Black History Month: Celebrating Fashion Designers Willi Smith and Duro Olowu.

The Costume and Fashion Special Collection at Chelsea Library celebrates Black History Month this October.

Chelsea Library is home to the Costume and Fashion Collection, a treasure trove of books and magazines chronicling the history of Costume and Fashion. This also includes an archive of British Vogue dating from 1923 to the present.

The Costume and Fashion Collection is supported by the digital resource Bloomsbury Fashion Central (https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/library-card-log-in?linkPassUrl=https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/), a comprehensive research tool for students, professionals and anyone interested in fashion and is free to use online with your library card.

For this year’s Black History Month, we are featuring the work of two designers: Willi Smith (1948-1987), whose important legacy has often been overlooked and Duro Olowu, the Nigerian born, British designer, who in 2003 opened his first boutique in the North Kensington. Both featured in major exhibitions in 2020.

The cover of Willi Smith: Street Couture

Willi Smith

It has been over thirty years since Willi Smith’s death and last year saw the first retrospective of his work – Willi Smith: Street Couture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

 Willi Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1948. Initially he studied fashion illustration but later went on to study Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York. Early in his career he worked for Arnold Stassi, a designer known for his high society ball gowns. He then worked for Digit Inc. Sportswear, where he quickly made name for himself and was nominated for the prestigious Coty Award in 1972. After Digits Inc. went bankrupt in 1973, he unsuccessfully set up a company with his sister Toukie Smith and then in 1976 while in India, inspired by the cotton fabrics and street fashion, he and his friend Laurie Mallet came up with the idea of setting up WilliWear Ltd and by the time they return he had designed a capsule collection that was ready to go.

WilliWear quickly captured the interest of the fashion industry. His designs crossed over from sportswear to couture. His clothes were oversized, colourful and gender fluid. He was the first designer to unite womenswear and menswear under the same label. This is echoed in his unisex patterns for Butterwick and McCall’s, which still seem radical today.

Willi Smith’s design ethos was that his clothes should be functional, fun, affordable and cross boundaries of race, gender and social status. He was inspired by how people on the street dressed. He called it Street Couture for his seminal Fall 1983 Collection. It was urban not ballroom. He famously said, ‘Being black has a lot to do with being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what the pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie…Most of these designers who run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there’. (Vogue online July 2020)

Willi Smith was one of the few successful ‘non-white’ designers at the time to navigate the fashion industry on his own terms and by the time of his death in 1987, aged thirty-nine from an AIDS related illness, he had become the most successful black designer in history with annual sales of over twenty-five million dollars and selling in five hundred stores worldwide.

Willi Smith pioneered Streetwear which has influenced generations of designers. Throughout his career he worked creatively with artists, architects, filmmakers and dancers. Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were amongst the artists who he worked with on his ground-breaking artist t-shirts in 1984 – now ubiquitous in the industry. He started collaborating with Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1967 and in 1985 designed the worker’s uniforms for the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris. The radical architects SITE created his urban street vision for his show rooms and with artists Nam June Pak and Juan Downey his fashion shows became more performance than catwalk.

So, it seems strange that his legacy has largely been overlooked. Perhaps it was because his career was cut short, maybe it was also due to ‘the negativity associated with AIDS at the time’ (James Wines, SITE, Surface Magazine Jan 2020). But it is also true, as Kim Jenkins, founder of the Fashion and Race Database says ‘…fashion history for the most part, has been white history. On the whole, we have designers of color missing from our textbooks’ (WMagazine Jan 2020).

The cover of Duro Olowu: Seeing.

Duro Olowu 

Duro Olowu is a Nigerian born British designer. In 1998 he opened his first boutique off  the Ledbury Road in Notting Hill with Elaine Golding, called Olowu Golding, where he showcased  his early designs  and Elaine Golding’s shoes. Then in 2004 he launched his womenswear label.  His  Spring-Summer 2005 Collection was an instant success and he was named New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, the only designer to receive the award prior to their first runway show. His empire line dress with flowing sleeves, dubbed the ‘Duro’ became a sensation, hailed ‘Dress of the Year’ by both American and British Vogue.

Duro Olowu punctuates designing with curating. He moves with ease between Fashion and  the Art worlds. Last year he guest curated Seeing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he brought together over 300 works of art selected from public and private collections from around the Chicago area arranging them in thematic groups.

