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Marks of Genius

An exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.

Andrew Robinson | Published 09 June 2015

It is hard to imagine Oxford University bereft of books. But in the 1540s, during the Reformation, it lost its chief library as a result of Protestant zeal; the books were sold as waste to local tradesmen. The Bodleian, Oxford’s principal library today, was founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley. A graduate of Oxford in the 1560s, who later served as an ambassador of Elizabeth I, Bodley eventually returned to Oxford a wealthy man and offered to collect the university a new library at his own expense: ‘an act of genius’, according to the current Bodley’s Librarian, Richard Ovenden. Shortly after, Francis Bacon presented Bodley with a copy of his newly published The Advancement of Learning. Bacon’s accompanying letter praised Bodley for ‘having built an Ark to save learning from Deluge’, while also implicitly issuing a challenge. 

By the early 18th century the Bodleian was legally entitled to receive one copy of any new book published in the United Kingdom. Today its collections consist of more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 70,000 e-journals and vast quantities of materials in other formats. Besides being by far the largest library in the UK, the Bodleian is one of the world’s great libraries. In the spring of this year – with the opening of the Weston Library, a major new Bodleian development costing some £80 million – the collections became available to researchers via facilities designed for the digital age and to the public via both permanent and changing exhibitions.

The inaugural exhibition, Marks of Genius, consists mainly of world-changing books and manuscripts from the collections, including maps, along with some paintings and sculpture. Each work is displayed among a cornucopia of images stimulatingly contextualised by the exhibition’s curator, Stephen Hebron, with occasional help from outside experts. The overall aim is to illuminate the ultimately indefinable – but indispensable – concept of genius across the humanities and sciences. ‘If the various forms the character of genius has taken over the centuries have anything in common’, observes Hebron in the exhibition catalogue, ‘it is that they celebrate the variety and creativity of human beings.’

The books include one of the first books to appear in print: Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturale, displayed in a beautifully illustrated translation from Latin into Italian, published in Venice in 1476. There are first editions of Vesalius’ 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica, with its celebrated skeleton pondering Hamlet-like on the fate of a human skull, resting on a plinth with the Latin inscription Vivitur ingenio, caetera mortis erunt (‘Genius lives on, all else is mortal’); of a 1623 Shakespeare First Folio (inset); and of Newton’s 1687 Principia Mathematica. Manuscript works range from fragments of Greek poetry by Sappho on second-century ad Egyptian papyri and Euclid’s Stoicheia (Elements), the oldest manuscript of a classical Greek author to bear a date, completed in 888, through a 1741 conducting score of Handel’s Messiah, with revisions by the composer, and Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein with corrections, revisions and additions by her poet-husband, written in 1816-17, to the neat 1907 manuscript of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, displayed alongside letters to his young son, known as Mouse, who first heard the adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad.

A surprise section, quite intriguing about genius, displays the frank remarks recorded on reference cards by the Oxford University Careers Service in the 1920s-40s concerning certain students who later became famous. In 1943, the 20-year-old P. A. Larkin had got his first job as a librarian, was ‘not satisfied with it’ and ‘would like to hear of other jobs of a literary type’. He was advised: ‘stick to librarianship’. As Philip Larkin himself said in 1979: ‘I could never have made a living from writing. If I’d tried in the Forties and Fifties I’d have been a heap of whitened bones long ago.’ Whether or not Larkin counts as a genius is debatable; probably it is too soon to be sure. However, his comment is generally true: relatively few geniuses, whatever their posthumous reputations, make much money from what inspires and drives them. Just think of Mozart.

Andrew Robinson is the author of Genius: A Very Short Introduction and Sudden Genius? The Gradual Path to Creative Breakthroughs, both published by Oxford University Press. 

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