Book Club


Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2013


Whether it’s the biggest names in publishing, politics, television, radio, art, theatre, or sport, The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival 2013 has it all.

There are hard-hitting debates on controversial subjects, comedy from the country’s top stand ups, interactive media sessions, unique food and drink evenings, writing workshops and masses of family fun talks and activities.

This year, the British Museum Press is delighted to host two events at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, for Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Paul Roberts and Indian Love Poetry by Anna Dallapiccola.

9780714124667Indian Love Poetry

Saturday, 23rd March 2013

12.00PM – 1.00PM

Christ Church: Festival Room Two

Tickets £11

Full details on the Oxford Literary Festival website

9780714122762Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Sunday, 24th March 2013

2.00PM – 3.00PM

Christ Church: Festival Room Two

Tickets £11

Full details on the Oxford Literary Festival website.

Oxford LogoTo find out more about these events and to book tickets, visit The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival website.

Interview with Chris Spring, curator of African Textiles Today

Printed cloth (kanga). Cotton. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm British Museum, Af2002,09.4  The inscription reads: ‘You know nothing’.

Printed cloth (kanga). Cotton. Tanzania, early 21st century. 105 x 154 cm British Museum, Af2002,09.4 The inscription reads: ‘You know nothing’.

HUJUI KITU image close-up

African textiles today: social fabric of the east and south opens on 14th February at the British Museum. This exciting exhibition takes a new look at the history and continuing significance of textile traditions in eastern and southern Africa, the patterns of global trade they reveal, and the ways in which these traditions have influenced some of the region’s foremost contemporary artists.

We’ve published here an exclusive interview with the exhibition curator, curator of the African collection at the British Museum and author, Chris Spring.

How did you first become involved in the study of African textiles?

Ever since Picton and Mack’s pioneering exhibition at the Museum of Mankind and book African Textiles (British Museum Press 1979), the Department of Ethnography (now AOA) has had a keen interest in textiles. My first fieldwork in Africa in the early 1990s was concerned with the textile traditions of Egypt and North Africa, which resulted in the book North African Textiles (British Museum 1993) and an exhibition, ‘Display and Modesty’, at the Museum of Mankind. 

How have developments in the last ten years changed the way we should look at textiles? Is the study of African textiles in particular more or less relevant to the world today?

In the last ten years the British Museum has begun to make serious, systematic collections of certain printed and factory woven textile traditions from Africa, first as a result of my fieldwork (2002-) in eastern and southern Africa (which resulted in the ‘Kanga’ exhibition in the BM’s North entrance and a semi-permanent display in the African Galleries), then in response to the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence on March 6th 2007 (which resulted in the exhibition ‘Fabric of a Nation’ which toured widely both in the UK and in Ghana). From these and other exhibitions, publications and research it has become easier to show how certain types of ‘African’ textiles have become global phenomena, just as certain types of textiles from the global community have become African phenomena. The study of African textiles has never been more important, not only as a way of understanding how important Africa is and always has been to the rest of the world, but also how Africa adores and transforms the rest of the world through the lens of its artistry.

In the book, you talk a lot about textiles as a means of communication– which piece in the exhibition/book do you feel has the most interesting story to tell?

It’s a difficult question because so many – arguably, all – the textiles in our collection have fascinating stories to tell. However, my favourite has to be the story of how I came to collect my very first kanga with the inscription ‘HUJUI KITU’ – ‘You know nothing’.

