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November 27 2011

Exhibition tells how Charles Dickens was spooked by ghost tale doppelganger

Bicentennial show at British Library says rival accused Dickens of plagiarism but author said he was amazed by story similarities

The spirits which terrorise and ultimately reform Scrooge in A Christmas Carol may have been due to a nightmare brought on, as the miser put it, by "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese".

Now a new exhibition at the British Library marking the bicentenary in 2012 of Charles Dickens's birth suggests that the real-life mystery of another ghost story by the author may have had an equally prosaic beginning: a manuscript he allegedly stole from a rival.

Dickens wrote some of the best-loved spooky yarns in the English language – but he did not please one artist who accused him of plagiarising his apparition in a piece published in 1861.

The author and artist Thomas Heaphy bitterly accused Dickens of underhand dealing and blatantly ripping off his own story which he had sent to the printers.

Friend and biographer John Forster described Dickens as having "a hankering after ghosts".

But Andrea Lloyd, curator of the British Library exhibition, says the author was always careful to include a possible rational explanation in his ghostly writings.

He was fascinated by the occult, a genius at evoking eerie atmosphere and powerful, malign characters, and knew there was nothing like a spinechiller to boost circulation for magazines which published his novels in instalments.

In 1861 Dickens published a piece in his own All the Year Round magazine called Four Ghost Stories. One of the stories featured a beautiful young woman asking a portrait painter if he could remember her face well enough to paint it from memory months later.

The artist replied in puzzlement that he possibly could, but would much prefer conventional sittings.

"Impossible," she replied. "It could not be."

It transpires that she is already dead, and the portrait is needed to console her grieving father.

The story is hardly Dickens's finest effort, but it certainly caused a reaction in Heaphy, a now almost entirely forgotten Victorian artist. (Tate and the National Portrait Gallery both have works by his father in the collections, but nothing by him).

Heaphy wrote to Dickens in a rage, claiming that not only had he written up an identical story, ready for publication in the Christmas issue of a rival magazine, but that it had really happened to him – and on 13 September too, the very date Dickens had added in pencil in the margin of his own version.

There was never any explanation of the mystery: Dickens insisted that he was completely innocent of plagiarism, deliberate or psychic.

He called the episode, Forster wrote, "So very original, so very extraordinary, so very far beyond the version I have published that all other stories turn pale before it.

"Everything connected with it is amazing; but conceive this – the portrait painter had been engaged to write it elsewhere as a story for next Christmas and not unnaturally supposed when he saw himself anticipated in All the Year Round that there had been treachery at his printers."

The exhibition includes a very rare publication, a small booklet entitled A Wonderful Ghost Story Being Mr H's Own Narrative, which the artist published years later, giving his own version of the story.

Despite including in very large type "with unpublished Letters from Charles Dickens", it was not a success.

Although Dickens conducted a running battle with spiritualists over exposés in his magazines of fake mediums and seances, he did however believe in the so-called new science of mesmerism.

He was convinced he himself could heal others by putting them into a hypnotic trance.

Catherine, his long-suffering wife, pregnant by him for most of their 22 years together (10 of their children survived) before an acrimonious separation, made a rare protest when he devoted day after day of a holiday to gazing into the eyes of a beautiful young woman who claimed to be tormented by anxiety and insomnia.

In reference to this, the exhibition includes an indignant letter he wrote to Catherine years later, raking over the coals yet again.

There is also a copy of The Terrific Register, a "penny dreadful" weekly magazine which the teenage Dickens devoured, enthralled with and terrified by stories about murder, ghosts, incest and cannibalism.

Within five weeks of Dickens's death on 9 June 1870, spiritualists in America were claiming the last laugh. The spirit of the credulous sceptic, had been in touch, they insisted, and had dictated various messages through raps and knocks including the ending to his unfinished last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

A Hankering after Ghosts, Charles Dickens and the Supernatural, British Library, free entry, 29 November–4 March © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 11 2011

Royal Manuscripts: British Library lights up the middle ages – in pictures

See highlights from a new London exhibition which brings to life illustrated books belonging to the kings and queens of medieval England

Sponsored post

August 24 2011

British Library digs out decorative paintings to brighten up dark ages

Library will display treasures such as illuminated royal transcripts and a 13th century pilgrimage route map as part of new show

They may have been called the "dark ages", but a new exhibition at the British Library will aim to show that there were medieval artists producing work that was as remarkably colourful as it was beautiful.

The library has announced details of a winter exhibition that will display, on a scale never seen before, some of the treasures from its collection of illuminated royal manuscripts.

The show's curator, Scot McKendrick, said on Wednesday that the 1,200 manuscripts it owned was "a remarkable inheritance". He added: "They are some of the most outstanding examples of decorative and figurative painting that survive in Britain from between the 8th and 16th centuries."

Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most luxurious of all artefacts from the middle ages, and ones produced for English kings and queens are among the most stunning.

