Biographies from the Basement: Marcel Proust

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia –

Next Friday 18 November marks the centenary of the death one of the world’s greatest ever novelists, Marcel Proust, whose magnum opus In Search of Lost Time, published in 1913, is one of those most influential literary works which seem to change the collective imaginative landscape. Proust described French high society life during the era known as La Belle Epoque, a period at the end of the 19th century which witnessed immense creativity and growth in the arts, culture and politics in France and beyond. Proust was deeply emmeshed in the glittering salon world he depicts, but as a gay man of Jewish heritage he was also outside it, and able to subject it to the penetrating gaze of one who is simultaneously an insider and ‘other’.

Our display of books from the special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library this month will showcase some of our many wonderful biographies of Proust, as well as some of his contemporaries such as fellow writer Emile Zola, actor Sarah Bernhard, composer Gabriel Fauré and painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

What is it, from the reader’s point of view, that makes Proust so special and makes him speak to people over a century later in a totally different society? I asked a dear friend and devoted user of our library service, who I know to be a huge Proust fan, to put into words what he means to her. I think she expresses brilliantly how a book can open an entire new world to the reader – a phenomenon that makes libraries such magical portals. Before I ‘hand over’ to her, I’d like to remind readers to check out our podcast about the special Biographies Collection, Biography Central. It’s available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic and Anchor and wherever you get your podcasts.

Marcel Proust – A Reader’s View

Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time is made up of seven volumes and tells the story of ‘Marcel’ (not exactly Proust, but a strange, dream version of him) from early childhood in Belle Epoque Paris to the end of the First World War and the moment at which he realises he is now ready to write the novel we’ve just read. It has an enormous cast of extraordinary characters, all of whom have some kind of impact on the formation of the writer whose experiences it describes.

It takes a long time to read Proust – but that’s the point! When I embarked on it, I soon realized it wasn’t like reading anything I’d read before and that I would have to slow down and take my time with each sentence. The narrator takes you into a labyrinth of introspection, describing the sensory experiences and emotional shifts he experiences with a depth of forensic detail that is overwhelming. Out and about in the society he longs to conquer, the narrator’s capacity for acute and often brutal observation excavates the peculiarities and contradictions in his characters. Above all and not surprisingly, Proust takes his time with every possible reflection, speculation, and with the many lengthy digressions that certainly made me feel not so much that I was seeing what he saw as that I was inside his mind. I had one of the most exciting reading experiences I’ve ever had and a revelation of what Proust was doing when I was half way through the third book, The Guermantes Way. In that volume, there is a 150-page section which describes in characteristically obsessive detail a grand dinner in Paris at which Marcel is a guest. Marcel arrived at the dinner as I was leaving the station on a train journey. People arrived, people greeted each other, went in to dinner, ate, drank, talked. Marcel left the dinner party two-and-a-half hours later as I got off the train. 150 pages. The dinner party had happened in my imagination in real time, by a fantastic coincidence the length of my train journey, and I was stunned at how brilliantly he had achieved the illusion that I too had lived it.

Proust is also very funny! The vicious Madame Verdurin, cruel and snobbish hostess of her ghastly ‘salon’ at which people are feted one moment and abused the next dislocates her jaw laughing at a bad joke. Marcel is constantly destabilised by events, reacts disproportionately to the unexpected, and puts his foot in it. A recent critic compared the Marcel of the novel to Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm and it’s a great comparison!

I don’t know if ‘Proust can change your life’ (as Alain de Boton claims in the title of his 2006 book about him) – I know there is no-one like him and nothing like his achievement and reading it is an epic journey.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

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Biographies from the Basement: Black History Month 2022

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia –

At Kensington Central Library this month we have a display of books from our special Biographies Collection for Black History Month. 

We have an array of books about fascinating people from all walks of life and from all around the world – some very famous names, some less so – from civil rights activists to writers, from painters to scientists, from musicians to journalists, from inventors to entrepreneurs, and more. 

Re-acquaint yourself with resounding names like Martin Luther King, Billie Holiday and C.L.R. James, and discover people you may not have come across before, like aviator Bessie Coleman, arctic explorer Matthew Henson, surgeon Louis T. Wright and teacher Beryl Gilroy.

Biography Central logo

Alongside this display we are delighted to bring you a special Black History Month episode of our podcast Biography Central, in which we look at the life of the truly extraordinary poet, playwright, journalist, activist and broadcaster Una Marson

Our podcast is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic and wherever you get your podcasts – so join us as we explore her amazing life.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Biographies from the Basement: making things

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. 

September’s display of books at Kensington Central Library focuses on people making things with their hands.  We’re looking into the lives of those who practiced traditional crafts including weaving, carving and pottery, which have been part of human creativity for centuries.

Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making by Anna Ploszajski

Handmade: A Scientist’s Search for Meaning Through Making by Anna Ploszajski is a fascinating memoir of Ploszajski’s exploration of the process of making things out of different familiar materials including glass, plastic, wool and clay.  Ploszajski is a materials scientist, and this gives her a fascinating insight into what is going on physically as objects emerge from processes of heating, moulding, cutting and bonding. Did you know, for example, that without the addition of limestone, glass would be soluble in water, or that the transparency of clingfilm is due to the random arrangement of its molecules?

She writes so clearly and with such delight in her subject that even someone with only the most rudimentary understanding of physics (like…ahem…me, for example) is drawn into the extraordinary things going on at the molecular level when people work with different materials.  Ploszajski went on a journey of literally hands-on experience of trying out different processes herself, and describes with humour and candour her frustrations and failures as well as her successes, and the range of interesting craftspeople she met. I particularly enjoyed the sensuousness of her writing – she evokes the textures and consistencies, the squishiness and crumbliness, sponginess or brittle fragility of different materials with the delight of a child playing with plasticine. 

It’s a very personal account of a journey which revealed to her all kinds of things about herself and enabled her to feel empowered to embrace who she is.  It’s one of the most unusual books I have read, uniting detailed but accessible science with a very intimate and engaging memoir, and Ploszajski is an impressive and endearing guide through this territory.

Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things by Alex Monroe

In Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things, jeweller Alex Monroe revisits a rural 1970s childhood spent making things out of whatever was to hand. His freedom to explore and improvise ignited his fascination with putting things together and led to his genius for design.


Palissy the Potter by Henry Morley 

In the 16th century, Frenchman Bernard Palissy developed a kind of ceramic ware that was like nothing previously seen, featuring naturalistic representations of animals and plants in relief (casts were taken from actual dead creatures), and bright pigments which he became expert in creating using a variety of plants and minerals. His work with ceramics led him to become expert in several scientific areas, and he lectured on related subjects including hydraulics and fossils.

His autobiography gives a warts and all account of his life; like many artistic master craftsmen, he was driven by an all-consuming need to find answers to the perennial questions thrown up by his processes and the desire to perfect them. His family suffered hardship as he sacrificed more lucrative work for a 16-year attempt to replicate the glaze of traditional Chinese porcelain. Palissy’s style of china became especially popular during the Victorian period, when it was emulated in the “majolica ware” style of iridescent colours, high shine and intricately detailed, heavily relieved designs. Palissy was a Huguenot and was persecuted for his Protestant faith; in 1588 he was imprisoned in the Bastillle prison, and died there of starvation two years later.


Bernard Leach Life & Work

Like Palissy, Bernard Leach was fascinated by traditional East Asian ceramics with their distinctive glazes and exquisite lines.

Shoji Hamada, A Potter’s Life and Work

Returning to Japan, where he had spent his early childhood, in 1917, he met potter Shoji Hamada; the two returned to the UK together, and for several years practiced Japanese firing methods and created wonderful work, inspiring a generation of artistic potters. 

A Weaver’s Life, Ethel Mairet 1872 – 1952


One visitor to his studio was Ethel Mairet, an Edwardian governess who married the Sri Lankan historian and expert on South Asian art Ananda Coomaraswamy at a time when inter-racial marriages were often met with bigotry. The couple spent five years in Sri Lanka, where Mairet studied local arts and crafts. On returning to England, Mairet taught herself hand loom weaving and spinning, developed vegetable dyes and became well known for weaving a mixture of weights and textures within the same fabric.  

Some craftsman starting from humble beginnings go on to oversee companies with iconic and world famous brand names.  One such is Luciano Ercolani – the shortened version of his name, ‘Ercol’, will be familiar to anyone interested in mid twentieth century design.

Ercolani’s impoverished family immigrated from Tuscany in 1898, when he was 10 years old. As a teenager, while working as a messenger boy, he learned furniture making at evening classes at the Shoreditch Technical Institute, located in what was then an important centre of the industry in East London; the Institute later became the London College of Furniture. At 18 he was employed by the Salvation army to make staircases and bannisters; four years later Frederick Parker, who went on to found Parker Knoll, another huge name in modern furniture, spotted his talent and invited him to join his company. Ercolani developed his fashionable mass-produced furniture after the Second World War, during which government orders, including for hundreds of thousands of tent pegs, had boosted his business.

The Autobiography of William Farish: The Struggles of a Hand-Loom Weaver

It is easy to sentimentalise craft, and of course many creative artists have expressed themselves through it, and many of us derive huge pleasure from our own spare time hobbies of making things. But the sad fact is that traditionally, men and women, and often children, creating traditional crafts as their livelihoods, were usually amongst the poorest and hardest worked members of society. William Farish began work operating a weaver’s bobbin wheel aged just 8 in 1826. Like many books in our special Biographies Collection, his memoir offers great insight into the hard life of a 19th century artisan.

Alongside this display, we will have a mini display of people from a range of places and periods, who all had birthdays in September. If you were a September baby yourself, come and see who shares that distinction!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

International Day of Friendship: Biographies from the Basement

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. 

On Saturday 30 July  it will be International Day of Friendship, so we are taking this opportunity to look at how friendship features in our Biography Collection at the library.

For most people, friendship is one of the most important things in life, and during the pandemic many of us realised acutely how much we depended on our friends for support, and how much we missed them when unable to get together.  Whether we have a wide circle of diverse friends, or whether we just have one or two, whether we maintain friendships into our old age with people we met as children, or have enjoyed making new friends late in life, friends are the people we share the ups and downs of our lives with, sometimes able to confide in them in ways we can’t manage with family members.

Friendship reflects the full spectrum of human emotion and behaviour – friends can make extraordinary sacrifices on each other’s behalf, and carry out acts of inspiring kindness.  They say ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’, and friendship can make the most challenging periods of our lives more bearable, providing solace and sometimes steadfast adherence to someone who has been abandoned by all others.  The catastrophe that overtook Oscar Wilde when he was imprisoned under the homophobic laws of the 1890s saw most of the many friends who had courted him when he was the toast of fashionable London turn away.  Not so his indefatigably loyal friend Robbie Ross, whose story is told in Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde’s Devoted Friend by Jonathan Fryer. 

Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde’s Devoted Friend by Jonathan Fryer

In Iris and the Friends : A Year of Memories, one of his several books about his wife the novelist Iris Murdoch and her struggle with dementia, John Bayley writes movingly of how their social circle negotiated the changes in their beloved Iris with patience and love.  

Iris and the Friends : A Year of Memories by John Bayley

Some friendships grow from the most unpromising soil, sometimes where insurmountable adversity might be expected – so Christo Brand, who aged 18 became Nelson Mandela’s prison guard on Robben Island,  writes of how the two men became deeply fond of one another. Mandela, aged 60 when they first encountered each other, took a paternal attitude to the teenager who began to recognise the evil of the white supremacy he had been brought up to believe in.  Brand risked imprisonment himself by smuggling Mandela’s newborn first grandchild into the prison so that his grandfather could see him, and on becoming President, Mandela found him a job and helped advise on his children’s future careers.  The full amazing story is told in Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend.

Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend by Christo Brand with Barbara Jones

An equally unlikely friendship was that between Raymonda Tawil, Palestinian journalist and mother-in-law of Yasser Arafat, the first President of the Palestinian National Authority, and Ruth Dayan, the wife of Moshe Dayan, Israeli military leader and government minister.  In his aptly titled An Improbable Friendship, Anthony David describes how the women sustained a secret friendship throughout decades of conflict between their peoples.

An Improbable Friendship by Anthony David

As with all areas of human life, friendship can sometimes go wrong, and betrayal and misunderstanding features in some of the books documenting friendship in our collection. Julie Metz was horrified to discover that her husband had been carrying on numerous affairs during their marriage, and the fact that one of his lovers had been the woman she considered her best friend was a devastating blow.  What she could never have imagined was that she would become friends with one of his other lovers and that they would help each other deal with the fall out of it all. 

Perfection by Julie Metz

A more profound and horrifying betrayal cannot be imagined than that of Pieter Menten of his friends the Krumholz family; having socialised with them happily for many years in their Polish village, he later supervised their murder as an SS officer.  The sole survivor, who had emmigrated before the Nazi invasion, spent years tracking Menten down so that he could be brought to justice, and at the same time trying to piece together the psychological drama that could have led to such a grotesque revocation not only of personal friendship but of basic humanity.

The Last Victim: One Man’s Search for Pieter Menten by Malcolm MacPherson

Some of the richest friendships are those between people from very different backgrounds, and across the generations; some involve mentoring, like that between painter, Beauford Delaney and writer, James Baldwin, and some arise when genuine connection is ignited by philanthropic interest, as when upper class socialite, Fanny Howe corresponded with impoverished sex worker, Maimie Pinzer in early 20th century Philadelphia, transforming the lives of both women. 

Some friendships between creative people shed light on their creative processes; such a case is that of poets, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, whose complete letters we have, spanning 30 years.

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell by Elizabeth Bishop

In other cases, the desire to reach out to someone perceived to be in need of help can run into complicated waters, as when journalist Michael Finkel attempted to befriend the hermit Christopher Knight, who had lived undetected in the forest of Maine for 27 years; divided by huge gulfs of experience and perception, the connection between the two men could only go so far before Knight began to erect barriers.

