THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

Introduction

From Shakespeare’s First Folio to live recordings of experimental theatre, from Charlotte Brontë’s love letters to Wendy Cope’s emails, our collections offer unique, fascinating and unexpected sources for your research. Discover more about our manuscript, printed, digital and audiovisual collections here. Follow us on Twitter: @BLEnglish_Drama. Read more

07 December 2016

Cathy Courtney talks about Ken Campbell at the British Library

Earlier this year, the British Library completed its collection of the published works of the British artist Ken Campbell, with his most recent work You All Know The Words (2016). The British Library is the only Library in UK to hold all the works. At the end of October, the Library held a celebration of the work of Ken Campbell. Reprinted here is the text from Cathy Courtney’s introduction to the evening.

KenCampbell

You All Know The Words (2016). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

I speak as one of the first beneficiaries of the British Library’s decision to augment its collection of Ken’s books, and was lucky enough to spend some time with a selection of them last week in preparation for tonight, and to re-encounter works I hadn’t seen for at least a decade as well as to meet more recent books for the first time.   I’m not a member of the British Library staff so I feel I can also pay tribute to the curators here for their commitment to Ken’s collection and their sensitive and excited response to it.

Beginning in 1983 I wrote a column on Artists’ Books for Jack Wendler and Peter Townsend’s magazine, Art Monthly, and it was Peter who led to my meeting Ken. The world of artists’ books is a hotly disputed one, full of splits and factions about what does and does not count as an artists’ book. At one extreme are the de luxe livres d’artistes, limited editions usually printed on fine paper, often images supporting texts and the two separated on different pages with masses of white space on the deckle edged sheet. At the other extreme are the much cheaper multiples, making use of new technology, often deliberately cocking a snook at the livres d’artistes, rejecting high spec values, usually costing little and often given away. In Britain, at least, the supporters of one school were always anxious to knock down the supporters of the other.

There were ten issues of Art Monthly a year, not much space therefore to cover the field, and I was determined to use the column for a broad range of work. The years writing for Art Monthly were ones in which I was heavily pursued by the book artists, not least by belligerent phone calls before 8 o’clock in the morning from Ken and from another artist who used to ring me at 11 pm and talk for an hour minimum. It’s not unconnected to this that I bought my first telephone answering machine.

Ken Campbell’s books are an outstanding achievement and his is one of the strongest voices we have in the field. His works are a compelling amalgam of erudition and violence, raw pain and refinement, anger and joy. In many ways he has created a place in the spectrum between livres d’artistes and multiples that is his ground alone.  

His books are remarkable for a number of reasons and I have only time to refer to a few.   One aspect is his professionalism. Ken trained as a printer and is rare in having come to make books with a deep intellectual and hands-on knowledge of the materials and how to control them. Skilled in how to manipulate the letterpress perfectly, nevertheless he chose instead to instigate a fierce and warlike dance with the process, courting accident and breakage, and this vitality is wonderfully captured in the results. You can feel the energy burning off the pages. The massive scale and solemnity of some of the works makes this even more of an accomplishment. Whilst there has been plenty of prior planning, many of his decisions were made in the heat of action on the printing bed and with relish at the semi-accidental richness thereby achieved.   He’s a risk taker backed by proficiency, too restless a soul to take the safer route.  

Knife15 copy

A Knife Romance (1988). Image used by kind permission of Ken Campbell

He’s also an ad-libber with a learned tongue. Although some of the works are collaborations, another characteristic not shared by many other book artists is Ken’s repeated taking responsibility for both text and image, these two elements being distilled into a single entity, the content inseparable from the form.   His texts are an extraordinary synthesis of the personal and the learnt, the historical and the now. When he quotes from religious or historical texts he does so as if these are deeply felt, avoiding the tripwire of bathos, which is no easy feat. He is a poet with a natural and muscular brimming over of language from which to edit. Anger at injustice is a theme which runs through several of the texts, whether political in the wider sense or closer to home, and his engagement, conflict with and love of his family – his parents, his wife and daughters – bleeds into the works without veering into sentimentality.

Wearing another hat, I am speaking as Project Director for an oral history project, Artists’ Lives which National Life Stories, an independent charity based here at the British Library, runs with Tate.   Ken was recorded for Artists’ Lives in 2005 and his recording will go online shortly.   As with most National Life Stories recordings, it’s an in-depth life story, made over several sessions, covering biographical material as well as professional experience.   It was a perfect platform for Ken, and draws together the elements of his personal life which consume him alongside much detail about his work and how it has been made, and will be very useful for anyone wanting to know more about how the books in the British Library’s and about his sculpture and painting.

National Life Stories has to raise funds for all its recordings. Ken’s was supported by Yale Center for British Art, and I would like to include a message from Elisabeth Fairman, Chief Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Center. She emailed me to say

“how pleased the Center is to also have a complete collection of Ken’s work, someone whom we consider one of the greatest book artists of his time”.