McKendrick said the state of preservation was "truly remarkable, truly spectacular" and the vibrancy of the colours seem as fresh now as they would have been when they were first painted.

One level of the show will be a rare opportunity to see glorious art contained within books that are normally stored away. Another will shine light on to the evolving relationship between English monarchs and the Christian church from Anglo-Saxon to Tudor times.

One section will focus on a monarch who should be better known – Edward IV, who ruled between 1471-83 and who succeeded in reviving the fortunes and finances of England. He was a great collector of illuminated books and some of the best were from Bruges and the Low Countries. "They are large, very colourful and focus on subjects both secular and religious," said McKendrick.

A highlight of the exhibition will be a route map or itinerary for any 13th century pilgrim preparing to journey from London to Jerusalem. Drawn by Matthew Paris, a historian and an advisor to Henry III, it is almost a rough guide to getting there through Kent, France and Italy to the boat in Apulia, showing the must-see landmarks en route. It is all the more surprising since the only foreign country Paris is known to have ever visited is Norway.

There will also be a contemporary illustration of a 10th century king, a rather jolly-looking Edgar, celebrating the introduction of Benedictine rule at Winchester. Another exhibit, from 600 years later, will be Henry VIII's psalter, in which he has made intellectual annotations in Latin.

The details came as BBC4 also announced a three-part tie-in series called The Private Lives of Medieval Kings.

• Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination will be at the British Library from 11 November-13 March. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 01 2011

Out of this world

A new sci-fi exhibition at the British Library in London brings together some otherworldly materials to show how our vision of the future was formed

June 10 2010

Vermilion Sands (1971) | JG Ballard at the British Library

An annotated typescript from Vermilion Sands, a collection of short stories full of 'dreams and illusions, fears and fantasies', according to the author

Super-Cannes (2000) | JG Ballard at the British Library

A hand-edited excerpt from one of the author's later novels, Super-Cannes, a corruscating tale that boasts one of the darkest Ballardian endings of all

Miracles of Life (2008) | JG Ballard at the British Library

A densely reworked page from Ballard's autobiography, detailing his recollections of the Lunghua internment camp, where he lived between 1943 and 1945

Crash (1973) | JG Ballard at the British Library

A heavily revised typescript from the novel Crash shows the meticulous nature and sheer labour of the author's writing process

Lunghua Camp: minutes from a meeting | JG Ballard at the British Library

Notes from a prisoners' meeting at the Japanese internment centre outside Shanghai, where a young JG Ballard and his parents spent part of the second world war

Empire of the Sun (1984) | JG Ballard at the British Library

A handwritten excerpt from Empire of the Sun, possibly the author's most widely read novel, comes complete with reworkings and spelling mistakes

Saved for the nation: JG Ballard at the British Library

The British Library's newly acquired JG Ballard archive, a treasure trove of papers and handwritten manuscripts, sheds fresh light on the life and works of one of Britain's most visionary writers

May 11 2010

Tea Revives the World

It was 1940, the early days of the second world war ... naturally everyone's thoughts turned to tea. This poster for the Tea Market Expansion Board was a rallying cry in times of darkness

Plan of the parish of Smallburgh

One of the earliest estate plans ever made, this map flaunts the wealth, cultural interests and political loyalties of Norfolk landowner Sir Philip Parker

The Klencke Atlas

This giant tome, recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest atlas, was presented to Charles II on his restoration to the British throne

Diego Gutierrez's world map

The first of its kind to focus solely on the Americas, this wall map highlights the sovereignty of King Philip II of Spain, who is depicted gliding imperiously over the Atlantic

April 23 2010

Here be monsters

When the world was still being discovered, maps were not only images of power, but retained elements of the fabulous and the mythical. And – long before landscape paintings – they were displayed as works of art

Red arteries spread like roots over the paper – is this an anatomical sketch? A vision of vessels branching from the heart? Yet the page from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Arundel notebook in the Treasures gallery of the British Library is not – or not directly – a study of human anatomy. It is a map: a geographical plan, a piece of the world reduced to a flat depiction. It shows the riverbed of the Arno near Florence and was made in about 1504 for a practical purpose. Florence, at war with its neighbour Pisa, had hatched a plan to divert the Arno and so deprive the enemy city of its lifeblood. Leonardo was surveying the river to work out how it could be turned from its course.

And yet, if it is practical in purpose, and scrupulous in method – Leonardo has walked the riverbed, surveyed it – this little sketch map is cosmic in scope. It is a vision of the world, touched into life in a few strokes of red chalk. It expresses, magically, an entire philosophy. For it is no coincidence, still less a poetic flourish, that all the bloody strands of the riverbed make you think of anatomy. Leonardo and his contemporaries conceived the earth as a living creature, a macrocosmic mirror of our own inner life. As he put it:

Man has been called by the ancients a little world, and certainly the name is well given, for if a man is made of earth, water, air and fire, so is this body of the earth; if man has in him a lake of blood, where the lungs increase and decrease in breathing, the body of the earth has its ocean which similarly rises and falls . . .