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Finally, I feel I must acknowledge the fact that not all of our dearest friends are human! The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar is just one of the many books we have that tell the stories of the love and companionship we can enjoy with our pets – most often these are dogs and cats, but this hilarious and moving memoir by Martin Windrow describes sharing his flat in a high-rise block in South London with a very opinionated and volatile tawny owl.

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow

We hope there will be something for everyone to enjoy in this display of books on friendship in Kensington Central Library.  Come along and see if any of them appeal to you – and perhaps share them with a friend.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – British and Commonwealth memoirs from seven decades

You can’t have failed to notice the media coverage of the fact that this year marks the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.  Her Majesty has become the longest serving British monarch ever. 

Queen Elizabeth II: A Photographic Portrait by Philip Ziegler

She was crowned in June 1953, but in fact became Queen upon the death of her father George VI in 1952 (the interval between her accession to the crown and her coronation was in keeping with tradition which requires such an interval after the death of a monarch). The quiet, restrained 25 year old was launched into one of the most important and high-profile roles in the world, and could not have known at that point that she would fill it for more than seven decades, until recently with her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at her side.

Elizabeth the Queen: The real story behind The Crown by Sally Bedell Smith

Britain and the world have changed beyond recognition since the beginning of her reign, which was dubbed at the time ‘the new Elizabethan age’.  Elizabeth II became sovereign of a nation still recovering from world war, when despite having a woman on the throne, married women still needed their husband’s signatures for any major purchase, homosexuality was illegal and recent immigrants from the Commonwealth faced intense organised racism, not least in our own borough of Kensington (Kensington and Chelsea were yet to amalgamate at that time).

Over the last seventy years society has been through huge changes, in Britain, in the Commonwealth and formerly colonised nations, and it seems almost incredible that our head of state has been the same person throughout this time, uniting generations as a reference point – our oldest generation still remembers her as a child addressing the nation on the radio and as a teenager contributing to the war effort, and emulated her glamorous fifties style in an era when female office workers were expected to arrive for work fully kitted out in mandatory hat, gloves and high heels.

Princess Elizabeth’s Wedding Day published by H.A. & W. L PITKIN LTD

Alongside her role on the world stage, as history’s dramas have played out, the Queen has also of course lived the life of an individual woman, and the nation has watched her experience the highs and lows of being the matriarch of a family that has had its fair share of drama, tragedy and scandal.

Our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library contains around 150 biographies of Her Majesty, from quaint pictorial albums commemorating her childhood in the 1920s and 30s, to detailed and incisive biographies which place her in historical and socio-political context.  There is also an array of beautifully produced ‘coffee table’ books full of photographs from her extraordinary life.  For the month of June we will be displaying some of these in the lobby of Kensington Central Library, and you are welcome to come and browse through them; all are available to borrow. 

Alongside them, we will be displaying a range of memoirs of some ordinary people from throughout the Queen’s reign, with an emphasis on memoirs of our local area where possible, and with an additional focus on people writing about what it was like to experience some of the social cataclysms of their eras.  Come and read about the 50s through to the 00s and beyond through the eyes of a range of people from all walks of life in Britain and throughout the Commonwealth.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Biographies from the Basement: April 2022

Our colleague, Claudia is back with her monthly blog post about our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. Over to Claudia to tell us more –

Display at Kensington Central Library

During April we are having two displays of books from our special Biographies Collection. The first is to complement the wonderful exhibition provided for us by the Pilecki Institute: ‘Passports for Life’. This exhibition tells the fascinating story of The Ładoś Group – Polish diplomats who were involved in a rescue operation to help Jews escape the Nazis during the Holocaust. This exhibition of photographs, original documents and audio-visual displays will be on the ground floor of Kensington Central Library until Tuesday 31 May.

Fourteen Letters by Feliks Topolski

To give an insight into the contribution of Polish Jews to twentieth century culture before the Holocaust, we are displaying biographies of some leading literary, artistic and scientific figures including Sholem Asch, Feliks Topolski, Marie Rambert and Leopold Infeld.

A Day of Pleasure by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The leading figure in Yiddish language literature to date, and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1978, was Warsaw-born Isaac Bashevis Singer. No one documented the Polish-Jewish world with the detail, vigour and beauty that he did, and we have several wonderful books about him, alongside many of his best known novels.

A Contrary Journey with Jill Culiner event

If the history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe interests you, you may also like a forthcoming event on Tuesday 26 April at 6.30pm, when writer and artist Jill Culiner will be discussing her book A Contrary Journey, describing her travels in Ukraine and Romania, in the footsteps of Jewish Enlightenment poet Velvel Zbarzher. This is an online event; you can book your place on Eventbrite.

