Experience the stories behind the books at the NAL

February 22, 2024

I posted back in December about our upcoming programme of free talks to be held in the National Art Library each Monday. They have run for the last six weeks and they have been a great success! To tempt even more of you to come and visit us, I want to highlight a few of the treasures that the Library team shared with attendees so far; there will be more extraordinary collection items to see in the upcoming sessions, so don’t miss out on the chance to hear the sometimes unusual and surprising stories behind them.

Librarian showing a book to a group of visitors.
Jen Reeves, Librarian, showing a mid century photo book © Victoria and Albert Museum

Richard Espley, our Chief Librarian, kicked things off for us in January. He chose two intriguing books with an interlinked history: The ferns of Great Britain and Ireland (Thomas Moore, 1855) and Faustpolygraphischillustrirte Zeitung für KunstWissenschaftIndustrie und Unterhaltung (volume 2, 1855). Both items showcased a visually impressive, innovative technique that rendered a delicate and precisely detailed print from a chosen object. 

Richard told an emotive tale of commercial secrets, betrayal, fights over improperly filed patents and even suicide as one publisher faced financial ruin and disgrace. Attention was also focused on this incredible image of a bat that was used to demonstrate how finely the process could represent flora and fauna. One can very gently run a finger over the print and still feel the bat in relief, 170 years on.

Faustpolygraphischillustrirte Zeitung für KunstWissenschaftIndustrie und Unterhaltung (volume 2, 1855).(c) Victoria and Albert Museum

I delivered a session a week later on the Corrected Proofs of Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853), combining them with a rare example of when Bleak House was first published in serial form. We acquired the printers proofs, and all our other original Dickens material, as part of the Forster bequest. This gave me the opportunity to talk about the origins of the NAL’s collection as well as marvelling at Dickens’s own hand as he made his changes and corrections to the proofs before printing.

For those familiar with Bleak House, we looked at how Dickens had introduced a last minute change of name for one of his major characters (Mr Tulkinghorn, the Deadlock’s lawyer, was Mr Talkinghorn right up to this stage) and how he had struggled in particular over chapters 5 to 8.  The manuscripts and proofs give unparalleled access to his methods and thoughts, and even a quick study of them reveals something new each time.

Corrected proof of Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) © Victoria and Albert Museum

The most recent talk was delivered by Assistant Librarian Helen Dummett, who chose Asian carpets; XVI, and XVII, century designs from the Jaipur palaces, &c., &c. (Thomas Holbein Hendley, 1905). This exquisite book contains (among others) a detailed examination of the Ardabil carpet, acquired by the V&A in 1893 and on display in the Jameel Gallery. It would have been used by students, designers and manufacturers at the time to gain a level of understanding of the designs, processes and dyes involved in producing a carpet of this quality: information that would have otherwise been unavailable to them. Helen used the item to discuss the original role that the National Art Library had in providing such essential source material for the students of the Government School of Design, as its then library. 

Hendley’s book also makes the case for the importance of non-synthetic dyes and the use of hand looms in the creation of carpets. This resonated with the thoughts of another key V&A figure, William Morris, who had made a vociferous case for the acquisition of the Ardabil carpet, even paying some of the purchase price himself. As an additional treat, Helen displayed one of Morris’s own hand written notebooks (Printers Notes, Morris & Co, 1880 – 1885?) in which he discussed his experiments with, and use of, natural dyes.

Asian carpets; XVI, and XVII, century designs from the Jaipur palaces, &c., &c., (Thomas Holbein Hendley, 1905). © Victoria and Albert Museum
Printers Notes (Morris & Co, 1880 – 1885?) © Victoria and Albert Museum

Other items in the talks have been wide and varied: miniature books, mid-century photo books, paper peepshows, a visitors book featuring the social elite of Victorian and Edwardian London, and some King Penguins have all been shown. There have also been fascinating contributions from our colleagues in the Museum Archives (demanding of a blog in themselves).

We are listing all of the NAL items shown in a ‘course reserve‘. This means that if you would like to look at any of the featured books, you can find them direct without having to search for them through our online catalogue. On joining the Library, you would be able to request the book for yourself. Different arrangements apply to make appointments to view any Archive material shown in the talks.

Please do come and join us at one of the talks each Monday (bar bank holidays) at 11.30 or 14.00. Space is limited to 20 people so do come early to avoid disappointment Otherwise you are very welcome to visit during normal opening hours, 11.00 to 17.00, Tuesday to Thursday, for a one to one experience with our wonderful collection.

2 comments so far, view or add yours


The blog is excellent we need more like this clearly explained and perfectly set out for the public.

These are really interesting but very relaxed sessions. Topics vary but you always learn something

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