Recent highlights

Do you follow us on Twitter (we’re @UniRdg_SpecColl)? Our staff regularly share images and snippets from our collections on Twitter, and we thought we’d share highlights from our recent tweets. Enjoy!

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An unusual recent acquisition for our Great Exhibition Collection

A peek inside our copy of Kircher's Musurgia Universalis, complete with singing chickens!

A peek inside our copy of Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis, complete with singing chickens!


A colourful shelf from our HM Brock library

A colourful shelf from our HM Brock library

Favourite Find: Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for ‘The Rape of the Lock’

I’m Fiona Melhuish, and in my work with the Special Collections rare books I get lots of opportunities to spotlight my favourite items from our wonderful book collections through our Featured Items on the Special Collections website. One of these include an edition of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, and for my first ‘Favourite Find’, I would like to focus on another of Beardsley’s masterpieces, his illustrations for The rape of the lock : an heroi-comical poem in five cantos by Alexander Pope. This small book, measuring 14.3 cm high, was published in London by Leonard Smithers in 1897, three years after Elkin Mathews & John Lane published Salome. It is a copy of the miniature ‘bijou’ edition of the book that Smithers had first published in 1896, and is one of 1000 copies printed on art paper.

Headpiece for the first canto: ‘The Billet-Doux’

Headpiece for the first canto: ‘The Billet-Doux’

Aubrey Beardsley was born in 1872 and died from tuberculosis in 1898 at the age of only twenty-five. He completed the ten Rape of the Lock drawings and a cover design for the first edition in just a few months despite his increasingly poor health. During his short and brilliant career he became notorious for his illustrations in two ‘decadent’ periodicals of the period, The Yellow Book and The Savoy. His designs and illustrations for books such as Le Morte D’arthur, Lysistrata, Salome and Volpone added to his notoriety as the most daring artist of the 1890s.

The exquisite illustrations for The Rape of the Lock, considered by many critics to be among Beardsley’s finest work, are almost like pieces of intricate needlework in their delicate rendering of line, texture and pattern. It is appropriate that the title page should credit the illustrations as having been “embroidered … by Aubrey Beardsley”. Close examination of the drawings also reveals that they are full of Beardsley’s mischievous wit, especially in his use of sexual imagery, and demonstrate his flair for satire, features which are characteristic of much of Beardsley’s art.

Plate: ‘The Toilet’ – Belinda at her dressing table.

Plate: ‘The Toilet’ – Belinda at her dressing table.

Beardsley produced the illustrations in the style of eighteenth-century engravings, inspired by the French rococo style. The drawings are photoengravings, drawn on paper and then photographed directly onto the wood block, enabling the artist to make his drawing in any size he wanted since it could then be reduced by photography to the dimensions required for the publication. The eminent American artist James McNeill Whistler, who was known to dislike Beardsley’s work, was forced to change his opinion when shown a portfolio of The Rape of the Lock drawings by Beardsley himself, declaring that “Aubrey, I have made a very great mistake – you are a very great artist” whereupon Beardsley, overcome by the unexpected praise, burst into tears. Even Punch magazine, who had ridiculed the artist as ‘Aubrey Beardsley-Weirdsley’ because of his taste for the grotesque, came close to praise when it described The Rape of the Lock as “a dainty curiosity”.

Pope’s narrative poem was first published in 1712 and then later revised, expanded and reissued, appearing in its final form in 1717. The poem, a satire on contemporary society, centres on a ‘storm in a teacup’ incident of a theft of a lock of hair from the character of Belinda by her suitor, the Baron. The triviality of the incident is emphasised by Pope’s use of the formal and elaborate structure of a classical epic poem. The story was based on an actual incident recounted by Pope’s friend, John Caryll.

Plate: 'The Rape of the Lock' - the Baron can be seen on the left of the picture snipping off a lock of Belinda’s hair with a pair of scissors.

Plate: ‘The Rape of the Lock’ – the Baron can be seen on the left of the picture snipping off a lock of Belinda’s hair with a pair of scissors.

This book is one of a number of publications illustrated by Beardsley held in the University rare book collections. Other books include his illustrated edition of Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1898) and Under the Hill (1904), as well as a number of volumes of The Savoy and The Yellow Book. The University archives also hold correspondence and personal papers relating to Beardsley, which include family photographs. There are also a number of archive collections relating to other figures of the 1890s period, including Lord Alfred Douglas, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde (in the Sherard papers), and the publishers John Lane and Charles Elkin Mathews.