Previously in 2016 he curated ‘Making and Unmaking’ at the Camden Arts Centre in London. Mixing and placing works which included photographs, paintings, sculpture and fabrics. The exhibition was like wandering through his stream of consciousness. There was a sense of freedom, where seemingly unconnected work flowed from room to room in a kind of beautiful choreography. In the interview with Glen Ligon for the exhibition he explained, ‘…the process of discovery and experimentation is very empowering and that is what ‘Making and Unmaking’ is ultimately about’ .

Duro Olowu’s designs are a sophisticated  play of pattern, colour and cut, suffused with the influence of African textiles, with their symbolism and how they translate to the street fashion of a continent and then melded seamlessly with western couture to create designs that are both powerful and subtle at the same time.

The exhibition publications: Willi Smith: Street Couture, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Rizzoli Electa, 2020 and Duro Olowu: Seeing, Naomi Beckwith, Prestel, 2020  are on display in Chelsea Library during the month of October in the Costume and Fashion Collection.

For further information on Willi Smith, the Willi Smith Community Archive created inconjunction with Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum gives personal accounts and insights into the designer by people who knew and worked with him. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/

You can also listen to Duro Olowu in conversation with Valerie Steele, fashion historian, who also curates  Bloomsbury Fashion Central’s fashion photograhphy archive. The conversation is from the Series: at home: Artists in Conversation, Yale Centre for British Art.  https://youtu.be/71ZdF_YVVbQ

Nadia, Chelsea Library.

Black History Month: Black Journalists

The inaugural issue of the first ever African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, appeared in March 1827.  Its stirring front-page editorial stated “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations”, encapsulating the truth that the experiences, needs and ideas of black people could only be expressed through the voices, pens and printing presses of black people. Black journalism has a fascinating and illustrious history, through which a rich tradition of brilliant minds sought to wrest the narrative of black experience from the dominant white commentators, fight the battle against racism and advance the cause of liberation.

As the earliest journalists recognised, no war could be waged – whether against the slave trade, which would continue for another four decades after the birth of Freedom’s Journal, or against lynching, the deprivation of civil rights, racist miscarriages of justice, institutional racism in the criminal justice system, government, and society generally – without a press created by and for black people. Newspapers were the way for individuals and communities to communicate with each other and challenge the racist misinformation that distorted the reality they knew.
Campaigns of huge political importance were carried out through their pages, debates shaped, and injustice exposed. They also fulfilled people’s need for entertainment and leisure at a time when black people could only find themselves depicted in stereotypical caricatures in white media. In this month’s display of books from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library, we mark Black History Month by looking at the stories of some of the most fascinating figures in black journalism.

Picture one

Some of the biggest names in 20th century black literature, whose stories can be found in our collection, worked as journalists – the poet Langston Hughes was a columnist for Abbott’s Chicago Defender (see below), and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston [pic 1] was also a reporter (one of her most famous pieces of journalism was her reporting of the 1952 trial in Florida of Ruby McCollum, the black woman convicted of murdering the white doctor and “pillar of the community” who abused her over many years).

Picture two

Lorraine Hansberry, [pic 2] the writer of the celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun wrote for the black newspaper Freedom, which was published by legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Claudia Jones [pic 3], who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, set up the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.

Picture three

Anyone who has watched the wonderful Mangrove film in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen will have seen the brief appearance of C.L.R. James, played by Derek Griffiths.

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James [pic 4] was one of the most important journalists and historians of the period; he immigrated to Lancashire from Trinidad in 1932 and subsequently moved to London, where he wrote for many newspapers and was a leading figure in Marxist politics.  In the late 50s James returned to Trinidad and became the editor of The Nation newspaper, though he spent the last years of his life back in the UK, living in Brixton. James was also an expert on cricket and was cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) in the early 1930s. Huge names of black history like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were also journalists, but in this blog post I would like to focus on a few names that may be less well known.

Picture five

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in Georgia, USA in 1868; his parents had been enslaved until not long before his birth. [pic 5]
After practising as a lawyer, in 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, which went on to become the most widely read black-owned newspaper. Having himself made the journey from the South to Chicago, Abbott was passionate about what is known as “The Great Migration”, which saw many black people relocate from the Southern to the Northern United States to escape rural poverty and the horrific “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation.  (During the first wave of this, between 1916 and 1940, 1.6 million black people resettled in the North.)  Abbott used his newspaper to inspire others to make this journey, as he felt black people could have the opportunity to improve their circumstances only when they left the terrible conditions of the South behind. At the same time, he saw all too clearly that racism was also a huge problem in the North, and campaigned for equal civil rights, the end of discrimination in employment and education, and the end of persecution of mixed-race couples. Black railway porters, who in 1925 were to form the first official trade union led by African Americans, increased the paper’s circulation by distributing it on trains. It is estimated that at its most popular, the paper was read by four out of five of all black adults in the entire United States.  (The paper still thrives 116 years after Abbott founded it, though two years ago it became online only.) We have a rare early biography of Abbott, written in 1955 by another African American journalist, Roi Ottley, whose career took off in the 1930s and who went on to become the first African American correspondent to file reports on World War Two for major national newspapers.

