… fascinating books and doodles make a great browse around one of the C16th’s finest minds …
The Royal College of Physicians holds the largest single collection of John Dee’s books in the world. This enigmatic Elizabethan was a mathematician, an astrologer and advisor to Queen Elizabeth. As an occult philosopher, he devoted much of his life to the study of alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy and built up one of the finest libraries of 16h century England. Unfortunately, whilst travelling, Dee left his library in the care of his brother-in-law, who sold or “caused (…) to be carried away” most of the books. A large number passed to a book collector, the Marquis of Dorchester, whose family presented them to the RCP after his death in 1680.
The books displayed here include some of his student text books with lovely annotations and sketches, including this rather fabulous ship found in the corner of a page of Cicero’s Opera. Other works show the ingenuity of c16th printing making with foldout paper diagrams in The Elements of Geometrie, Euclid, and a manual on writing in code with “Volvelles” or wheels which still spin around to jumble the letters. Alongside books from their collection, the RCP have managed to borrow various objects from the British Museum, the Ashmolean, the Science Museum and the Wellcome Institute. These include John Dee’s obsidian Scrying mirror and crystal ball; and various paintings and engravings of the man.
This is a fascinating exhibition. It is small yet perfectly curated, crammed full of gorgeous exhibits and helpful explanatory notes. It is a great browse around one of the C16th’s finest minds and I urge you to go!
There is a great introductory video by the rare books librarian, Katie Birkwood, and some other interesting articles on the RCP’s own website which you can access here.
The Royal College of Physicians is a short walk from Great Portland St Tube station. The show continues until 29 July 2016, Monday-Friday only, 9am-5pm. FREE ENTRY