Plate: ‘The Battle of the Beaux and Belles’ – Belinda confronts the Baron.

Plate: ‘The Battle of the Beaux and Belles’ – Belinda confronts the Baron.

An A to Z exhibition: Agriculture to Zoology and beyond

bloch toad fish

The ever-beautiful toad fish, from the 1796 Ichthyologie, ou, Histoire naturelle des poissons (COLE—X394)

Our library and archives hold a wide range of collections that touch on many of the areas studies here at the University and beyond. From law material to zoology, agriculture to English and education to typography, we have something for everyone! To showcase the breadth, we have a new exhibition here at Special Collections that includes items selected from across our collections.

Henry II charter1

A 12th-century charter of Henry II to the Abbey of St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte (MS 1488)

One case is dedicated to the story of the University itself, showcasing Reading’s tradition of academic excellence back to the late 19th century, when the Schools of Art and Science was established in Reading. These became part of an extension college opened in 1892 by Christ Church, Oxford. Three years later the local Palmer family, of the famous biscuit manufacturer Huntley & Palmers, donated the London Road site – and later this building in which MERL and Special Collections are now housed (originally Alfred Palmer’s house), which became the first Hall of Residence for women. We received a Royal Charter in 1926, the only university to do so between the two world wars, and in 1947 we purchased our main Whiteknights campus, the former country estate of the Marquis of Blandford.

Other cases explore the sciences, social sciences and humanities. An 18th-century text on the history of fish sits beside a 12th-century charter of Henry II to the Abbey of St Sauveur-le-Vicomte; a 1950s guide to sign lettering for the Festival of Britain complements the 19th-century Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones; and a theatre programme for a Japanese production of Waiting for Godot in 1994 is matched by a signed letter from WB Yeats.

Owen Jones

The grammar of ornament, by Owen Jones (PRINTING COLLECTION FOLIO–745-JON)

The exhibition will be on display at the Special Collections Service from until 30 September 2013.

Manuscript of Beckett’s Murphy acquired

Beckett page

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The University has acquired the working manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s first major work, Murphy, at the cost of £962,500, at an auction at Sotheby’s in London today.

The hand-written manuscript, which has been in private hands for the last half century, will now become accessible to Beckett scholars around the world as part of our Beckett Collection.

At nearly 800 pages long, Murphy is among the greatest literary manuscripts of the 20th century and, according to Sotheby’s, is the “most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades”. Murphy was Beckett’s first published novel and the first major expression of the central themes that would occupy Beckett for the next half century.

Professor James Knowlson, University of Reading Emeritus Professor, friend of Beckett and his sole authorised biographer, said: “This manuscript is a treasure trove of insight into the mind of one of the greatest literary figures of the past 100 years.

“Murphy was Beckett’s first published novel. To see the novelist’s development of some of the most famous passages in modern literature gives a unique insight into how he worked at an early stage in his career.”

The manuscript, which fills six notebooks, provides a text that is substantially different from the final printed edition in 1938. With its revisions, different colour inks, dated pages and doodles, it is an extraordinarily rich manifestation of Beckett’s writing practices and provides a unique and deep insight into the mind and working practices of one of the greatest writers of the last hundred years.

Murphy concerns the main character’s attempts to find peace in the nothingness of the ‘little world’ of the mind without intrusion from the outside world. It is Beckett’s London novel, which he began writing in August 1935 while undergoing intensive psychoanalysis there. It was completed in Dublin in 1936 and unlike many of his other works, which were written in French, was written in English.

There are significant textual differences from the published novel throughout the manuscript. The most heavily revised passages provide fascinating evidence about the portions of the text that gave Beckett most trouble. Eight versions of the opening are crossed out until the Nobel prize-winning author eventually settled on “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Peter Selley, Sotheby’s Senior Specialist in Books and Manuscripts, commented: “This is unquestionably the most important manuscript of a complete novel by a modern British or Irish writer to appear at auction for many decades. The notebooks contain almost infinite riches. The manuscript is capable of redefining Beckett studies for many years to come.”

