The Tribune - Spectrum


, May 12, 2002
'Art and Soul

An estate of the mind
B.N. Goswamy

The Gutenberg Bible, on vellum: on display in the Huntington Library, Pasadena
The Gutenberg Bible, on vellum: on display in the Huntington Library, Pasadena

THERE is something quite irresistible about old libraries. It is not the smell of leather on antique volumes alone; not the ageing glaze on wooden floors and ceiling-high shelves; nor even the hushed silence broken only by the occasional rustle of leaves that one hears. It is all these things; but, more than that, it is the overwhelming presence of so much learning in one place, of minds that brushed against the grain of their own times, that gives them that air, I think. In them, one has the sensation of being in the midst of an estate of the mind.

The Huntington Library, in San Marino near Pasadena, is a place that few aficionados can speak about without passion. [To be in it, said one, is "like being invited to tour a snake-free Garden of Eden furbished with a grove of trees of knowledge."] Even during the lifetimes of Henry Edwards Huntington, and his wife, Arabella, who founded it together, it had become a destination for scholars from all over the United States, and beyond. Today, as a repository of culture in the western world, it is spoken of in the same breath as the British Museum, the Pitti, the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, even the Library of Congress. There is certainly little that rivals it on the west coast; and when one adds to the treasures that it holds the fact that it is situated in the midst of idyllic gardens, on a 207-acre reserve in a residential neighbourhood, one knows that one is in a place that is very, very special.

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The mysteries of silk
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The Night of the Museums
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The first thing that the visitor notices upon entering the Library is the subdued lighting. But, clearly, the dimness is not for effect: it is to shield and protect frail books and letters and manuscripts that it is filled with. And what books and manuscripts, one might say! One of the dozen surviving Gutenberg Bibles printed on vellum is here; the Library is the second largest quarry of Shakespeariana in the Americas; it is a depository of the rarest Chaucer materials in existence. Nearly every precious object is placed under glass covers, including the celebrated "double elephant folio", the name by which the 27 by 40 inches volume. with paintings of birds by John James Audubon, weighing some 45 pounds, is referred to. The volume is rarely handled, but when it is - periodically, the pages do need to be changed to keep any one of them from being exposed to light for more than a few weeks - three staff members work together to turn a leaf for fear that a folio might be damaged. Quite naturally, not every visitor is allowed access to all the treasures of the library - only scholars researching specific fields are allowed in carefully designated areas - but everyone gets to see some of them, for they are on display. On a given day, thus, one might see a pocket-sized diary with scribblings in it by Samuel Johnson, a sheaf of holograph drafts of Thoreau's Walden, Benjamin Franklin's autobiography written in his own hand, Percy Bysshe Shelley's scrawled fragments of poems and doodles in a tattered booklet no larger than a deck of cards. The sense of history and of preciousness is overpowering.

About five lakh people visit the Library and the attached gardens each year. Not all of them are scholars, but even of scholars and researchers, the Library receives close to 2000 in an average year. The figures of the holdings of the Library are staggering in themselves: it houses six lakh rare and reference books; there are 17,000 drawings and paintings by British artists in the Galleries that form parts of the Library; 16,000 atlases, maps and ancient charts are on its shelves; there are 50,000 items belonging to the John London collection; one thousand letters of Charles Dickens; eleven manuscript volumes of books written and illustrated by William Blake .... The list is endless. But, with all this, the library is not a dead place, a catacomb of sorts for old learning and contemporary but lost-to-the-world researchers. It is alive, and throbs with activity, for it has a remarkably full agenda. Which includes: children's workshops; annual fellowship grants to scholars; months-long special exhibits, some of them costing a million dollars or more to research, organise and produce; concerts of chamber music; lectures by academicians, scientists, philosophers, and historians. Two years ago, when Jane Goodall came to lecture, the audience ran into seven thousand persons.

When one sees and reads about all this, one's mind turns, inevitably, to the treasures that lie in our own land. To take a few examples: consider the great Jaisalmer bhandara; the Oriental Libraries in Adyar and Mysore and Bankipore; the Asiatic Societies in Bombay and Calcutta; the National Library in Calcutta; the National Archives in Delhi; and, now, even the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi. What materials lie there, and with what neglect we keep them, or how little we make of them. The more one pursues this thought the greater is the sadness that descends.

Fragrant thoughts

Among the great attractions for visitors to the Huntington Library are the four art galleries attached to it, and the magnificent gardens surrounding them. The galleries are serene and composed in appearance, with works accompanied by texts that are filled with information without being dense and inaccessible. The fondness of the founders, the Huntingtons, for Britain is reflected especially in the Huntington Gallery, which boasts of some of the best known among British paintings, including works by Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. One can take these in, and/or roam the gardens outside. For there are so many of them, each carefully planned, meticulously laid out: Japanese, Australian, Palm, Rose, Subtropical, Desert. But truly unusual is the Shakespeare Garden in which are featured plants mentioned in the bard's plays. The textual source of each allusion is quoted on a signpost placed nearby. Thus, from Hamlet comes: "There's rosemary; that's for remembrance"; from Coriolanus, "The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes!"; from Love's Labour Lost, a toast to comely lasses: "Fair ladies mask'd are roses in their bud".


This feature was published on May 5, 2002