Book Club


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

Happy Birthday to Shakespeare!

Today would have been William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday.  We’ve included here an excerpt from our 2012 bestseller Shakespeare: staging the world, shedding light on Shakespeare’s world  in his first year of life.

Shakespeare -staging the world

“William Shakespeare was born in 1564, on or about 23 April, St George’s Day. He was baptized in Holy Trinity Church in the market town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the Midland county of Warwickshire, on 26 April. His father was John Shakespeare (c. 1531 – 1601), a glove-maker. His mother, Mary Shakespeare (c. 1537 – 1608) was born Mary Arden, daughter of a yeoman farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote.

Stratford was a crossroads between very different worlds. The ancient forest of Arden lay to the north, while there was rich farming land to the south. Within a hard day’s walk was the university city of Oxford. To the east, and closer, were Kenilworth, home of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532 – 1588), and Warwick, where stood (in considerable disrepair) the castle of the Earls of Warwick. Just beyond that lay Coventry, the fourth largest city in the land. At the time of Shakespeare’s birth, the old biblical plays from medieval times – Creation and Flood, Crucifixion and Judgement – where still performed there annually on pageant carts stationed around town. The country and the city, the old rural ways and the new learning, the traditions of play-acting and the powerful presence of the aristocracy: some of the key resources for the creation of Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds were present in his very childhood environment.

Playing cards with maps of English and Welsh counties. Stratford is marked with an S on the map of Warwickshire. Designed by William Bowes and engraved by Augustine Ryther in 1590, this is the earliest known set of cards with English county maps. Hand-coloured engravings, 9.5 x 5.7 cm. British Museum, London.

Playing cards with maps of English and Welsh counties. Stratford is marked with an S on the map of Warwickshire. Designed by William Bowes and engraved by Augustine Ryther in 1590, this is the earliest known set of cards with English county maps. Hand-coloured engravings, 9.5 x 5.7 cm. British Museum, London.

For centuries the administration of government and of the law in England had depended on the king or queen, or their representatives, notably the judges, travelling the country on ‘circuits’. Shakespeare was born on the margin between the Midland circuit, which consisted of Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland and Lincolnshire, and the Oxford circuit, which covered Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. Among the many hundreds of stage plays that arrive from his lifetime, the only ones that include scenes located in Warwickshire and Gloucestershire are his. His territory, then, was the Midlands. In the national imagination, ‘Shakespeare country’ would eventually become synonymous with ‘Middle England’.

In the year that he was born it became possible to visualize the shape and disposition of the counties or shire for the first time. Laurence Nowell’s ‘A general description of England and Ireland’ was made for Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley (1521 – 158). Stratford-upon-Avon is marked near its centre. Six years into the reign of Elizabeth I, it shows a view of Englishness and nationhood as Shakespeare’s generation experienced it.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Shakespeare: staging the world, written by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, is available for £25 in paperback and £30 in hardback from the British Museum online shop.

Masks: The Art of Expression


We’re pleased to announce that a new paperback edition of our beautifully illustrated book, Masks: The Art of Expression, is published today.

From ancient times to the present day, masks and the practice of masquerading have exerted a powerful fascination among people around the world. Through their ability to conceal, reveal and transfigure, masks have become a near-universal phenomenon yet their nature, functions and meaning of these disguises are strikingly different across cultures.

In ritual and religious use, as today in Africa or Oceania, mask-wearers may be thought to be possessed by – or even become – a spirit or a god. In ancient Egypt, funerary masks were intended to equip the dead with divine powers and attributes, but the masks used in Japanese Noh plays or in ancient Greek drama helped to portray character. The masks themselves are extraordinary objects made from every kind of material. Beautiful, elaborate, fierce, grotesque or elegant, they demonstrate the creative skills and aesthetics of many different periods and cultures.

This updated edition of a classic book showcases an array of magnificent masks from the British Museum’s collection and beyond. Including examples from eight principal areas – Africa, Oceania, Latin America, the Northwest coast of America, Japan, classical Greece and Rome, Egypt and Europe – Masks: The Art of Expression provides a fascinating insight into the great variety of masks and masking traditions around the world.

We’ve included here a short selection of masks featured in the book.

Mask 1

The mask of Hanna is one of the most well-known masks from Nō. It is used for the character of a jealous and revengeful demon who was once a beautiful woman. The eyes, originally of gilded metal, glare out, the mouth is drawn wide open in a ferocious snarl and the horns embody evil. Only the faint trace of eyebrows high on the forehead and the suggestion of delicate features indicate her former beauty. H. (without horns) 20.3 cm. British Museum 1946,1216.2. Donated by C. Winch.

