More Asian and African surprises from the British Library collections

Another year on and another show and tell from the idiosyncratic Hedley Sutton with more Asian surprises at the British Library. This time he added a few African ones to boot.

Hedley started the show off with an exotic quiz in the shape of a black and white photo of a European looking woman wearing a belly dancer’s outfit. After a short pause while the audience considered their options I blurted out, “is she Mata Hari?” I was rewarded with a knowing smile from Hedley and the appearance of an original letter from 1917 from an agent of the French secret service to their British equivalent. The letter identified her as a double agent for the Germans. Soon after in October Mata Hari (which was Indonesian for ‘eye of the day’), was executed by firing squad as a spy. It turned out she was in fact a Dutch subject and her original name was Margaretha Zelle.

Pat Shipman one of her biographers argues that Mata Hari was never a double agent, speculating that she was used as a scapegoat by the head of French counter-espionage. The fact that she was seen by some as a ‘wanton and promiscuous woman, and perhaps a dangerous seductress’, may not have helped her case.

International Dunhuang ProjectNext Hedley showed off what appeared to be an ancient religious text hailing from the famous Dunhuang Archaeological Sites in Xinjiang China. In fact it turns out this was actually a sophisticated fake, and part of a cottage industry which flourished in that part of China around the late 1800’s. The items were produced in response to an invasion of European collectors eager to get hold of historical documents from the area preserved for hundreds of years by the desert conditions.

This led on to a discussion about the the International Dunhuang Project, which is an international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet.

szyk-haggadah-family-at-sederNext we were shown a surprisingly recent publication, which turned out to be a new (and limited print run) version of the Szyk Haggadah.

The Szyk Haggadah is a Passover Haggadah illustrated by Arthur Szyk in Poland in the 1930s. According to the The Times it is ‘worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has ever produced’.

What makes the beautiful illustrations so unusual is Szyk’s approach of portraying contemporary political issues in medieval style. His first set of illustrations were clear and unfavourable references to the Nazis, including such detail as Nazi armbands on the Egyptians oppressing and murdering the Israelites, and the faces of Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring on two snakes.


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