When Leonardo drew his map of the Arno, the shape of the entire earth was changing. Just three or so years later, the Lorraine map-maker Martin Waldseemüller would publish what is arguably the most influential map in history: not only does it accurately depict the shape of Africa, but a thin sliver of land in the western sea is named, for the first time, "America". The maps of the age of discovery boggle the mind with their intellectual conquest of space. In the mid-15th century, a state-of-the-art map created by the Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro had seen the world as a huge disc, with south at the top, Africa just a vague shape, and nothing to the west of the Fortunate Isles (the Canaries). Not just the knowledge of world geography but the very conceptualisation of space in this late medieval map looks to us remote and arcane. It seems an incredible leap that just over a century later maps of the world looked much as they do today – the same continents, their coastlines instantly recognisable, planned out on paper in a mathematically consistent manner.

The period from 1500 to 1700 is the golden age of maps. Scientific achievement is central to that story – or is it? For Leonardo's little sketch of the Arno reveals that maps still had something about them of the fabulous and the mythical. They were works of imagination as well as calculation. This is why the maps of these centuries still give us a warm glow of pleasure, why they are treasured by collectors and daydreamers – because this was still a time when monsters haunted the oceans, even on the most forward-looking charts. The world was being discovered, its shape analysed, but it was imagined – Leonardo shows us – as an organic and mysterious entity. Rivers were arteries, the seas lungs. Nature was a synthesis of the four elements, fire, earth, air and water: maps were records of its marvels.

Nothing could convey the wondrous and strange nature of geographical knowledge more spectacularly than the Klencke Atlas, which stars in an ambitious exhibition, Magnificent Maps, at the British Library, as well as in the accompanying BBC4 series The Beauty of Maps, featuring the exhibition's curator, Peter Barber. This book is taller than a man: bound in leather and closed with huge metal clasps, it opens to reveal a succession of printed maps each of which is more than 2m wide. This is the biggest atlas in the world, according to Guinness World Records – the macrocosm to the microcosm of Leonardo's Arno sketch. In November 1660 the diarist John Evelyn saw it in Charles II's cabinet of curiosities, together with portrait miniatures, precious stones and "a curious Ship model": it was a present fit for a king, presented to the new and restored monarch on his coronation by a group of Amsterdam merchants.

At that moment Amsterdam was the world centre of map-making. Maps were engraved and printed there not just for monarchs but for merchants and their families. The virtue of the atlas conceived by Johannes Klencke was, through sheer extravagance, to ennoble something that was actually increasingly universal. The maps in the great book are the same printed maps you see in Vermeer's paintings of Dutch merchant houses: in his Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, painted almost contemporaneously with the Klencke Atlas in the early 1660s, a young woman stands in the pale light from a window, her eyes fixed on the message she's reading. The light shines on her blue silken tunic and blue-upholstered chairs, which might suggest a lover far away across the blue sea. Behind her, dominating the whitewashed wall, is a printed map, mounted on wooden poles and hung like a painting to decorate the chamber. It is on the same big scale as the prints in the Klencke volume. It shows fractured peninsulas and islands separated by water, a Dutch geography of vulnerability that matches the woman's mood.

Big printed wall maps appear in many of Vermeer's paintings, as well as in such contemporary scenes as Pieter de Hooch's A Woman Drinking with Two Men (1658) in the National Gallery. These views of everyday life bear witness to an almost totemic cult of maps. What, exactly, was the appeal of a huge woodcut map hanging on your wall? As much as we want to read simple emotional messages into Vermeer's paintings, the wrinkled, breeze-touched, black and white paper maps he depicts also attest to a fascination with maps as such, with what they are – and this, for him, is enigmatic.

Magnificent Maps leads us deep into the mentality of awe and wonder his pictures of maps communicate. It tells the story of mural maps – geographical statements that were hung on walls or even painted into the very plaster of palaces as frescoes. It argues that maps in early-modern Europe were as likely to decorate a room as paintings or tapestries were – and so puts a new twist on the truth that maps can be works of art in their own right.

No one who has walked along the seemingly endless Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican Museums would doubt this. This hypnotic corridor is today walked by streams of tourists heading for the Sistine Chapel, punctuated along its straight-as-a-ruler marble funnel by souvenir stalls. But it is a bizarrely memorable walk that grips your imagination and stays with you as one of the sights of Rome – for the entire corridor is frescoed with mammoth maps of Italy's regions and cities. Painted by Ignazio Danti in the mid-16th century, these epic cartographies create a terrestrial theatre that in its way rivals the heavenly theatre of the Sistine Chapel itself. The maps are realistic, detailed and on a colossal scale – but were they ever any use to anyone? It is hard to picture a Renaissance pope standing on a stepladder to study a detail of Volterra or Venice to decide some political move. There were manuscript maps in the Vatican Library that could be spread out on a table for real strategic meetings. These painted maps are images of power, designed to amaze and to stupefy. As you progress further along the corridor, the cavalcade of city plans becomes repetitive, narcotic and sublime. It is a spectacle as deliberately excessive as the Klencke Atlas, a majestic display of ownership and control of space. The architecture of the long gallery is itself a daunting demonstration of spatial majesty – an unfurling of absurdly generous proportions – and the maps mirror its grandeur.

