If you have ten thousand precious manuscripts, another ten thousand fabulous first editions collected since the very beginnings of printing, if you have these and nine million more, all unique, all valued in their own way, how on earth can you select just seventy items to show? And who can ever know so vast a catalogue well enough to filter it down to even a thousand items for display, never mind reduce it to less than a hundred?
Perhaps when you are blessed with such riches it doesn’t matter which seventy are selected, they are all going to be fantastic. At the Treasures of the Bodleian exhibition in Oxford, the library has produced a truly amazing display. For anyone with even a passing interest in the written word in all its wonderful forms it is an event which demands the superlative, demands the 5-star rating too frequently given yet rarely deserved.
As a rebellious and contrary youth, I found William Blake and his poems hugely attractive. He was so much the one-man-band, writing, illustrating, engraving and printing his work – and what work! seductive and subversive, apparently anti-religious with a persistent hint of sexuality – for me he became a heroic figure. I never imagined that I might one day see an original copy of Songs of Innocence produced by Blake himself. And I’d never have dreamed it would retain such vibrant colour and energy. Yet here it is for all to see, one of the seventy, alongside Magna Carta, Isaac Newton, Shakespeare, and Mendelssohn, to name but a few.
Move along to the next cabinet to jump a little over three hundred years to another hero for another age. There under the same dim lighting, gazed at with the same wonder, whispered about with the same reverence as Blake, is Philip Pullman’s notepad showing his workings and reworkings for part of Lyra’s Oxford, that delightful addendum to the masterpiece of His Dark Materials.
As a significant event in the history of printing, the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 must surely rank amongst the greatest. In today’s digital world the book itself may have less significance, but its production still finds echoes in the Gutenberg project. Who but scholars and antiquarians know that there are still a few original Gutenberg Bibles held in collections today? Yet the exhibition contains the Bodleian’s copy, the print on the page still as crisp and amazing as it was the day it was printed.
Step forward a century and savour the sheer beauty of an illuminated Qur’an from 1550. Then, if you’re ready then for another wonder, try the little fragment of St. Thomas’ Gospel from the third century, excluded from the Bible as it is known today but wonderfully included in the Bodleian list of treasures.
If you do plan a trip don’t fear the crowds or the queues, there aren’t any; don’t look for signs or posters or placards, you’ll find none; don’t imagine the entrance fee is expensive, there isn’t one. Understated? Certainly, perhaps only as the British can understate such a display of treasures. But what a welcome antidote this is to the hype and hoop-la that so often accompanies quite trivial events. The understatement is probably justified too, for the quite practical reason that the venue is small and the lighting is necessarily low to protect the exhibits, so large crowds would be difficult to accommodate.
If you have the chance to go to Oxford, have an hour or two free to be amazed by these genuinely historic and surprisingly beautiful items, then seize the opportunity and visit Treasures of the Bodleian. It’s simply jaw-dropping.
Treasures of the Bodleian is open until December 23rd 2011. For full details of opening times and exhibits visit http://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk Admission is free but entry may be limited during busy periods.