at The British Library
Until 1st November
This is the best small exhibition I’ve seen all year and exactly what every small exhibition should aim to be. The curators have made outstanding use of the Entrance Hall Gallery at The British Library to display a beautifully selected group of books, letters and illustrations from the Library’s own collection to demonstrate the hugely important part animals have played in literature for both children and adults.
So often these small free exhibitions at museums are depressingly underwhelming. Not so in this case. Obviously it helps if the collection you are drawing on is an unrivalled collection like The British Library’s, but that’s not the only factor that distinguishes Animal Tales. What really sets this exhibition apart is how carefully the works have been chosen, combined with the intelligence of how they have been grouped. It would have been so easy to say, “OK, we’re doing an animals in literature exhibition” and to have mindlessly trotted out the usual suspects, Peter Rabbit, Black Beauty et al, and been done with it. That would have mildly diverted the attention of visitors for a few minutes, all of whom would have forgotten about it approximately 30 seconds after they had wandered away. After all, it’s free. So who cares?
The British Library clearly care. What the team of curators have done here is thoughtful and something rather lovely. They didn’t need to make this show so thought-provoking and interesting but I guess they are the sort of people who execute this kind of excellence because it wouldn’t occur to them not to. Lucky us.
Along with Peter Rabbit and Black Beauty (and yes, of course they are there, what kind of animals in literature exhibition do you think this is?) all the beloved animal characters of children’s literature are included: C.S. Lewis’s Aslan, Judith Kerr’s Mog and Tiger and all the rest. And naturally the absolute classics of animal literature are there too: Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
One of the things that makes the exhibition special is that in amongst all the familiar books there are some really unusual selections, some of which I had never even heard of such as David Garnett’s A Man in the Zoo from 1924, which looks at the hierarchy of species, and the 1659 edition of one of the first ever children’s picture books Comenius’ Orbis sensualium pictus, which has tiny line drawings of animals charmingly accompanied by the noise they make – the goose gaggleth and the frog croaketh!
There are some quirky additions too. Displayed with a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a very funny letter from Eliot to friend, concerning a cat named Mister Perkins, which doubtless many cat lovers will enjoy reading.
Although Animal Tales has only a relatively small space to occupy in the Entrance Hall Gallery, the British Library have managed to include an astonishing range of books. There is everything from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Aesop’s Fables to much more recent books such as S.F. Said’s Varjak Paw published in 2003 and a pop out jigsaw book Dolly: edition unlimited from artist Karen Bleitz. And the exhibition is bang up-to-date with the inclusion of very recent best-selling books such as Laline Paul’s The Bees and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.
The final highlight of Animal Tales, that I urge you to seek out, are the truly wonderful illustrations by Darren Waterston, here framed up on the back wall. These silhouette illustrations, created by Waterston to accompany the animal poems of American poet Mark Doty, are subtle and haunting and linger in the mind long after you leave the exhibition.
Animal Tales does an amazing job of being so much more that a romp through the children’s section. It shows us that the animal characters of literature have not only demonstrated to us what it means to be human but also revealed to us the animal instincts that lie just under the surface of our so-called civilised human veneer.
Monday – Thursday 9.30am – 8pm
Friday 9.30am – 6pm
Saturday 9.30am – 5pm
Sunday and Bank Holidays 11am – 5pm
The British Library