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UCL Special Collections Presents…

HelenBiggs21 May 2018

We’re excited to announce UCL Special Collections Presents… – a day of talks and displays in UCL’s South Junction Reading Room on Tuesday, June 5th.

Join our team of friendly archivists and librarians at the South Junction Reading Room to hear about some of their favourite Special Collections items in an informal setting. Come face to face with exquisite treasures, learn about the work of our conservators, and discover which curious tomes our volunteers have been studying.

We are running a range of sessions throughout the day, including:

11am-11:30 and 11:30am-12pm:
Protest songs for equal pay
A balloon’s eye view: historical maps of London
Maps from the Jewish Pamphlets collection

12-12:30pm and 12:30-1pm:
A history of the book
“Confessions of a Down and Out in London and Paris”: gems from George Orwell’s archive

1-1:30pm and 1:30pm-2pm:
UCL’s student disruptors
Small Press magazines on vinyl

2-2:30pm and 2:30-3pm:
Jeremy Bentham and Lord Brougham, social reformers
Enid Blyton’s Teacher’s Treasury

3-3:30pm and 3:30-4pm:
Medical and Scientific Manuscripts and Rare Books
A 14th Century Haggadah, and other Jewish and Hebrew treasures

When: Tuesday, 5th June, 11am-4pm

Where: South Junction Reading Room, Wilkins Building, University College London, WC1E 6HJ

Book your free tickets now!

Dante – weekly readings

TabithaTuckett29 January 2018

One of Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

Why is the Mediaeval Italian poet Dante important to us now? Can his work tell us anything about how to approach our own lives? And what does UCL Special Collections have to offer those interested in Dante?

To find out, or just to unwind at the end of the day with some beautiful poetry, try our weekly readings  from Dante’s Divine Comedy (in English and Italian), followed by discussion with UCL’s Professor John Took, every Monday, 6-7.30pm at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square. More information here:

Weekly Dante readings at the Warburg Institute

Or, if you prefer an in-depth talk without the readings, we’re running these on Tuesdays every fortnight, 7-8.30pm, at the Italian Institute of Culture in Belgrave Square:

Dante talks at the Italian Institute of Culture, Belgrave Square

Tonight’s reading is from the Inferno, but tomorrow’s session is on love. Both courses are free and open to all.

Look out later in term for displays of selected items from our outstanding collection of rare and early editions of Dante’s works. Read more about UCL Special Collections’ Dante Collection, or search the library catalogue using ‘Dantecollection’ (without spaces between the words).

Advent Definitions: Jingling books

TabithaTuckett12 December 2017

UCL Special Collections R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869 – Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

Does today’s Advent word leave you humming seasonal songs, whether you like Jingle Bells or not? If so, UCL Special Collections can offer you the comfort (or irritation) that people have been singing for centuries. To get you into the spirit, here is what might look very like a singer or musical scribe, perched inside an initial letter in one of our illuminated manuscript Bibles from the late 13th or early 14th century:

UCL Special Collections MS LAT 9

Before you attempt to climb inside a book and start singing, it’s worth saying that this is in fact most likely to be a representation of Baruch, scribe of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, hard at work in the many days before computers.

To see what Mediaeval musical scores actually looked like, find out about our musical Mediaeval manuscript fragments. They are fragments because almost all were re-used at a later date for non-musical purposes, such as book covers, paste-downs to secure leather book-bindings, or hidden reinforcement elsewhere in the bindings of books. Now salvaged, one of the earliest in our collection, from 11th-century Germany, might not look much like today’s sheet music (the little ticks above the words, known as ‘neumes’, are the musical notation):

UCL Special Collections MS FRAG/MUSIC/8

but, as an antiphonal intended to be sung by two alternating voices or choirs, it would probably have made a sound closer to the corresponding jingle of our 18th-century Advent Definition (even without the English rhymes you’d dread in an advertisement jingle):

 

UCL Special Collections R 221 DICTIONARIES PERRY 1778 – Perry, The ro[yal] standard English dictionary (Edinburgh, [1778])

To go back to our studious figure above, the rare book we found him in is a Latin Bible with a particularly interesting history: at some point before being given to UCL, it belonged to a refugee who came to England fleeing persecution in Spain, carrying the family Bible with him on mules, its original binding having been ripped off to make the book lighter to transport in a hurry. This at least is what we learn from a dramatic account of the book’s condition given in a letter dated 1859 that now appears inside the front cover. The refugee and the book arrived safely, the latter now handsomely protected in a beautiful, neo-Mediaeval binding from WH Smith probably dating from 1904. Read more about this book and its story in Treasures From UCL.