Please take what you want from the following:

In 2002 my work at the British Museum took me to Tanzania, ostensibly to research divination and spirit healing , though quite unexpectedly it also took me down a path of research into the printed textile traditions of eastern and southern Africa, including capulana from Mozambique and shweshwe from South Africa, which have been a growing interest of mine ever since*. I had been told (by a senior colleague of mine at the British Museum who should have known better) that ‘there are no significant textile traditions to speak of in this region of Africa’, so it came as quite a surprise, on my first morning in Dar Es Salaam, to find myself in the midst of arguably the largest and most dynamic textile tradition in Africa. Of course, what my learned colleague meant when he referred to ‘textile traditions’ are the hand-woven, locally produced cloths, often intended for use only on certain special occasions and requiring a high level of manual skill in their production. So I deliberately set out to find a pair of kangas (they are sold in pairs and later cut and hemmed by Swahili women) in the local market which least conformed to my colleague’s notion of an ‘African textile’.  My eye was immediately drawn to a design of blue and red circles, a bit like a Damien Hirst spot painting, contained within a simple border of black lines. Factory-printed in India, the cloth was wrapped in cellophane and was considerably cheaper than some of the other kangas on sale which I later discovered were locally printed in Tanzania.

I showed my purchase to my friend David who was working with me; in common with all kangas it had an inscription in Kiswahili printed immediately below the central design: HUJUI KITU. “What does that mean, David?”  “You know nothing” he answered smiling. “I know I know nothing, but what does it mean?” “You know nothing – that’s what it means!” David went on to tell me that it was a design and inscription often worn by older women as a rebuff to their younger and cock-sure rivals, and from that point I began to realise why this textile tradition was so popular, so significant, so extraordinary and so ‘African’.

Next day, on the road to Bagamoyo, I saw a woman wearing HUJUI KITU and it struck me that the textile’s message could equally well apply to me and to my learned colleague from the BM as it could to the women for whom it was intended – if ‘you know nothing’ you may begin to learn something, whereas if you think you know everything you will never learn anything.

Your book covers textile production and techniques from across the African continent; is there one place that has inspired your study in the field?

I loved my early fieldwork in the oases of Egypt’s Western desert, then in the suqs and textile lofts of Tunisia’s towns and villages, but I think it was my visit in 2002 to the Urafiki (‘Friendship’) integrated textile mill in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in the company of my friend the artist Robino Ntila, which first gave me an understanding of the complex processes and skills which go into the production of the printed cloths which would be the subject of my research for the next ten years.

The African Textiles Today exhibition opens on 14th February, how did you find the experience of curating the exhibition compared with the creative process of writing the book?

Given that we’re opening on Valentine’s Day, I suppose I should be saying something about being torn between two equally beautiful and alluring… but.

The final process of bringing a book together is very much a team effort, though before that there are many months of quite solitary writing. Curating an exhibition, on the other hand, is very much a team effort right from the start. It is a great pleasure to work with friends and colleagues who have a passion for textiles. A huge amount of work has gone on for months in mounting and preparing the textiles to make sure that when it comes to installation, nothing is left to chance. I’m talking about Helen Wolfe, who manages our textile store, Cynthia McGowan and Catherine Elliott, our two M.A.s, and Lisa Galvin who has helped me curate the exhibition. Then there’s the team from Exhibitions: the brilliant Peter McDermid and Paul Goodhead who create the narrative feel and the striking graphics for the show. Last but not least there’s the interpretation team from LV&A, Jane Batty and Iona Keen, who edit and polish up my text. In the end, though, our job is simply to portray as best we can the artistry, power, humour and breathtaking visual impact of these remarkable works from Africa.

African Textiles Today book jacket

African textiles today: social fabric of the east and south is a free exhibition at the British Museum which runs from 14th February – 21st April 2013. African Textiles Today, by Chris Spring, is published by the British Museum Press and is available on the British Museum shop website.

Queen Victoria’s Wedding Anniversary

Today is Queen Victoria’s wedding anniversary – 173 years on. Did you know that Albert designed some of the jewellery for their wedding?

We’ve included here an excerpt about the royal wedding from our award-winning book, Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria, by Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe.

Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria

Victoria’s marriage to Albert took place at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, on 10 February 1840. The ceremony was at one o’clock in the afternoon, a break with the tradition of holding royal weddings in the evening. Victoria had given much thought to her dress, searching for precedents, particularly in the marriage of her grandfather George III to Queen Charlotte. Many of these she rejected, dressing in white rather than cloth-of-gold or cloth-of-silver and leaving off the crimson or purple robe of state in favour of a train from the waist of white satin trimmed with orange blossom. The satin for the dress and train was made at Spitalfields.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013

Queen Victoria in her Wedding Dress, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Oil on canvas, 1847. Royal Collection. The Queen wears the sapphire and diamond brooch given her by Prince Albert with her ‘Turkish” diamond necklace and earrings.

Reporting started early, with The Times stressing the Queen’s commitment to troubled native industries, silk from Spitalfields and lace from Honiton in Devon. On 15 January The Times noted that ‘various tradespeople have received commands from Her Majesty to execute a large and superior assortment of presents, and amongst others Messrs Turner (the goldsmiths) are actively engaged in preparing several elegant and valuable articles in jewellery’1. Hoping for the Crown Jeweller title, they had to be content with several Royal Warrants and with acting as back-up to their rival Garrard’s. On 20 January it was reported that ‘the “wedding favours” of lily-white satin or silk riband will be universally worn on the wedding day’, and that ‘extensive orders’ had given employment to thousands who would have otherwise suffered depression usual at this season’2. The ribbon was woven with a crown, a true lovers’ knot and a rose, thistle and shamrock wreath3.

On the day she rose early and ‘had my hair dressed and the wreath of orange flowers put on… I wore a white satin gown with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings and Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch’4. Although painted seven years later, the clearest image of her wedding dress, lace and jewels is shown in a portrait by Winterhalter, made for the Prince on the anniversary of their wedding in 1847. Her choice of white and orange-blossom flowers became the ’uniform’ of brides throughout the Victorian period and beyond.  …As the indefatigable Times reported observed, the Queen ‘wore no diamonds on her head, nothing but a simple wreath of orange blossoms. …A pair of very large diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, and the insignia of the Order of the Garter, were the personal ornaments worn by the Queen’5.

Three orange blossom brooches. English, 1830 - 50. British Museum, Hull Grundy Gift.

Three orange blossom brooches. English, 1830 - 50. British Museum, Hull Grundy Gift.

The brooch in enamelled gold and porcelain (top) retains its original Hunt & Roskell display case, and was probably made in the wake of the royal wedding. The firm traded under this name at 156 New Bond Street from 1846. Orange blossom brooches in textured gold with engraved veins set with coral and shell flowers were popular from the 1830s.

Her ‘Turkish diamond necklace and long fringe earrings were made by Rundell’s in 1839 from diamonds in the gift of jewellery presented to her by Sultan Mahmud II in 1838. Prominent on her lace collar is Albert’s sapphire brooch.

Brooch in the form of a German eagle with wings displayed. Made by Charles Du Ve, London 1840. British Museum, given by the Hon Mrs Mary Anna Marten.

Brooch in the form of a German eagle with wings displayed. Made by Charles Du Ve, London 1840. British Museum, given by the Hon Mrs Mary Anna Marten.

The brooch, in gold and silver pave-set with turquoises, was a souvenir of the royal marriage. One was given to each of Queen Victoria’s twelve train-bearers. The turquoise eagle has a diamond beak and ruby eyes and grasps two large pearls in its claws.

…Victoria gave each [of her train-bearers] a turquoise brooch, designed by Albert himself, in the form of a German eagle. The brooches were treasured in the families of the girls as a souvenir of a great occasion. The eagle, pave-set with turquoises, has a ruby eye (for passion), a diamond-set beak (for eternity) and holds pearls for ‘true love’ in its claws. The Queen presented the train-bearers with their brooches in dark blue velvet cases after the ceremony.

Extracted from Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria, by Charlotte Gere and Judy Rudoe, winner of the 2011 William M. B. Berger Prize for British Art History. Text and images © Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise stated.

Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria is available for a discounted £45 when bought online at the British Museum shop (rrp £55).

  1. The Times, 15 January  1840, p.5
  2. Ibid., 20 January 1840, p. 6
  3. J. Roberts 2007, p. 2
  4. Esher 1912, Vol 1, p. 63
  5. The Times, 11 February 1840, p. 4. This is not strictly true, as Lady Wilhemina Stanhope (later Duchess of Cleveland) noted in her journal, she had on her head ‘a very high wreath of orange flowers, a very few diamonds studded into her hair behind’

Ice Age art Exclusive Extract!

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind opens today at the British Museum.  To mark the opening of the first exhibition of its kind in the UK, we’ve included here some exclusive content from the exhibition catalogue, written by Ice Age art curator Jill Cook.

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

‘The oldest sculpture in the British Museum’s collection is a pair of reindeer made from mammoth ivory at least 13,000 years ago. Researching it or our project A History of the World in 100 Objects, I was astonished that such a realistic and aesthetically pleasing image was made so long ago by a skilled craftsman who was a practised artist. The time and skill lavished upon it suggest that it was a valued yet apparently functionless object in the hunter-gatherer community that owned it towards the end of the last Ice Age. I now realize that is quite young by comparison with other sculptures, drawings and ornaments representing animals and people, many of which have been brought together for a special exhibition entitled Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind.

The Swimming Reindeer

The Swimming Reindeer

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind presents sculpture, drawings models and jewellery from across Europe and Eurasia. It includes the oldest known images of animals and people in the world. Dating from the last 40,000 years of the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, these works are contemporary but generally less well known than the paintings from caves such as Lascaux and Altamira that date from the same period. They are equally and, in some respects, even more revealing about the innovations of artists whose works we can enjoy because they use the same parameters of expression that every artist has used since. This is not because there is a continuity of tradition: it is because we all have the same remarkable, complex brain that enables us to imagine and communicate ideas beyond words in images and through music.’
Neil MacGregor
Director, The British Museum


Towards the end of August 1939, Robert Wetzel, Professor of Anatomy at Tübingen University in Germany, and geologist Dr Otto Völzing, hastily packed up numerous fragments of mammoth ivory from their excavations in the back of Stadel Cave on the Hohlenstein in the Lone Valley, south-west Germany. The outbreak of war was imminent and both had received call-up papers bringing their archaeological work to a halt. A letter by Wetzel dated 28 August indicates that he hoped to work on the ivory pieces in more peaceful times, but the course of the war prevented that hope. The finds would not be re-examined for thirty years.

After the war, the finds were eventually sent to Ulm, where Dr Joachim Hahn began to work on them. In sorting the tusk fragments he realised that they fitted back together and that over 200 of the fragments formed a sculpture of a standing figure with human and animal characteristics. When first published in 1970, the figure caused a sensation although it was uncertain whether the animal features were those of a bear or a big cat. The discovery and restoration of further fragments of the head in 1989 showed that it represented a lion and the sculpture became known as der Löwenmensch (the lion person).

It was quickly recognized as not only the largest known sculptural representation of this period but also indicative of a mind capable of imagining new concepts rather than simply reproducing real forms. Gradually it was realized that such a mind must indicate the activity of a complex super brain like our own, with a well-developed pre-frontal cortex powering the capacity to communicate ideas in speech and art. What might have been an arcane archaeological discovery became a talking point for the developing field of neuroscience and evolution of our grey matter. Recent excavations at the site by Claus-Joachim Kind have produced a series of radiocarbon age estimates that indicate that the statue is about 4,000 calendar years old.

Text, Swimming Reindeer image and Ice Age art book spreads  ©Trustees of the British Museum

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind opens today at the British Museum, and runs until 26th May 2013.

Extracted from Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind by Jill Cook, available for £25.00 from the British Museum online shop.