I’ve got a confession to make, after nearly three years in London, I’d never been to the British Library until last Friday. I picked a good night to initiate myself though, as it was Late at the Library’s Victorian Values evening.
Billed as “the ultimate in glamour, bawdiness and wit”, Victorian Values was an evening of Victorian-themed entertainment and sideshows, with a burlesque twist. The night was put on to complement the British Library’s first-ever major photographic exhibition, Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs (open now until 7 March, free entry)
I stepped into the cavernous BL Entry Hall to the sound of host Desmond O’Connor (not that one!) who was strenuously strumming the ukulele as he sang one of his tongue-twisting tunes. I was just in time to witness Kittie Klaw’s Victorian burlesque act – as behoved the era, she didn’t strip but did give herself a rather rigorous rocking chair ride while reading a racy novel.
Other performances included Victorian-style tableaux, Mr Joe Black looking funereal and reviewing the situation Oliver-style and, perhaps my favourite of the evening, Red Sarah as a Victorian strongman, complete with stripy suit and barbell. Another huge crowd-pleaser was Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, who does a medley of modern songs – from Beastie Boys to The Prodigy – in a thoroughly amusing, old-fashioned style that he calls “Chap-Hop”, while accompanying himself on the banjolele.
While the Oompah Brass band played between acts, I popped downstairs to check out the exhibition. It’s a collection of early photographs and films, with an interesting mix of displays (light boxes, projections, prints, etc) and a huge range of subject matter (exotic animals, x-rays, daily life and even pictures of “spirits”). Taken in conjunction with the informative descriptions about Victorian photographic equipment and techniques, it provides a fascinating insight into the birth of photography.
As well as the photography display, the BL has a permanent collection covering all manner of book-related things. I didn’t have time to explore the full breadth of what is here, but I’ll definitely be back to check out the Gutenburg Bible, Mozart manuscripts and, uh, the Philatelic Exhibition (stamps).
There’s also a programme of talks and performances on topics ranging from Jane Austen to HIV policies in Africa, to Harold Pinter to Beowulf. Check out www.bl.uk for the full list of events.
If I may quote The Simpsons: To the book depository!