John and I went up to London again this past weekend, just for the day this time, to see the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition at the British Library.
We had tickets for the evening but took the opportunity to spend the day kicking with Hogg before then. We met up at Fabrique, Swedish bakery next door to The Orc’s Nest which has delicious cardammon rolls. Then we did a tour of the local nerd spots; Orc’s Nest, Orbital Comics, and Forbidden Planet. At that last one they had Fred Gambino and John Harris art books on clearance for five pounds each, so we nabbed those and made our escape otherwise intact.
Hogg left us at the Library and we had just enough time to check our coats before it was our ticket time. The exhibition was a good size and explored the parallels and differences between the magic in the Potterverse and the history of magic in the real world, primarily but not exclusively in a European setting. It was divided roughly into sections focusing on objects, medicine, herbs, witches, and so on. The Potter and the other artifacts are intermingled in these sections for context, a good idea even if it was clear that for the most part the Potter parts were far more popular.
Some of the art and historical objects on display were world class; John William Waterhouse’s “The Magic Circle” for one, a favorite of mine and nice surprise. Also on display, an astonishing 16th century alchemical scroll describing the Philosopher’s Stone. The real-world artifacts range from purely fantastical to scientific, with a solid section belonging to both worlds in the form of alchemy and early science. One of my favorites there was an illustration by 18th Century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian of a bird eating spider, which was apparently dismissed as too fantastical by the established science community when she published originally. A nice touch as well were a handful of objects from modern practitioners, mainly from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall, which looks worth a visit.
The Potter artifacts were primarily in two categories; original notes and drawings by Rowling, and Jim Kay sketches and illustrations. The former were sometimes a little overblown (did HP “change the history of publishing forever”?) but generally quite interesting and occasionally very charming, for instance the handwritten review by 8-year old Alice Newton, daughter of the head of Bloomsbury who convinced her father to publish the first book in the series. Also nice to see were Rowling’s illustrations, which are not bad at all and show how vivid the world and characters were from the get-go. Bu the Jim Kay illustrations were probably the best part, lovely pencil sketches for the most part, standouts included a simple portrait of young Harry, a wide view of the storefronts of Diagon Alley, and a big sketch of Hagrid, whom Kay describes as his favorite subject, a “mass of scribbles with eyes”.