On my day off this week I decided I would check out a couple of the free exhibitions at the British Library. I had seen the newest exhibition in The Folio Society Gallery, ‘Picture This: Children’s Illustrated Classics’, advertised on the British Library website and was eager to see what it was like.
This exhibition explored the illustrations of ten classic children’s books from the 20th century, including Paddington Bear, The Secret Garden, The Hobbit, Ted Hugh’s The Iron Man and Roald Dahl’s brilliant Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. ‘Picture This’ really brought to life the interesting depictions of such familiar classics over time. I found the original illustrations of The Hobbit, drawn by JRR Tolkien himself, particularly interesting having just seen his masterpiece turned into a three-part epic film. They also had illustrations from Alan Lee, whose visual representations of Tolkien’s Middle Earth comes the closest to Tolkien’s vision, and who was employed by Peter Jackson as a concept artist for The Lord of the Rings films and the The Hobbit.
I was also able to listen to an interview with Michael Foreman (the illustrator of the second edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, before Quentin Blake’s iconic depictions) discussing his meeting with Roald Dahl over the sketches he had done of Willy Wonka – Dahl was adamant that Willy Wonka should have a tall, slim figure whereas Foreman had drawn him as rather squat, due to the fact that he owned a sweet emporium. From reading Susan Hill’s encounter with Roald Dahl and now listening to Foreman’s experiences I am starting to think that he isn’t the friendly giant (I always imagined him looking like the BFG) I always thought he was. But then he knew how to captivate a child’s imagination and was very particular about his characters.
Although quite a small exhibition, the fact that it is free and includes some of the original illustrations for these well-known and well-loved classics means it is well worth going. It has definitely inspired me to pick up these books again and see how they compare to my experiences as a child reading them. Though ‘Picture This’ will only be on until the 26th January.
The second exhibition I decided to go to was a permanent one in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery – Treasures of the British Library. It includes sacred texts from all faiths around the world, maps, early printing, historical, scientific and musical works. However, I was mainly interested in the literary treasures that were hidden in this dark, mysterious gallery. After adjusting to the rather loud literature lesson that appeared to be taking place in the gallery I was soon able to settle down and enjoy looking at the original manuscripts of Beowulf and Alice’s Adventures Under Ground (before it was renamed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).
The biggest enjoyment for me however, which I didn’t know about, was the original hand-written draft of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. This book is probably one of my favourite Carter novels that I have read so far – I have read it numerous times and studied it for my dissertation. It was mesmerising to see the creation of it in front of me; to see Angela Carter’s handwriting and her thought processes as she crossed out, added and subtracted words to the text. I wish I could have taken a picture but, unfortunately, that was forbidden!
I couldn’t have left the Treasures of the British Library exhibition without seeing the most famous and the most historical document there – the Magna Carter (Great Charter). The British Library holds only a few of the remaining copies of the Magna Carter. The picture postcard below shows the original text of King John’s Magna Carter from 1215.