From mushrooms to cheese to mini books – here’s six of the stranger books to be found in the collection of the Bodleian Libraries
Rilke’s mushroom spores
Mushroom spores growing out of the pages of a book are usually the stuff of nightmares for most archivists and librarians, but this peculiar volume of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke comes from artist Stephen Emmerson who has added mushroom spores to the German mystical poet’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge – by way of a translation.
Emerson’s various experiments in playful poetics and book translation include what he describes as Homeopoetry, in which he soaks a book (anything from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself to Rimbaud’s a Season in Hell) and then makes sugared pills out of their essence. The idea goes that if you place one of these pills under your tongue, you will be able to write like the said distilled poet. Emerson even suggests blending different poets to make something truly original.
A hidden Jacobite broadside from the scaffold
This book is a hiding place for the last speech of James Shepheard who was hanged for treason at Tyburn on March 17th 1718. A London coach painter’s apprentice, Shepheard was executed for writing a letter in which he threatened to assassinate George I to allow the exiled Stuart king James II to take the throne.
It is placed in hollowed out bindings to be smuggled away from Tyburn, both boards have been hollowed out and contain the manuscript, in an 18th-century hand, and signed James Shepheard.
The text was published as a Jacobite broadside as ‘The dying speech of James Shepheard’, of which there are several editions. Cheap single sheets of printed text, broadsides covered everything from proclamations, news items, satires, controversies, Jacobite risings or, like this one, scaffold speeches.
American Cheese, 20 Slices, by Ben Denzer is a book made from shelf-stable, plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese. A graphic designer with a degree in Architecture and Certificate in the Visual Arts, Denzer has also created books made of bound ketchup packets, sliced meat and napkins.
Another project sees him pair classic books with ice cream desserts. Check out his Instagram account to delve into his particular approach to the artist’s book – many examples of which are now in library and museum collections across the world.
Another artist challenging the traditional concept of Book art, Dizzy Pragnell’s work is a curious interpretation of seemingly everyday ingredients, encouraging the viewer to look with fresh eyes at the familiar.
Her vegetable and fruit papyrus explores the role played by the ingredients, as symbols of reproductive nature, which give us foods essential for survival.
Georgian memento of the king’s close shave
William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst of Hackney (1835 – 1909) was a book collector with an antiquarian interest in the acquisition of Ancient Egyptian papyri, but a note in the collection reveals the breadth of the Conservative MP’s interest in books and manuscripts. It offers as a gift, a playbill printed on silk and allegedly dropped by George III on May 15th, 1800, from his royal box at the Drury Lane Theatre, London, when a would-be assassin, James Hadfield (ca. 1772-1841), fired at the King during the playing of the national anthem.
A former soldier who suffered severe head wounds at the Battle of Turcoing in Flanders in 1794, Hadfield was acquitted of attempted murder by reason of insanity. He spent the rest of his days in Bethlam Royal Hospital (apart from a brief escape, which saw him apprehended in Dover as he tried to board a boat to France) and he eventually died there of tuberculosis in 1841.
His intended target, George III, also suffered mental illness and a regency was eventually established in 1810 in which his eldest son, George Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince Regent, which gave us not only the Regency period but one of the most colourful Royal biographies of the Georgian era. The old King died in 1820.
A collection of miniature books
The range of books in this collection of miniatures is wide, from a 1625 Psalter in a contemporary embroidered binding to a mid-20th century paperback dictionary, a 1780 thumb Bible to a finger New Testament of 1900, a book bound in wood from the Mary Rose to a cathedral binding.
They were collected by Miss Ursula Mary Radford whose niece donated them to the Bodleian in 2010 – together with a specially made mini bookcase to house them all.
The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years, as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries…