This isn’t one of my would-be-academic posts. I’ve been on a little emotional roller-coaster – let me take you on a journey…
Not too long ago (22-June-2013) I wrote an annotatation on an illumination from a Book of Hours and included the comment that it was on exhibition and I might be able to see it if I got to Melbourne in the next few months. Last week I made an opportunity to go to Melbourne. Off the flight, bags left at hotel, straight to the library, up to the Mirror of the World exhibition, raced around it – and the book wasn’t there.
Deep breath (or two or three). This time I went around slowly and carefully. It’s a small book, I could have missed it…
It still wasn’t there.
This time I had to sit down while I took a few more breaths. All wasn’t lost – I had big plans for things to see at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV – more on that another post). But I should check – perhaps I’d made a mistake and The Book was in a different exhibition. I went down to the Information Desk and was probably fairly incoherent (it had been a 4:00 am start after all), and at one point I had the library website open on my phone while the librarian helping me was searching through their system and two of his colleagues were brought into the conversation. Eventually we concluded that The Book had been in the exhibition but had now been rotated out. They explained that The Book was all digitized and available on the web (http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/117039), and I agreed that it is a wonderful resource and I’d used it and appreciated it, and I was just hoping to see the book itself because you get the scale and the colour and the reality of it.
The librarian’s next question took me quite a while and a few repetitions to understand and I still find it hard to believe. Would I like them to request it from storage? It was too late for the deliveries that day, but perhaps sometime tomorrow? I went into incoherent mode again, but eventually got out that I would like that very much. So the librarian filled in a little form and took my phone number. It was still a little unclear exactly where The Book was and whether any of this would actually happen. So I went off to spend some happy hours with Poussin and Rembrandt (more later!) and tried not to expect too much.
The next morning I got a phone call from Des, a librarian in the Rare Books area. When would I like to come in? We settled on 3:00 pm, and after another happy few hours at NGV I arrived only half an hour early, and managed just enough patience to last until 2:55 before going in.
The photo on the left was taken at 3:23 pm. The hand in that white glove is mine. I still feel a mixture of wonder and disbelief and excitement and breathlessness and just the smallest tinge of nausea. What an incredible privilege.
Des had met me at the front security desk and we had a pleasant chat walking through to the Rare Books area off the Redmond Barry Reading Room (thinking back I think Des collected quite a bit of information about my background and interest in the manuscript – not vetting as such, but perhaps reassurance that I was OK despite chronic episodic verbal dysfunction (aka incoherence)). Our destination was a secure area, and just inside was a large table with book pillow and white gloves laid out ready, plus a small box.
I’ve taken a couple of photos of the box because of a strong feeling that some day I’ll be making a work based on it. Aged Care, my final work for Textiles 1: A Creative Approach, used a container in a very claustrophobic trapped sort of way (see 20-May-2013 and 16-Feb-2013). I would love to make a different kind of container, one full of treasures and wonders.
Here is The Book, sitting on its pillow. The binding is 19th century, not original, and the gilt edges of the pages would also have been added by a collector at some point. Des also photocopied some pages with more information about The Book (Manion, M. and Vines V. (1984) Medieval and renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in Australian collections. (Melbourne: Thames and Hudson)) which has just led me on some delightful internet searching, through Rogier van der Weyden and back to another painting I saw in Melbourne at the NGV (see www.ngv.vic.gov.au/col/work/3945).
Des left me alone with the book. I could turn the pages and look as long as I liked at whatever I liked (being careful of the tight binding). I have no words to describe seeing and holding and leafing through that little book. Everything was more so – the book was smaller than I expected, the pages firmer, the lettering crisp and clear, the ink a beautiful translucent colour, the diacritical marks dancing on the page, such smooth variation in line width, and the actual illuminations – colour so vibrant and solid, lines so fine, the flush on the Virgin’s cheek, her pale skin and Joseph’s swarthy colouring… Well, perhaps I have lots of words, all inadequate.
Before moving on, a quick look at the library’s domed reading room, which is celebrating its centenary this year. The library was founded in 1854 and was one of the first free public libraries anywhere. There was a lovely quote on a poster in the foyer (bad me – was busy being nervous and didn’t write it down) along the lines that any respectable person could use the library – they didn’t need a coat, just clean hands. Des told me they used to have a wash basin ready at the entrance.