The Darwin Room is officially home to our Darwin Rare Books collection, and while we certainly do have a few tomes you would be hard pressed to find elsewhere, there is so much more waiting to be found on the shelves than just ‘rare’; vintage, collectible, quirky, beautiful, weird, worn and plenty of other adjectives can be justly used to describe the books on offer.
Working in there is a sheer delight. With walls covered with leather bindings and tables laid out with decorative covers, only a globe-come-drinks cabinet is missing to complete the gentleman’s study circa 1865 vibe (which, management assures me will not be happening anytime soon lest we change our name from Book Barn International to Black Books).
You become attached to particular titles by sheer familiarity: moving shelves around, displaying books for customers and so on. You don’t really have time to read them while on the job, but you do get to admire the illustrated and photographic plates between the pages. The following are just a few of the ones that have grown on me and, I imagine, may grow on you too.
The Hunting of The Snark (Lighthouse Books, 1941)
Best remembered today for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll was the master of nonsense with a philosophical bent, and The Hunting of the Snark is, to my mind, his masterpiece. An Agony told in eight ‘Fits’ this is the tale of a voyage hunting for the titular beast, and the mystifying fate of the crew who foolishly take up the challenge.
When it was published in 1876 it was illustrated by Henry Holiday who, though a very talented artist, failed to capture the surreal nature of Carroll’s poem. The illustrations for this edition however, provided by Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake, are the perfect accompaniment. Peake’s drawings have an uneasy bubbling quality, blending with the silly and macabre feel of the words, a particular favourite of mine being his Bandersnatch (a beast mentioned in the Jabberwocky), which is shown above.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Siegle, Hill & Co. 1914)
The Rubaiyat are a collection of stanzas written by the Persian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and (chiefly here) poet Omar Khayyam in the eleventh century. Long regarded a masterpiece in the Middle East, it became a cultural phenomenon in victorian England and America thanks to the translation and reinterpretation of Edward Fitzgerald. The reader is urged to enjoy the here and now, the few pleasure we can find in our transient existence – a message as relevant today as it was nine hundred years ago.
This sumptuous edition is a recreation of Sangorski & Sutcliffe’s infamous Great Omar, a jewel encrusted illuminated manuscript that sank on the Titanic. Though a Pre-Raphaelite style may not immediately come to mind while meditating upon the wine-soaked musings of a medieval persian astronomer, the interplay of colour, darkness and decoration make the illuminations and calligraphy a gorgeous match to the poem.
The Natural History of Plants (Blackie & Son, 1894)
Written by Anton Kerner Von Marilaun and translated from the german by F. W. Oliver et al, this is a dense two volume work that does not skimp on technical detail. While at first it may seem like a dry title, the sheer breadth of Von Marilaun’s research is astonishing. More than a thousand different species are described, and, most interesting of all, some are illustrated.
There are more than two hundred black and white woodcuts, but the sixteen colour plates are the standouts here. Not only are the drawings beautiful, they are overlaid with a semi-transparent sheet that names each plant found in the picture, allowing for easy reference back to the text.
The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals (John Murray, 1892)
It would be remiss of me not to include a book by Charles Darwin in this pick from a collection that bears his name, and there is one that clearly shines through. The Expression of the Emotions of Man and Animals was the third of Darwin’s books on evolution, where he shows that the expression of emotions is universal among all humans, and is descended from that found in other animals. There are also some musings on psychology, which had a great influence on Freud and psychoanalysis.
Not only is the book illustrated, it was actually breaking new ground by doing so. Though he was not the first person to do it, Darwin’s use of photographs as scientific evidence was revolutionary and extraordinarily effective. By looking at the heliotype plates and various illustrations (some of psychiatric patients), and seeing the range of expressions and commonality between them, it is easy to grasp Darwin’s argument.