Mask 2

North American wood mask, probably representing a creature of spirit associated with a specific family tradition in the Winter Ceremonial. Collected, before 1868, at Fort Rupert, the Hudson’s Bay Company post at the northern end of Vancouver island, where the Kwakwaka’wakw met and traded with other peoples from further north. H. 20 cm. British Museum Am.1562. Donated By Henry Christy.


Dance mask in the form of a demon’s face. Papier mâché covered with clay. Chorida, India, 1994. H. 57 cm; W. 51 cm; Donated by Daniel J. Ryscroft. British Museum As1995,17.3.

Mask 4

North American mask of wood and fur, from the Makah, Washington State, representing Bookwus, Wild Man of the Woods. 20th century. H. 23 cm. British Museum Am1941,01.1. Donated by Harry Geoffrey Beasley.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Masks: The Art of Expression is edited by John Mack and is published by the British Museum Press at £25. For further information, please visit the British Museum shop website.

Viking Poetry of Love and War

On this day in 1012, the Vikings brutally murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Ælfheah, at Greenwich. The Vikings are popularly known as marauders, seafarers and adventurers, but did you know that they were also highly regarded as poets?

Viking culture valued poetry highly and rewarded poets handsomely. The language of Viking poetry is colourful, intricate and is often light-hearted, even in the face of death and tragedy. Their themes are mythological, military and memorial with some distinctive love poetry that encompassed both native traditions and literary influences from further south.

Viking Poetry of Love and War, edited by Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, Judith Jesch, and published this Spring by the British Museum Press, features a collection of short poems and poetry extracts from the core period of the Viking Age and its aftermath, c. 900 – 1300. The selection draws on the main themes of love and war and gives a sense of the range of poetic modes and genres that were popular during this age, offering a fascinating glimpse into the ideology of the time.

Below is an exclusive selection of extracted poems from Viking Poetry of Love and War. Enjoy!


Beserkers (Norse warriors) from the Lewis Chessmen. Walrus ivory chess pieces, probably made in Norway, c. 1150 – 1175; found on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Heights (from left) 8.5 cm, 9.2 cm and 8.2 cm. British Museum.

Anonymous, from the Poetic Edda

“… you need a ship for gliding,

a shield for protection,

a sword for striking,

a maiden for kissing”.

Anonymous, 11th century

A Viking tells a woman of the capture of London

Every day of Hogni’s door

became quite bloody, goddess,

when we fought in the fray,

early, with our leader.

Since hard-fought fight is now

finished, we can sit in fair London, o land

of the sun of the sea.

Hogni’s door = shield; sun of the sea = gold, its land = woman

066_Viking Poetry_4c

Silver bossed penannular brooch in the Irish tradition, with animal heads detail. 9th – 10th century, found at Goldsborough, North Yorkshire, England. Diameter 8.5 cm. British Museum.

Magnus ‘Barelegs’ Olafsson, king of Norway (11th century)

Magnus falls in love in Dublin

What’s this talk of going home?

My heart is in Dublin,

and the women of Trondheim won’t see me this autumn.

The girl has not denied me

pleasure-visits, I’m glad;

I love the Irish lady

as well as my young self.


Images ©Trustees of the British Museum

Poems and images extracted from Viking Poetry of Love and War, by Judith Jesch, available for £9.99 from the British Museum online shop. British Museum Press 2013.

The Classical Cookbook

To celebrate the opening of the Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition, here are two recipes from The Classical Cookbook, so that you can experience authentic flavours from the ancient world!

p141_113 Thetford treasur

Two silver spoons, one in the shape of a duck, dedicated to the Roman forest-god Faunus. Roman Britain, from a treasure found on Gallows Hill, Thetford, Norfolk in 1979. L. (of longest spoon) 9.2 cm. British Museum.

Parthian Chicken

Parthian chicken. Open the chicken at the rear and spreadeagle. Crush pepper, lovage, a little caraway, moisten with fish sauce, blend with wine. Arrange the chicken in a Cuman dish and put the sauce over it. Dissolve strong asafoetida in warm water; pour over the chicken as you cook.
Serve seasoned with pepper.

-Apicius 6,9,2

This is a simple dish, and very unusual in a Roman context, for it contains no sweetner. It is interesting that it is named after Parthia, Rome’s rival in the Middle East, and notable that asafoetida is the dominant flavour. This may confirm that the recipe was Parthian in origin – or at least it may explain how it got its name – for asafoetida came to Rome from the Parthian Empire. Caraway, on the other hand, is of central European origin. It was certainly the Romans who added to this dish.

Serves 4

4 pieces chicken (breast or leg)
6 fl oz (3/4 cup/170 ml) red wine
2 tbsp (30 ml) fish sauce
½ tsp asafoetida powder
or 5 drops asafoetida tincture
2 tsp chopped fresh lovage or celery leaf
½ tsp ground lovage seed
2 tsp caraway seeds

Place the chicken in a casserole dish and sprinkle liberally with pepper. Combine the wine, fish sauce and asafoetida, add the lovage and caraway seeds and pour over the chicken. Cover and bake in a pre-heated oven at 375°F (190°C/gas mark 5) for 1 hour. Halfway through the cooking time remove the lid to brown the chicken. Serve with a little of the sauce poured over the meat.


