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Harry Potter: A History of Magic – British Library

Harry Potter: A History of Magic, British Library

Love it or hate it, read every word or none at all, there’s no denying that the Harry Potter novels have become a cultural and literary force. Now, 20 years after the publication of The Philosopher’s Stone the books have spawned two separate movie franchises, tie-in stories, a theme park, the careers of a generation of young actors and a two-part stage play that sold out in London and will shortly head to Broadway. There’s no escaping the Potter effect, and the British Library’s new exhibition puts those seven game-changing children’s novels into the wider context of magical writing, charting the history of their influences including witchcraft, divination and herbology.

Mixing sources from the extensive and fascinating British Library collection, artefacts from other museums including the Wellcome Collection and Museum of Witchcraft, and plenty of early handwritten pages and original illustrations from Rowling’s own collection, this exhibition is an intelligent and engaging examination of the world within and beyond the Harry Potter stories, helping to explain their broad appeal. And it’s important to be clear at this point that this exhibition is entirely about the books, so anyone expecting film clips and costumes will be disappointed. Presumably Warner Bros won’t sanction any use of their material while they have their own theme park to promote, but at the same time, without them this becomes a more fitting exhibition for a library to host.

This exhibition coherently and successfully argues that the success of the Harry Potter series lies in the detailed and fully-realised world that J.K. Rowling has created. Far more than a well-plotted drama unveiling its many twists and shocks over seven increasingly weighty novels, every detail of Rowling’s world feels complete, informed and, despite its basis in magic and fantasy, entirely believable. To demonstrate this, the exhibition is divided into ten individual sections based on some of the lessons Hogwarts’ students would experience, calling upon evidence from the British Library’s own collection to show how closely Rowling’s fictitious world is grounded in our real one.

Bookending the exhibition are sections on the evolution of the first Potter story and its current impact, so as you first enter this mini-world you’re offered some preparatory material including an original synopsis of The Philosopher’s Stone, as well as artworks of characters, scenes and sketches by Jim Kay. Then it’s time for the first lesson of the day, Potions. After you’ve tried to mix one of your own prompted by an interactive display, you can see a real bezoar, some interestingly decorated potion jars, a 1200-year old cauldron and several books that discuss the identification of, and activities associated with, witchcraft, including the earliest image of them from the 15th Century, all guarded by Kay’s symbol-laden portrait of Professor Snape on loan from Bloomsbury Publishing.

The second lesson is Alchemy, focusing on the search for the Philosopher’s Stone that turns base metals into gold and can offer eternal life, that dominated Harry Potter’s first adventure. Its centrepiece are the large and fully illustrated Ripley scrolls that outline how to create the stone using various resources carefully brought together, with several detailed notes from the curators explaining the 16th century symbols and processes depicted as you move down the large display case. There’s also a section devoted to Nicholas Flamel, who is referenced in Rowling’s first story, as the man claiming to have found the Philosopher’s Stone in 14th century France. Alongside some detail about his real life as a bookseller, the exhibition also displays his tombstone which suggests his search for immortality somewhat eluded him.

Some of the British Library’s most beautiful books are on display in the Herbology section as well as Rowling’s own sketches (which feature throughout the exhibition), including a charming original depiction of Professor Sprout with her plants and a spider on her hat. The Library has contributed some stunning large scale early illustrations of key plants used for magical concoction and particularly notable are images of the mandrake plant which sit alongside Jim Kay’s more person-like interpretations used in The Chamber of Secrets. Kay’s work is also the centre piece for the Charms lesson as a multi-page, incredibly detailed pencil sketch of the shopfronts of Diagon Alley dominates one wall. There are also examples of enchanted objects like Olga Hunt’s witch’s broomstick which she claimed to have ridden around Dartmoor and, in a wry touch, an invisibility cloak in a glass case – nice to see the British Library having some fun with the concept.

Moving on, the next two sections focus on Astronomy and Divination, outlining the ways in which Rowling used both for meaningful character names and plot devices. There are star charts showing Sirius and Draco which ended up as key characters, while an interactive display allows you to look more closely at the 1693 Celestial Globe which dominates the centre of the room. There’s more interactivity in Divination, and after you’ve examined the ancient arts of palmistry, reading tea leaves and Chinese Oracle Bones from 1192 BC, you can also have your fortune told by a placing your hands on the table where a computer will select three cards interpreting your past, present and future.

