Beautiful Things – The Insects of Surinam.

This is the first of a series of occasional postings regarding beautiful things I have come across whilst doing the part of my job that involves fetching books for readers.  Beautiful Things is a record of accidental discovery.

The Insects of Surinam is a volume of sixty plates by Maria Merian.  Published in 1705 the illustrations and descriptions concern the metamorphosis in the life cycle of insects. The Latin title translates ‘The metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam, in which the caterpillars and worms of Surinam, with all their transformations, are drawn and described from life, each of them placed on the plants, flowers and fruits on which they were found’.

The Guava

The Guava

In 2004, Special Collections displayed the volume as part of an exhibition on natural history; the accompanying guide states:

Merian travelled to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) at the age of 52 in 1699, financing her trip by selling her paintings and collection of insects, in order to study insects in their natural habitats.  She remained there for 21 months, breeding, collecting and sketching insects.  Merian financed the publication of her subsequent book on insects of Surinam herself, losing money on the venture.  Two versions were published, one with the text in Latin (shown here), one in Dutch.  Merian engraved three of the 60 plates, a team of three engravers the rest.  They depict about 90 studies of caterpillars evolving into insects, mostly life-size, and include the names and local uses of plants.

The engravings are the first extensive visual record of South American plants and insects and the first record at all of many of the subjects.  Later editions add 12 more plates based on the drawings of Merian’s elder daughter, Johanna.

The Casava root with a piece of bread.

The Cassava root with a piece of bread.

The work was also exhibited in 2008 at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the guide noted:

‘Each image was organized around a single plant and was accompanied by a text in which Merian described the colors, forms, and timing of each stage of transformation. By including the caterpillars’ food sources in her natural history illustrations, Merian brought a more ecological approach to the study of metamorphosis.

Merian’s work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.’

The J. Paul Getty Museum – Los Angeles

The Casava or Manihot.

The Cassava or Manihot.

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.


Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring the collegiate University

When selecting items for a treasures volume, the University Archive was an obvious source to comb, with its records of University proceedings from the foundation of the University in 1836 onwards. This was where we could expect to find unique documents which provided a sense of University identity. As Senate House Library had put on an exhibition of items from the Archive in 2011 to celebrate the University’s 175th anniversary, selecting items for the treasures volume was quite easy. We had already looked at numerous items, far more than we could exhibit, in the earlier context, and in that context had regretfully discarded this picture of the Colleges in favour of some showing the location of the central University, namely the Imperial Institute in South Kensington and Senate House.

The picture shown here is from the time when the University was located in the Imperial Institute. It is the work of Stanley Gordon Wilson, a historian and vicar who drew it while recovering from a motor-cycling accident. The drawing measures 55.7 by 21.7 centimetres before mounting; 69.9 by 37.6 centimetres when mounted. On the assumption that members of the University might like to have it on their walls, copies could be purchased from a shop in Southampton Row. A reduced version, measuring 13.8 by 41.7 centimetres, appears as the frontispiece of Wilson’s The University of London and its Colleges (1923), which claimed to be the first illustrated account of the University of London ever published. The picture represents every institution that formed part of the University at the time, by a sketch, coat of arms, or both. It thereby aims to portray the University as a cohesive whole composed of and even greater than the sum of its distinguished parts.

The University and its Colleges

The University and its Colleges

Medieval manuscripts at Senate House Library

The opening of the Chronicle of the Black PrinceWe were very fortunate yesterday to host Professor Michelle P. Brown for a talk on the history of medieval manuscripts and in particular on some of the manuscripts, fragments and facsimiles held in Senate House Library. Michelle began by examining one of our manuscript treasures: an extremely rare account of the life of Edward the Black Prince, produced around 1385. The illuminated frontispiece sets the tone for the text, showing the knight Edward, in his armour, kneeling in devotion before the Holy Trinity. This visual narrative prepares the reader for the tales of the Prince’s martial valour and piety that follow. While the gold leaf illuminating the picture of the Trinity has remained gloriously bright, Michelle explained how the silver pigments used to paint the Prince’s armour and ostrich feather badges have tarnished over time to give a slightly smudged effect to the image as it survives today. Moving on to the layout of the text, Michelle explained how gold and coloured initial letters of varying sizes conveyed the relative significance of different passages, and – in an age when memorising a text was much more important and prevalent than today – helped readers to fix portions of the story in their minds for recall later.

