Already highlighted ahead of time in TeleRead, the Royal College of Physicians of London exhibition “Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee,” presenting the scholarly and sorcerous tomes of the notorious Elizabethan magician, has just opened in London to almost uniformly rapturous reviews. And even more secrets than originally advertised are now emerging in the course of the show.
As the exhibition blurb explains, “on display for the first time are Dee’s mathematical, astronomical and alchemical texts, many elaborately annotated and illustrated by Dee’s own hand. Now held in the collections of the Royal College of Physicians, they reveal tantalising glimpses into the ‘conjuror’s mind’ … Dee’s books are displayed alongside loans from the Science Museum, the British Museum and the Wellcome Collection and include Dee’s mirror and crystal ball, and a specially commissioned film by acclaimed artist Jeremy Millar.”
A full handlist of Dr. Dee’s books in the Royal College of Physicians library, “more than 100 volumes that were stolen from Dee during his lifetime, the largest single collection of Dee’s books in the world,” is available here as a free download from the exhibition website. They include such gems Astronomicae tabulae in propriam integritatem restitutae, by King Alfonso X of Castile and Leon, with Dee’s own notes; Petrus Bonus’s alchemical text Introductio in divinam chemiae artem integra, also signed and annotated by Dee; and the Kabbalistic grimoire Opusculum Raymundinum de auditu kabbalistico sive ad omnes scientias introductorium, attributed to Ramon Llull.
One particular secret from the Wellcome Library that has come to light in the course of the exhibition is in the oil painting John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I by the 19th-century painter Henry Gillard Glindoni. As revealed by The Guardian, the painting (see the image from the Wellcome Library below) originally showed Dee surrounded by a circle of skulls as he performed his alchemical experiment, before these were painted over in the final version.
Many other of Dee’s own secrets must lurk in the volumes in the exhibition. The free show runs until July 29th, and is a must-visit for would-be conjurers, occultists, and all fans of the fantastic and bizarre. Oh, and for lovers of especially fine antique and rare books too.