Cockerel, the ‘waking bird’. Introduced from southern Asia to Mediterranean lands around 700 BC, chickens soon became the typical barnyard fowl and a popular sacrifice. Mosaic panel from Halicarnassus in Roman Asia Minor (now Turkey), 4th century AD. Diam. 43.5 cm. British Museum.

Pancakes with Honey and Sesame Seeds

Let us find time to speak of other cakes, the ones made with wheat flour. Teganitai, as we call them, are made simply with oil. The oil is put in a frying-pan resting on a smokeless fire, and when it has heated, the wheat flour, mixed with plenty of water, is poured on. Rapidly, as it fries in the oil, it sets and thickens like fresh cheese setting in the baskets. And at this point the cooks turn it, putting the visible side under, next to the pan, and bringing the sufficiently fried side, which was underneath at first, up on to the top, and when the underneath is set they turn it again another two or maybe three times till they think it is all equally cooked. Some mix it with honey, and others again with sea-salt.

-Galen, On the properties of Foods 1,3

It is continual surprise how little food changes from one millennium to the next. The great physician Galen (AD 129-? 199/216), a tireless observer of details of food and drink, gives a description so serious and painstaking that we smile to imagine him making notes as he watched a cook turning pancakes. It is hard to remember that he is writing 1,800 years ago. What is more, the dish was already 800 years old in his time. The early Greek poet Hipponax had written of pancakes ‘drugged with sesame seeds’.  Comedy gluttons on the Athenian stage had spoken of ‘mist rising at dewy daybreak from warm pancakes’ and of honey poured over them as they sizzle: a breakfast meal, no doubt, and one that was possibly sold on the streets of ancient Athens from portable braziers.
You can serve modern pancakes with honey and toasted sesame seeds. However, what Galen is describing is not precisely the pancake familiar to us, but something as thick as a blini or even thicker, considering that it is to be turned so many times. I also suspect that more oil was used for frying than we would normally use, and this is reflected in the modern adaption…

4 oz/120 g/1 cup flour
8 fl oz/225 ml/1 cup water
2 tbsp/60 g clear honey
Oil for frying
1 tbsp/15 g toasted sesame seeds

Mix the flour, water and 1 tablespoon honey together into a batter. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a frying-pan and pour a quarter of the mixture into the fat. When it has set, turn it two or three times to give an even colour. Cook 3 more pancakes hot with the remainder of the honey poured over and sprinkled with sesame seeds.


Images ©Trustees of the British Museum

Recipes, text and images extracted from The Classical Cookbook, complied and edited by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger, available for £10.99 from the British Museum online shop. British Museum Press 2012.

The British Museum at The Telegraph Hay Festival 2013


The Telegraph Hay Festival runs for ten days with a packed programme of debates and conversations with poets and scientists, novelists and historians, artists and gardeners, comedians and musicians, film makers and politicians.

This year, the British Museum Press is pleased to announce three events at the festival, for Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Paul Roberts, Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind by Jill Cook, and The art of influence: Asian propaganda by Mary Ginsberg.

For full information on the 2013 Hay Festival programme and for information on how to book tickets, please visit their website.

The British Museum at The Telegraph Hay Festival 2013


Paul Roberts

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Event 277 • Thursday 30 May 2013, 1pm • Venue: Sky Arts Studio

An exploration of the lives of the ordinary people of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the two cities on the Bay of Naples that were buried by the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The plaster-cast bodies of the victims are the most vivid and shocking reminders of the horrific event that made Pompeii famous, but who were these men, women and children so cruelly frozen in time?

Tickets: £6


Jill Cook talks to Francine Stock

Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind

Event 134 • Monday 27 May 2013, 10am • Venue: Sky Arts Studio

The curator of the blockbuster exhibition explores the extraordinary sculpture and drawings created during the last European Ice Age, the oldest known figurative art in the world. Highlights include the Swimming Reindeer (13,000 years old), the so-called Willendorf Venus (25,000 years old) and the Vogelherd horse (32,000 years old).

Tickets: £7

The art of influence - Asian propaganda front cover - low-res

Mary Ginsberg

The art of influence: Asian propaganda

Event 414 • Sunday 2 June 2013, 11.30am • Venue: Google’s Big Tent

Where the majority of a population is illiterate, art is the most effective way to communicate the message. The curator of the new BritishMuseum show examines propaganda ‘art’ as political communication, social cohesion and absolute control.

Tickets: £7

We hope to see you there!