The British Library exhibition can't, obviously, bring the Vatican frescoes to London – although it includes large-scale photographs of this and other cartographic interiors – but does have the Klencke Atlas and a range of maps made in the same spirit of daunting excess. Jacopo de' Barbari's bird's-eye view of Venice, created in 1500, is on a scale that would fit quite easily among the city plans in the Vatican: nearly 3m wide. But de' Barbari's map is a woodcut, black ink on paper, that sent the image of Venice around the world to hang in foreign palaces as evidence of the Most Serene Republic's power.

What a map. It seems for all the world to have been surveyed from the air. The incline of the earth as de' Barbari looks down on Venice, seeing the exact shape of its islands in the ethereal setting of the lagoon, uncannily resembles an aerial photograph. But obviously he did not have a flying machine. He projected this image in his imagination, tilted up towards us at just such an angle as to reveal the overall shape of Venice while also allowing the eye to zoom in and see, as in a topographic painting, the scene on St Mark's Square. Ships teem around the Arsenale while a colossal triton rides a sea monster at the mouth of the Grand Canal – the real marries the fabulous as Venice is wedded to the sea.

The artistic glory of Renaissance maps lies in the ambiguity of their nature, for it is impossible to decide if this a map in the modern sense or a landscape picture. It hovers magically between the two. A straightforward plan of Venice would reveal the contours of the city and the layout of the canals, but would not capture the living reality of city life; while a painting at street level, such as Carpaccio's Miracle at the Rialto, though it conveys the forest of chimneys and the intimacy of bridges, can give no sense of the city's overall design. There is a genius and a freedom to de' Barbari's bird's-eye view that gives him both perspectives simultaneously – near and far. In the 21st century, a user of Google Maps can explore similar variations in perspective – moving from a city plan to a more detailed map of a neighbourhood to photographs taken on the street. This masterpiece gives all of that in one rich image.

In fact, a map such as this is so close to landscape art that it urges us to ask – do early-modern maps ape landscape pictures, or is it the other way around? Mapping and landscape art evolved together in the Renaissance, and this exhibition reveals something quite shocking to conventional art history: that maps were displayed as works of art before landscape paintings were similarly valued.

One of the earliest exhibits in the show is a facsimile of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, created like other medieval maps to stand alone and be studied like a painting or a stained glass window. The curators also attempt to reconstruct the world map that is known to have hung in Henry III's bedchamber in Westminster Palace in the 1230s. That is centuries before landscape art was valued in its own right. The first dated landscape drawing in European history – meaning a landscape that is not a background, but a theme in itself – is currently on view in the British Museum's exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings: it was done on 5 August 1473 by Leonardo da Vinci. While its mountainous foreground is a fantasia of landscape, the plain in the distance rolling away towards the sea resembles a map in its outlines of fields.

Just like Jacopo de' Barbari – but in a uniquely sustained and complex way – Leonardo saw landscape art and map-making as intimately related. His drawings and paintings navigate an intricate course between the viewpoint of a landscape artist and a geographer. Unlike de' Barbari he actually did try to build a flying machine and hoped to use it for skyborne observation – he writes in a notebook of "surveying" the land from his "great bird". But he probably never did get his machine off the ground. Instead his bird's-eye views are feats of imagination, like de' Barbari's woodcut of Venice. Leonardo experimented with every point of view for map-making: his maps range from views of mountains in deep relief, the earth tilted up for our pleasure, to straightforward plans, to unique hybrids of the two. The vertiginous landscape of his painting The Virgin and Child with St Anne in the Louvre is itself as satisfying as a geographic atlas: the detailed rocks in the foreground stretch away to a blue vista of alpine mountains that has the sweep and scope of a map.

Leonardo was a pioneer of landscape but his landscapes are legitimated, as artistic subjects, by religious narratives – there is no pure landscape painting by him. One of the first such paintings is by Albrecht Altdorfer and portrays a bridge and a castle in a forest (it's in the National Gallery): this is almost an anti-map, as it tells us nothing of where the place is, or its wider geographical context. But when painters started successfully to sell landscapes in the 17th century they took their cue from Leonardo's cartographic approach, and their paintings aspired to the status of maps.