Picture six

Born in Jamaica in 1941, Barbara Blake Hannah [pic 6] had been a TV newsreader and a contributor to a magazine run by her father Evon Blake (founder of the Press Association of Jamaica) before she arrived in the UK in 1964 and became a prolific journalist, her work being published in many national newspapers and magazines. In 1968 she became the first black reporter on Thames Television’s first regional news programme, London-based Today. Blake-Hannah interviewed many famous people, but what then transpired is a disgraceful indictment – viewers complained about having a black reporter on the programme, and rather than defending her, Thames Television dismissed her without explanation. She went on to work on a local news programme in Birmingham, commuting from London as no hotel in Birmingham would admit her. She also worked as a researcher on the BBC’s prestigious documentary series “Man Alive.”  In 1972, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica to work on the ground-breaking film The Harder they Come. She has written extensively about Rastafarianism and was the first Rastafarian senator in the Jamaican Parliament for three years in the 80s.  She is now the Chief Executive of the Jamaica Film Academy.  Her autobiography Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In The Swinging Sixties came out in 2016 and describes her experience in the UK.

Picture seven

Una Marson [pic 7] was an extraordinary woman who dese. Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, she escaped her strict upbringing (her father was a Baptist minister) and was already a prolific journalist, playwright and poet by the time she was in her early twenties (at 21 she was assistant editor of The Jamaica Critic and by 23 she had set up her own magazine, the first Jamaican woman ever to do so).  She came alone to the UK while still not yet 30 and threw herself into the world of black activism and feminism, travelled in Europe, the USA and Israel, and met such important figures as Paul Robeson and Haile Salassie. She worked alongside George Orwell as a BBC producer during the Second World War, the first ever black woman to be employed by the corporation.  From 1942 she produced the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies; she recreated it as Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years and showcased the work of important literary figures including Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul.  She is considered to be the first major female Caribbean poet and a key voice in the development of feminism.

Picture eight

Finally, George Lamming, who is now 94 years old, was one of those who read Walcott’s poetry on Caribbean Voices produced by Una Marson. [pic 8] In 1951 he came to London from Barbados and began broadcasting for the BBC, and he wrote for the Barbadian magazine BIM. In the late 60s he embarked on an academic career in Jamaica and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the USA and Australia.  His book In the Castle of My Skin was written during his first couple of years in the UK, and though often classified as a novel, it is included in our Special Collection of Biographies because it is considered to be an autobiographical evocation of Lamming’s childhood and youth in Barbados. It is an exquisitely written book, which gives a unique insight into his home island at a particular moment in its history.

This black history month, we hope you will enjoy finding out more about these and other unique individuals from the history of black journalism [pic 9], inextricably interwoven into the history of activism, literature, politics, and culture.

Picture nine

Don’t forget to check out our BioEpic podcast, available on all major podcast platforms- Claudia at Kensington Central Library.

Secrets and Lies

This month’s display from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library focuses on secrets and deceptions.  This is a rich subject for memoir, with many fascinating stories of people discovering family secrets that have been hidden for decades.  Sometimes the exposure of a secret takes long, painstaking excavation; sometimes a split second’s revelation overturns everything an individual thought they knew about their background or those closest to them.  Some secrets are never suspected until they are revealed; others resonate through suspicions and inconsistencies and sometimes pure gut feelings, until those concerned determine to find the truth.  

   Of course, there are fascinating stories of secrecy relating to warfare, diplomacy and the machinations of the State.  Espionage and covert surveillance could be the subject of a whole display in themselves, so I am not focussing on them in this one; neither am I going to look particularly at criminal conspiracies, or at the terrible stories of people having to hide their sexual orientation due to the persecutory laws of previous times, or at the false identities forced upon people by war and tyranny. Instead I am focussing on the secrets and lies played out within families; although these may touch on huge historical themes, the reasons for secrecy are connected to intimate and domestic relationships. 

