John Dee must have been an incredibly busy fellow, he was a polymath, his interests extended to: maths; astrology; cryptology; ancient history; navigation; alchemy; the list goes on and on. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Tudor England’s most enigmatic figure is that he still creates such interest today. I am at a late night opening of the Royal College of Physicians exhibition on Dee, with accompanying talks by William Schupbach from the Wellcome Library and Katie Dabin, a curator from the Science Museum. The place is packed, I have to queue up to see display cases and shuffle along to catch glimpses of the man, remnants of his insatiable thirst for knowledge.
For me the best bit about the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) exhibition is Dee’s books, although the librarian in me flinches every time I see his little handwritten doodles and notes on their precious pages. It goes against the grain for me to enjoy someone defacing the pages of a good book, but that is exactly what Dee has done with illustrations of pointing fingers, scientific equipment and even a sailing ship!
Dee’s library was said to contain around 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts. Sadly, precious little remains of that once great collection as it was broken up and stolen away during his lifetime. I wonder at the years it took to collect those books, and how quickly they were dispersed. The RCP holds more than 100 volumes, the largest single collection in the world, and it is exactly those scribbles and notes that allow scholars to link the holdings to his collection. I bet he never dreamed his little scribbles would be poured over some 400 years later.
There are a number of artefacts too, but there is a little bit too much of the ‘might have been’ and ‘could possibly have been’ in terms of ownership. That is the magic of Dee, the drive to find out if he really did converse with the angels that lends such a special evocative aura to anything that might just have been owned and used during his spiritual connections.
After a dip into the exhibition, it was fascinating to hear Katie Dabin’s attempts to trace the provenance of Dee’s supposed ‘crystal’ which he said was given to him by the angel Uriel. It came into the Science Museum’s possession as part of the Henry Wellcome Collection, it was wonderful to see the original accession register which has the item down as a ‘wonder working crystal’. Confusion over the note that says it was owned by a ‘Richard Dee’ has been countered by a velum document accessioned with the crystal that stated the crystal was given by Dee’s son to Nicholas Culpeper. Culpeper used the crystal himself to try and cure illness, until 1651, when he believed a demonic ghost burst out from it.
William Schupbach took us on a very interesting journey discovering more about Henry Gillard Glindoni’s ‘John Dee performing an experiment before Elizabeth I.’ With restoration and X-rays of the canvas revealing hidden skulls and a possible ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ it added immeasurably to Dee’s ‘darker side’.
With the evening ending on a discussion of whether the Science Museum would let some ‘psychic researchers’ take a closer look at Dee’s crystal, it was certainly a case of science meeting the unknown. It seems that perhaps we haven’t moved on so very much from Tudor times after all. Dee still commands so much interest, you only have 2 weeks to see the Royal College of Physicians most successful exhibition to date and the fact it is also complete free should give you all the extra incentive you need.
Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee – 18 January – 28 July 2016 https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/events/scholar-courtier-magician-lost-library-john-dee
Royal College of Physicians – https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/about-rcp/venue/museum-garden-and-architecture
John Dee’s Crystal – http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/objects/display?id=10708