are round like the wax seals on letters. The sigils on the Bickersteth scroll usually appear in bound magical books called grimoires, some of which were on display in the Magical Books exhibition in the Bodleian in 2013. Some of the sigils on the back of the scroll appear to be worn down and perhaps damaged by oil, used to float and rotate a divining crystal along the surface. The sigils are also often round and with multiple tiers of directional writing because angelic magic is calibrated by both geography and the calendar, with certain months, times, and places being more suited to some angels than others. Sometimes a brass bowl filled with water is used to catch the incoming spirit.
The important thing to remember about magical scrolls like this one, though, is not the fact that they are magic. The strange looking symbols are exciting to look at, but what’s exciting about them intellectually is that they’re experiments with the warp and weft of language, of how it evokes, sometimes literally, aspects of the micro- and macro-cosm. While the images and the bulk of the text on the scroll are typically later 17th-century or after, and decidedly German in content and style, some of the sigils are not. They come from a diverse range of print sources including the works of John Dee, showing that Hermetic theologians in the period were transmitting crucial ideas across Continental/English boundaries. When Dr. Barker-Benfield and I met to discuss the manuscript, he held the scroll up to the window facing Parks Road. The light showed us what a table-bound viewing could not: the sigils on the back lined up in significant ways with the images on the front.
This is one of the most delightful aspects of book and manuscript studies. Somewhere like the Bodleian’s Weston Library, which is a temple to the historical, and by nature, old, is also a crucible for the new. My experience with the Bickersteth angelological scroll is by no means unique. Scholars make new discoveries here every day. While my scholarly article with a description of the manuscript is still forthcoming, soon a summary entry will go up online on the Weston/Bodleian catalogue website with the shelfmark MS. German f. 5 (R). A new star will blink into being, and a hundred years from now, another graduate student, just like me, can use it to guide her work, to enter the realm of the old that is always somehow new.
As for me? Well, I’ll be in the Reading Room, glowing from the experience of having been able to contribute in my small way to the catalogue, and listening to “Blank Space” on repeat. After all, I got to live the lyrics, at least with respect to this manuscript. Taylor Swift perkily croons: “I can show you incredible things/ Magic. Madness. Heaven. Sin.” I now have the pleasure of being able to say the same thing.
Conservation of the “Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars” by ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Sūfī
from Robert Minte, Bodleian Libraries Conservation & Collection Care
A project to conserve and digitise a 6th-Century AH/12th-Century CE Arabic manuscript is nearing completion, enabled by a generous grant from The National Manuscripts Conservation Trust and private donations.
The manuscript, believed to be the fourth oldest extant copy of this important and popular astronomical treatise, is particularly significant to scholars as not many examples of book art survive from the period, and it contains unique illustrations of Bedouin constellations superimposed over Ptolemaic ones.
The manuscript’s fragile condition had necessitated restricted access for study and display, the priority for conservation being the stabilisation of its fragile paint layers and repair of the paper support corroded by green copper-based pigment used to illuminate chapter headings.
After detailed examination and assessment of the manuscript’s condition, the delicate and time-consuming task of repair was carried out with careful consideration of appropriate materials to be used in its treatment. A number of materials for consolidation of powdery paint layers were investigated, bearing in mind the need to minimise any introduction of moisture, which acts as a catalyst to copper-green degradation. This also informed the choice of a suitable adhesive for the repair of the fragile, copper-corroded areas and infilling of losses, using Japanese papers dyed to match the tone of the original paper: a very light-weight tissue to repair and support fragile areas, and a heavier paper to infill areas of loss.
The conservation and digitisation of this highly important manuscript will once again enable it to be safely studied and displayed.
From Richard Mulholland
With the end of the annual RHS Chelsea Flower show on Saturday, and the masses returning to their own English gardens inspired, it’s worth looking back to the 18th century, to the golden age of botanical exploration and to an artist who was arguably the finest botanical painter in history, Ferdinand Bauer. Now the Bodleian’s Conservation Research department are helping to unravel his meticulous and unusual painting technique.
Outside of the natural sciences, Bauer (1760-1826), is little known. However, along with his equally talented brother Franz, he is certainly known to botanists. He has been called ‘the Leonardo of botanical illustration’, and is known in particular for the beauty and accuracy of his illustrations of flowers. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the paintings he made for the exquisite Flora Graeca, one of the most rare and expensive publications of the 18th century, and certainly one of the greatest botanical works ever produced.
