News | June 2, 2023

New Exhibition Looks at Giving Books as Gifts

Bodleian Libraries

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: A book partly designed to be given as a present

The Bodleian Libraries' new Gifts and Books exhibition will explore the importance of giving and receiving books, asking what this apparently simple act reveals about human relationships and beliefs.

Opening at the Weston Library on 16 June 2023, the exhibition will display items from the Bodleian’s collections from ancient myth to contemporary stories, curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins, Associate Professor in Medieval English literature at the University of Oxford.

Highlights include:

* a book made by the young Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, who wrote out her translation of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul and included a finely embroidered cover framing the initials of Queen Katherine Parr to whom she gave the book as a New Year’s gift in 1544

* a guitar given by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to his friend Jane Williams shortly before his death, displayed alongside his manuscript of the poem With a Guitar. To Jane which reimagines Shelley, Jane and her husband Edward as characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

* a First Folio of Shakespeare, open at a scene from As You Like It, where Orlando writes love poems and pins them to trees

The exhibition is accompanied by a book of the same name, published 16 June by Bodleian Library Publishing, edited by curator Nicholas Perkins which will be reviewed here on Fine Books next week.

Bodleian’s Register of Donors, early 1600s
Bodleian Libraries

 Bodleian’s Register of Donors, early 1600s

Page from the Bodleian's Register of Donors, early 1600s
Bodleian Libraries

Page from the Bodleian's Register of Donors, early 1600s

Douce Bible, 1583
Bodleian Libraries

Douce Bible, 1583. With decorative gold top, bottom and fore-edges and an embroidered cover incorporating a Tudor rose. This was presented to Queen Elizabeth I at New Year 1584 by her printer Christopher Barker.

Frontispiece Portrait of Ellen Craft.
Bodleian Libraries

Frontispiece Portrait of Ellen Craft in her Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom presents her passing as an ailing white gentleman, part of her audacious plan with her husband William to liberate themselves from enslavement in Georgia. Early in her life, Ellen had been 'given' as a wedding gift and this book documents her tenacity in escaping and telling her own story.

The exhibition looks at the relationship between writing, gifts and religion, with pieces highlighting how gift-giving has been used across cultures and faiths. A Buddhist narrative, The Birth Story of the Deer, written on a set of palm-leaf folios, exemplifies the ideal of sacrificing oneself to attain perfection. A beautiful Qur’an manuscript that later belonged to an Indian ruler will also be on display, as will a spectacular medieval Jewish prayer book, and books of Christian devotion that include portraits of the donors who paid for their exquisite craftsmanship.

Books have often been commissioned, adapted and regifted. A beautiful, illuminated page from the Ormesby Psalter will be on display, featuring two different sets of patrons: one from a pair of families whose marriage alliance seems to have faltered, another showing the wealthy churchman Robert Ormesby, after whom the book is now named. Like other medieval precious objects, it was given and re-given at different times due to its value and altered to suit new owners.

The exhibition shows how gifts and books can be bound up in relationships of power, politics and protest. For example, it features the extraordinary Olaudah Equiano, who was treated as property or even ‘given’ as a gift by those who had enslaved him, but who managed to gain his freedom and write his own life story.

The power of the gift to encourage creativity is further explored through books for young readers, many of which show the act of giving as both joyful and powerful. Writers including Oscar Wilde, Patience Agbabi, Shirley Hughes, Philip Pullman and Zetta Elliott are all represented here.

"Giving and receiving books and stories is something we all do to make friends and form communities," said Dr Nicholas Perkins, curator of Gifts and Books. "Over the centuries, books have not only been precious gifts, but have also spoken to us about giving, receiving and reciprocating. Our exhibition explores and celebrates this power that the gift generates."

The newest item in the exhibition will be created just  before its opening. On May 31 and June 1, book artist Paul Johnson will finish a spectacular pop-up book in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall which he will donate to the Bodleian after it is featured in the exhibition. Families and members of the public can talk to Paul about his work and have a go at making their own pop-up book.