Aiming at the highest peaks: Wilfred Thesiger rewrites his first book

The explorer Wilfred Thesiger never intended to write a book about his travels, but in 1956 he was persuaded, and he began work on Arabian Sands.  Thesiger’s old Eton friend Valentine ffrench Blake commented on the first draft, calling certain paragraphs ‘clumsy’ or simply ‘no good’.  Thesiger was grateful for his friend’s advice and during the next three years the work was subjected to constant revision and proofing.

However, the meticulous revisions of the work took their toll and Thesiger became disillusioned with the whole thing.  Thesiger’s literary agent Graham Watson of Curtis Brown had to persuade him not to throw in the towel, writing in a telegram that ‘those who aim at the highest peaks must be judged by the highest standards’.  Watson was sympathetic but stern, insisting Thesiger labour through a steady working day even if redrafting was ‘darned discouraging work’ — good advice for any writer.

The words had the desired effect and Thesiger went on to complete Arabian Sands and a further eleven books.  Thesiger maintained that Arabian Sands was his finest work.

By Ceri Brough, Project Archivist

Dame Judi Dench’s rehearsal script

The coffee stained pale blue card cover of this item does not divulge what you will find inside. There are some clues; some doodles, the handwritten name “Jude”, but it is otherwise unassuming. Opening it up you quickly realise it is a typescript of a play, and a good one, Edward Bond’s The Sea. Concurrently there is the recognition that this is covered with highlighted lines, annotations, a ms. cast list, and character and costume sketches, all in the hand of the person whose name appears at the top of the first page: “Judi Dench.”

The script really tells the story of working on the 1991 production from an actor’s perspective and shows the evident care that was taken in getting to know the character, in this case that of Mrs. Rafi. One of the best examples of this is the drawings of different glove styles, next to the passage in which Mrs. Rafi is shopping at a drapers’, examining their line in gloves. An amusing annotation appears at the end of a page of ms. notes made after a run-through: “VOICE INSTRUMENT OF BRAIN.” This item was kindly donated by Dame Judi to a charity auction.

By Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA

Discovering the modern collections, one book at a time

I have now been cataloguing the post 1800s printed collection at ECL for just over three years. Building this extensive collection is the work of half a decade of our Curator of Modern Collections, who started it under the guidance of the bibliophile John Carter in the 1960s. There had been no catalogue made of this collection until I started working on it, book by book. Although we had a good idea of what was there, exact details were hazy.

This is exciting for two reasons: The librarian in me loves creating order out of chaos. The human in me loves the element of discovery; and of these there have been some exciting ones. In the middle of a first edition of W. H. Auden’s City Without Walls sat a postcard about a trip to Europe and Egypt, casually signed from Alfred Wainwright. Scrawled across the front endpapers of Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems in pencil is the name Irene Rathbone, actress turned feminist author of We that were young, a woman’s experience of working in a WWI munitions factory.

Of the first discovery I am fairly confident that the postcard is in the hand of the hiking hero. The second is conjecture based solely on the likely subject of the book and the publication date falling within the lady’s lifespan. But the possibilities keep on coming. Dicken’s illustrators and Thackeray’s Rose and ring carry signatures of Fred Bennett and Mason Jackson respectively, both important illustrators of their time. Most recently I found the signature of an H. Gay Hewlett on the front wrappers of a couple of numbers from Robert Browning’s Bells and pomegranates, possibly the same H. Gay Hewlett that wrote a history of Europe. As I write this, that discovery was only yesterday, I wonder what I’ll find tomorrow…

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By Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA

From the garden to the place of skulls: illustrations of the Easter story in a Book of Hours

