One of my favourite discoveries so far from the Cardiff Rare Books Collection is this lovely little illuminated manuscript of The Lady of Shalott, the famous ballad by the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat.
Probably created in the 1910s, the book is written on vellum and signed simply “Gilbert Pownall me fecit” (“Gilbert Pownall made me”). Pownall was an artist who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and also designed the mosaics for the Lady Chapel in Westminster Cathedral.
We have yet to learn how this unique manuscript came to Cardiff – it was perhaps purchased new at the same time as our private press books - but it is a treasure we are delighted to have.
The Lady of Shalott was one of many items from our rare books collections selected by Dr Juliette Wood for her recent lecture, “Illustrating the Arthurian Legend”, part of the Cardiff Rare Books and Music Lecture Series hosted here in Special Collections and Archives.
Karen Pierce has written about her experience of curating our new Special Collections and Archives exhibition on "King Arthur in Britain".
Three PhD students from the School of English, Communication and Philosophy have successfully bid for a grant from the Community Engagement Team to organise a Victorian Study Day for local sixth form college students. Laura Foster, Michael Goodman and Helen McKenzie, who are all writing their theses on aspects of Victorian literature and culture, intend to present their specialist research in a format which is relevant, accessible and engaging to a wider audience. Earlier this year, Laura and Helen gained related experience of translating their research visually, when they took part in SCOLAR’s annual Postgraduate Curators programme.
The day will begin with a visit to Special Collections and Archives, where the students will have an opportunity to handle and interact with original 19th century texts. Led by archivist Alison Harvey, the workshop will encourage the students to consider the materiality of print culture and how books were read and produced. The session will focus on texts that have visual impact, such as the Illustrated London News, the collected works of Tennyson, and Victorian children’s literature. This practical session aims to engage and excite students early in the day, and to introduce concepts that will be developed in the afternoon workshops.
Laura, Michael and Helen will each lead a workshop on their subject area, designed to challenge students’ assumptions about reading, texts, and culture, both in the nineteenth century and today. Much of the literature selected for discussion will be informed by the A-level set texts, and students will be encouraged to reinterpret these in light of how they were actually published and read in the 19th century. Workshops will be held in small groups of 10, introducing students to the seminar-style environment of university, and aim to build confidence in discussing ideas with their peers.
Laura, Michael and Helen will be contacting local schools to ask teachers to nominate students to attend the Study Day. To be held in October, sessions will take place in the Council Chambers of Cardiff University’s Main Building, with a visit to Special Collections and Archives.
The Tennyson Collection was bought for the library of the then University College, Cardiff in 1936, from the estate of Cyril Brett, who was Professor of English here and a collector of Tennysoniana. Although it is not a new acquisition, along with some other rare material it escaped the retrospective cataloguing projects of the 1980s and 1990s, and has only recently been added to the Voyager catalogue. There are 416 items in the collection, including all the pre-1900 editions of the major poems showing how the poet constantly revised work even after publication.
Tennyson’s immense popularity inspired many illustrators including Millais and Rossetti: there are some beautiful examples in the collection in SCOLAR. The final part of the collection being catalogued this summer consists of a number of Tennyson’s poems set to music, which were popular Victorian “parlour pieces”.