Posts Tagged ‘British Library’

Quentin and Roald

5 February 2017


I’ve always loved Quentin Blake’s illustrations for Roald Dahl’s children’s books. They are the way we see these stories: the two men are joined together in the same way as A.A. Milne and E.H. Shephard, or Lewis Carroll and J.C.Tenniel.

For a few weeks more (until 1st May) the British Library is displaying a set of 10 further portraits of Dahl characters that were commissioned from Blake to mark the centenary of Roald Dahl’s birth in 2016.

No claims for the quality of these images, snapped on a phone.

In a note that accompanies this small (and free) exhibition, Blake says,

The Roald Dahl Centenary Portraits ask you to imagine that a number of Dahl’s characters have been invited to come and sit for their portrait; they are depicted, not quite as they appear in the illustrations, but more formally. The perceptive spectator may notice that one celebrated couple declined to appear together, and another formidable personality obviously disapproved of the whole venture. Nevertheless, I hope you will be happy to see this group of well-known characters treated as though they were real people—which, of course, to many of us they are.

Anyway, Charlie is at the top of the post, and here are two more of the characters that did turn up for their new portraits. Matilda, of course:


And Danny, the Champion of the World, with his father.





Making claims

6 June 2015
One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta, held at the British Library.

The long history of the Magna Carta turns out to have been a lucky accident, or at least that’s my reading of it from the 800th anniversary exhibition at the British Library. King John signed it to placate a powerful group of barons who had taken up arms against the king in response to his heavy taxation and arbitrary behaviour, and had captured London. Having signed, John immediately cried foul, telling his protector, Pope Innocent III, that he had signed under duress (shades of Charles I, who has his own part in this story.) Innocent promptly issued a Papal Bull annulling the Charter.

Popes being Popes in the Middle Ages, that should have finished it off, except that John died a year later, leaving the 9-year old Henry III on the throne and his advisers needing to appease the barons, with Britain still in a state of civil war. The advisers reissued the Charter in both 1216 and 1217, the second time as part of the peace treaty that ended the civil war.

But the real breakthrough came in 1225, when Henry, no longer a minor, issued the fourth version of the Magna Carta in exchange for the grant of taxes, which also created a connection between representation and taxation.Importantly, he also stated that he did this with his “spontaneous and free will”, and affixed the Royal Seal.

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In praise of Boney

11 March 2015

 gillray james friend B20089 74

I learned recently, in the sleevenotes to The Moral of The Elephant by Martin and Eliza Carthy, that there are some 200 English folksongs still surviving from the Napoleonic War that – broadly – express the hope that Napoleon will successfully invade Britain and sweep away the British aristocracy.

This discovery came hard on the heels of reading a review by Edward Luttwak in the London Review of Books of Roger Knight’s book on Britain’s strategy to contain and then defeat Napoleon, in which the British-educated Luttwak writes of his argument with his Armenian father about Napoleon’s defeat:

[M]y father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. … Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.

Of course in the UK, with our Wellington Arches and Boots, our Waterloo Stations, and even our Sharpes and Patrick O’Brian novels, it is easy to forget how radical Napoleon was. We’re much more likely to repeat the story of Beethoven angrily scrubbing out the dedication to Napoleon from the front of the the Eroica Symphony when he heard that Bonaparte had crowned himself Emperor.

The reason for Luttwak’s father’s regret was indeed deeply radical. The Code Napoleon was founded on three simple and egalitarian principles:

  • “clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law”
  • “secularism … thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence”
  • “the right to individual ownership of property … and employment free from servile obligations.”

It is still the basis of the law in every country it was introduced into by Napoleon.

The song by the Carthys on *The Moral of the Elephant* is the often-covered “Grand Conversation”. The singer John Howson, who has performed it, observed,

many working people in England thought that if Napoleon beat Nelson they would have a better life, and songs about Napoleon were certainly popular in Sussex.

Similarly, in “Napoleon’s Dream,” the lyrics are clear:

On the plains of Marengo I tyranny hurled
And wherever my banners the eagle unfurled
‘Twas the standard of freedom all over the world
And a signal of fame,” cried Napoleon.

And the one book that’s studied British attitudes to Napoleon found that attitudes were more mixed than our history books suggest. Stuart Semmel writes,

“To a much greater degree than has been recognized, many British radicals continued to have kind words to say about Napoleon, and continued to use him as a cudgel with which to chastise their own rulers. There was a continuous, if at times attenuated, tradition of British radical admiration of Napoleon, stretching from the earliest days of his military career through his consulate and empire and on into the period of his exile.”

And some had more practical reasons for disliking their rulers. Taxes were high because of the war, and food prices higher, and unemployment had increased both because of the war and because of the introduction of new machinery. Even those who joined the army out of desperation couldn’t always support their families on a soldier’s pay, because of army wage structures. In Ireland (then part of Britain), they also had religious and political reasons to dislike the government, and there seems to be some evidence that some of these pro-Bonaparte songs emerged through Ireland.
Some of the songs were written later. One of the curiosities of Napoleon is that after the war was over and he was exiled on St Helena, the idea of what he’d stood for – “liberties” – seemed to give strength to Britain’s new radical movements. Ruth Mather of the British Library:
In 1819, the Female Reform Society of Manchester denounced the ‘unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France’, stating that it had ‘tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with an insurmountable burden of Taxation’. Although the war had begun with the ostensible aim of protecting the liberties of the British people, many of those people queried whether the corrupt aristocracy were the only ones to benefit.
The songs, perhaps, are part of a thread that connects the radicalism of the French revolution to Peterloo and to the successes of the Chartists in the 1830s.
*The image at the top of the post is a cartoon by James Gillray, “The Friend of the People; & his Petty New Tax Gatherer paying John Bull a visit,” from the British Library’s collection.*

Tom Paine on freedom

27 November 2008


I found this quote from Tom Paine while visiting the Taking Liberties exhibition in London last weekend, from the days when people understood that freedom needed to be fought for:

Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must … undergo the fatigue of supporting it.

The curators had edited out the phrase ‘like men’ which was in the middle where the ellipses are, perhaps because it was easier than having a discussion about gender and historical language.

The original is from a series of articles written by Paine, a prolific pamphleteer, in the months and years following the American declaration of independence, and are an interesting reminder of how fragile the fledgling American state was. This one is from September 1777.

The exhibition, which is free, runs until 1st March next year. It’s especially good on the ferment of the English Revolution in the mid-17th century, which led to the execution of Charles I and the creation of the Commonwealth. The Leveller movement produced The Agreement of the People and the Putney Debates,  radical beacons which were far ahead of their time, and are still astonishing to read now.

There’s also an interactive application, for those who’re unable to get there in person.  It’s worth visiting – as is the curator’s blog.

[Update 24.01.09: A good post at Our Kingdom on Obama’s use of Paine’s writing in his speeches – including the inauguration speech.]

The picture at the top of the post is from Peter Golden’s “Random Jottings” site, interesting thoughts on (mostly American) politics. “Three weeks ago, at our meeting, a board member asked: “What does leafleting have to do with democracy?”What indeed?