Michelle then discussed eleven miniatures cut from a mid 13th-century Psalter (Book of Psalms) which came to the library in the 1960s bound up in tiny late 19th-century edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. No larger than cigarette cards, the miniatures depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, including the nativity, the last supper and the crucifixion. The scenes, while depicted in the individual style of the artist, would have been immediately familiar to the medieval mind, both literate and illiterate, not only from books but from stained glass windows and statuary too.

Attendees were able to see some digital reproductions from these manuscripts on library iPads, enabling them to zoom into details hardly visible to the naked eye when viewing the originals. These reproductions can be seen here.

Michelle finished with some fascinating insights into the Lindisfarne Gospels and Luttrell Psalter of which the library owns high-quality facsimiles in its outstanding Palaeography Collection.

We hope to have Michelle back again before too long to treat us to further insights into the medieval book.

The Dingwall Papers: Conservation of a Diverse Collection

EJD cropped 1Welcome to the Dingwall project blog! This blog will follow a project funded by the Wellcome Trust to catalogue and conserve just one of the University’s diverse collections held in the archives of Senate House Library.

First off, a brief introduction to the life of Eric John Dingwall with some key points from his life:

  • Born in Ceylon in around 1891 (Dingwall was unsure of his actual date of birth)
  • A Graduate of Pembroke College, Cambridge, he joined the staff of the Cambridge University Library in 1915 as a volunteer and went on to become an assistant librarian, leaving in 1918
  • In his youth he developed an enduring interest in magic and was eventually elected to the Magic Circle.
  • This informed his approach to the investigation of the physical phenomena of mediumship, his major contribution to the Society for Psychical Research which he joined in 1920.
  • In 1921 he spent a year in the United States as Director of the Department of Physical Phenomena at the American Society for Psychical Research
  • He was then appointed research officer to the British Society in 1922. He also had an interest in sexual deviation and peculiar sexual practices, which annoyed some of his colleagues at the Society and led to the termination of his appointment in 1927
  • Released from his responsibilities at the SPR he continued to publish books
  • In 1932 he was awarded his DSc from University College London
  • After the war he became Honorary Assistant Keeper at the British Museum Library (later the British Library) where he became a recognised authority on historical erotica, as well as on magic and psychical research
  • He also continued to publish books including two collections of short biographies of strange characters
  • Married twice, his first wife left him and his second died in 1976. Dingwall spent his remaining years independently and alone until his death on 7 August 1986.

In his will, Dingwall stipulated that his collection of notes and press cuttings be gifted to the University of London on his death. The collection arrived at the University in 1990, and is housed in the Historic Collections department of Senate House Library. It includes slip indexes, scrapbooks, albums and technical correspondence files. After a successful application to the Wellcome Trust, a grant was given to enable the cataloguing and conservation of the collection.

Once catalogued the collection will be open to viewing for research under supervision with the exception of the technical correspondence, which will remain closed until 2025 (as requested by Dingwall in his will).


From the Reading Room – tracing female authorship in medieval manuscripts.

This week Julie Tanner has been in consulting lingustic atlases. I asked about her use of these and her wider research interests.


‘Angus McIntosh’s Linguistic atlas of late medieval English is of great use for my research.  I am compiling a diplomatic¹ edition of selected lyrics from the Findern manuscript and it is pertinent to study linguistic profiles of lexis local to the area of South Derbyshire where it is known that the manuscript was compiled.  If any connections can be made between localised language in the atlas and vocabulary from the anonymous lyrics it is possible to use this evidence to support a claim that provincial scribes had further involvement in the production of the manuscript beyond copying the text.  Some of the scribes are known to be women of the Findern family, and many of the lyrics are honest, sincere female-voiced reflections on losing a loved one.  My broader research interest concerns female participation in provincial manuscript authorship and compilation – McIntosh’s Linguistic atlas is of great help in this endeavour.’

Julie Tanner – Goldsmiths College.

 ¹Diplomatic is defined by Peter Beal as follows: ‘The science or study of documents and records, including their forms, language, script and meaning. It involves knowledge of such matters as the established wording and procedures of particular kinds of document, the deciphering of writing, and document analysis and authentication’  (p. 121).