In 17th-century Europe maps were honoured and admired. The fresco maps of the Vatican and of other Italian palaces – Danti, who painted the Vatican maps, cut his teeth creating a fabulous room of maps in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – were emulated across the continent. Printed maps, often hand-coloured, were designed to be displayed, as Dutch paintings show them to have been. If maps were hung like paintings, cartography also produced a new genre of sculpture – the globe. The exhibition has a pair of globes – terrestrial and celestial – created by Emery Molyneux in London at the end of the 16th century, that were the most renowned such objects in Elizabethan England.

Maps of this age provided extraordinary density of information. Jacques Callot's map of the siege of Breda (1628-29) is not just a geographical but a historical image. It shows the battle for the Dutch town of Breda in complex detail, bearing witness to atrocities as well as recording the victory of Spain, and combining the human detail of a history painting with the spatial information of a map. It is a work of art in its own right and its topographic details also feature in the eerie vista of Velázquez's masterpiece of history painting, The Surrender of Breda.

Landscape painters looked hard at such maps and their popularity. The landscapes of Ruysdael and Cuyp in the Netherlands, of Poussin and Claude in Italy and France, aspire to be maps. If you look at these paintings they all, in different ways, relate intensely to mapmaking. Dutch landscape artists go flat on the land, exploring its details: their paintings are like maps turned on their sides. In accuracy and detail they strongly resemble the printed maps streaming out of Amsterdam.

The French landscape artists who worked in 17th-century Rome may seem less obviously geographical, but to look at their paintings is to look at pictures that sum up the world as encyclopedically as Leonardo does: again and again these paintings aspire to include every kind of scenery in one view – woodlands, rocks, sea, mountains – so that a painting has the satisfying completeness of a map of the world. Not until the 19th century would painters rebel against this tendency for each landscape to be a kind of world map – a summary of the nature of landscape as such. A beguiling example of such paintings is Francisque Millet's Mountain Landscape with Lightning (1675). Here it is not just a variety of scenery that is encompassed: every one of the four elements is on view. The Leonardesque view of the Alps encloses a rich anthology of natural and human terrains, a world map in one glorious vista.

Even so, it is no more compelling, as a work of art, than the maps of the age. Only when geography became truly rationalist, when maps were purified into utilitarian tools, did landscape art rule the gallery alone – and that transformation around 1700 was a loss to the imagination. Art and science both lost blood when monsters vanished from the maps.

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art opens at the British Library, London (01937 546060) on 30 April. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 03 2010

How the devastation caused by war came to inspire an artist's dark images of Alice

Private letters reveal the horror behind Mervyn Peake's surreal images of Wonderland and the Gormenghast trilogy

The dark turrets and chasms inside the mind of Mervyn Peake are familiar to readers of the Gormenghast trilogy and to fans of his surreal illustrations for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But now previously unseen private letters, handed to the British Library, have revealed a crucial influence on the writer's troubled imagination: his travels through a devastated German landscape as a war correspondent at the end of the second world war.

The writer and draughtsman had been sent out on assignment for the Leader magazine in 1945 and the unsettling impact of the scenes he witnessed is clear from nine letters he sent home to his wife, Maeve Gilmore. Peake reported from a series of deserted and bombed-out cities, as well as from the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen and from a war crimes trial, and he struggled to communicate the horror he experienced.

Attending the trial of Peter Back, a Nazi soldier accused of murdering an American airman, Peake writes to tell his wife of the German lawyer's efforts to explain how Back "had been warped" by his background. "Oh, Maeve, it was very tragic – its sadness is more upon me now than at the time…", the passage concludes.

Elsewhere in the bundle of private letters and rare illustrations handed over to the library this weekend is a description of the destruction he had seen: "Terrible as the bombing of London was, it is absolutely nothing – nothing compared with this unutterable desolation."

In a powerful letter to his wife, Peake paints a verbal picture of Cologne cathedral standing in stark contrast to the flattened city around it. "Bonn was nothing to Cologne from the point of view of destruction. It is incredible how the cathedral has remained, lifting itself high into the air so gloriously, while around it the city lies broken to pieces, and in the city I smelt for the first time in my life the sweet, pungent, musty smell of death. It is still in the air, thick, sweet, rotten and penetrating… But the cathedral arises like a dream – something quite new to me as an experience – a tall poem of stone with sudden, inspired flair of the lyric and yet with the staying power, mammoth qualities and abundance of the epic. Before it and beside me stood a German soldier, still in his war-worn, greeny-coloured uniform. His face betrayed nothing. Cologne lay about him like a shattered life – a memory torn out."

Rachel Foss, curator of modern literary manuscripts at the library, believes this private letter and others like it show how marked Peake was by the heavy responsibility of war reporting.

"He speaks of his intention 'of trying to portray the tragic side of things irrespective of whether it fits into the Leader or not'; and at another point of his decision to make records of what humanity suffered through war," Foss said.

The library acquired the archive for £410,000 with the support of donations from the independent charity The Art Fund and Friends of the British Library, Friends of the National Libraries and other individual donors. It arrived in 28 containers and includes 39 Gormenghast notebooks, as well as the complete set of original drawings for the 1954 edition of Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and will be made available to students and researchers.

