Wednesday, 14 August 2013

"Tapping the cells of knowledge": On researching colour in London libraries and excellent teachers

When in London, I carry out much of my research on colour at either the British Library, the National Art Library at the V&A or the Colour Reference Library at the Royal College of Art. The Colour Reference Library very kindly lent three items, including Moses Harris's Natural System of Colours (1811) (related blog post HERE) for my Regency Colour and Beyond display at the Royal Pavilion.

All three libraries are  wonderful spaces to work in, staffed with very helpful and knowledgable people and I feel privileged and grateful to be able to spend time there.

Last week I went to the British Library to have a closer look at the King's Library. This is George III's collection of around 60,000 books, which was given to the nation by his son George IV in 1823. They were housed in the British Museum in a long gallery and from 1857 in the round Reading Room of the British Museum. Now, of course, the library forms the glass heart of the new British Library building at King's Cross.

King George III's personal copy of Newton's Opticks, 1704, with that famous prismatic colour wheel (Fig.11).
Here is George III's own copy of Newton's Opticks in its first English edition (he owned three more copies in Latin), showing the fold-out copper plate engraving my diagrams illustrating the text. This particular plate includes his famous circle of seven spectral colours, perhaps the earliest colour circle published in England.


By coincidence I received an email from one of my (clearly excellent) English teachers from high school (German 'Gymnasium') in the same week. He sent me these lines:

Excerpt from Louis MacNeice, “The British Museum Reading Room”

Under the hive-like dome the stooping haunted readers
Go up and down the alleys, tap the cells of knowledge --
Honey and wax, the accumulation of years --
Some on commission, some for the love of learning,
Some because they have nothing better to do
Or because they hope these walls of books will deaden
The drumming of the demon in their ears.

Cranks, hacks, poverty-stricken scholars,
In pince-nez, period hats or romantic beards
And cherishing their hobby or their doom
Some are too much alive and some are asleep
Hanging like bats in a world of inverted values,
Folded up in themselves in a world which is safe and silent.


These links neatly to four lines from a Wordsworth's poem the same teacher wrote in a card for me on finishing my A-Levels (Abitur) more than 25 years ago:


Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.


Very appropriate in the throes of finishing a doctoral thesis.

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