One of the most engaging elements of the Potter novels has been the difficulty of retaining Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers and the sense of forbidden activity that the teenage heroes found irresistible. Here, the British Library has compiled a fascinating collection of artefacts designed to protect the wearer from evil, as well as information on dangerous creatures such as basilisks and werewolves, watched-over by Kay’s symbol-laden pencil portrait of Professor Lupin, as well as a magic staff, a statue of the Sphinx and an omitted section of text from one of Rowling’s early drafts.

Cunningly, our final lesson is also the one that leads us into the future for Rowling’s fantastical world, with Care of Magical Creatures now starting its own multi-film franchise as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But first, there’s plenty to learn about unicorns, phoenix and mermaids, including the fabricated half-fish-half-monkey loaned from the British Museum, which Japan claimed to have captured and displayed as a genuine creature from the sea in the 18th century. There’s also an illuminated manuscript depicting the lifecycle of the phoenix from the 13th century that sits close to one of the cutest exhibits, Jim Kay’s original depiction of Fluffy, Hagrid’s three-headed dog that guards the entrance to the Philosopher’s Stone, which is considerably more adorable then its eventual film version.

Before you leave, if you were in any doubt that the Harry Potter series has become a considerable cultural force, there’s the chance to see book covers from around the world with their different approaches to cover art and title, while for theatre lovers there’s a copy of the stage model from the two-part Harry Potter and the Cursed Child currently showing in London and soon heading to Broadway and Australia, which has mini-versions of stars Jamie Parker and Noma Dumezweni who created the original roles. One final treat for fans is Rowling’s original chapter plan for The Order of the Phoenix arranged by school year, and Rowling’s notes on the first Fantastic Beast’s script, assurance that this magical world will live on for some time to come.

The whole exhibition is beautifully designed to look like Hogwarts with library motifs, display cases with Norman-arched windows, flying books, teacups and broomsticks that add to the atmosphere as you wander around. With sources drawn from Rowling’s publisher Bloomsbury alongside The British Museum, Museum of Witchcraft and countless valuable books from the British Library’s own archive, this is a diverse and fascinating collection of material that full reinforces the central argument that Rowling’s influences had wide foundation in a range of established studies and practices. There’s no denying that a novel first scribbled on trains and in cafes has become one of the biggest -ever influences on all kinds of literature. 20 years, 7 books, 9 films, a two-part play and numerous spin-off books later, this British Library exhibition is a perfect tribute to the depth of knowledge and research that created a phenomenon.

Harry Potter: A History of a Magic is at the British Library until 28th February. Tickets are £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturcalcap1


Shakespeare in Ten Acts – British Library

Shakespeare in Ten Acts - British Library

You may have noticed that it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died and over the last few weeks there has been a festival of activities across the country and on television, from the Globe’s lovely but technically challenged Complete Walk showing scenes from every play with some of our finest actors, to the somewhat less successful RSC Shakespeare Live variety show beamed from Stratford to your living rooms and cinemas. With a new series of The Hollow Crown in mid-flow as well, interest in Shakespeare and how his work is performed is riding high. The British Library’s new exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts looks at the history of the plays and the ways in which they’ve been performed in the last four centuries, considering how changing theatrical fashions and political contexts have shaped the staging of Shakespeare’s of major works.

This exhibition purports to tell the story of Shakespeare in performance, focusing on ten key moments from the first Hamlet in around 1600 to the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in the early twenty-first century. But it doesn’t do this in quite the way you expect and often becomes side-tracked by the wider context of the landmark eras it chooses. While these digressions are often interesting and supported by a wealth of valuable original material largely from the Library’s own collection, it makes for a less focused tour of Shakespearean performances than anticipated. Largely it seems this is driven by the material the BL could obtain rather than the argument the curators are trying to make that Shakespeare ‘holds up a mirror to the era in which it was performed’.