If I’m honest, one of the closest things to a jingle that I could find among UCL’s rare books was the sound this chained book makes every time I bring it out. The book (MS LAT 4), containing various manuscripts from the 14th and 15th centuries, was probably part of the chained library of Würzburg, and the chain would have been used to attach it to the shelves to make sure nobody walked off with it.

If all this talk of jingles and Christmas music is the last thing you want to hear at this time of year, you’re probably feeling like stamping on the nearest piano, in which case you might take comfort from the great Nicholas brothers doing just that in 1943 or, if this doesn’t help and you’d prefer to see cats rather than carols emerging from musical instruments in December, try Fred Astaire taking it one step further with his ‘piano dance’ from the 1950 film, Let’s Dance. I’ll leave you to search for a clip of that while I go off for a spot of carol-singing.

Dr. Tabitha Tuckett, Rare-Books Librarian

Advent Definitions: All that glitters

Vicky APrice7 December 2017

‘Gold’ in R 221 DICTIONARIES WORCESTER 1855 – Worcester, A universal critical and pronouncing dictionary of the English language (London, [1855])

There is much to be celebrated about gold in its many forms. From the most precious jewellery to the cheapest golden glitter pen, for me gold always brings about a giddy fascination.

As the definition suggests, it’s a material and colour that usually denotes value, beauty, godliness or importance.  When I see it in art I often think of the adoring artist, unashamedly displaying admiration and enchantment with someone – think Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – or a pious artist creating an icon intended to glow with luminosity above an awe-struck congregation.

 

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

The same is the case when I happen upon gold in UCL’s Special Collections.  We hold many manuscripts and rare books that feature gold leaf – either on the pages’ edges, the binding or within the text and illustrations themselves. Perhaps the most staggering example is a copy of the Persian poet’s Masnavi-I Akbar Sultan (‘Romance of the Sultan Akbar’) from 1749. The cover is gilded and ornately decorated, while the leaves inside radiate a dazzling richness only possible through the use of gold leaf:

 

The beginning of the Masnavi-i Akbar Sultan poem

This tome, along with other manuscripts and manuscript fragments were the inspiration for a community art project in the Summer with with Sidings Community Centre. They host regular adults’ colouring in sessions, during which local residents for whom social isolation is a high risk come together to enjoy some light-hearted art.  I brought them copies of UCL’s most glamorously golden items, and together we had a go at doing some of our own gilding, inspired by the collection.

Some members of the group brought in a chosen fable or poem:

 

A gilded chicken!

Others preferred to stick to colouring in, tackling copies of some ornate lettering:

 

A slightly psychedelic take on an image from Biblia Latina, an illuminated bible from the 13th or 14th century (MS Lat 9)

We even experimented with ‘aging’ the gold leaf:

 

Not a bad first try with using gold leaf!

We look forward to more community and school projects that explore the incredible collection of manuscripts and manuscript fragments at UCL – especially if it means we get to bring the glamour of gilding to more workshops!

Advent Definitions: Domestic angels?

HelenBiggs4 December 2017

‘Angel’, in: R 221 DICTIONARIES WEBSTER 1869 : Webster, The people’s dictionary of the English language (London, [1869?])

It’s fascinating to see that in Webster angels are defined as both godly and evil spirits, but what really piqued my interest is the idea of being angelic – “partaking of their nature or dignity”. It immediately brought to mind one of the other items in our collections:

A is the Angel woman should be

Waiting to pour out her husband’s tea:

“Better than man” the Antis say-

But the better half has got to obey

These words may sound like they’re promoting woman as a domestic figure, but in fact they’re from the satirical Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, which playfully imitates a rhyming children’s alphabet book to ridicule the arguments used by anti-suffrage campaigners. One such argument was that a wife and mother was the moral centre of a household, and that this role would be diminished or corrupted if she took a more active role in public life. The Alphabet’s creators contend that this supposed moral purity was already compromised, as a husband was meant to be the final decision-maker in all non-domestic matters, whatever a woman’s own beliefs and values were.

The Alphabet is held as part of the Laurence Housman Collection, which will feature heavily in next year’s Main Library exhibition “Dangers and delusions”? Perspectives on the woman’s suffrage movement, set to open February 2018.

For more daily Advent-inspired definitions from our Rare English Dictionaries collection, follow @UCLSpecColl on Twitter.