An unpublished Rupert Brooke poem will sit alongside some of Cambridge University Library’s greatest treasures when a free exhibition of highlights from its priceless collections opens to the public today.
Cambridge University Library is one of the largest accumulations of books and manuscripts in Europe, and one of the most important in the world."
Shelf Lives: Four Centuries of Collectors and their Books celebrates some of the men and women who have donated their libraries to Cambridge University over the past four hundred years, and the diverse and extraordinary treasures they owned. It brings together the cream of ten exemplary collections encompassing more than a millennium of the written and printed word.
The curators of Shelf Lives had plenty of material to choose from; Cambridge University Library is home to more than eight million items - stored on mile after mile of shelving inside the iconic Giles Gilbert Scott building.
Star exhibits include a hand-coloured copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 (a chronicle of world history and one of the most magnificent printed books of the fifteenth century, with more than 1,800 woodcuts) presented by Archbishop Matthew Parker; Napoleon Bonaparte’s copy of Montaigne’s Essais from his library in exile on St Helena; an illuminated ninth-century Mercian prayer-book known as the Book of Cerne (c. 820-840); and the second oldest surviving copy of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede (673/4-735) - the celebrated ’Moore Bede’.
A velvet-bound sermon book belonging to Queen Elizabeth I and embroidered with her coat of arms will share the exhibition space with handwritten manuscripts by John Donne and Virginia Woolf and, perhaps more unusually, trench journals (magazines produced by troops, for troops) and military money from the Austrian-occupied zone of Italy - part of the War Reserve Collection, an extraordinary gathering of at least 10,000 pieces of First World War ephemera.
University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: "Cambridge University Library is one of the largest accumulations of books and manuscripts in Europe, and one of the most important in the world. Its holdings, though, are not a single, uniform entity, but consist of a great variety of different collections which over the centuries have come to be housed under one roof and now enrich the national heritage."
John Wells, Exhibition Curator, explained: "For this exhibition, ten different curators have chosen ten different collectors, whose lives span the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. It really was very difficult to narrow down the field. We had an initial long-list of 20 to 30 collections, all outstanding, which could all have justified a place in the exhibition. In fact, it would have been possible to replace almost every item in the exhibition with something of similar importance.
"What visitors will experience is really ten mini exhibitions rolled into one. They can see everything from priceless illuminated manuscripts to German propaganda from the First World War. The central theme drawing these elements together is the allure that books and manuscripts have held for collectors over the centuries - an attraction which thousands of people, from all walks of life, still feel today."
Rupert Brooke’s appearance in the exhibition comes via the books and manuscripts collected by surgeon, scholar and bibliographer Sir Geoffrey Keynes, a friend of the poet from school days. On display will be ’The Baby’, an unpublished tongue-in-cheek parody by Brooke of fellow poet Algernon Charles Swinburne’s saccharine production ’Étude Réaliste’. ’The Baby’ is far from a lost masterpiece, but the manuscript nevertheless reveals a playful and comedic side to Brooke unfamiliar from his iconic War sonnets.