Display at Kensington Central Library

It is World Book Night on Saturday 23 April, and for our second Biographies Collection display this month we are homing in on some people whose lives revolved around books – but who were not necessarily authors. We have found an array of publishers, literary agents, book sellers, book collectors, editors, translators and general bibliophiles – and, of course, librarians. These bookish lives from throughout history and from around the world can tell us much about how books come into being, and what they mean to those who spend their days looking after them, preserving them and making them available.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell’s memoir of running a second hand book shop in the Scottish town of Wigtown had me laughing out loud. In a dead pan style, Bythell documents the eccentricities of staff and booksellers and the highs and lows of serving a clientele of collectors, aficionados, the indecisive and bemused, the pedantic and demanding, and the endlessly browsing tourist. There is a serious point about the increasing challenge of eking out a living in this field, but Bythell’s caustic humour belies an obvious passion for his trade.

I remember the first time someone I knew ordered an obscure, out of print American book online, and awaited its delivery with excitement. I couldn’t believe that the internet made it possible to track down such books and have them drop through the letterbox. This has become commonplace (though still often very expensive – if it’s biographies you are looking for, don’t forget that our collection contains thousands of out of print and rare titles, including many published overseas).

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

Before such things were dreamed of, Helene Hanff, in her flat in New York City, had no way to acquire the old English literary editions she loved other than to write air mail letters, and in this way she developed a correspondence with the manager of a Charing Cross Road antiquarian bookshop that spanned two decades.

84 Charing Cross Road was an address that became famous when she published her exchange of letters with Frank Doel in 1970 (her book was made into a film starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins in 1987). Any booklover who hasn’t already read this classic celebration of friendship and bibliophilia is in for a real treat – the bond that gradually develops between the reserved Doel and the ebullient Hanff is tender and moving, and the insight into post war life in the US and UK is fascinating. The fizzing excitement as Hanff unwraps the parcels containing her yearned-for editions of Austen and Donne, and the quieter but no less profound delight as Doel takes delivery of her grateful gifts of still-rationed treats resonates down the decades and reminds us of the importance of human contact and the ability of books to cement friendships.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakof

New York City was also the place where Joanna Rakoff, in her early twenties, took up her first job as assistant to a literary agent in 1996. Her memoir My Salinger Year describes learning the ropes of the industry, at the same time as learning, in a whirlwind of coming-of-age insights rendered in lovely and witty prose, who she is and what kind of life she wants to have in the world of books. The title refers to the fact that the agency’s most illustrious client is the giant of American literature J. D. Salinger, by then in his late seventies. Knowing his reputation as an irascible recluse, Rakoff quails at the thought of encountering him – but his kindness and gentleness in their telephone conversations tell a different and irresistible story.

Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyle

Arif Ali came to London from Guyana in 1957. In 1966 he began running a green grocer’s shop in Tottenham; because it was one of only a few places where Caribbean produce was available, it became a place where immigrants from the Caribbean would gather, and Ali began importing newspapers from their home islands. In 1970, Ali sold the shop to set up the publishing company Hansib, which became the largest black-run publishing company in Europe. For over 20 years he published three newspapers and two magazines, the most popular of which was the Caribbean Times. In 1997 Ali sold his newspapers to concentrate on books.

Hansib Publications has brought out hundreds of titles, showcasing writers from Britain’s Caribbean, Asian and African communities, and a range of books on the experiences and concerns of these communities. Ali has been an activist on many issues, and his contribution to making black British voices heard in the context of a ‘mainstream’ publishing industry that neglected them, has been immeasurable. We have a wonderful and quite rare book in our collection called Caribbean Publishing in Britain: A Tribute to Arif Ali by Asher and Martin Hoyles, which although it foregrounds Ali, also looks at other publishers who immigrated from the Caribbean and used their books to change and enrich British society.

So Much to Tell by Kaye Webb

Anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s and enjoyed reading might find the name Kaye Webb rings a bell.  Webb, one of whose first jobs was to answer children’s letters to Mickey Mouse Weekly magazine in the 1930s (she was paid tuppence per response), was editor of Puffin Books, the children’s arm of Penguin, between 1961 and 1979, her name appearing on the flyleaf of many much-loved books.

