THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

03 August 2015

Call of the Wild: Animal Tales

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We're in the middle of the dog days of summer: school's out, there's a bit of heat in the air in London at least, and the press is doing its best with the current crop of 'man bites dog' stories: pink pigeons, owls with library cards, and the more serious commentary on the death of Cecil the Zimbabwean lion.

With all this in mind, it's fitting that our latest exhibition, Animal Tales, opens on Friday (7 Aug), offering a menagerie of wild beasts, companionable pets, and the sounds of aerial and aquatic creatures set among a mini-forest of trees, all nestling under the Grade I-listed King's Library Tower.  

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(The exhibition space gets a lick of paint... and some longer ears)

As well as the refreshing cool of the Library's air-conditioning, we hope that the exhibition is a slightly bracing antidote to the languor of this time of year; offering what we think are the pick of best-loved animal stories mixed in with some surprising selections, all of which suggests some of the ways that we look at animals in the modern world. The cover of Beatrix Potter's 1902 edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit on display in Animal Tales at the British Library

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Cup.402.a.4. Image in the public domain.

In curating the exhibition, we've selected almost sixty items from across the Library's collections, as well as a brace of sound recordings. The exhibition is organised in six sections, starting with a section that asks how we've looked and written about animals over time, and ending with an area that looks at works that try and engage with the wildness that animals can represent, from Moby-Dick to Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk. Along the way, we look at stories for children including Peter the Rabbit and Black Beauty, traditional tales from around the world, the use of animals as allegory or metaphor from Animal Farm to Maus and why writers from Ovid to Kafka have been fascinated by the possibility of transformation from human into beast, and vice versa.

The title page from Sally Sketch's 1821 edition of 'An Alphabetical arrangement of animals for little naturalists' on display in Animal Tales at the British Library

Sally Sketch, pseud., An Alphabetical Arrangement of Animals for Little Naturalists (London, 1821). 7207.a.11. Image in the public domain.

It's been a treat and a privilege to draw on the Library's collections to put the show together. As always in curating an exhibition, there wasn't room for everything, and some of the things we really wanted to put on display either didn't quite fit with the shape of the show or had conservation issues: we couldn't, for example, display items on parchment: the only sheep on display is an artist's book, Karen Bleitz' Dolly: edition unlimited, which is made of card.

Dolly edition unlimited on display in Animal Tales at the British Library -® Karen Bleitz

Image Dolly: edition unlimited © Karen Bleitz

We had to lose some of our favourite items along the way, as always happens in curating an exhibition, and there are great swathes of the history of human/animal relations that are missed.  It's also testament to the current scholarly 'call of the wild' in terms of the 'animal turn' in the humanities, the interest in eco-criticism and history, animal geography, food studies, neuroscience or a whole range of sociological animal studies, not to mention animal ethics, that we had to be ruthless in our curatorial focus. Natural history as a genre gets a look in, particularly how  amateur naturalists influenced writers of their day, but the focus is more on imaginative writing. 

This said, the blog and events programme give us the chance to open up some of these questions. As it is, the exhibition space is also filled to the gills: where else will you see Samuel Taylor Coleridge's annotations on Gilbert White's Natural History of Selburne (1802), bound in dress fabric by Mrs Wordsworth alongside John Berger's notes for 'Why Look At Animals' (1970s), David Garnett's Lady into Fox (1922), and Waterston's compelling aquatints for the modern bestiary, A Swarm, a Flock, A Host (2013)?

Doty & Waterson's aquatint etching & letterpress edition of A Swarm, A Flock, A Host on display in Animal Tales. Courtesy of the artist & DC Moore Gallery, New York (2)

Courtesy of the artist, Darren Waterston, and the Achenbach Graphic Arts Council, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Playful, curious, and a little bit mysterious, we hope that adults will find the exhibition stimulating, as will younger visitors, who have their own reading area and a specially commissioned family trail and leaflet,  There is also at least one children's book to spot in each case. Maybe it's time to get a little bit wild in the Library?

The cover of Jack London's 1903 edition of The Call of the Wild on display in Animal Tales at the British Library

Jack London, Call of the Wild (New York, 1903).012628.cc.18. Image in the public domain.

Finally, what would a blog post be without a picture of a cat:

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Montaigne’s Essais (Paris, 1602) C.28.g.7 'when I play with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?'; marginal illustration by Pieter van Veen. Image in the public domain.

Animal Tales is free, and runs from 7 August to 1 November.

You can hear more about the exhibition at Second Home on 12 August as part of their Biophilia season.

