What makes a treasure? Bodleian Treasures: 24 Pairs presents a handful of the Bodleian's 12 million items in pairs. Curator Dr Francesca Galligan explains how she matched icons with the less familiar for the exhibition at the Weston Library.
This 1878 (unpaid) bill offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of Oscar Wilde during his Oxford undergraduate days
By Linda Loder
Photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot found in Oxford that ‘the number of picturesque points of view seems almost inexhaustible’. The same could be said for the Bodleian's new 24 Pairs exhibition, which showcases his pioneering images.An ancient doorway at Magdalen College, taken by photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s
It would have been easy for curator Dr Francesca Galligan (Wadham, 1994), of the Bodleian’s Special Collections Department, simply to line up resplendent artefacts. Instead she selected 24 ‘pairs’ of objects, each on a theme, representing as wide a range as possible of the collections held by the library. She also considered carefully the essence of ‘treasure’.
Dr Galligan explains: ‘I wanted to challenge the idea that a treasure has to be something covered in jewels, or a unique manuscript. There are parts of our collection, for example the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, that are immensely valuable, but not in the same sense as conventional treasures. So I started thinking about what makes something important and interesting, such as rarity and uniqueness.’
But when other institutions also own and display treasures such as Gutenberg Bibles, the question for Dr Galligan was how to bring freshness to the exhibition. She decided to pair the Gutenberg with a piece of ephemera: a keepsake from the London ‘frost fair’ of 1739, printed on a press set up on the frozen Thames.
This souvenir was printed on the Thames, after it froze on Christmas Day 1739. A fair on the ice offered an ox roast, bear-baiting, skating, a children’s roundabout, toyshop, goldsmiths, turners, milliners, a gaming table, and at least four presses for printing keepsakes
Dr Galligan explains her thinking: ‘If I could show something beside the Gutenberg Bible that is almost certainly unique – there was probably only one such souvenir printed with that name in the middle – it would start to challenge people’s idea of rarity and value, and what makes something significant. The frost fair souvenir includes a portrait of Gutenberg and tells the story of his invention.’
Her own favourite from the exhibition is a psalter from the mid 9th century, written in gold ink on pages dyed with the purple from murex shells (the expensive Tyrian purple of ancient times).
The gold ink on this psalter, made brilliant on parchment dyed with the murex shell, is worthy of an emperor. Charlemagne owned several such manuscripts, but this one was made at Rheims and dates from some decades after his death
Yet the item Dr Galligan has chosen to pair with the psalter is the inexpensive and modestly produced ‘Bay Psalm Book’ (1640). It was the first book printed in North America and only 11 copies now remain. In 2013 one of them fetched $14.2 million, making it the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction.
There is intrinsic value, and there is the value of context – in this case, the earliest history of the US settlers. Then of course there is the value that is established by the descent of the auctioneer’s hammer on any particular day.
In contrast with the purple psalter, the ‘Bay Psalm Book’ – the first book printed in North America – was an inexpensive, modestly produced book for personal use. A copy fetched $14.2 million in 2013, making it the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction. It is a rarity: although 1700 copies were printed, most were simply worn out, and only 11 survive.
Destruction has threatened more than one of the exhibits here. Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) of 1912 was one of the few works published in his lifetime; he requested that his friend and editor, Max Brod, burn all his remaining papers after his death. Fortunately for the rest of Kafka’s subsequently published works, Brod did not (taking them with him on the last train to leave Prague before the Nazi invasion). Most of those manuscripts are now in the Bodleian, including this one – written longhand in a cheap and unremarkable exercise book.
Dr Galligan has paired it with the play Kafka’s Dick from the Alan Bennett archive. In it Kafka takes Brod to task for not burning the manuscripts. Brod asks Kafka if he really wanted to be forgotten, and Kafka replies: ‘No, but I didn’t want to be remembered.’
The poet John Milton hoped that his poems would not be destroyed. In 1646 Bodley’s Librarian John Rouse requested a copy of Milton’s works; the poet sent with it a covering Latin ode in which he says that books are nobler treasures than gold, and hopes his oeuvre will have a secure future within the sanctum of the library.
When Charles I and Parliament later requested that Milton’s works be burned on the grounds that they were republican and subversive, the library did not comply. John Rouse had form: in 1645 he had refused a request from the king, then in Oxford, to take out a book from the Bodleian, citing the statutes which prohibited lending. Dr Galligan has exhibited that original note of request alongside Milton’s ode and the triumphantly surviving volume.
Bodley’s Librarian John Rouse received this request from Charles I in 1645 to borrow a history book
Treasure, then, comes in many forms. It can have intrinsic worth, or a value based on rarity – and demand. It can lie buried for centuries before its wealth is discovered and understood, like the precious scraps of early music reused as later binding materials, miraculously surviving destruction.
When you have studied a text at school or university, there is a certain shock in coming across its original version – perhaps Kafka’s simple exercise book, or the impossibly delicate fragments of Sappho’s poetry – a familiarity and yet a strangeness. Together with the thrill of recognition comes the realisation that in many cases, our treasures of literature only reached us by the slimmest of chances.
Underpinning all this is Bodley’s greatest treasure: the skill of its librarians. This is the prism that brings enlightenment – revealing new insights and making new connections. It is those with the knowledge to curate, preserve and discern who unearth and display these treasures for our delight and illumination
Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on penicillin, Oscar Wilde’s unpaid student bill for port, Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech, and Toby the Sapient Pig are also to be seen at the exhibition. Entry is free and it remains open until 19 February 2017. You can also find images online at http://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk
Linda Loder (Somerville, 1986) read Literae Humaniores, followed by a diploma in C17 art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, before working as an art collection manager for Lord Jacob Rothschild on the Waddesdon Estate, Buckinghamshire. She is currently a freelance writer and editor.
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