Franz Kafka reflects on genius in a 1913 Prague journal in this display of iconic literature at the Weston Library. The book is opened at the page where Kafka’s introspective entry on the concept of genius reflects on how innermost thoughts can be pulled out into consciousness.
Other exhibits in Marks of Genius result from the gift of collaborators. Thanks to support given by the Radcliffe Library, John James Audubon's finely detailed images of birds of America are revealed to the public eye. The book dates from Audubon’s visit to Oxford in 1828.
The exhibition is a recognition of firsts. Seventeenth century biologist Robert Hooke's drawings reveal details such as a peacock’s feather and a bee sting as seen under the microscope. His publication Microscopia is opened where the eye of a fly stares back.
Nature is depicted with wider imagination in the medieval Ashmole Bestiary where allegorical illustrations of over 100 animals are illuminated with gold. The griffin, dragon and phoenix all feature in the display.
Botanist John Sibthorp surveyed the plants of Greece in the late eighteenth century and on his death left an endowment to ensure his findings were published. His collection of work is seen in Flora Graeca and was compiled by expert botanists of the day. The process took nearly 40 years. Thanks to the resilient support of these great minds Sibthorp’s work was completed and enters our consciousness today.
William Henry Fox Talbot experimented with photography’s ability to reproduce different kinds of object in Pencil of Nature. Items are made bigger and smaller in work that challenges the limitations of printing at the time. German artist Albrecht Durer, who pushed the limits of etching in creating his wood prints, is shown to have celebrated a similar technological breakthrough.
The world of the imagination is uncompromised throughout the display and this inspires us to know what can be achieved when pen is put to paper. An unpublished draft of a Jane Austen novel entitled The Watsons is held in the folded manuscript she wrote by hand. The possibilities of this unfinished story fire the viewers’ curiosity.
How genius lives beyond a publication and is carried into the reader’s daily life is shown clearly in the 1217 version of the Magna Carta that is on display. This agreement between King John and British Barons regarding land ownership and civil rights still exists, in parts, in British law.
There are many stories specific to Oxford within the collection. Handel’s original conducting score of Messiah dated 1741, is positioned in a cabinet opposite the Sheldonian Theatre where he debuted his oratorio Athalia. Dorothy Hodgkin studied Chemistry at Somerville College and later coded the insulin molecule, noting the details by hand. Her scientific masterpiece is housed in the library along with the telegram that announced her Nobel Prize success.
Leaving this fine exhibition, the small pieces of Sappho’s poetry stay with me. The fragments, which have been painstakingly pieced together to recreate a view of a magnificent past, show Marks of Genius come from the hand.