A strange sad week in the Beckett archive


Beckett library at University of Reading Special Collections Service

Beckett library at University of Reading Special Collections Service

It has been a very sad week for all of us involved with the Beckett Collection, as it marked the passing of two people associated with him, as well as the 25th anniversary of his death. Billie Whitelaw is widely recognised as having been Beckett’s favourite actress and the foremost interpreter of his work. Our colleague Professor Anna McMullan paid a fulsome tribute to Billie and noted her long association with the University of Reading.

The news of Billie’s death came on Sunday. On Friday we had announced that the University of Reading and the Beckett International Foundation had purchased the archive of Billie’s work with Beckett, and we were (and remain) full of excitement about that. The purchase has been the result of Special Collections staff working closely with academic colleagues to raise the necessary funding. It is this type of collaboration that created the Beckett Collection here at Reading and that helps to sustain and enhance it.

On Sunday we also learned of the death of veteran photographer Jane Bown. Her encounter with Beckett was less collaborative than those of Billie Whitelaw: Bown surprised him in an alley outside the Royal Court Theatre after he had spent the day avoiding her lens. The result was a portrait that has become one of the most iconic images of the author.

The co-incidence of these two extraordinary women dying on the same day  perhaps enables a moment to reflect on the strange and different ways in which works of art comes to be “born”. Billie Whitelaw’s brilliant interpretations of Beckett’s work were the result of long rehearsal periods and many hours of discussion, and of a close, friendly association – Dr Mark Nixon has called it a “crucial working relationship”, and the archive will throw more light on exactly how they worked. Jane Bown’s incredible image was certainly not the result of a collaborative venture – it was spontaneous to a large extent. In some ways it is a reminder of the fable about Picasso charging an exorbitant sum for a quick sketch (“It took me my whole life”).

While mourning their passing, we celebrate the extraordinary lives of these three people and the incredible art that their encounters – both long and short – generated.

12 Days of Christmas roundup

It’s almost Christmas! That means good cheer, Christmas spirit and….a fight to the death competition?!

Although technically the 12 days of Christmas begin with 25 December, we won’t be around over the break – so we had a 12 Days of Christmas #12off competition with the Museum of English Rural Life and the Ure Museum in early December! We’d like to think that we came out on top. Here’s what we came up with – follow us on Twitter or Tumblr to see the other collection’s choices.


New acquisition: Actress Billie Whitelaw’s Beckett archive

BillieWhitelawdress_2web617394_37793The University of Reading and the Beckett International Foundation are delighted to announce the purchase of a unique archive of actress Billie Whitelaw’s work with playwright Samuel Beckett.

The £35,000 acquisition, funded by generous contributions from the Beckett International Foundation, the Arts Council England/Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries, was made at an auction at Sotheby’s, London, last week.

Billie Whitelaw was Irish writer and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s favourite actress. He directed her in several theatrical productions and revivals of his plays. The collection includes correspondence, annotated playscripts, rehearsal notes for some of Beckett’s most famous works, including Play, Not I, Happy Days, Rockaby, Eh Joe, Embers and Footfalls, as well costumes worn by Billie during those performances.

The items will join the rest of our Beckett Collection, which is the world’s largest collection of manuscript materials relating to Beckett. This will offer anyone with an interest in Beckett’s plays or the theatre a unique insight into how one of the world’s greatest writers worked with his actors.

Billie Whitelaw has had close links with the University of Reading since 1992 when she became the first Annenberg Fellow. During her week-long residency, she gave a series of workshops and performances for staff, students and members of the public. Over the years she has been an important supporter of the Beckett Collection and is still a Patron of the Beckett International Foundation. In 2001 she received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Reading.

Billie famously performed ‘Not I’ in 14 minutes at the Royal Court in 1973. The University hosted two rare performances of this iconic Samuel Beckett work which were performed by Lisa Dwan in 2013.

The Billie Whitelaw archive will feature in public events (such as exhibitions) and in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching programmes.

A trip to the SS Great Britain

This post comes from David, our Graduate Trainee Library Assistant. Each year, our teams visit a few other collections to learn about how they work and what material they offer. 

Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net),  via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net), via Wikimedia Commons

With just three weeks under my belt, I felt very fortunate to go on the staff trip to Bristol at the end of November. Although my Grandparents live in Ashton Vale and I have visited them often I had never really been to the centre of the city before. So it was with great anticipation that I met up with everyone outside the SS Great Britain. After a look round the gift shop, we were taken into the David MacGregor Library of the Brunel Institute where archive staff member Verity’s sister, Rhian, introduced us to their collections. Highlights included Brunel’s very own penknife, sketches of the ship and early design ideas for the Clifton Suspension Bridge with a pagoda in the middle! There was also a peepshow of the London tunnel (the collection had 12 in total), like Special Collections’ own from the Great Exhibition Collection. Their archive store was much smaller than ours but all the objects, paintings and papers were packed in neatly. I was surprised that there was no dedicated librarian but what they lacked in staff numbers they made up for in access. The conservators work behind glass panels so people can see them at work during their Conservation in Action sessions and they deal with over 100 volunteers. Another idea that we thought was possibly worth doing at MERL or Special Collections in the future was Archive in Five, a regular session in which a particular item is put on display and its story is explained to the public.

By mattbuck (category) (Photo by mattbuck.), via Wikimedia Commons

By mattbuck, via Wikimedia Commons

On first approaching the SS Great Britain you get some idea of its size but it’s only when you walk around it that the scale truly sinks in. Very cleverly the ship is preserved in dry dock in a humidified zone and you can go below the water level and fully see the hull, propeller and anchor. From the top deck down the ship has been refurbished to its mid-nineteenth century heyday (including class distinctions)! The promenade and dining saloons give an idea of the grandeur of travel for first class passengers at the time (as well as providing workspace for educational visits), while the steerage and galley sections show how the other half sailed. The accompanying Dockyard Museum was also atmospheric and informative; covering the ship’s origins, its 30 years carrying migrants to Australia, its return to Bristol and much more. You could have a go on the fog-horn too!

The second part of the trip was at Bristol University Special Collections but due to the bad traffic (clearly one reason I’d never made it to the centre before), we were only there for half an hour. Still, the staff there were very welcoming and showed us some highlights from their rare books including architectural and early medical texts (though we’d seen Vesalius before) and National Liberal Club Pamphlets. In the safe there was a fine Book of Hours like our own and the papers of Bristol University’s founders, the Wills and Fry families, who in some respects couldn’t have been more different. The former made their fortune from tobacco plantations while the latter were leading chocolate manufacturers and Quakers. Lastly, we had a quick look at the Penguin archive which is one publisher that managed to escape Reading’s collections. All in all, to quote Bristol’s very own Wallace and Gromit, it was a grand day out!

Special Collections and the 12 Days of Christmas

It’s almost Christmas! That means good cheer, Christmas spirit and….a fight to the death competition?!

We’re in a 12 Days of Christmas #12off competition with the Museum of English Rural Life and the Ure Museum, and we’d like to think that we’re coming out on top. Here are this week’s offerings – follow us on Twitter or Tumblr to see the rest next week!

New acquisition: ‘King Arthur’s Wood’

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian.

One of our most recent acquisitions for the Children’s Collection will also be one of the largest books in the collection. King Arthur’s Wood, by Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, measures an impressive 53 x 39 x 4 cms, with a robust hessian binding covering, and would seem almost too big for little hands. However, perhaps its large size is not surprising given that Forbes is better known as an accomplished painter, who was used to working in oils on the larger scale of an artist’s canvas.


Plate II from ‘King Arthur’s Wood’


King Arthur’s Wood was published in 1904, and was both written and illustrated, with charcoal drawings and watercolour paintings, by Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes. The book, which was created for her son, Alec, is a retelling of the story of Sir Gareth of Orkney from Sir Thomas Malory’s compilation of tales, Le Morte d’Arthur. It tells the story of a little boy called Myles who wanders into a wood and meets the dwarf who accompanied Gareth to King Arthur’s court, and who tells the boy of Gareth’s adventures. The story is also interwoven with episodes from the life of Myles himself.



