Friday, 28 August 2015

Animal tales

A show exploring animals on the page reveals our enduring obsession with creatures great and small

Written by Steve Barfield
SteveBarfieldThis free exhibition at the British Library packs a great deal into a relatively small space. There are pleasures of books both familiar and unfamiliar, a wide variety of illustrations showing the long history of humanity’s fascination with stories about animals, and a series of thought-provoking questions raised about our abiding interest in such stories. Animals can represent so many aspects of our humanity, good and bad, sacred and profane, civilised and wild, and literary animals consequently aid us in making sense of and reimagining ourselves and our world.

Beautifully illustrated editions of favourite children’s books, whether The Wind In The Willows, The Tale Of Peter Rabbit, Black Beauty or The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, will certainly not disappoint; and better still is a rare chance to see Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The Visible World In Pictures), first published in English in 1659, one of the first children’s educational picture books. Illustration of the animals of folklore covers the corners of the globe, with treasures ranging from an early edition of Little Red Riding Hood to tales of Anansi the trickster spider of West African legend, and a beautiful 18thcentury woodblock edition of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey To The West, featuring the exploits of Monkey and Pigsy. Animals have often served the purpose of allegory, as in Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, about the Holocaust.

Contemporary versions of the medieval bestiary, such as Doty and Waterston’s A Swarm, A Flock, A Host, point to our anxiety about contemporary ecological crisis, and are juxtaposed against a wild, modernist text by Apollinaire and the more comforting cats of TS Eliot. Helen Macdonald’s contemporary nature memoir of her relationship with a bird of prey, H Is For Hawk, sits beside Karen Bleitz’s unsettling pop-out ‘jigsawed’ book, Dolly: Edition Unlimited. Natural history often links science and art, as in a copy of Gilbert White’s The Natural History Of Selborne And Its Antiquities, annotated by Coleridge and once owned by Robert Southey. A soundscape installation drawn from the Library’s huge collection of natural history recordings complements the printed word and image.

If you are taking children, remember to pick up the Family Trail leaflet, which your children or grandchildren will enjoy completing with a little help. My only caveat is that I wish the exhibition had been bigger – and sadly, there was no catalogue.

Until 1 November at the British Library, Euston Road, London NW1: 01937-546546,

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