A large contingent from the Art Appreciation group spent an enjoyable day in London exploring the cultural riches of the British Library, writes Rosemary Hobbs
It is was a pleasure to be picked up close to home to travel to London in a comfortable coach, thanks to Jenny Ford’s excellent planning. Our party was split into two groups for afternoon tours of the building, giving us ample time beforehand to visit the permanent exhibition ‘Treasures of the British Library’ and enjoy some refreshments.
Around 200 of the world’s most important and beautifully illustrated books and manuscripts are on display in the Treasures Gallery. They range from Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Europe’s earliest printed book, the Gutenberg Bible, to drafts of works by Thomas More, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens; from Handel’s handwritten music for his Messiah and scores by Mozart and Beethoven to lyrics written by the Beatles. Although this gallery does not seem very large, it merits a lengthy visit to appreciate the contents. There is a side room housing a copy of the Magna Carta, and there are wonderfully decorated texts from all the world’s main religions as well as historical documents written by Marie Antoinette, George III and Churchill.
Our afternoon tour focused on the history of the British Library, the architecture and the collections. The British Library was created as our national library in 1973 from the collection housed in the British Museum. As well as the Euston building, it has a site in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire. The Modernist building in London, designed by architect Sir Colin St John Wilson and his collaborator MJ Long, was the largest UK public building constructed in the 20th century and took 37 years from initial plans to its opening in 1998. Highly controversial, subject to political policy changes and massively over budget, it is now Grade I-listed.
The building in plan looks like a ship sailing into London. It has four double-height levels of basement with 300km of shelves housing over 150 million items. On entry, the central feature is the six-storey bronze and glass tower containing the King’s Library, the 65,000 books acquired by George III and given to the nation.
There are many important works of art housed in the Library and its piazza, such as the monumental sculpture of Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi shown in the accompanying photograph.
We learnt that a copy of every item published in the UK and Ireland – books, newspapers and magazines, catalogues – is sent to the Library, which also holds material in most world languages as well as sound recordings, music scores, stamps and maps. Anyone with proof of address can apply for a Reader’s Pass, and we were shown the retrieval system for requested items from the priceless collections.
We saw visitors accessing online resources inside the Library: images from many historic items, as well as articles and videos about them, are held digitally and easily accessed from the library website and I recommend a browse.
Unfortunately, our journey home was very slow in heavy traffic, but it could not spoil what had been a fascinating visit.