Dating from 1940 through to Peake's death in 1968, a number of the documents in the archive are unpublished material, such as correspondence with the writers Laurie Lee, Walter de la Mare and CS Lewis.

"Peake is one of the most eclectic of artists, with such a creative talent across a range of media," said Foss. "So to have all this research brought together under one roof will allow all the intricate connections and the interplay between his work to be studied properly for the first time."

The archive also features the unpublished draft of the sequel to the Gormenghast trilogy written by Peake's widow, which was discovered earlier this year by Peake's granddaughter in the attic of the family home. Gilmore based the new book, Titus Awakes, on a page-and-a-half of fragmented notes left by her husband after his death. It is to be published by Vintage Classics next year to mark the centenary of Peake's birth.

Next month, one of Peake's pen-and-ink illustrations for Alice will go on display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery as part of the special exhibition, Curiouser and Curiouser: The Genius of Alice In Wonderland.

The complete set of illustrations for the book is to be exhibited at Sheffield University Library in June. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 26 2010

Largest book in the world goes on show for the first time

Klencke Atlas, which is 350 years old, will be displayed as part of British Library exhibition on maps

It takes six people to lift it and has been recorded as the largest book in the world, yet the splendid Klencke Atlas, presented to Charles II on his restoration and now 350 years old, has never been publicly displayed with its pages open. That glaring omission is to be rectified, it was announced by the British Library today, when it will be displayed as one of the stars of its big summer exhibition about maps.

The summer show will feature about 100 maps, considered some of the greatest in the world, with three-quarters of them going on display for the first time.

At the exhibition's core will be wall maps, many of them huge, which tell a story that is much more than geography. Many of them, said the library's head of map collections, Peter Barber: "Hold their own with great works of art."

He added: "This is the first map exhibition of its type because, normally, when you think of maps you think of geography, or measurement or accuracy."

The exhibition aims to challenge people's assumptions about maps and celebrate their magnificence, as demonstrated by the 37 maps in the Klencke Atlas, which was intended as an encyclopaedic summary of the world.

It is almost absurdly huge – 1.75 metres (5ft) tall and 1.9 metres (6ft) wide – and was given to the king by Dutch merchants and placed in his cabinet of curiosities.

"It is going to be quite a spectacle," said Tom Harper, head of antiquarian maps. "Even standing beside it is quite unnerving."

As a contrast, one of the smallest maps in the world, a fingernail-sized German coin from 1773 showing a bird's eye view of Nuremberg, will be exhibited close by.

The exhibition will show how great maps could be as important as great art. Before 1800 – "that's when the rot set in," joked Barber – were you to visit palaces or the homes of the wealthy, maps would have been almost as prominent as paintings or sculptures or tapestries.

They were an important status symbol. Rich men would have a map of the world to show their worldliness; a map of the Holy Land to show their piety; a map of their estate to show their wealth; and a map of their home county or city to show how loyal a citizen they were.

They would also be personalised. For example, a map made in 1582 for Sir Philip Parker of Smallburgh in Norfolk also includes a little Brueghel-esque figure of a man with a monkey on his back: a mocking reference to his recently deceased half-brother Lord Morley, a Catholic and a family embarrassment who "spent his time wandering fairly pointlessly around southern Europe", said Barber. "It is a way of saying 'I'm not like that'."

Barber and Harper have chosen to exhibit maps from more than 4.5m held in the library's collection – the second biggest in the world after the Library of Congress.

Barber said the maps were all made for adornment but "at a deeper level they were made for propaganda. It's all spin. Every map is an exaggeration because you can never 100% capture reality on a reduced surface.

"Up until 1800 people expected maps in these contexts and enjoyed them, but in the course of the 18th century you got the growth of the cult of science, the belief that maps were to do with geography and the only thing that was important was its accuracy."

Barber believes maps are too neglected, particularly by art historians. "In a way we are trying to redress this. The official credo is the only thing that counts about a map is that they are utilitarian objects not really meant for display and that is not the case."

There will also be maps where the propaganda role has been more explicit, such as a Nazi poster produced in Vichy France which shows Churchill as an evil, cigar-chomping sea monster whose attempts to seize Africa and the Middle East were being thwarted by Axis forces, bloodily clipping his tentacles.

Then there are political propaganda posters which use maps – one even features a reference to removing troops from Afghanistan. The cartoons on the posters were used in the election campaign of 1880 and one shows Disraeli as a great hero assassinating "the windbag" Gladstone and maintaining the British link with Ireland. A cannon on the map is a mocking reference to Gladstone's call for soldiers to be withdrawn from Afghanistan.

A pro-Gladstone poster drawn by the same cartoonist has the Liberal leader killing Disraeli with a pen.

Gladstone won the election by a landslide.

