Scholar, courtier, magician: The Lost Library of John Dee
18 Jan-29 July 2016, Royal College of Physicians, free admission
Where do you start with Doctor John Dee? Mathematician, alchemist, magician, astrologer, astronomer, spy, angel-botherer, Dee was a true Elizabethan polymath. From early theatrical leanings, directing student productions at Cambridge with astonishing special effects, to advising John Frobisher on trade routes, Dee’s was an enquiring, creative, active mind.
He may have ended his life in poverty, separated not only from his place in society but his precious library but he – a man who adored whimsy and fun – had the last laugh. He has lived on in hearts and minds from William Shakespeare to Derek Jarman, Christopher Marlowe to Neil Gaiman. He is, according to who you believe, Prospero, Faustus, 007 and, even more tantalisingly – himself.
John Dee straddles the ancient and the modern. He embraced medieval ideas of angels, alchemy and the elusive philosophers’ stone while foreseeing a future in science and commerce. He was the first man to write about a putative ‘Brytish Impire’ yet failed to see his own downfall at the arrival of James I, an obsessive witch hunter. He lost his place at court, his influence and, most heartbreaking of all, his books.
It’s painful to imagine the agony a man who had spent his life not just acquiring books but poring over them, using them, annotating them and, often, doodling in them, must have felt when, on his arrival home from abroad, he discovered his house had been ransacked and his books stolen.
No one knows exactly who took them, but a former pupil of Dee’s, one Nicholas Saunder, certainly acquired a fair few of them; did his best to scratch, burn, soak and even bleach Dee’s name from their pages and scrawl his own over the top.
In some ways, it’s a blessing (for us; Dee was devastated) that the library was stolen, as at least 150 of them have ended up in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians, donated as part of a larger collection after the college lost their own library in the Great Fire of London.
Now, for the first time ever, an exhibition to the extraordinary Dr Dee gives us an insight into a truly enquiring, whimsical, romantic, curious mind. We see notes in his own hand – one, about the Trojan War, comments there is no mention of the horse in a ‘therefore this book is clearly rubbish’ tone of voice. Somewhere else he’s scribbled a possible family tree. A single line in another book is illustrated by a magnificent galleon, while above it is the Tudor equivalent of a hyperlink – a little armillary sphere to remind Dee where something is.
Throughout the work, tiny arrows in the shape of exquisite little pointing fingers, complete with fancy Elizabethan cuffs (called ‘manicules’) direct us to the best bits, while, in probably the world’s first example of a pop-up activity book, tiny origami pyramids show us how solids are constructed.
To this day no one knows exactly how the volvelles (moving paper circles) elsewhere actually work.
The overwhelming feeling you get from this exhibition is that you’d like John Dee. His portrait is that of a dour old bloke with a long beard and a weary eye. Perhaps that’s what he became and, given the way he was treated in the autumn of his life, it’s hardly surprising.
Modern treatments make him a terrifying necromancer, a sorcerer, a sinister character to scare your children with. But who couldn’t like a man who scribbles pictures of funny beardy faces in his books? Who plays with paper triangles and has a fondness for love poetry?
This free exhibition is unmissable, whether you’re there to gawp at Dee’s obsidian ‘black’ mirror (reputedly gazed into by Queen Elizabeth herself…) his scrying glass and crystal ball; to speculate over the late 19th Century painting of Dee performing magic before the Queen, whose circle of skulls has been mysteriously painted out – or just to enjoy the curiosity, depth and downright humour of his lost library, it’s something to savour.
If you’re in a hurry you could, frankly, miss out the accompanying film, which, though having an interesting aside about a wall in Bexley, otherwise says little you can’t find out for yourself an awful lot more quickly.