Book Club


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

Shakespeare’s Globe, 400 Years On

400 years ago today, the original Globe Theatre in Southwark famously burned to the ground during a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. To mark this anniversary, we’ve included here an extract from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published in 2012 by the British Museum Press.

Shakespeare P 18

I hope to see London once ere I die’. Henry IV Part 2 5.3.45. London (‘The Long View’), Wenceslaus Hollar, 1647. Etching comprising four sheets, overall 47.1 x 158.7 cm. British Museum, London.

Shakespeare -staging the world

“Although London was far smaller than it is today, it had, by the standards of the time, extensive suburbs. The south bank of the river – the district of Southwark – was all suburb. That was where you went for entertainment. In 1599… a brand new theatre called the Globe opened its doors. The first play staged there is likely to have been Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Some of the audience would have arrived by water taxi, others would have walked over the bridge. The tragedy of Caesar’s death was played out within sight of the Tower of London, across the river, that he was supposed (incorrectly) to have erected. The drama of ancient conspiracy and treason would have been given edge by the very modern sight of those heads on spikes witnessed on the way to and from the theatre.


‘With this wooden O’… Henry V Prologue. 13. Detail of Sheet 2 from Wenceslaus Hollar’s print London , showing Southwark with the second Globe, built in 1614 after the first Globe burned down, mistakenly labeled as the ‘Beere bayting house’. The building labeled the Globe was the Hope, built in 1613 as a dual-purpose venue for animal-baiting and as a theatre. Etching, 46.6 x 39 cm. British Museum, London.

…Like all crowded places, the playhouses were a magnet for petty criminals. Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a celebrity astrologer and sought-after physician. He kept a diary in which he recorded intimate consultations with a wide range of London society, from prostitutes to fine ladies, who came to him with their problems and concerns (he had a tendency to take advantage of the doctor-patient relationship). In 1611 he went to see Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale at the Globe. He drew a moral from the performance in noting how the trickster Autolycus ‘feyned him sicke & to have ben Robbed of all that he had and hoe he cozened the por man of all his money’ and reminded himself to ‘beware of trusting feined beggars or fawning fellouse’.

The success of Shakespeare’s representation of a feigned beggar and pickpocket on stage came in small measure from the presence around the theatres of numerous real-life figures of just such a kind. In popular literature there was a vigorous market in pamphlets describing the tricks and jargon of the petty criminals who duped their victims, known as ‘conies’ or rabbits, in the streets of London. The most valuable sequence for our purposes in Thomas Platter’s diary is his account of theatergoing, including a visit to Shakespeare’s Globe:

“On September 21st (September 11th in the English calendar) after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar with a cast of some fifteen people;  when the play was over, they danced very marvelously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women”.

…The value of this account goes far beyond the information it gives about such details as entrance prices, starting time, costumes, dance routines at the end of the show, the competition between different venues, and so forth. Platter also reveals how plays helped to shape cultural identity. The ‘play in which they presented diverse nations’ shows how the theatre was an arena in which national stereotypes were forged (or overturned). The centrality of theatre to London life is suggested by the idea that merely to witness how the English ‘play or act’ in their social encounters is to see how much time they have clearly spent at the playhouse: the English go to the theatre, Platter implies, in order to learn how to behave like English men and women”.

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The above is extracted from Shakespeare: staging the world by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, published by the British Museum Press, paperback £25. To read more and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

London Gay Pride 2013

Happy Gay Pride everyone!  For more information, visit

In the spirit of Gay Pride, we’ve included here a short extract from our new book, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R.B. Parkinson (British Museum Press, paperback, £9.99).

A Little Gay History front cover - low-resPacific Embraces

“In the early eighteenth century, European explorers recorded sexual practices between males in the eastern Pacific region. European missionaries and colonial officials in the following centuries strongly discouraged such activities.

In many parts of the eastern Pacific or Polynesia, same-sex acts were tolerated only between a gender-crossing male and a socially accepted man. Polynesian languages have terms such as mahu (Tahiti) and fa’a fafine (Samoa) that define men who act and dress as women and who, as in many areas of South-East Asia, represent a third gender between man and woman. However, not all man on man sex involved such individuals: in Hawaii, aikane were young masculine men who had sex with the king. David Samwell (1751 – 98), a Welsh surgeon on Captain Cook’s ship the Discovery, noted in 1779 with some surprise that

It is an office that is esteemed honourable among them & they have frequently asked us on seeing a handsome young fellow if he was not an aikane to some of us.

Treasure Box

Above: This ‘treasure box’ was designed to be stored, not on the ground, but suspended. New Zealand, late eighteenth century. Wood and shell, H. 9.4 cm; L. 43 cm; D. 9.8 cm.

Below: Detail.

Treasure box close-up

This box from eighteenth-century New Zealand is made of wood and decorated with shell. It is a so-called ‘treasure box’ that would contain the powerful personal ornaments of a high-ranking Maori person, such as a chief. Every surface (including the underneath) of this prestigious box is covered with designs which show fourteen highly stylized figures, intertwined and linked in various types of sexual union, several showing an embrace between two males.”

Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

New this week is the first-ever British Museum audio recording on the subject of A Little Gay History, featuring British Museum curators, Simon Russell Beale and Maggi Hambling discussing a number of objects in the British Museum collection. A free guide to objects from A Little Gay History on display is also available from the British Museum website.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World is available from all good bookshops and from the British Museum shop online.

The Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013


We are delighted to announce that the British Museum Press will be a partner of the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time in 2013. Senior curator and head of the Roman collections Paul Roberts will discuss life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, deputy keeper of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic material Jill Cook will discuss groundbreaking works of art from the Ice Age, and world-renowned Shakespeare historian Jonathan Bate and curator of Renaissance Europe Dora Thornton will explore the world and works of William Shakespeare.

Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

12:30pm on Monday, 12th August 2013 | Peppers Theatre | Adult Programme

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Jill Cook

Jill Cook

Ice Age art

arrival of the modern mind

4.00PM on Friday, 16th August 2013 | Peppers Theatre | Adult Programme

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Dora ThorntonJonathan Bate low-res

Jonathan Bate & Dora Thornton


staging the world

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12.30PM on Sunday, 25th August 2013 | Peppers Theatre | Adult Programme

For full information on the above events and to find out more visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival website.

We hope to see you there!

Pompeii Live

Tonight is Pompeii Live, an exclusive new event from the British Museum. See the wonders of the exhibition from the comfort of your local cinema, introduced live by Peter Snow and Bettany Hughes, with Mary Beard, Rachel de Thame, Giorgio Locatelli, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, exhibition curator Paul Roberts and British Museum director Neil MacGregor.

For a full list of participating cinemas and for further information, visit the Pompeii Live webpage.

For a taster or what’s to come, we’ve included here a couple of spreads from our exhibition gift book, Art in Pompeii and Herculaneum by Paul Roberts with Vanessa Baldwin: a visual treasury of the art of these two cities. With page after page of exquisite details of frescoes, mosaics, marble reliefs, jewellery, statues, glass and silverware, these close-ups of masterpieces evoke the skilled hands and practiced eye of accomplished classical craftsmen.


Left page: Fresco showing Theseus and the Minotaur. Pompeii, House of Gavius Rufus (VII,2,16). H. 97 cm, W. 88 cm. Naples, MANN 9043

Right page: Fresco showing Perseus and Andromeda. Pompeii, House of Dioscuri (VI, 9,6). H. 128 cm, W. 106 cm. Naples, MANN 8998


Left page: Gold snake bracelets. Herculaneum, ancient shoreline, vault IX, skeleton 65. Diam. 9. 3 cm. Herculaneum, SAP 7835809.

Right page: Painted marble panel showing women playing knucklebones. Herculaneum, House of Neptune and Amphitrite (V,6-7). H. 42 cm, W. 49 cm. Naples, MANN 9562.

For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World

A Little Gay History 3D mock-up - high-res

How old is the oldest chat-up line between men? Who was the first ‘lesbian’? Were ancient Greek men who had sex together necessarily ‘gay’? And what did Shakespeare think about cross-dressing?

This week, we are excited to be publishing A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World by R.B. Parkinson. This exciting book draws on objects ranging from ancient Egyptian papyri and the erotic scenes on the Roman ‘Warren Cup’ to modern images by artists such as David Hockney and Bhupen Khakhar to consider questions like these.

The concepts of human desire and gender have never been straightforward and have been shaped in many different ways, both throughout history and across the globe. This book takes over 40 artefacts from many cultures and from all periods to look at the intimate issues behind these objects and to ask a question that concerns us all: how easily can we recognize love in history?

Concise and beautifully illustrated with objects from the British Museum’s far-ranging collection , A Little Gay History provides an intriguing and valuable insight into the range, diversity  and complexity of same-sex desire.

Author R. B. Parkinson, a curator of ancient Egyptian culture at the British Museum, has chosen his three favourite objects from the book.

LGH Page 120

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 78), Avanzi del Tempio del Dio Canopo nella Villa Adriana in Tivoli. Rome, c. 1760 – 78. Etching on paper, 45.5 x 58.5 cm.

R.B.P.: This etching by Piranesi has great personal resonance: it shows the ruins of the emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli was one of the inspirations for Marguerite Yourcenar’s poetic novel, Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), and a print of it hung over the fireplace in the house in Maine where Yourcenar lived with her translator and life-partner Grace Frick.  Whenever I travel, I take a copy of the novel with me.

R.B.P: One favourite object is the British Museum itself, which provided the setting for one of the greatest gay romantic moments in English literature: the scene in E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice, where the two heroes finally realise they are in love, superbly filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987.  Gay romance on a grand scale and with a happy ending.

You can view a clip from Maurice on the British Museum’s YouTube channel.

LGH image 3

R.B.P.: This badge from the 1980s by the wonderful cartoonist and illustrator Kate Charlesworth wittily caricatures stereotypes and assumptions about LGBT identity.

Images © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (£9.99) is published by the British Museum Press, and is available now in all good bookshops. For more information and to look inside the book, visit the British Museum shop online.

The British Museum Press in Autumn 2013

Autumn 2013 Catalogue Cover

Our Autumn 2013 catalogue is now available!

Accompanying two major exhibitions in Autumn, we will be publishing Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art.  In August we will publish Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome by the award-winning author Carrie Vout, bringing new insights to Greek and Roman culture and erotic imagery, past and present. In October, we will publish 5000 Years of Tiles, showcasing the incredible range of tile arts and production techniques, and revealing a fascinating history of design, colour and decoration.

Beyond El Dorado cover - low-resShunga cover 2-5-13 low-resSex on Show cover low-resThe Greek Vase cover low-res5000 Years of Tiles cover - low-resMasterpieces - Early Medieval Art cover low-resRoman Empire cover -  low-resCurious Beasts front cover low-resHaiku Love cover - low-resPersian Love Poetry cover low-resThe Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia low-res

These are just a few highlights from our Autumn 2013 list. To view the full catalogue, visit the British Museum Press website.

Happy reading this Autumn!