Magnificent maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is at the British Library from 30 April to 19 September. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 13 2010

The eyes have it

Photography came a long way during the 19th century – and captured the age more intimately than ever before. Andrew Dickson goes in search of a lost era

November 28 2009

Excellent Points

Rosemary Hill on an intriguing exhibition at the British Library

The early Victorians were the first generation to see themselves through the camera lens, but the idea of photography, the possibility of making an exact reproduction of visual experience, was one – like flight and the philosophers' stone – that had haunted the imagination of inventors for centuries. The "camera obscura" or "dark room" that could project images on to a blank surface was known in antiquity, but a long hiatus followed. Then, at the end of the 18th century it was found that paper coated in silver nitrate would retain the image of an object placed on it for a tantalising moment before it faded. As the Georgian age came to an end, the enthusiasm for light shows and spectacles of all sorts reached fever pitch – as if photography were being willed into existence by sheer popular demand. London and Paris were full of novel experiences with enticing names – panoramas, cycloramas and, in Leicester Square, Philip de Loutherbourg's Eidophusikon, in which pulleys, mirrors and sound effects conjured up a plausible storm at sea.

The building that housed one of the most successful of the light shows, the Diorama, still exists in Regent's Park. In a kind of early Imax, the audience sat in a rotating drum to watch clouds, apparently, pass over the moonlit ruins of Holyrood. Its inventor was the artist Louis Daguerre, who was first across the line with a true photographic process in 1839, in France. The sensation caused by his breakthrough prompted William Henry Fox Talbot, who had been working quietly in Wiltshire at his home, Lacock Abbey, to unveil his own version, which he called the calotype. In his early prints, the Gothic tracery of Lacock shimmers, ghostly, into being, fragile and mysterious beside the pin-sharp immediacy of the daguerreotype. From the beginning, photography could be many things.

One thing it always was, was popular. It never entirely left the show business world from which it had emerged. By October 1839 the Adelaide Galleries in Pall Mall were already offering daily demonstrations of the daguerreotype process. These had to compete for attention with the galleries' famous – and ear-splitting – steam gun, which went off every hour, as well as a 40in electric eel from South America out of which Michael Faraday was able to get a "most intense" spark. By the mid-century, technical improvements had made photography cheap enough for a mass market. The 1861 census recorded 2,879 professional photographers in England and there were many more keen amateurs.

While the movement of Victorian society as a whole tended to make class divisions ever more rigid, photography managed to be classless. Cumbersome puns in Punch about dustmen having their "cart de visite" photographed reflected the speed with which the "lower orders" seized on a chance to sit for the sort of portrait the middle and upper classes had been commissioning for centuries. Photography was also, from the beginning, considered a suitably genteel pastime for women, who produced some of the most enduring portrait studies of the 19th century. The camera at times perhaps allowed them to express ideas that a lady might hesitate to put into words. Julia Margaret Cameron's study of Tennyson made the laureate look, he thought, like a "dirty monk", and he was pleased with it. Lady Alice Mary Kerr's darkly glamorous vision of the poet and serial seducer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt transports his erotic appeal in full force across a century and a half.

Questions were asked, of course, the same questions that are usually asked about new technologies – notably "is it art" and "is it a threat to society as we know it" – and as usual many of the answers were wrong. The history painter Paul Delaroche's immediate response, "from today painting is dead", turned out to be premature, while the Times's confidence that photography would never replace the "completeness" of the painted panorama was also misplaced. But the popularity of photography did not, at first, alienate those who saw themselves as guardians of high culture. Ruskin, as an architectural artist, reassured his elderly father that "photography is a noble invention, say what they will of it. Anyone who has worked, blundered and stammered as I have done [for] four days, and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain, done perfectly and faultlessly in half a minute, won't abuse it afterwards."

Charlotte Brontë, who seems to have been the first novelist to use "daguerreotype" as a verb, was also an enthusiast. In Shirley, published in 1849, Caroline Helstone, encountering her would-be lover unexpectedly, finds his image is "struck on her vision with painful brightness . . . as vividly as if daguerreotyped". The implication is that somehow the photographic image would be even more real, more intense, than his physical presence. It was this truthfulness, the potential of "nature's own transcript of herself", to offer a moral purity beyond human fallibility that appealed to the more thoughtful early Victorians.

Of its social effects, the art critic Elizabeth Eastlake spoke for many in heralding it as an invention "made for the present age". The age was one of railways and expanding empire, and it wanted, she believed, a supply of "cheap, prompt and correct facts" to aid its steam-driven progress. This was what, to some extent, it got. Journalism was transformed as engravings of photographic images and then photographs themselves were used in magazines and newspapers. The Crimea soon provided an occasion for the first war photographs. Photographic images show Nelson's Column going up in the 1840s and the Vendome Column coming down under the Paris commune. But news pictures were not the most popular, and it was decades before anyone thought seriously of using a camera to document social conditions. Landscapes, historic sites, celebrities, especially Dickens, and endless pictures of themselves were what the Victorians liked best.