Understandably, this is a very bookish exhibition and you can expect to see a number of important tomes, not least a speech for a play about Thomas Moore in Shakespeare’s own hand which was recently read by Sir Ian McKellen for Shakespeare Live and at a BFI talk about Shakespeare on Screen. Here too is the important first folio as well as personal items like Shakespeare’s mortgage deed with accompanying seals. The exhibition then opens with the first Hamlet which we learn was written with specific actors in mind, most particularly for Richard Burbage who was the first to play what is arguably the most sought after role in all the plays.  It has since come to represent a high watermark in a young actor’s career, a significant hurdle for those wishing to be known as a great classical performer.

This section on Hamlet is one of the best, digitally comparing the differences between the versions of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech and giving wider context about the establishment and workings of Shakespeare’s theatre. The notion that he was specifically writing for individuals among the Lord Chamberlaine’s Men is a valuable one and brings the process of creation, performance and redrafting to life in a way that’s sometimes missing from the rest of the exhibition. The section on the first black actor to play Othello also feels particularly well thought through with portraits of Ira Aldridge from the 1820s alongside playbills advertising his performances. Although some of these were criticised Aldridge had a long career on the stage and in the course of more than 40 years played several roles, including somewhat surprisingly using white make-up to play other leading parts including Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. The BL then diversifies this section to include photos of Laurence Olivier playing Othello and modern black actors in performance including David Oyelowo in tribute to the modern practice of colour-blind casting.

Some elements of this exhibition feel like padding rather than integral to the argument and occasionally they try to cover too much material. One milestone was the first female performance in 1660 when an unknown actress was allowed to take to the stage as Desdemona, which prompts a brief history of people playing Shakespeare’s heroines since, including Vivien Leigh’s costume for Lady Macbeth and details of Ned Kynaston who had a career playing a woman onstage, but what it doesn’t do so well is focus on the mechanics of that original performance, or any of the ones it later shows. Time and again in this exhibition the focus seems to be on examining a play as a piece of English Literature rather than as a drama performance, so what you really want here is more focus on that original flood of actresses onto the stage and the practicalities of putting on a play in Restoration England. Even more important, given the overall purpose of this exhibition, is how it changed perceptions of Shakespeare’s work and what role women had to play in perpetuating it.

Some of the weaker sections don’t always feel like landmark moments as the BL implies, and while there is interesting material in the ‘Wider World’ section as Shakespeare’s plays are performed abroad for the first time, not least onboard an East India Company ship off Sierra Leon – an early incarnation of the theatre ships of the First World War navy – this section is an odd assortment of stuff including a Shakespeare in Love poster and some international editions of Shakespeare plays. Similarly the sections on a forged play doing the rounds in 1796 and the reintroduction of the tragic ending to King Lear in 1838 feel more like footnotes than major turning points in our understanding of Shakespeare’s popularity. Nice stories perhaps but not worthy of entire sections devoted to them, or if they are, the BL is not making a convincing case.

It’s not until you get into the twentieth century that we get a greater focus on physical performance with Peter Brook’s influential 1970s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a whole room made up to look like the white box that Brook used as his stage, and featuring props and costumes – if only more of it were like this. Also interesting is the section on Twelfth Night and Mark Rylance’s all male production at the Globe in 2002 which leaps right back to the way Shakespeare was originally performed, supported here by costumes and scenes from the production. The Globe appears a few times in this exhibition actually, suggesting a partnership that prevents mention of any other modern purveyors of Shakespeare plays – the RSC and National Theatre for example remain entirely unmentioned, though arguably the formation of the RSC is a landmark in itself.