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring Thomas Carlyle

The historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was an inveterate annotator who had no

Aurora Leigh, annotated by Thomas Carlyle

Aurora Leigh, annotated by Thomas Carlyle

business to be writing on books that did not belong to him. Nonetheless, Senate House Library has reason to be grateful for the fact that he did. The first edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s narrative poem Aurora Leigh (1857) is a drab production – but the Senate House Library copy has been considerably enlivened by having been annotated throughout by Thomas Carlyle, in typically acerbic fashion. These annotations have been reproduced in full in The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, vol. 32: October 1856-July 1857 (Durham [N.C.] and London: Duke University Press, 2004). But nothing substitutes for seeing his handwriting next to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s text: for example, as he urges ‘don’t!’when the protagonist says it is ‘too easy to go mad’, or as he sums up his view at the end of Book I of the poem: ‘How much better had all this been if written straight forward in clear prose utterance.’

            The treasures volume sometimes corrected long-held misconceptions. The compiler of the printed catalogue of Sir Louis Sterling’s library (1954), to which this copy of Aurora Leigh belongs, suggested that Mary Aitken, Carlyle’s niece and housekeeper (1848-95), had lent the book to Carlyle. Prof. Rosemary Ashton pointed out the impossibility of this hypothesis, Mary having been only eight years old at the time. The letters, not generally available when the printed catalogue was being compiled, reveal that the book had apparently been sent to Carlyle by his brother John from Dumfriesshire.

A small collection, a wide perspective: my placement and the 4 boxes of Rudolf Said-Ruete

In January the Library hosted Ivan Donadello, an MA student at UCL’s Department of Information Studies, on a two-week work placement. Ivan has kindly contributed the following piece on his time with us.

‘During my brief placement at Senate House Library, I was in a state of constant awe when walking up and down – and getting lost on – the floors of what was the first library I visited when I moved to London some years ago. The beautiful building and its features became somewhat of an every-day pleasure whilst I was discovering the best part of the library.

In fact, the two elements that made the experience in the Historic Collections so inspiring were books and staff. It is clear that enthusiastic and competent employees are key to making Senate House Library the unique place it is. From the cataloguing to the organisation of book exhibitions, to the digitisation of the material and its preservation, I had the chance to speak to members involved with rare and special collections as well as members of other departments. It is a necessity, more than mere good practise, to display those resources in every possible way, both physically and digitally, as the main risk would be to consider them solely as beautiful objects to be preserved having little relevance on current streams of research. Instead, innovations and successful ideas can spring from any sort of experience and libraries have lots to contribute in that respect.

Initially, the specific project for the placement involved the drafting of a list with proper bibliographic records of the items contained in 4 little boxes recently discovered in the Library’s Depository. Only labelled “Rudolf Said-Ruete”, they contained books, pamphlets, booklets and newspaper cuttings in English, French and German from the first decades of the 20th century. Even though the identification of the original owner was an easy task, it is still unknown how and why the material arrived at the library. Leaving this highly exciting mystery to the SHL staff, we can say that the collection itself is relatively small in dimension but broad and interesting in its content.

As the collector was a journalist with a passion for international affairs and politics, and the son of an Omani Princess and a German merchant, it was intriguing to discover elements of a highly connected world well before any claims of globalisation. The collection ranges from a pamphlet on the Panama Canal issued in 1909, to a very brief contribution on the German colonial question after the First World War, to a request for recognition of the Irish State to the American Government, to a French booklet on L’opium et l’alcool en Indochine. These are a few examples of the wide scope of the interests of Rudolf Said-Ruete.

What is also quite fascinating was his habit of collecting and literally sticking subject-related press cuttings or letters accompanying the item, or even business cards with the sender’s address, into the books. The object then becomes interesting in itself for the meaning it bears and the function it performs for the collector: an element of his personal identity, a working tool, a memory aid, a resource that is both archival and bibliographical.

From my personal perspective, the experience led me to consider the issue of Hidden Collections, as analysed by a report published last year by RLUK and The London Library. In particular, it would be interesting to investigate further the role of personal memory and its transmission within libraries and the means by which forgotten treasures and hidden collections are discovered.

To discover more about the history that this collection discloses, a good starting point would be Rudolf’s work on his family Said bin Sultan 1791-1856: ruler of Oman and Zanzibar, his place in the history of Arabia and East Africa. Rudolf’s mother, Emily Ruete, also wrote a very famous personal account, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess (New York, 1888), translated into English from the original German version, and An Arabian Princess between Two Worlds (Leiden, 1993).’