Our favourite John Dee exhibits

Seventy books, paintings and artefacts from the RCP library and elsewhere have been brought together in our current exhibition to illustrate the life and work of the Tudor polymath John Dee (1527–1609). Each member of the exhibition team has picked a favourite object, and explains why they think it’s so intriguing.

Wizard beards and skullcaps

One of my favourite John Dee objects is the steely-eyed portrait of the ‘Queen’s conjuror’ currently displayed centre-stage, welcoming visitors to the exhibition. We are tremendously happy and grateful that the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, lent us this portrait of Dee to watch over the first-ever display of his annotated lost library and ‘magical’ objects.

Dee’s stare is superbly austere, thoroughly in keeping with his posthumous reputation as a keeper of mystical knowledge and angelic conversations. Dee sports a perfect triangle of white beard, voluminous ruff, black robe and skullcap, and thus becomes the archetypal wizard: a visual model handed down from Prospero to Gandalf and Dumbledore. But it is worth comparing Dee’s portrait to those of his contemporaries who also grace our gallery walls, particularly the portrait of eminent physician Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655). Mayerne was a friend of Dee’s eldest son, the physician and alchemist Arthur Dee (1579–1651), and secured Arthur the position of physician extraordinary to Charles I.

Mayerne also sports a skullcap, dark robes and a splendid white beard, making it abundantly clear that Dee’s wizardly garb is in fact simply standard 17th-century academic, clerical and professional daywear. The RCP’s most famous fellow, William Harvey (1578–1657), is in identical dress in his 17th-century portrait by Sir Peter Lely (albeit with less impressive facial hair). In a similarly arresting portrait of Baldwin Hamey (1568–1640) the skullcap is triumphantly lace-crowned.

The 'wizardly-ness' of our fellows has never been more apparent. My 5-year-old son has always been convinced that I work at the ‘Royal College of Magicians’ and this year (until 29 July when the Dee exhibition closes) I very nearly do.

Emma Shepley, senior curator

John Dee (1527-1609). Oil on canvas by unknown artist, c.1594. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573–1655). Oil on canvas by unknown artist, 17th century.

A quest for gold

John Dee lived in a different world to 21st-century Britain. However, he and I have one thing in common: a fascination with gold.

Dee annotated Francesco Sansovino’s history of the Ottoman Empire with phrases including ‘first gold’. This is the gold explorers were seeking in the New World. It filled the graves of the kings of ancient civilisations, and paved the streets of their forgotten cities.

Dee’s quest for gold lasted his lifetime. He headed west on his own expeditions, he researched the finer details of gold mining, he sought the philosopher’s stone through alchemy, and he even consulted the angels.

Sansovino’s book is my favourite because it evokes all these mysteries. It takes me right back to my childhood, watching The Mysterious Cities of Gold.

Sarah Backhouse, exhibitions coordinator

Gl'Annali turcheschi, overo vite de principi della casa othomana. Francesco Sansovino, published Venice, 1573.

A Tudor galleon

Dee’s annotations reveal his intellectual interests, his life story, and his personality. We generally find that Dee is a dedicated scholar with a close eye for detail; the attention marks, and notes woven through the text, show that he read his books very thoroughly.

This is readily apparent in four books that Dee read in the 1540s while he was a student at the University of Cambridge. The curriculum at the time was dominated by the writings of classical Greek and Roman authors and the four works in the exhibition were written by Quintilian, Ovid, Tacitus and Cicero. Dee’s copious marginalia bear witness to his studious attitude. However, on at least one occasion Dee allowed his mind to wander and his imagination to come to the fore. In the bottom margin of Cicero’s De natura deorum (‘On the Nature of the Gods’), he drew a detailed and extremely evocative sketch of a Tudor ship racing across the sea. The source of his inspiration is a snippet of poetry quoted by Cicero:

                                        so huge a bulk
Glides from the deep with the roar of a whistling wind:
Waves roll before, and eddies surge and swirl;
Hurtling headlong, it snorts and sprays the foam.
Now might one deem a bursting storm-cloud rolled,
Now that a rock flew skyward, flung aloft
By wind and storm, or whirling waterspout

Dee usually comes across as an incredibly serious man. I find this sketch very appealing, not only because it’s so attractive and beautifully drawn, but also because it shows a different side of Dee’s personality.

Katie Birkwood, rare books and special collections librarian

Opera. Cicero, published Paris, 1539–40.

British empire

One slender, beautiful volume in the exhibition reveals yet more faces to Dee’s dodecahedron of an imagination. Not only is it one of the few books on display entirely written by Dee, it is also a work which draws on his skills as a scholar of the humanities and persuasive maker of political cases. Using the history of his day, which we would now regard more as mythology (the two were then as married as astronomy and astrology), Dee sets out Elizabeth I’s claims to lands in Europe and across the Atlantic. These lands, Dee says, constitute a ‘British empire’. This is the first time that phrase, which would resound throughout the next 400 years, is ever known to have been used.

As if all this was not enough, the magnificent frontispiece, as resplendent as a court masque put down on page, is from the magus’ own hand. Here John Dee surprises once again, more than a magician or even a proto-scientist as some would claim. He is a true polymath and man of all spheres of knowledge, an accomplished artist as well as a jolly doodler.

Discover Medical London

General and rare memorials pertayning to the perfect arte of navigation. John Dee, published London, 1577.

A ring of skulls

The Wellcome Collection’s huge, late 19th-century painting of John Dee in action, performing an experiment in front of Elizabeth I and her court at his Mortlake home, always caught my eye in the reception foyer of the Wellcome Trust. The painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852–1913) shows a flame in action, reacting to a new ingredient being added. We do not know what Dee is trying to produce, but the effect is captivating.

In discussing borrowing the work for our Dee exhibition, we uncovered a secret history to the painting through having it X-rayed. Dee’s experiment was originally framed in a darker way, with the polymath standing in a ring of human skulls. Presumably not to the customer’s taste, or indeed to the taste of good society in late-Victorian Britain, this element was swiftly hidden, only for a subversive nod to the ‘black magic’ to sneak in through the addition of a figure we can identify as Edward Kelly (1555–1597), the man who spoke with the angels on Dee’s behalf.

Peter Basham, collections officer

John Dee Performing an Experiment before Elizabeth I. Oil on canvas by Henry Gillard Glindoni, late 19th century. Wellcome Library, London.

‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’ opens on Monday 18 January and runs until Thursday 28 July 2016.

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