It concludes, rather oddly, with emphasis on film and digital media using a production of Hamlet by The Wooster Group in 2013 – something I confess I’d not heard of – which though innovative seems to end this show with a whimper. There are scenes from twentieth-century films including early silent movies, right through to Branagh’s 1996 Henry V and Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth. Seems a shame not to have had the final section consider the modernisation of Shakespeare on film, its limitations and scope for interpretation as a way to bring new audiences and new actors to the fore – especially as there are box office riots as people clamour for tickets to see a favourite celebrity actor take on a major role such as Cumberbatch’s Hamlet or Tennant’s Richard II, meaning the NT Live business model has expanded beyond the National Theatre linking up with competitors to broadcast any major performance far and wide. Again, I suspect this a lack of material but this an important marker for the future of Shakespeare in performance and one that would have provided a fitting end to this exhibition.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts has a lot of interesting material but the central argument and focus is not always clear enough. As a chance to see a number of important documents and to learn a bit more about the documentary history of selected performances this is fine, but you don’t leave feeling as though you have an entirely new slant on Shakespeare’s plays or enthused by the endless interpretation of his works – which you really should. It’s academic, broad in topic and respects the poetry of Shakespeare’s words, but in his BFI talk recently Sir Ian McKellen argued that to get a new audience enthused about Shakespeare they need to see it, so what this really needs is more performance.

Shakespeare in Ten Acts is at the British Library until 6 September. Tickets are £12 for adults (without Gift Aid) and concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Alice in Wonderland – British Library

Alice in Wonderland - British Library

Judi Dench played Alice Liddell in John Logan’s Peter and Alice in 2013 which explored what it meant to be saddled with a fictional creation for a lifetime. Alice of course was the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, while Ben Whishaw played the tragic Peter Llewelyn Davies, the man who was once Peter Pan. These characters have become ingrained images of childhood, and while Alice Liddell had to live with her fictional alter-ego with all its expectations and pressures, as this new British Library exhibition shows our image of Alice has barely changed in 150 years, and illustrators who deviated from the prototype were criticised.

So, Alice, short, long probably blonde hair held back with an Alice band, blue dress, white apron – are you forming a picture in your mind? Chances are it’s the Disney-version of Alice or thereabouts, which itself was inspired by the original illustrator John Tenniel. Alice in Wonderland, a free exhibition on the first floor of the British Library which runs until April, explores where this image comes from and why, so many years later, this character continues to exert a hold over our imagination.

It begins with the least successful part of the exhibition, a summary of the story on giant wooden stands using the various illustrations since publication and a series of slightly distorted mirrors, but it’s not entirely clear whether these are meant to reflect the audience, or flip the accompanying illustration and get us to see Alice from different perspectives.  Maybe it’s both, but the mirrors aren’t quite warped enough to make a clear point and by the time you reach the eighth or ninth of these it’s become a bit repetitive.

But speed past this minor distraction and the British Library is on considerably firmer ground in its presentation of the books, prints and ephemera celebrating Carroll’s famous book. At the start, we learn about the story behind the story, how Lewis Carroll met the Liddell family and made up fantastical tales for their daughter Alice which he eventually committed to paper. In this section is the original handwritten manuscript with Carroll’s own illustrations which he later presented to Miss Liddell, as well as prints of the original Alice herself. Pretty quickly the story was published and John Tenniel was called upon to illustrate the text and in doing so created a long-lasting picture of Alice.

Heavily involved in the publication process, the exhibition includes Carroll’s diary recording the details of book binding, pricing and working with Tenniel on the illustrations. As we see here, these were clearly influenced by Carroll’s original concepts, but Tenniel expanded them and original woodblocks are on display showing the incredible detail of his work which is both formally Victorian while still perfectly representing the magical land of the story. There is also a darkness to them which may have passed you by as a child but the Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts and even in some scenes, Alice herself, look a bit sinister. But the overwhelming feeling when you see these pictures is just how familiar they are, totally reinforcing the British Library’s central argument that these character portraits have barely changed in 150 years.

Once the book was out of copyright and after Carroll’s death there was an explosion of alternative ‘Alices’ and the next section of the exhibition looks chronologically at these illustrations while gauging their relative success. As well as pure reprints which fascinatingly reimagined Alice for their times, there are also examples of how the characters have been used to satirise political or social issues of the past, including the behaviour of the British government in the 1930s faced by the threat of Hitler’s ambition. As well as a history of children’s literature, here these works also sit in a longer tradition of comic-like ridicule that goes back to Hogarth and the political cartoonists of the eighteenth-century.