This is often looked on as a golden age for children’s fiction, and Webb oversaw Puffin editions of classics like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes and Rosa Guy’s The Friends as well as obtaining the paperback rights of earlier classics including Mary Poppins and Dr Doolittle.  In 1967 she founded the Puffin Club, whose members (‘Puffineers’) received a fortnightly magazine full of articles by leading children’s authors, and the chance to participate in quizzes and writing competitions, meet-the-author events, and links with other kids who loved reading.  The magazine thrived for over 40 years and at its peak had 200,000 readers, and its graphic design has become iconic.  Webb’s third husband was the artist Ronald Searle, best known for creating St Trinian’s and for illustrating Geoffrey Williams’s Molesworth books. 

A less well known, and still sadly topical episode in Webb’s life is that in 1960 she and Searle (who had survived a Japanese prisoner of war camp) produced Refugees 1960, a report on the situation of refugees 15 years after the end of the war, with text and pictures based on their travels to meet refugees all over Europe at the invitation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

For those of us lucky enough to work with books, there are many ways that we experience looking after them and sharing them – but the best way to encounter them is still to browse amongst the shelves and find what you most want to curl up with, which might well be a biography to take you straight into another place and time.

Don’t forget our podcast Biography Central (formerly BioEpic), available on Anchor or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear more about our special Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Women’s History Month: ground-breaking women

Women’s History Month poster from Kensington and Chelsea Libraries

March is Women’s History Month, and our display of books from our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library highlight’s some of history’s most ground-breaking women. Every profession, every arena of social, cultural, political, or religious engagement, every artistic genre, and every field of achievement were once reserved exclusively for men.

In each of these fields, into which women have broken through over generations of slow and often difficult progress, there was a ‘first’ woman: the first to practice as a doctor in the UK (Elizabeth Garrett Anderson), the first to pilot a plane (Amelia Earhart), the first to win a Nobel prize (Marie Curie), the first to be the provost of an Ivy League University (Condoleezza Rice), the first to have an exhibition of paintings in a major gallery (Georgia O’Keeffe), to become a self-made millionaire (C. J. Walker), and on and on through every area of excellence.

In this blog post we focus on three very different female ‘firsts’ from the past who changed the landscape for their fellow women for ever.

The first female to publish a book

Book cover of ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’

Although her mentor and fellow Norfolk woman, the anchoress Julian of Norwich, is credited with being the first woman to publish a book in the English language, the Christian mystic Margery Kempe (1373–1438) has particular significance in relation to our Biographies Collection because her The Book of Margery Kempe is generally considered to be the first work of autobiography-not only by a woman, but by any individual-to be published in English.

Like most people during this period, Kempe was illiterate (it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that women’s rates of literacy caught up with men’s). She employed a scribe to write her book at her dictation, describing her religious visions. Unlike Julian of Norwich and other early female theologians and mystics, Kempe was not a nun but was a married woman with 14 children. She was tried for heresy several times due to her encroaching on religious activities reserved for men, but was not convicted, and went on to travel on pilgrimages in Europe and Jerusalem. 

The first UK female physician and surgeon

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) has an impressive list of ‘firsts’ to her name: as well as being the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in the UK, she co-founded the first hospital to have a female staff, became the first female dean of a British medical school, the first woman to serve on a school board and the first British woman to become a mayor.

Portrait image of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Born to a prosperous family in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Anderson was frustrated with the limited education provided to her as a girl. As a young woman, she was determined to become a doctor. She began practicing as a nurse at the Middlesex Hospital in London while studying with private tutors, and despite excelling herself, she was forced to leave after male medical students objected to her presence in lectures. Inspired by the first American woman to become a physician, Elizabeth Blackwell, whose London lecture tour she attended, Anderson eventually obtained her medical degree through the Society of Apothecaries, via a loophole in its constitution that made it unable to exclude women. However, she was still unable to practice until gaining a further qualification, which was only available to women at the Sorbonne in Paris (she learned French especially for the purpose).

In 1866, Anderson set up the St. Mary’s Dispensary, which became the New Hospital for Women in 1872, just after Anderson married and before the birth of the first of her three children. It was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in 1918 and remained open until 1976; it still exists in the form of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing of University College Hospital. Its mission was to provide medical care for poor women, whose health was often terribly neglected. In the 1870s, Anderson became involved in debates about the suitability of medicine as a profession for women, most notably countering the arguments of the eminent psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, who contended that too much intellectual exertion would render women infertile and/or insane. Anderson argued that the reverse was true, and in fact, it was boredom and frustration, and being starved of purpose and intellectual stimulation, that were injurious to women’s health.

The first self-made female millionaire in America

Book cover of ‘Madam C.J. Walker’

Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1910) became the first female self-made millionaire in America. This would have been a landmark achievement for any woman in the late nineteenth century, but for one born into dire poverty, the daughter and sibling of enslaved people in Louisiana, it is remarkable. Walker had been employed as a domestic servant while still a child, having been orphaned at the age of seven and married at the age of fourteen to protect herself from abuse within her family. A strong motivation for her business enterprises was to secure a better future for her own children.

