March 03, 2010

The British Library

One of the many places I visited while in London was the British Library. It was one of those great fortuitous discoveries: I went out to take a short walk to recover from a 24 hour bug (long story) and happened upon the library. Of course, it wasn't really a discovery - it's on a main road next to King's Cross station - I just had no idea where it was and was surprised to come across it. Anyway, its an amazing library that has some great public (and free!) exhibits.

The library's permanent exhibit collection includes a number of illuminated manuscripts, original Shakespeare folios, original letters and manuscripts from the likes of Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, gorgeous bound and jeweled books, and a Magna Carta. My spontaneous visit also happened to coincide with the final days of an exhibit on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edward FitzGerald's translation of the 11th century Persian poem. It was a wonderful exhibit; I've never read the whole of the poem, so I learned much from what was there. What I loved most about the exhibit, and the poem itself, was the artwork it showed that the poem has inspired throughout the centuries. The poem lends itself beautifully to being depicted through visual arts, as each of the many publications of it have done. It's a gorgeous progression of artistic styles, from the early illustrations that accompanied it, to the hold the poem took on the art deco movement, to the succession of ornately bejeweled bindings and covers. It continues to be beautifully republished today (look at the Folio Society's gorgeous recent publication of it! Alas, it is super expensive, only 1,000 were made, and it is long sold out). Here is an illustration by an artist often associated with the Rubaiyat (and many other fairy tales and stories): Edmund Dulac. I love his artwork and I think it perfectly complements the beautiful language of FitzGerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter'd into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav'n, and strikes
The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light

(Artwork via Artpassions)


  1. Unsurprisingly, there are many wonderful things I love about this post. I am also incredibly jealous that you got to see that exhibit!

    (Ironically, I'm currently on a bus avoiding writing a paper about putting rare books on display!)

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