   Some people’s whole personal lives seem to be secrets they wish to guard from the world.  This has often been true of the super-rich of twentieth century America, whose birth into situations that could never be “normal” has sometimes made them seek privacy to a pathological degree. If you are one of the richest women in the world, as the copper mining and railway heiress Huguette Clark was, your relationships with other people must inevitably be complicated. Clark progressively disappeared into a world almost no one could penetrate – apart from her personal nurse of 20 years, to whom she left over thirty million dollars in her will when she died in 2011 aged 104, triggering a legal battle involving several members of her family.  Doris Duke‘s billions came from the family tobacco and hydroelectric industries – she became literally the richest woman in the world upon her father’s death in 1925.  She stage-managed her life in a more sociable way than Clark, but her world was so full of strange unreliable characters that it is difficult to say what reality they could agree on. 

   For some people, deception becomes a lucrative career move.  As spiritualism and the investigation of psychic phenomena gained huge popularity in the late Victorian period, attracting the attention of serious scientists and philosophers, a host of fake mediums and illusionist fraudsters sprang up.  Ada Goodrich Freer was one of these, convincing many eminent intellectuals of her completely bogus psychic powers – her rise and fall is described in The Strange Story of Ada Goodrich Freer by Trevor Hall.  By the same author, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney is a truly tragic one – so devoted was Gurney to the scientific study of the psychic phenomena in which he passionately believed, that he suspended disbelief of cynical tricksters not dissimilar to Freer, in ways that led to his complete humiliation, despair and death in 1888. 

   Sometimes parents hide secrets from their children and try to erase all clues, but like the spindle in the story of The Sleeping Beauty, some echo of the past will always be overlooked – sometimes in such plain sight that one wonders about subconscious motivations.  As a teenager, the eminent film critic Derek Malcolm chanced upon a book belonging to his father, which detailed the histories of important criminal cases. He was astonished to find his father’s name listed in the index, and further disturbed to find that all the pages relating to him had been torn out.  His memoir Family Secretsis a moving account of his efforts to piece together the buried story of his parents’ involvement in a violent drama which made legal history before he was born.  Diana Petre was the half sister of the distinguished writer and editor J. R. Ackerley – her unputdownable memoir The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley describes growing up as part of the secret, unofficial family their respectable father created outside his marriage, an experience which left her with a lifelong obsession with secrecy and duality. 

   Julie Metz‘s life was shattered when her husband died suddenly in his forties, swinging a wrecking ball through what had been an idyllic family life complete with seemingly happy marriage, beloved daughter, affluent lifestyle and beautiful home.  After negotiating her first six months of agonising grief, Metz’s sense of loss was complicated, to put it mildly, by the discovery that her husband had at no time during their marriage been faithful to her, but had managed to conceal a series of long and sometimes concurrent affairs, in some cases with women she knew.  Her book Perfection is a beautifully written record of a journey through deepening levels of loss – the loss of an adored husband, and the loss of the sense she had had of who he actually was. 

   Some secrets require a particular kind of courage and honesty to uncover.  In the last couple of decades, as the children of Nazis pass into old age and confront last chances for confronting the past, and their grandchildren come of age, some have sought to find out the true extent of their forebears’ guilt with enormous courage.  It’s hard to imagine a more traumatic discovery about her family’s past, or a more shocking way to discover it, than the experience of Jennifer Teege.  Browsing in a library on an ordinary day, Teege found out for the first time that her maternal grandfather was none other than the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List).  Plunged understandably into deep depression, Teege soon realised that she could not move forward without plunging herself into all the implications of this terrible, hitherto unsuspected truth.  She began to make sense of trails of emotional damage in her family, and writes brilliantly about the pain of confronting the fact that, as the daughter of an Austrian mother and a Nigerian father, as she states baldly in the title of her book, “My Grandfather would have Shot Me“.   Uwe Timm was a small boy when his older brother volunteered for the Waffen SS and was killed at the age of 19.  As an adult Timm read fragments of his brother’s diary and was haunted by the question of the extent of his involvement in atrocities.  The resulting memoir In My Brother’s Shadow is a moving example of the work of coming to terms with the scars of the past. 

   These are just some of the many books in our Special Collection of Biographies which tell the stories of secrets discovered and negotiated, and if you visit Kensington Central Library you can see many more as part of this display.  Of course there is always something compelling about the dramas and mysteries of other people’s lives, but reading about very different secrets and how they relate to different situations and impulses is not just riveting – it can also tell us some profound things about how human beings construct and communicate their identities, and at what cost. 

Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library 

Don’t forget to check out BioEpic, our monthly podcast delving into the lives of fascinating people and their impact on our world, through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Breaker and Pocketcasts. 