Completion of Beckett’s novel was followed by 40 rejections from publishers before Routledge eventually published the book in 1938. Although it received sympathetic reviews, it was not a success at the time of publication.

The University of Reading is an acknowledged world centre for Beckett studies. A new project led by Special Collections, Staging Beckett, will put Beckett’s impact on modern theatre practice in the UK and Ireland under the spotlight for the very first time.

Behind the Scenes: Current research at SC

To kick off our ‘Behind the Scenes’ series, we thought we’d take a quick look at the variety of research going on in and the types of readers visiting our Reading Room. Over future posts, we’ll look more closely at the work that our teams are doing, from special projects to day-to-day work.

Ladybird collection

BBC researchers

Merryn and Clare from BBC Four Timeshift look at Ladybird artwork

Our Ladybird collections are always popular with our visitors, particularly after the MERL exhibition (see photos and more info). Ladybird books were first produced during the First World War as simple children’s story books, but the series eventually grew to include the educational books many of us know today. The books were heavily illustrated, and the Ladybird collection here at Reading includes 700 boxes of original artwork and proofs.

Recently, researchers from the BBC Four programme Timeshift arrived to take a look at Ladybird drawings. Timeshift  explores Britain’s cultural and social history, and the research team uncovered some beautiful drawings of shopping in mid-century Britain. Keep an eye out for the episode!


Chevreul's 'Cercle Chromatique'

Chevreul’s ‘Cercle Chromatique’

One of our particular strengths is our printing and publishing archives, and we often get researchers looking at the records of the various publishing firms we hold or our examples of fine printing. In June, we pulled out a beautiful and very rare copy of Chevreul’s De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs (usually translated as The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors). This groundbreaking work by a French chemist looked at colour contrasts and is still considered important to the history of chromolithography, or colour lithographic printing. Keeps an eye out for a new publication using this and other parts of our printing collections.

Behind the Scenes: New gadgets in the building


GUARDIAN with glass lowered, base insert for flat documents in place, and with lightbox and negatives ready to go!

It’s not every photographer who gets to use a camera set-up as large as the one we now have in our offices. Many of our projects involve digitization work, and we’ve recently installed an ICAM ‘GUARDIAN’ camera to help us whiz through digitization projects and protect our collections.

Our collections are often difficult to photograph or scan by traditional means. Many are fragile and difficult to manipulate without damage; books don’t often lay flat, film must be handled carefully and objects need to be photographed from odd angles.

We’re in the middle of various projects that involve digitizing some of the many millions of photographs – as well as other forms of audiovisual material and collection objects – that are held in the MERL Library and Special Collections. Desktop scanners and handheld cameras can do the job, but they often take time and manipulation. Having an open scanner that allows us to rotate, move and support our material quickly and carefully is important.

Editing in action

Editing in action

The GUARDIAN is a large freestanding piece of photographic equipment consisting of a digital camera mounted on a column with a base unit that can accommodate many different formats and sizes of documents, as well as bound volumes through the use of the book cradle which is situated under a piece of glass. Instead of scanning the negatives, a process that can take up to 15 minutes for 2 quarter plate (4.75” x 6.5”) glass negatives, using the GUARDIAN and a lightbox we can now digitize a box of 50 negatives in about an hour.

Keep an eye out for the fruits of our labours!








Random Penguin? Random House merges with Penguin

penguin random house logo

No, the name won’t be Random Penguin, nor does their (temporary) logo bring any excited penguin/house mashups. But frequent users of our publishers’ archives and those with an interest in the book trade may be interested to know that Random House and Penguin have negotiated the largest-ever publishing house merger to create Penguin Random House.

How the merger affects the publishing industry remains to be seen, though the combined entity is sure to have extraordinary influence with an approximately 27% share of the UK’s book publishing market and 25% share of the US market. The merger brings the new corporate strapline ‘The world’s first truly global trade book publishing company’.

Those with an interest in the changing world of contemporary publishing may also wish to take a historical look at the publishing industry. The University of Reading is home to the archives of several imprints currently owned by Random House, including Chatto & Windus, Jonathan Cape, Bodley Head, Secker & Warbug and Hogarth Press. Although the Penguin Archive is held by Bristol University, our readers are able to access Penguin material via the archives of Ladybird Books, as well as other affiliated collections such as the papers of literary personalities and staff.