Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Day at the British Library

I’m in London right now on a bit of a marathon research trip for my dissertation on the sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866).  I thought bklynbiblio readers might be curious to know what exactly a typical day during one of these research trips actually means.  I arrived at Heathrow Airport on Wednesday morning, having slept about three hours on the plane, then took the Express train to Paddington Station and a taxi to my hotel, where I dropped off my bag and freshened up.  I grabbed my laptop, made the twenty-minute walk toward the British Library, stopping briefly for a large cappuccino (caffeine will be a key ingredient all day) and a sandwich at Pret a Manger.  By the time I actually crossed the plaza and entered the doors of the BL (picture left from Haiku Girl's Flickr pool), it was about 11:30am.  Now, I’m familiar with the BL to some extent, having secured a reader’s card and done research here in the past, not to mention seeing some of their excellent exhibitions.  You can bring very little into the reading rooms of the BL, so the rest of what I’m carrying goes into a locker.  I had ordered a few items days earlier, so I logged into the system and discovered most of them were ready.  Off I went to the Manuscripts Reading Room.

One of the items I had ordered was the July 1823 catalogue for the Christie’s auction of the contents of the studio of the British sculptor Joseph Nollekens.  My interest in this was based on the fact that Liverpool-raised Gibson went to London in 1817 for about six months before moving on to Rome, and I had uncovered in past research that apparently a small sculpture of Gibson’s was included in this auction, suggesting Gibson may have worked with Nollekens briefly during this stint in London.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the listing; the auction catalogue at the BL only detailed the works for the first day of the sale.  Days two and three are separate catalogues and presumably Gibson’s work was listed in those.  So unfortunately my first bit of research for the day turned out to be a bust, but ever the optimist I am hopeful I can track this down, because the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum also has a copy of the catalogue and I’ll be there on Friday.  I moved on to my second request, an enormous tome called Pictures and Drawings Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage, R.A. (1898).  What does Armitage have to do with Gibson?  Nothing actually.  I’ve been wanting to look at this rare volume of engravings after Armitage’s works because of a long-term article I’m working on related to the Anglo-Jewish Pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, about whom bklynbiblio readers will recall I have written about in the past.  Did I find what I was looking for?  No, but again it was good to be introduced to the work of this man who was another important Victorian painter, but about whom we know very little today (although readers may recall my writing about his fabulous allegorical painting Retribution at the Leeds Art Gallery).

Fighting exhaustion, I moved on to the Rare Books Reading Room, where I immersed myself in another rare item, the 1816 sale catalogues for the collections of prints, drawings, and books owned by William Roscoe.  Roscoe was a Liverpool-based attorney who in the 1790s retired early to become a Renaissance historian, writing a biography of Lorenzo de’ Medici that is still considered by scholars today to be a foundational text on the Florentine patron.  Roscoe made a series of bad financial investments and was forced in 1816 to auction off much of his art collection and library.  Following the example of the de’ Medici, Roscoe was Gibson’s first patron in Liverpool and helped nurture him in his pursuit of becoming a sculptor.  Gibson reported in his memoirs about Roscoe allowing him to study his print collection, so I was pleased to be able to look through these catalogues and was quite successful in identifying some of the works he owned, because (as I suspected) they relate to some of Gibson’s earliest works of art, making the scholar in me happy that I had just proven I was right.

Admittedly, reading through 1816 sale catalogues was exhausting, even though I risked the humiliating gawking of other researchers when more than once I got up and started jogging in place to wake up.  By the time I was finished, I needed a break, so I headed to the outdoor café for a Coke and biscuit (that’s a cookie in America).  Reinvigorated from more caffeine and the brisk cool air, I headed back inside, this time to the Humanities Reading Room, where I had a few books waiting for me here as well.  Although Derrick Pritchard Webley’s Cast to the Winds: The Life and Work of Penry Williams (1802-1885) is a relatively recent work, hardly anyone has this book because no one knows who Penry Williams was.  He was a Welsh painter who went to Rome and became Gibson’s closest friend.  The two bachelors traveled extensively together and Williams was Gibson’s executor of his will and estate.  If you think I may be insinuating something between the two of them, you may be right, although I will admit more to speculative thinking rather than outright factual arguing about their relationship.  The book held some interesting surprises for me and did add more information about Gibson that I didn’t know, so that was definitely another success of the day.

And then the fire alarm went off!  Everyone in the BL had to evacuate, so I grabbed my laptop and we left.  Forty-five minutes later we finally were all allowed back inside, and if you could have watched the crowd of researchers herd back into the building, you would have thought we were either cattle blindly walking to our destiny, or perhaps more appropriately braindead zombie researchers dedicated to finding out that one fact everyone else has missed about X-topic, knowing the BL held it in its bowels of knowledge.  Allow me to point out I’m actually not joking about this.  The BL is ALWAYS mobbed with people.  They range from college-aged students to the elderly, and it never ceases to amaze me how sometimes it’s nearly impossible to get a seat in one of the reading rooms because all 200+ are taken…that’s per reading room, and there are about a dozen or more reading rooms!  But I digress…

Finally getting back inside again, I was able to look at my next item, volumes one and two of L’Ape Italiana delle Belle Arti Giornale Dedicato ai Loro Cultori ed Amatori, which began publication in Rome in 1835.  This is a beautiful large-format journal with short essays in Italian and exquisitely produced line engravings after past Renaissance and modern paintings and sculptures by artists working in Rome.  This journal really was for the wealthy collector.  Gibson had two works engraved (remember, at this time he was a “modern” artist!) in these first two volumes, a privilege matched only by two other contemporary sculptors, the Belgian-born Matthieu Kessels and the German artist Emil Wolff.  My reading knowledge of Italian got a workout (and this still on the three hours of sleep on the plane), so I decided to hold off on going through more issues of this journal for now and find out about two other works I had ordered.  Turns out they were housed in one of their off-site facilities and wouldn’t be available until Thursday, so I’ll have to go back to look at those.  By this point in the day (nearing 6pm), I was shattered, so I went for a lovely cuppa tea and another biscuit, and meandered back to the hotel so I could finally unpack.


Anonymous said...

Did you find your Nollekens sale reference? Because we have at least days 1 and 2 in Watson Library and possibly Day 3 as well, as there is a third record but it repeats the July 4 of the second, perhaps in error. Or perhaps not.

bklynbiblio said...

I did find it, thanks! Had to go to England, but that isn't a bad thing.