International Cat Day

Biographies from the Basement August 2021 – International Cat Day

August 8th is International Cat Day, when the British charity International Cat Care invites us to focus on the welfare of domestic cats and the efforts it has been making for over 60 years to promote cat health and combat neglect.  I have dipped into our Biography Store Collection to find out about some lives in which cats played a central role.


Anyone who has ever lived with cats understands how their idiosyncracies are woven into everyday life.  Marilyn Edwards and her husband shared their Cumbrian cottage with a series of cats and her descriptions resonate with love and delight.


The Irish playwright and journalist Hugh Leonard documented his life with cat companions with similar tenderness and humour, as did former MI5 operative Derek Tangye, who left a glamorous life amongst London’s intelligentsia to experience seasons full of plants and animals in remote Cornwall.  The landscapes of that county were also vital to Helena Sanders, who was active in Cornish politics, though it was far from those rugged shores that she made one of her biggest contributions to animal welfare; in Helena Sanders and the Cats of Venice, Frank Wintle describes how she set up a shelter for stray cats in that beautiful city.  In The Cat who Looked at the Sky, Thea Welsh describes how the seemingly sensible arrangement of sharing cat ownership with friends came up against the real demands and foibles of a trio of strong willed cats.


You don’t have to observe even the most cuddly of domestic cats for long to be reminded of their relationship to their wild cousins, the big cats of Africa and Asia.  Known for many wildlife TV documentaries, zoologist and photographer Jonathan Scott has lived amongst the lions of Southern Africa for over 40 years.  In The Big Cat Man, he describes getting to know a pride of lions intimately as they go about their lives. Big cats also stalk the pages of Tippi Hedren’s The Cats of Shambala - I knew Hedren as the glamorous star of Hitchcock films like The Birds and Marnie;  I had no idea that her passion for lions and tigers led her to spend years making the film Roar (1981).  Coordinating large numbers of wild cats, many members of the cast and crew sustained serious mauling injuries, including Hedren herself.  She set up The Roar Foundation to look after the film’s animal cast, and the Foundation’s Shambala Preserve in California, described in this memoir, is still home to several lions and tigers.

  Sometimes, a subtitle of one of the books in the biography store is intriguingly surreal – this is certainly the case with John S. Clarke: Parliamentarian, Poet, Lion-tamer by Ray Challinor.  Clarke, one of 14 children in Victorian Jarrow, was still a teenager when he worked in a circus training the lions which were still a staple of circus entertainment at the time, before going on to a career in politics, serving as Labour MP for Glasgow Maryhill from 1929 to 1931. Given how fierce the atmosphere of the House of Commons can be, I imagine his experience of training lions must have given him some useful skills for managing it.  

Finally, let’s turn to some memorable fictional cats, and to the artists and writers who created them.  The animator Oliver Postgate will forever hold a special place in the hearts of those who grew up in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other favourites.  In 1974 he brought us Bagpuss, the soporific, stripy, endlessly benign and unflustered cat whose waking from sleep brings all the toy occupants of the little girl Emily’s shop to life, and Postgate’s memoir Seeing Things is as enchanting and fascinating as you might expect. 

Kathleen Hale, whose widowed mother worked as a travelling salesperson, was fortunate in having her artistic talents spotted by a teacher.  She went on to join the artistic scene in London during the First World War, working as Augustus John’s secretary and socialising with the Bloomsbury set.  Her children’s book Orlando’s Evening Out (1941) was the first fictional picture book to be published under the Puffin imprint, the children’s arm of Penguin, the then less than 10-year-old publishing house which was to transform access to books for the general public.  It featured Orlando the Marmalade Cat, who starred in a total of 19 books spanning almost 40 years, and her exquisite auto-lithographic technique, by which the artist hand-layers overprinted colours to create chromatic blends, are typical of the period. Her wonderful autobiography is modestly entitled A Slender Reputation; she published it at the age of 96, and died at 101.

“The Painter of Cat Life and Cat Character” is an apt subtitle for our beautifully illustrated coffee table biography of Henriette Ronner, as the 19th century Dutch-Belgain painter brought out the singular identities of all the cats she rendered against the silks and velvets, polished wood and well-stuffed upholstery of bourgeois domestic interiors – her feline subjects are so vivid that you feel you could reach out and touch them.


