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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

British Library

In spite of my 'off the buses' intention, I decided to venture to the British Library today by bus. Armed with an Oyster card generously given to me by my daughter - from her trip to UK last year - I set out this morning to do a couple of chores, then repair to the Library.

First job was to check the amount on the Oyster card at the local newsagent, then head to Boots Pharmacy on Tottenham Court Rd. I managed to get some caltrate and deep heat ointment to aid my stiff knees- but no Liticen (out of stock- try another store). Then to Barclays Bank to swap some £20 notes from my last UK visit - now out of circulation, but redeemable. It feels good to have a list ticked off before 10am!

So on to a No 10 bus and off to the British Library, where the courtyard was new to me.

I had done no research, but there were three exhibitions of immediate interest to me - a Treasures Exhibition, a Magna Carta Exhibition and a Magna Carta Embroidery. 

Treasures of the National Library
This was my favourite of the three. It was extensive - covering music, books, printed and handwritten, religious and secular. I focused on a few favourites, beginning, of course, with Beowulf.

There was interesting page of Jane Eyre, complete with crossings-out,

a beautiful edition of the Norman Chronicle  and also the Bedford Hours,
neither of which I had seen before.

There was a fifteenth Century Italian Herbal.

The music collection was especially interesting  and extensive - including the Windsor Carol Book

a huge Tallis Manuscript (my favourite),

the first piece of printed music 

and the Beatles.
There were also beautiful examples of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic manuscripts.

Magna Carta: Liberty, Law and Legacy.
The very first time I visited Britain, in 1968, when I was a final year Dip Ed student, I went to see the Magna Carta and bought a facsimile copy which I still have ( I'd happily donate it to any school or teacher who wanted it!). It seemed fitting today to visit the 2015 Anniversary.
I didn't photograph much, but I found it thought-provoking. It cleverly presented, using documents, artefacts and graphics, the changes to the original charter over 800 years while the intention has been preserved, fought for and re-expressed. Much of the charter has been reshaped and expressed in laws and declarations - in England, France, the USA, the UN and of course, throughout the Commonwealth. It is a powerful story of the power of an idea, a conviction that there is a "right" - an extraordinary legacy. I find it moving and inspiring.

As an embroidery aside, these are the vestments -embroidered shoes, mitre and fabric fragments - belonging to Hubert Walter, King John's first Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor,  found intact when his tomb was opened in 1890. 

Magna Carta: an Embroidery

This was the most extraordinary of the three exhibitions  I visited. Cordelia Parker, a British artist, conceived and executed it with a team of volunteer Embroiderers, as 'a contemporary interpretation of Magna Carta'. The embroidery is of the Wikapedia page on the Magna Carta, as it was on the day of it's 799 year anniversary, mostly, I think, in backstitch.

Both the text (including all footnotes) and illustrations have been embroidered. Cornelian Parker printed the pattern on fabric, cut it into 87 pieces and sent then around the country to be embroidered.
Much of the embroidery was done by prisoners as part of a training program and the pictures and logos were done by the Embroiderers' Guild. It also includes comment from rights organisations 

There is something mad about embroidering a Wikapedia page. It's certainly a new take on archiving! It is, of course, the inherent contradiction that makes it interesting.

All in all, I'm glad I caught that bus this morning!


  1. Looks like you have had a very interesting day at the British Library. I would have been very interested in the Magna Carta Exhibition and also The Magna Carta Embroidery. Hope the knees are holding up well, and the stiffness is going. Looking forward to your next blog.

  2. Thanks Eddie. They are well worth seeing. Knees still stiff - bad arthritis genes, I'm afraid!

  3. I am glad you caught the bus too! Wish I could see Magna Carta Wikipedia page embroidery as one piece - it looks enormous.

    1. From memory I think it is 13 metres. The letters are about 1cm high.

  4. I feel like I have been to the BL with you. Love the embroidered Wikipedia page! I just received an email from David McRae who is also in London. Hope the knees hold out.

    1. I keep remembering you rescuing me years ago when my knees gave out in the middle of George St. - wishing you were here to be my backstop! Bit better today.

  5. I'm feeling green with envy!
    What a wonderful set of exhibitions. Must have been wonderful seeing that Book of hours in the flesh, so to speak, and the embroidery is amazing...and weird!

    1. Yes, that was about my favourite. The embroidery IS weird - but it has made me laugh, which has got to be good!

  6. Love all of ut especially tbe Italian herb.

  7. What a tremendous amount of inspirational things to see! You will be glad to come back to the photos at your leisure. I love the illuminated texts, but somehow I resonate more with the herbal. It is interesting!

    I think that embroidery project at the end is genius, and extremely well done too. It works on so many levels. And, it is so nice to see stitching used as serious art. Thanks for the wonderful tour!

    1. Thanks Monica. Yes, I use my blogs a lot as an aide memoire. The herbal was so clear - really beautifully and explicitly drawn. In some ways it was the most beautiful item I saw. I keep reflecting on the levels in the embroidery - it stands up to a lot of examination.

  8. Those beautiful books would have been wonderful to see right in front of you even if behind glass.