Book Club


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

Edinburgh Festival Fever

People all over the country have been gripped by Festival fever this month and we at the BM Press are no exception! Not one but two of our authors were invited to speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: Irving Finkel, the curator in charge of the British Museum’s collection of cuneiform tablets – the largest in the world – and Henrietta Lidchi, Keeper of the Department of World Cultures at National Museums Scotland.

Charlotte Square looking beautiful in the sunshine

Charlotte Square looking beautiful in the sunshine

In his sell-out event, Irving took his audience on a roller-coaster tour of the 3,500 year history of the world’s oldest writing system – cuneiform. With his trademark enthusiasm, he explained that the strange, wedge-shaped markings invented in Mesopotamia represent syllables and so can be used to record any language, from Sumerian to Spanish. He then pointed out that we can find a surprising parallel in modern text-speak, in which symbols have  once again come to stand in for syllables or even whole words – just look at ‘c u l8r’. The audience were left full of questions and many stayed behind to talk to Irving, have their books signed and admire the real cuneiform tablet that he had brought along with him.

Irving addresses a huge crowd in the tent

Irving addresses a huge crowd in the tent

Irving was similarly well-received at the National Museums Scotland, where he taught a group of 90 local schoolchildren how to write their own cuneiform inscriptions. They used plasticine and lollipop sticks rather than clay and reeds, but the results still looked as if they could have come from the museum archives!

An impressive effort from the Edinburgh schoolchildren!

An impressive effort from the Edinburgh schoolchildren!

The weekend also saw Henrietta Lidchi launch her wonderful book Surviving Desires: Making and Selling Native Jewellery in the American Southwest – the product of twenty years of research. She captivated the audience with her talk about the iconic turquoise and silver jewellery and the transformations it has undergone in response the competing desires of traders, tourists, curators and government agencies. The audience were fascinated and at the end many came forward with their own pieces of Native jewellery, which Henrietta was able to put into context for them.

Henrietta signing books after her event

Henrietta signing books after her event

Many thanks to Henrietta and Irving for taking part in the Festival and to the National Museums Scotland for hosting the schools event. We hope to be back next year!

If you would like to find out more about either of the books, just follow the links below:


Surviving Desires

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’