It was not long before the supposed objectivity of the camera came into question. As a sceptical Mark Twain pointed out: "You can't depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus." Besides Eastlake's vision of ever expanding truth and Charlotte Brontë's endorsement of the emotional force of the image, there was always another, more shadowy, reality. Fakes, mistakes, tricks and lies were endemic in photography from the beginning, and grew in number and variety as photographic techniques improved. EP Loftus Brock was an early, if inadvertent, demonstrator of its limits as a scientific method when he used it at Stonehenge to further his investigations of the alignment of the stones. Having engaged a photographer to observe with him the sunrise at midsummer in order to test the popular belief that the sun rose directly over the Heel Stone, he reported back to the British Archaeological Association that this fact was now "verified beyond all question". Since the sun actually rises slightly to the north, either Brock's camera or his imagination must have been out of focus.

Nor was moral purity guaranteed. It was not a coincidence that the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 followed shortly in the wake of new developments in photography. The wet collodion process, which introduced glass instead of paper negatives, was published without patent protection in 1851. Shorter exposure times and cheaper prints were achieved soon afterwards and a booming market for pornographic pictures was one immediate unintended consequence. In response, the Society for the Suppression of Vice campaigned effectively for the new law. It was less effective, however, in defining obscenity. It was over dirty pictures, rather than more elevated questions about craftsmanship and intention, that the debate about whether or not photography was art became interestingly heated.

It first came to a head at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition, where OG Rejlander showed his enormous photographic composition The Two Ways of Life. Printed from 30 separate negatives, it featured groups of allegorical figures, among whom the vices were portrayed by naked women. Despite Rejlander's robust defence of his work as art – the groups, he argued, were entirely based on classical sources – the picture caused a scandal. When the Scottish Photographic Society later put it on display, it was forced to take it down on "moral grounds" – though the objectors had the wind taken out of their sails by Queen Victoria, who clearly thought The Two Ways was art and bought a print for Prince Albert. He hung it in his private suite at Windsor.

Victorian erotica today looks for the most part as monumental and unexciting as Victorian furniture. The 19thcentury pictures that give us most pause, like Lewis Carroll's studies of young girls, were in their day quite unexceptionable. Perhaps still more disturbing are the documentary images of "natives", "lunatics" and criminals by which it was hoped that science, first as physiognomy and later as eugenics would open the way to a systematic understanding of human nature. The shudder of hindsight shouldn't blind us to the sincerity or the nobility of the 19th century's belief in the power of its new medium to scan the soul. Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals used images of mental patients taken by the neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne at the Salpêtrière hospital. Yet even at the time there were those who noticed that studies of "hysteria" and "megalomania" mainly serve to underline how little of the mind the face reveals.

As the century wore on, a certain disillusionment set in. Trollope thought the photograph much less useful to the novelist than Charlotte Brontë had. "Let daguerreotypers do what they will," he wrote in Barchester Towers, "they will never achieve a portrait of the human face divine." Ever the pessimist, Thomas Hardy, who thought that Darwin's discoveries had destroyed all hope of happiness for the over-evolved species that was mankind, saw in photography the potential for positive malevolence. In his A Laodicean, of 1880, Paula Powers loses faith in her lover, Somerset, when shown a picture of him apparently exhibiting "the wild attitude of a man advanced in intoxication". This kind of manipulation of the image, achieved in Hardy's story by Somerset's enemy William Dare, was already, Hardy noted, a popular jape with "certain facetious persons of society". Joke pictures of the German emperor in a screaming rage or of the pope dead drunk did a brisk trade.

A more calculated manipulation of images towards the end of Victoria's reign was responsible for the rash of cloudy spirit photographs, veils of ectoplasm and hovering hands that convinced Conan Doyle and many others that the camera could record the dead as truthfully as the living. As embarrassing in their way as the erotica, the faked images of seances make a telling counterpart to the hundreds of images taken over the same period to celebrate the queen's diamond jubilee in 1897. The jubilee saw photography reach its apogee as an instrument of imperial triumphalism. It would record, people believed, for "after years" Great Britain's work of "civilising, of governing, of protecting life and property, and of extending the benefits of trade and commerce" across the world.

What the images reveal now, as they settle back into the lengthening history of photography, is the extent to which every Victorian certainty was shadowed by an equally profound doubt. For each confidently posed picture of a tiger hunter or the royal family there is a joke in dubious taste, a stocky nude or a fragile hope of life after death. As photography found its place in culture and society, no longer a technical novelty or a lever to prise open the moral truths of humanity, it gave back to the Victorians what they brought to it. Now it passes them on to us in ways that would have surprised them. "A photograph is a most important document," said Mark Twain, "and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity." The Victorians are not damned by their photographs, but they are revealed, in ways that would surprise them, telling truths they hardly knew themselves.

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs is at the British Library until 7 March 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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