#animaltales

 

-- Matthew Shaw

01 August 2015

Homes Illustrated

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 In yesterday's post on writers' libraries, I mentioned Homes of American Statesmen (1854, but printed in 1853), which is widely considered to include the first example of a type of photograph used as an illustration in an American book (i.e., a real photograph, as opposed to an engraving of a daguerreotype or similar).  Well, here it is, at shelfmark  10881.c.3. The photograph, which has clearly been hand-trimmed and pasted in, used a form of reproduction patented as Crystalotype (see the close-up, below).  Invented by the Boston photographer John Adams Whipple, Crystalotypes began as albumen prints, which were then copied onto glass via a form of crystallography.  Whipple then had what were in effect glass negatives, and which could be used to copy the image numerous times.  The publisher George Putnam took advantage of this method, and used a Whipple print in the frontispiece of Homes, giving it a unique advantage in the potentially lucrative gift-book market. 

Of the two, Homes of American Authors would be the one I'd prefer to find in my Christmas stocking.  Authors generally make better copy than statesmen, and these volumes don't buck that trend. But it's fascinating to see John Hancock's house in Boston, over 160 years later. Hancock's house, which was built in the 1730s and survived ransacking by British soldiers during the Revolution, was sold during the Civil War and demolished to public outcry in 1863.

John Adams Whipple is rightly remembered (and collected) today as the photographer of luminous images of the moon at Harvard University Observatory.  He was the first to produce an image of the star other than the sun: Vega, the brightest of the Lyra Constellation, and, in 1997, the source of Jodie Foster's alien chatter in Contact. Putnam's gift book of extraterrestrial life remains, we gather, unwritten.

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Detail of frontispiece, showing Whipple's patent.

Images: This item, Homes of American Statesmen (New York, 1854), Shelfmark 10881.c.3, is believed by the British Library to be in the public domain.

- Matthew Shaw

31 July 2015

Three American Libraries from Homes of American Authors (1853)

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Some real estate for Friday: Homes of American Authors (New York, 1853). A collection of somewhat florid travelogues composed by several writers and published by G. P. Putnam & Co. as a 'gift book', this work successfully began the America vogue for peeking into the homes of the talented, rich or famous. It's a habit that that is continued today in numerous glossy magazines, TV shows and popular blogs. Putnam followed up the success of this publication with Homes of American Statesmen (1854), which included the first photographic illustration in an American book.

Here are my top three descriptions of writers' libraries from Homes of American Authors.

1. Edward Everett

  Everett library

Always a favourite on this blog (mostly for his heroic, and forgotten, Gettysburg Address, hours longer than Lincoln's), Everett's 'career is most justly indicated by a view of his birthplace, which at once suggests a life of mental activity and patriotic devotion, and of the interior of the library where the best hours of an honored maturity are passed, eloquent of that wealth of attainment and literary culture, which has been the source both of his extensive usefulness and wide renown.'  

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson (summer house shown below)

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 'Mr. Emerson's Library is the room at the right of the door upon entering the house. It is a simple square room, not walled with books like the den of a literary grub, nor merely elegant like the ornamental retreat of a dilettante. The books are arranged upon plain shelves, not in architectural bookcases, and the room is hung with a few choice engravings of the greatest men... It is the study of a scholar'. In here, the local villagers noted, 'he has a huge manuscript book, in which he incessantly records the ends of thoughts, bits of observation and experience, and facts of all kinds, -- a kind of intellectual and scientific rag-bag'.

 3. William Cullen Bryant

'The library occupies the northwest corner... and we need hardly say that of all the house this is the most attractive spot... because it is, par excellence, the haunt of the poet and his friends. Here, by the great table covered with periodicals and literary novelties, with the soft ceaseless music of rustling leaves, and the singing of birds marking the silence sweeter, the summer visitor may fancy himself in the very woods'. In here, the poet could turn 'from the dryest treatise on politics or political economy, to the wildest romance or the most tender poem -- happy in a power of enjoying all that genius has created or industry achieved in literature.' You will be pleased to note that the 'library has not, however, power to keep Mr. Bryant from the fields, in which he seeks health and pleasure a large part of every day that his editorial duties allow him to pass at home.'

[Matthew Shaw]

All images in the public domain, and taken from our copy of Homes of American Authors held at shelfmark 816.e.26. The Cornell University's copy is online via the HathiTrust or via Google Books.

On Putnam & Co., see Ezra Greenspan, George Palmer Putnam: representative American publisher (University Park, PA., 2000)