       ******************************

Following on from the event in October, many of the Artists’ Lives recordings have now been made available on the British Library’s website. These can be heard at http://sounds.bl.uk/Arts-literature-and-performance/Art 

 

28 November 2016

Foundations of a Movement

Celebrating 50 Years of New Beacon Books, the UK’s First Black Bookshop and Publisher

At the British Library on Saturday 3 December two events will celebrate 50 years of New Beacon Books: ‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ (4.30pm-6pm) and ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ (7pm-9.30pm).

‘The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books will be a meeting of the continents for writers, publishers, distributors, booksellers, artists, musicians, film makers, and the people who inspire and consume their creative productions.’

This 1982 welcome statement by John La Rose of New Beacon Books, Jessica Huntley of Bogle L’Ouverture Publications and Race Today Publications heralded the start of the first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, which would have twelve iterations between 1982 and 1995. Held at Islington Town Hall in 1982, then at Lambeth Town Hall a year later and at Acton Town Hall in 1984, from 1985 the Book Fair set up its London home at the Camden Centre in Kings Cross. These Book Fairs would prove to be groundbreaking in their mission to place literary and artistic production by people of colour from the UK and around the world at the centre — and by 1995 some 114 exhibitors from nearly 30 countries were attending.

  BF Aerial Shot Islington Town Hall
                Islington Town Hall, 1982

 

The International Book Fairs didn’t come about just by accident, though. They were in no small part due to one of the founders of the UK’s first black bookshop and publisher, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016. New Beacon Books was founded as a publishing house in August 1966 by John La Rose, with the active support and assistance of Sarah White. La Rose, who was born in Trinidad in 1927 and who died in February 2006, was a poet, essayist, publisher, filmmaker, trade unionist and cultural and political activist. By the time he arrived in Britain in 1961, he had already been engaged for nearly 20 years in anti-colonial and workers’ struggles in the Caribbean. That engagement taught him that colonial policy was based on a deliberate withholding of information from the population, leading to a discontinuity of information from one generation to the next. Publishing, therefore, was a way of establishing an independent validation of one’s own culture, history and politics; and it could also act as a vehicle between generations to build on what had gone before. This is the concept that has been at the very heart of the work of New Beacon since it began.

Around the same time as the founding of New Beacon Books, John La Rose, the Jamaican writer and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Barbadian poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite founded the Caribbean Artists Movement in London — which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In March 1967 Kamau Brathwaite’s poetry reading of ‘Rights of Passage’ (the first part of his seminal trilogy of poems The Arrivants) was organised by New Beacon Books at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London. The event was the public launch of the Caribbean Artists Movement and also publicised the first two New Beacon publications, a book of poetry called Foundations by John La Rose and a book on Marcus Garvey by Adolph Edwards.

From this time, stimulated by the demand for books after the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement, New Beacon also went into bookselling. Demand for black literature increased further as the black consciousness and black activist movements from various parts of the world impacted on the UK. From 1967 New Beacon began producing specialist catalogues of Caribbean materials, which combined works in English, French and Spanish. Later catalogues also included work from Black British, African and African-American writers. The bookshop, which started as a bag of books in a bed-sitter, then moved to the bottom floor of the home of John La Rose and Sarah White, arrived at its present location in Stroud Green Road in 1973.

                 Bookshop

At the start of the 1980s Britain was rocked by a number of riots in the inner cities of London, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds, Bradford and Birmingham. The frustration of black youths at years of sub-standard education, being criminalised by an institutionally racist police force and judicial system, and various other factors boiled over into the streets. In some ways, the riots prompted a positive response from both black and white progressives within the UK, who became even more aware of the need for material that gave Britain’s ethnic minorities a positive sense of self and that challenged the everyday racism faced by these populations.

John La Rose and other activist colleagues and comrades in New Beacon had already by this time formed the political and cultural Alliance of the Black Parents Movement, the Black Youth Movement and the Race Today Collective. There was also a unity of purpose with the black radical publishers Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, set up in 1968 by Eric and Jessica Huntley in West London. In the early 1980s, out of the common vision between New Beacon Books, Bogle L’Ouverture and the Race Today Collective, was born the idea of the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. It was a pioneering vision which would come to fruition in 1982, which would produce twelve Book Fairs and numerous accompanying cultural events at each one – including the iconic International Poetry Nights – and which would pave the way for every British black, Asian and minority ethnic cultural initiative thereafter.