Unprecedented in the quality of its illustrations, its printing and its attention to naturalistic detail, the Flora Graeca described the flowers of Greece and the Levant, and was published in ten lavishly-printed volumes between 1806 and 1840, purchased by an elite list of only 25 subscribers. It was the legacy of the third Professor of Botany at Oxford University, John Sibthorp (1758-1796) who funded much of the endeavour out of his own funds. Sibthorp met Bauer in Vienna in 1786, and immediately engaged him to join his expedition to collect and record specimens, and ultimately to paint the almost 1500 watercolours of plants and animals he sketched on his return to Oxford in 1787.
What is of interest to us however is that Bauer used a particularly unusual technique to record his specimens in the field.
Bauer is exceptional among travelling botanical artists for the unusual techniques he employed for recording colour. He certainly observed and sketched live specimens, but he did not annotate these sketches with colour in the field as other artists did. Rather, subject to the limitations of working in the field – moving from place to place quickly in often difficult territory, and unable to carry large amounts of painting materials with him, he made only very basic outline sketches in pencil on thin paper.
He recorded the vital colour information, lost almost immediately after a specimen had been picked by annotating these with a series of numerical colour codes which likely referred directly to a painted colour chart, now lost. That Bauer’s paintings were created using only this colour reference system during his 6 years in Oxford, painting them sometimes up to five years after seeing the original plants, and that they are highly regarded even today for their botanical accuracy, speaks to his expertise as an artist and his astonishing memory for colour.
More pertinently, Ferdinand Bauer (and to a lesser extent his brother Franz) appear to be the only significant natural history artists to have used this kind of colour code in a practical way. Numerical codes of up to 140 different colour tones are found on early drawings by both Bauers from the 1770s. However, where Ferdinand seems to have continued to develop this initial system of some 140 colours into one of at least 273 colours for the Flora Graeca (and from then into a considerably more complex system of 1000 colours for a later expedition to Australia in 1801-5 – though how he could have used this practically is anybody’s guess), Franz Bauer, who was by then official botanical painter to Joseph Banks at the Botanical gardens at Kew, did not did not appear to use the system after he came to London in the late 1780s. Ferdinand of course, spent a significant amount of his time working in the field, and therefore much more in need of a system of shorthand than his brother. However, it’s interesting to note that no other travelling botanical artist used such a system to the extent that Bauer did.
An early colour chart (below) that appears likely to have been used by the brothers was found in 1999 at the Madrid Botanical Gardens, but Ferdinand Bauer’s 273 colour chart from the Sibthorp expedition and the 999 colour chart he may have used for the Matthew Flinders expedition to Australia, if they ever existed, have never been discovered.
This fact, however, presents a unique opportunity for us to carry out technical research into Bauer’s materials. The Conservation Research department at the Bodleian Libraries together with the Plant Sciences Department at the University are working on a three year Research project on Bauer’s techniques, funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Project Grant. Collaborating with the V&A, Durham University and the University of Northumbria the project aims to understand what the Flora Graeca colour chart may have looked like, and how Bauer might have used it. A large part of the project involves identifying the pigments used by Bauer in his magnificent Flora Graeca watercolours, cross reference these results with the numerical codes in his field sketches, and ultimately create a historically-accurate reconstruction of the lost colour chart.
How will we do this? Often it is permitted to remove a minute sample of paint from a work of art in order to identify the material components. However this is rarely possible with works of art on paper, and is most certainly not possible for one of the treasures of the Bodleian’s collection! The work therefore is carried out in situ, bringing portable instruments to the object itself, rather than the other way around. For this we currently use three analytical techniques at Oxford: Raman spectroscopy, X-ray Fluoresce spectroscopy (XRF) and Hyperspectral imaging (Imaging spectroscopy).
Durham and Northumbria Universities have particular expertise in Raman Spectroscopy of cultural heritage objects, and Durham has built a portable instrument that is capable of positively identifying many of the pigments that Bauer used. The V&A Conservation Science section has a long history of collaborating with universities on technical research, and also has a great deal of expertise in Raman spectroscopy and its use in identifying pigments on artists’ watercolours.
In addition to the excitement of recreating Bauer’s lost colour chart, the project showcases the value of technical art history, a relatively new field that encompasses both scientific analysis and historical research into the materials and methods of the artist. It will go some way toward an understanding of Bauer’s extraordinary feel for colour and pigment, how he utilised his colour code, and ultimately how he was able to achieve such an impressive degree of colour fidelity in his work.
As we progress with the project, and as we learn more about Bauer’s materials and techniques, I’ll post again with more results. But should you find yourself in Oxford before September, a copy of both the Flora Graeca, and Bauer’s original illustrations for it are on display in the Marks of Genius exhibition at Bodleian’s Weston Library.