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Some of the finest art of the Northern Renaissance can be found hidden in books – painted into Books of Hours. The Book of Hours was a popular form of prayer book, based on the hours of the monastic services (Prime, Terce, Nones, Lauds, etc.), but Books of Hours were usually made for an individual lay patron, and sometimes richly decorated.  The images below are taken from a Book of Hours written and painted in the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century, which includes a Passion story composed of verses taken from all four Gospels.  The use of contemporary clothing and architecture, and the trompe l’oeil effect of the borders where each flower is painted as if sitting on the surface of the page, were intended to soften the boundaries between reader and the page, and between the worshipper and the scenes of Christ’s suffering.  Late medieval piety emphasised personal identification with Christ’s life, and meditation on his sacrifice.  The flowers in the borders relate to the main images: the red rose symbolises Christ’s Passion, periwinkle, forget-me-not and pansy are associated with remembrance and meditation, and the daisy with St Mary.

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

Incunable fragments

One of my recent tasks has been the identification and cataloguing of just over twenty loose sheets of printed material, found as fragments at ECL. Most of these are from ‘incunables’, books printed before 1500, when the printing process was in its infancy.  The rarity of printed books surviving from the 15th century means that even single sheets and fragments have been kept by collectors.

Although the ECL fragments are small and imperfect, they are each unique. For instance, most have had rubrics painted in by hand, so that they look more like the manuscripts fifteenth century readers were used to.  Some, like the fragment from Alphonso de Spina’s Fortaliter Fidei, even have beautiful decorated initials (whilst others, like the Dante, have gaps where painted initials should have been).

A list from the late 19th century identified some of the fragments, and I visited the Bodleian and Cambridge University Library to compare our fragments with complete copies there, and confirm each identification.  The remaining fragments involved more guesswork, identifying the text (the Bible was easy – bits of Plutarch and St Augustine much less so!) and working through the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue and the Bodleian Incunable Catalogue to seek out likely candidates.  Again, I went to see complete copies in other libraries, and managed to identify most of our fragments this way.  A few still have me completely foxed!  I will put up photos of these some time, to see if anyone can help.

After identifying them, of course, I had to tackle the difficulty of cataloguing fragments. But that’s a whole different blogpost…

By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian

The Suffragettes : marking the death of Emily Davison

suffragette-openingEmily Davison threw herself under the King’s horse on the 4th June 1913, almost 100 years ago to the day of Eton’s recent 4th June celebrations. She died of her injuries a few days later, on 8th June. The Suffragette began publication in 1912 following a spilt in the Women’s Social and Political Union, born of their increasingly militant action. This Friday 13th June 1913 issue of The Suffragette commemorates her sacrifice.

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Emily Davison achieved a first class honours in English Literature at Oxford but could not graduate because of her sex. Her later writings are mostly about her militant activities; she hid in the House of Commons three times and threw herself down the prison steps because she felt ‘a tragedy was wanted’ for the cause. This lends credence to the argument that her protest on the 4th June was an act of suicide, but a return train ticket was found on her person.

Written by Louise Anderson, @LibrarianLCA

The Galeria Farnese in print

I have just finished cataloguing a very beautiful book previously owned by William Hanbury of Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire. Judging by the bookplate, this may be the William Hanbury who rebuilt Kelmarsh in 1732 to a design by James Gibbs, producing a house which Pevsner describes as being ‘in an impeccable taste’.   Hanbury’s interest in Italian architecture and art is certainly manifest in his ownership of this engraved volume.

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Published in 1657, its thirty plates show Annibale Carracci’s painted ceiling in the galleria of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, executed 1597-1601. Carracci’s ceiling is a triumph of illusion, using trompe l’oeil to continue the gallery walls with mounted framed pictures, and creating layers of fictitious reality using a combination of ‘stone’, ‘bronze’, ‘painted’ and ‘living’ figures.  Many of these tricks are lost in Carlo Cesi’s 17th century engraved copies, but he does succeed in capturing the superb moulding of the figures, and the interplay between paintings, sculptural figures and architectural detail.  The beauty of the plates is enhanced by their having been printed in a chalk red, rather than black.

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By Lucy Gwynn, Deputy Librarian