On 3 December 2016, the 50th anniversary of New Beacon Books will be celebrated at two special events at the British Library. ‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ by Professor Gus John will sketch out 50 years of Black British activism whilst ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ will capture the cultural vision of the International Book Fairs with a ten-poet reading fest, hosted by Linton Kwesi Johnson.

by Sharmilla Beezmohun

‘Changing Britannia – Through the Arts and Activism’ (4.30pm-6pm) and ‘A Meeting of the Continents – An International Poetry Night’ (7pm-9.30pm) celebrating 50 Years of New Beacon Books is on at the British Library on Saturday 3 December. Tickets available at www.bl.uk

For more information on the history of New Beacon Books and related activist organisations, please visit The George Padmore Institute at www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org

14 November 2016

Treasures of the British Library: Zephaniah meets Shelley

By Alexander Lock, Curator Modern Archives & MSS 1851-1950

The British Library has recently teamed up with Nutshell TV and Sky Arts to produce an entertaining television series in which six famous faces (Lord Robert Winston, Julia Donaldson, Meera Syal, Jamie Cullum and Benjamin Zephaniah) take a personal tour of the British Library’s fascinating collections, identifying the treasures that most interest them and speak to their work. Each episode of Treasures of the British Library follows one celebrity and it was my pleasure to show the poet, author and musician Benjamin Zephaniah some of our collections that told a very personal story about his hero, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

Shelley NPG
Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819, NPG 1234. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A gifted poet, political radical, outcast, and early advocate of vegetarianism, Percy Bysshe Shelley had long been admired by Zephaniah as a man with whom he shared certain affinities; in particular it was Shelley’s revolutionary attitudes and his passionate opposition to injustice that inspired Zephaniah and his approach to writing. For Zephaniah:

“Shelley’s my man. If he were alive now he wouldn’t be sitting in an ivory tower only leaving to attend the odd literature festival, he would be demonstrating against the exploitation of the third world and performing at the Glastonbury festival…I used to think of Shelley as just another one of those dead white poets who wrote difficult poetry for difficult people, but then I learnt how dedicated he was to justice and the liberation of the poor. He probably saw very few black people but he was passionately against the slave trade. It was this that turned me on to Shelley, his humanity, passion, and his rock and roll attitude. His ability to connect poetry to the concerns of everyday people was central to his poetic purpose, and those everyday people overstood that he did not simply do arts for art’s sake, this was arts that was uncompromisingly revolutionary, he wrote for the masses. No TV, no radio, no Internet, but his poetry was being quoted on the streets and chanted at demonstration, not only did Shelley know the power of poetry, more importantly he knew the power of the people.”

Given the range of unique and fascinating manuscript material The British Library holds relating to the life and works of Percy Bysshe Shelley it was difficult for us to decide what would be best to show Benjamin. For instance, we could have shown him the original autograph draft of ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, a radical political poem Shelley wrote in response to the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or his notebook containing his famous poems ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Mont Blanc’. Though these would have been fascinating items to show Zephaniah, particularly given their literary and political content, in the end it was decided to show Benjamin something much more provocative.

Masque of Anarchy - Ashley_ms_4086_f001r
 Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, autograph draft, 1819, The British Library, Ashley MS 4086.

Instead, Benjamin Zephaniah was shown a letter Shelley had written 6 days after his first wife, Harriet Westbrook (1795-1816), was ‘found drowned’ after committing suicide in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The letter was addressed to his mistress Mary Godwin (1797-1851), whom he would marry just 3 weeks later. The letter shows a very different Shelley from the Romantic rebel he is usually represented as. Shelley had left a heartbroken Harriet (who was pregnant with their second child) for Mary Godwin two years earlier in July 1814. Mary was the gifted daughter of the radical political philosopher William Godwin (1756-1836) and early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). In the intervening years, Shelley’s relationship with Harriet soured and he became increasingly cruel towards her.

Shelley to Mary Godwin
Percy Bysshe Shelley to Mary Godwin, 15 December 1816, The British Library, Ashley MS 5021. © Estate of Percy Bysshe Shelley & Harriet Shelley.

On 9 November 1816 Harriet departed her lodgings, leaving behind her a farewell letter for Shelley. She was not seen again until her body was pulled from the Serpentine on 10 December. As the letter shows, Shelley’s initial reaction to Harriet’s suicide was to deny any blame. He wrote to Mary:

Everything tends to prove, however, that beyond the mere shock of so hideous a catastrophe having fallen on a human being once so nearly connected with me, there would, in any case have been little to regret. Hookham, Longdill ― everyone does me full justice; ― bears testimony to the uprightness & liberality of my conduct to her...

Shelley’s letter also revealed that he believed Harriet had ‘descended the steps of prostitution until she lived with a groom of the name of Smith’ who deserted her, although there was no evidence which corroborated this assertion.

Benjamin Zephaniah was initially shocked by this letter and the apparent disregard Shelley showed towards his first wife. It raised questions about the relationship between the artist and their art and whether audiences should judge a work on its own merits or in relation to the lived experiences of its creator. Though Zephaniah was unsettled by the revelations in the letter he still considered Shelley to be a literary hero for the works he produced and causes he supported. The letter is a difficult read but helped demonstrate that no one is perfect in their private lives (even great writers) and gave Benjamin Zephaniah a more rounded understanding of Shelley’s complex character.    

BZephaniah
Benjamin Zephaniah with Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts, during filming at The British Library

Treasures of the British Library will be broadcast on Sky Arts at 21.00 on Tuesdays until 22 November 2016.