After working for a cosmetics company, Walker saw a gap in the market for hair care products for black women. Through a combination of time-honoured recipes passed down through generations and the modern laboratory research she funded as her business grew, Walker produced beautifully packaged products, developed a mail order service, and was the first woman to give her name to a brand. In addition to acquiring a beautiful mansion (which became a hub for the greatest names in the African-American community), state-of-the-art early motor cars, and all the luxuries that wealth made possible, Walker ploughed a large proportion of her vast fortune into philanthropic work. She invested in training schools for beauticians and for women wanting to run their own businesses, and causes such as the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, to whom she made the biggest single donation they had ever had.

Her business expanded into the Caribbean and was so well known and trusted for so long that it became part of the cultural landscape. Only this year, a heritage line of products using her name and paying tribute to her work is being marketed in the United States. Though she became richer than she could have imagined as a young girl, Walker never forgot her early days and the people amongst whom she had grown up, whose lives were blighted by poverty and racism. Her generosity to a variety of causes was legendary, and on her sadly early death at 51, she bequeathed two-thirds of all future profits of her company to charity. 

Photo of Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library

We hope you enjoy discovering these and other trailblazing women, whose stories are told in our Biographies Collection.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Check out our relaunched podcast, Biography Central, here https://anchor.fm/biographycentral or wherever you get your podcasts.

Amplifying the stories of queer artists: LGBT+ History Month

February is the joyous month to celebrate LGBT+ history across the UK. This annual-month long celebration aims to educate and amplify the historic milestones from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.

Visual artists from our Biography Collection

This year we are excited to shine the light on LGBT+ visual artists from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, which contains many fascinating books exploring the lives of LGBT+ artists, some household names like David Hockney, Gwen John, Francis Bacon and Maggie Hambling, and others far less well known. For this blog post our colleague, Claudia, will be focusing on two very different 20th century artists, from very different backgrounds, whose sexuality and the obstacles society put in their way informed their lives and art.

Romaine Brooks was an American heiress who moved to Paris in the 1890s, while still in her teens, to develop her career as a painter. Having the financial means to avoid the poor areas frequented by struggling garret-dwelling artists, she set up home in the fashionable 16th arondissement, and painted portraits of aristocrats – some of whom, including the Princesse de Polignac, became her lovers.


Copyright: © Photo RMN – Droits réservés

Brooks had previously lived in England, and a spell in St Ives saw her refining her palette from the bright, strong tones of her earlier work, to the muted greys which became her trademark. Brooks favoured masculine attire, cutting a glamorous and elegant figure in austerely tailored coats, wing collars, top hats and a short haircut (long before the shocking “Eton crop” became fashionable for “flappers” in the 1920s). Many of her portraits of women show their subjects in similar outfits, providing a rich record of women subverting the rigidly gendered clothing of the time and signalling their sexual preferences.

Brooks had a 50 year relationship with the writer Natalie Barney, whose salon in the rue Jacob spanned six decades. Brooks was one of a circle of women who were determined to live as their true selves in the face of prejudice, and created great artistic records of the lives of their peers.


Beauford Delaney | Whitney Museum of American Art

Beauford Delaney also made the journey from America to Paris, but sixty years after Brooks did, and in middle age. By this time, he was an established painter, having made his name with his haunting modernist depictions of the homeless and disenfranchised in Depression era New York City.

A native of Tennessee, whose mother had been born enslaved, Delaney began painting at an early age (as did his brother Joseph, who also became a professional artist). His period in New York City coincided with The Harlem Renaissance, a huge flowering of African American art, music and literature, and he was active in radical politics. James Baldwin wrote movingly of Delaney as his “spiritual father”, “the first living proof, for me, that a black man could be an artist”.

After Delaney’s death, Baldwin wrote: “He has been menaced more than any other man I know by his social circumstances and also by all the emotional and psychological stratagems he has been forced to use to survive; and, more than any other man I know, he has transcended both the inner and outer darkness.”

Implicit in these words is Baldwin’s recognition of Delaney’s struggle as a fellow black gay man – although a prominent member of gay Bohemian circles which were carving a place in the arts and society, Delaney struggled with the shadow cast by the homophobia of the time and of the church teaching of his youth. His mental health deteriorated, partly as a result of the pressures of negotiating his sexuality in a hostile society. His work is inflected with the vision of the raw and tender vision of the outsider, the artist seeking to elevate the humane truths of existence above the violence and cruelty of exclusion.

Fashioning James Bond

We host a wide variety of events in our libraries, both online and in person for residents and visitors in Kensington and Chelsea. And colleagues who work for the council like to come along too.