Plate VIII from ‘King Arthurs Wood’



Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes (1859-1912) was born in Canada, and trained in England and Europe, chaperoned by her mother. In 1882, she moved to the artist colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany where she experimented with en plein air painting. In 1885, she and her mother moved to Newlyn, and later to St Ives where she met and married the painter Stanhope Forbes. In 1899 the couple founded the Newlyn Art School, and later Elizabeth was dubbed “the Queen of Newlyn” for her work with the art colony and in recognition of her status as a leading woman artist of her day. Her work largely focused on women, children and landscape, and was influenced by French realism and its subject matter of rural peasants and farming life. This influence can be seen in the illustration from King Arthur’s Wood shown below. Elizabeth was also influenced by the work of friends such as the artists Walter Sickert and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Many examples of her work can be seen at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance, Cornwall.



Plate XVII from ‘King Arthur’s Wood’


The book, which is published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co. of London, was printed by Edward Everard of Bristol, and the verso of the title-page of the book bears his beautiful Art Nouveau-style printer’s device [shown below]. Everard was a founder member of the Bristol Master Printers’ & Allied Trades’ Association, who sought to continue the fine printing tradition that began with the master printer Gutenberg and was revived by William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. The impressive Art Nouveau-style facade of Everard’s printing works, designed by William Neatby of Doulton & Co. in about 1900, is a monument to master printing and features the figures of Gutenberg and Morris. The facade [shown below image of printer’s device] can still be seen today in Broad Street in Bristol.

Everard sought to combine modern technological advances with the principles of fine printing exemplified by the Kelmscott Press and the nineteenth century private press movement. Everard designed his own typefaces, and his work was strongly influenced by Art Nouveau, often enhanced by page decoration in spot colour in soft pastel shades. Everard was an ideal choice of printer for Forbes’s beautifully illustrated book.



The printer’s device of the printer Edward Everard



The facade of Edward Everard’s printing works in Broad Street, Bristol


This copy of King Arthur’s Wood has been generously donated to us by one of our readers, along with a selection of other fine children’s picture books. The book, along with the rest of the Children’s Collection, is available to view on request in the Special Collections Service reading room.



Plate XXVI from ‘King Arthur’s Wood’ – Sir Gareth on horseback



Judith Cook and Melissa Hardie. Singing from the walls : the life and art of Elizabeth Forbes. (Bristol : Sansom, 2000). Available to loan from the 3rd floor of the University of Reading Library (759.2-FOR/COO).

Charles Harvey and Jon Press, A Bristol Printing House: Edward Everard’s Monument to Gutenberg, Morris and the Printer’s Art. Accessed at 08/12/2014 at: http://www.morrissociety.org/publications/JWMS/SP94.10.4.HarveyPress.pdf

Rural Reads Plus review: The Beetle

With the temporary closure of the museum, our book group has turned its attention to books inspired by our Special Collections. Our Volunteer Coordinator Rob Davies reviews last month’s Rural Reads Plus choice, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle. Please join us in January to discuss our next book, Annie Proulx’s Shipping News. For more info, see our book group webpages

9072956For the month of November our book group Rural Reads Plus read The Beetle by Richard Marsh. The Beetle was published in 1897 (the same year as Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and was an instant hit. It tells the story of a mysterious ancient creature haunting the streets of London, told by four different narrators.

The reader’s first meeting is with Richard Holt, a clerk who has fallen on hard times and is in need of shelter and warmth who clambers through an open window. The reader is then swept into a tale of romance, deceit and mystery which culminates in a thrilling chase across the country.

As a whole the group admitted that they enjoyed the first and last narrative of the book, but the two narratives in the middle were rather slow and cumbersome.

Our Librarian Liz revealed some hidden treasures from our special collections relating to Richard Marsh, which included original drafts of The Beetle and two photographs of the man himself. We were all astounded by Marsh’s incredibly small hand writing that densely filled the pages, and there were also a few comments on his rather robust size! It always amazing to come into contact with original drafts and notes, as you really get a sense of the authors thinking and thought patterns.

The Beetle is a classic example of a Victorian sensationalist novel; it brings the unknown mysteries of our ancient past into our cities, streets and homes. It is evident that Marsh was inspired by literary greats such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins, as well as popular contemporary themes like that of the railway and mysteries from abroad. Unfortunately it is usually known as the book that was published in the same year as Dracula and initially outsold it. I believe it should be remembered for its sensationalist tale and rather curious plot.