By the time we reach the 1960s, the pictures become more absurdist and abstract, and while the characters still have that Tenniel look, there is clearly an attempt to break free of more conventional approaches, so the final part of the exhibition which looks at more subversive takes is full of brash colours and wacky interpretations. Interestingly, for children’s stories, in a lot of these images Alice and co never lose that sinister feel that Tenniel introduced so long ago, and whether you’re looking at Ralph Steadman’s version or Salvador Dali’s abstract vision it’s no cosy children’s tale.

Peppered throughout this interesting show are a number of additional exhibits that have been inspired by Carroll’s story including ornaments, video games that you can try out and merchandise from the Disney film which solidified our picture of Wonderland.  Added to this are animations, music and some newly commissioned articles which make a semi-interactive and comprehensive examination of this story’s influence.

This is a small exhibition in the main entrance and as it is free was quite crowded on a weekend afternoon. But if you can’t go during the week then give yourself plenty of time to get round it because bearing with the crowds will be worth it. As always with the Library, there is a lot to read with plenty of detailed signs explaining the artefacts as well as summarising each section as you move from the background to the original story, through mass circulation to reimagining and reinventing familiar characters. You’ll leave knowing not just how influential Carroll’s vision has been on children’s literature both through the text and his own illustrations that guided Tenniel, but also how this story has emerged from its pages to become a significant and un-waning cultural influence. More than anything you’ll understand why the image of Alice affected her inspiration, Alice Liddell, for the rest of her life and why we continue to find it fascinating today.

Alice in Wonderland is at the British Library until 17 April and entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain – British Library

The Georgians are everywhere; looking around London you notice their influence in architecture, parks and artistic spaces. This new exhibition at the British Library examines the country’s growing prosperity and cultural shift as new modes of manufacturing and expanded trade routes brought new influences to Britain. Fundamentally, it argues that the rein of the four Georges between 1714 and 1830 established a number of middle class tastes and values which are evident in the modern world.

The first section is on the home using architectural books, paintings and etchings from the Library’s collection including the famous crescent at Bath and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, an incredible mix of Eastern and classical influences made possible by the burgeoning empire. The Georgian home also benefitted from a new approach to gardening where wildness was tamed into order and elegance, embellished with follies, lakes and grottos. Inside, new rules guided interactions whether through the ritual of tea or modes of politeness, with manuals for behaviour and accomplishment, and we get to see Jane Austen’s writing desk and glasses, Jeremy Bentham’s violin, and some beautifully illustrated books of exotic plant-life.

Section two looks at shopping, and it never occurred to me that all that beautiful furniture came from catalogues. There are also prints of customers in a furniture showroom – imagine an 18th Century Ikea where they can browse, customise and order for home delivery. There are also some lovely examples of the first fashion books for men and women, supported by store advertising and trade cards. This sense of being seen to be fashionable extends to the third section on sociability and forms of culture. Being at the theatres and public entertainments was vital; learning to dance from the variety of guides and tutorials meant showing off those skills at assembly rooms; and enjoyment of various kinds could be found at masquerades, sports, gambling houses and pleasure gardens. All of this is also nicely lampooned by contemporary satirists mocking the obsession with celebrities and trivial self-adornment… that sounds very familiar!

There are slight nods to other parts of society, particularly to slavery which underlay the production of luxury goods, as well as to charitable institutions such as the foundling hospital. But essentially this exhibition is a riot of privileges and consumerism that improved the social experience and position of the middle classes. You can argue that a number of these things pre-date the Georgians and you don’t get a huge sense of change within this 116 year period, particularly the political and economic effect of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, as well as the growing discontent and push for greater enfranchisement. Nonetheless this exhibition is nicely pitched, full of excellent information signs, and the British Library has gathered an impressive array of pieces; not just books and prints, but shop signs, shoes, games and much more. Not to mention each exhibition case is wallpapered with relevant engravings that are not only add a stylish touch but enhance what you’re seeing. There’s even a treat for Londoner’s at the end – the floor in the final room is a map of the city highlighting the effects of the period, seen in buildings, ports, factories, squares, churches, street names and green spaces. So, yes, the Georgians really are everywhere, just look around you.

Georgians Revealed runs at the British Library until 11th March and costs £9 at full price.


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