Elrica, who works for the borough, came along to Kensington Central Library last month to hear author, Llewella Chapman, speak about her book on the history of the costumes and fashions in the James Bond films. Over to Elrica to hear more…

Author Llewella Chapman

Who would’ve thought that Kensington and Chelsea would be the place to be for Bond-related events? It wasn’t that long ago when we had the world premiere of No Time To Die at the Royal Albert Hall. Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of attending Llewella Chapman’s book launch at Kensington Central Library. Fashioning James Bond is Chapman’s contribution that analyses how womenswear and menswear within the Bond films as iconic as the screenplay themselves.

Elrica’s photo from the night

In her talk, she explained that there are three core themes that she approached the subject matter: the agency of the actors and actresses, as well as the costume designers behind-the-scenes; the hidden labour involved in developing the costumes; and the costumes themselves. Her being a trained costume designer, she has a first-hand understanding of the work involved to use clothing to make characters more visible than others, and that there is a lot of decision-making that is not always credited.

Chapman explained how it took around seven years to conduct her research; her book is a scholarly synthesis of a variety of in-person and online archives and sources. It shows that there is a great history to be unravelled in how and what decisions were made that led to some of the most ‘iconic cinema graphics’. I was amazed at the wealth of information she read and analysed in order to write her book, more so given that she used the ‘old-school’ notebook and paper method to note down her insights.

I am excited to read her piece of work, more so being able to have had the chance to see Chapman speak so openly. During the pandemic, we have not had the opportunity to attend in-person book talks, and I am grateful for hearing Chapman speak. It was evident from her talk of the passion she holds for the Bond costumes and the people that were able to make them become the ‘icons’ themselves.

If you missed the event, don’t worry as Llewella Chapman is back on Friday 11 February to tell us how James Bond got his style from the tailors of Westminster. There’s more info and you can book a place on Eventbrite.

Many thanks to Elrica for coming along and her blog post, we’re glad she enjoyed the event! If you’d like to keep up to date with what’s happening in our libraries do subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022: One Day

Every month or so, our colleague, Claudia takes a look at our special Biographies Collection at Kensington Central Library. It’s a collection of 80,000 books to which we add 1,000 new titles a year. This month, Claudia looked at our collection to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

To mark  Holocaust Memorial Day on  27 January, each year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chooses a different theme to commemorate the Holocaust and the Cambodian, Bosnian, Rwandan and Darfur genocides. To mark it, we have displayed some of the many Holocaust memoirs from our  Biographies Collection in Kensington Central Library. This year the theme is One Day. 

I have chosen as one day to focus on, the 19 July 1943 and how it was recorded by some diarists of the Holocaust whose work is in our Biographies Collection. I have displayed excerpts from the diary entries for that day alongside the books. Diaries are a particularly intimate, immediate and powerful form of autobiographical record, and the youth of some of these writers (Anne Frank undoubtedly the most famous) as well as our knowledge of their ultimate fates, underlines their poignancy and power. I chose this date for personal reasons – it was the birthday of a dear family friend who was living through the Holocaust as a child at the time.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2022 book display at Kensington Central Library

Looking at this one day through the words of some of the memoirs reveals the geographical scope of the atrocity and the fact that it occurred over thousands of days, days which had sunrises and sunsets like any others, which were people’s birthdays and anniversaries, but on which the evils of hatred and bigotry violated the most fundamental human values, and which are rightly considered amongst the darkest in human history.   

Some of the diaires I looked at ended before 19 July 1943, because the diarist did not survive beyond that point. For those, I have chosen the closest diary entry to take an excerpt from. I am also displaying other biographies of Holocaust survivors, refugees, rescuers, witnesses and those who did not survive, and some general books on the historical background to the genocide.

Another key reason why I chose the date 19 July 1943 was a way of dedicating this display to a beloved friend, born in Prague and a resident of West London for the past 75 years. This day was her 10th birthday. Between the ages of 8 and 12 she was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz, where her family was murdered.

Most children who survived the Holocaust were those who had been taken into hiding before deportation or managed to leave as refugees. She was one of a tiny minority to survive the camps themselves, due to being used as slave labour rather than being murdered on arrival. As the defeat of the Nazi regime approached, she was marched to Belsen, from where she was liberated by allied troops. A relative who had emigrated to London several years earlier recognised her on a radio broadcast appealing for relatives of child survivors, and she came to live in London where she has led a full and good life and been dearly loved by her family and friends. 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust, over 90% of Europe’s total population of Jewish children.

Antisemitism is currently on the rise across Europe. One of its most pernicious strands is Holocaust denial. It is thus extremely important that we read the records of those who experienced the persecution, and are moved by their testimony to fight bigotry and hatred.