   Colette is one of the most important figures of French literature, and throughout her work her love of animals and particularly cats is obvious – though she never sentimentalises, and renders nature in all its light and shade, ambivalence and cruelty.  The pedigree Chartreux Saha of her novella The Cat (1933) must be one of the most disconcerting cats in literature, sidling elegantly through the early married life of two young people, inspiring both hypnotised devotion and primal jealousy.  We have many wonderful books about Colette in the collection – her My Mother’s House and Sido is perhaps the best introduction to her masterly handling of animal and human relationships.

In the last few years two books about cats by Japanese authors have been enormous bestselling hits: Hiro Arikawa’s The Travelling Cat Chronicles and The Guest Cat byTakashi Hiraide. Eighty years earlier, their compatriot the great Junichiro Tanizaki, often considered the greatest modern Japanese novelist, wrote the unforgettable A Cat, A Man and Two Women. Tanizaki was a literary genius and his memoir Childhood Years brims with his characteristic sensitivity and texture, describing the day to day life of a well to do family in late 19th century Tokyo.

   I couldn’t pursue the cat lover’s trail through the collection without pausing at the shelf where many books on Beatrix Potter are to be found.  She was originally a local, born in Bolton Gardens (a stone’s throw from Brompton Library) in 1866 and is of course famous for the beautifully painted and characterised animals of her 23 “Tales”. She depicted cats with the same detailed naturalism and sympathy she brought to all her animal subjects – Tom Kitten was always my favourite (he has his own tale and also features in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers) and her other feline creations were Miss Moppet, and Ginger who runs a shop with her friend the terrier Pickles in The Tale of Ginger and Pickles.


Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library.

Don’t forget to check out our podcast BioEpic, in which we delve into fascinating lives through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Breaker and Pocket Casts.

Summer Flowers

Summer is in full swing, and everywhere in gardens, parks, window boxes, and balconies, flowers are bursting with colour.  Flowers can be exciting, calming, awe inspiring – and somehow this summer they seem more wonderful than ever.  Of course, Chelsea has been home to the Royal Horticultural Society’s fabulous Flower Show for more than a century – this year it has been postponed to September, when I’m sure it will be the treasure trove we’ve come to expect. 

Our Biography Collection (Special Collection of Biographies) contains many books about famous gardeners and garden designers, plant collectors and those who developed the scientific understanding of flowers.  For this blog post I want to focus on three people who in very different ways have celebrated flowers and deepened our experience of them. 

Have a look at these exquisite flower pictures which date from the 18th century; it may surprise you to learn that their creator was a woman who completed almost 1000 of these images between the ages of 73 and 82.  You might be further surprised that they are not paintings, but collages.  Mary Delany was born Mary Granville in 1700.  Aged 17, she was married to a man of 60, as a way of consolidating the political aspirations of her aristocratic family.  He died eight years later, and she did not remarry until her early forties, when she became the wife of Irish clergyman Patrick Delany – they divided their time between Dublin and County Down.  Both Delanys were keen gardeners and Mary celebrated flowers in a range of creative work, including watercolour, embroidery and collages with shells.  Delany felt that delicate tissue paper could most closely evoke the texture of actual flower petals, and eventually perfected her original method which she called “paper mosaic”, building detailed flower images with tiny cut-out shapes meticulously layered, and mounted on black paper to dramatic effect (this was revolutionary, as botanical illustrations were traditionally given white backgrounds, echoing herbaria where plant specimens were always shown against white).  She was an expert botanist, and would dissect the flowers before depicting them, to make sure her work was accurate as well as beautiful. King George III and Queen Charlotte became huge fans, as well as friends.  She had a circle of other eminent friends, including Jonathan Swift, and the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who was a key figure in the founding and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. We are fortunate in having nine books about Mrs Delany in the collection, including a tiny volume of her letters from 1821 which is illustrated with a silhouette portrait of her at the age of 87 and a 21st century volume of recipes, remedies and etiquette tips gleaned from her letters.

William Robinson‘s career began humbly in Ireland, when he was employed as a teenaged “garden boy” by the Marquess of Waterford.  His precocious expertise with flowers led him to become one of the most influential gardeners of the late19th and early 20th centuries.  In 1861, when he was only 23, he moved to London to work at Regents Park, where he became an authority on British wildflowers.  He wrote a range of gardening books which were so successful that he was able to buy Gravetye Manor in Sussex, where he set about creating a magnificent range of gardens.  Robinson championed wild, natural styles of garden design, taking inspiration from the traditional English cottage garden – he railed against straight lines, “carpet” beds of monotonous bright colours, and the formality of topiary and statues (he was very critical of some of the contemporary plantings in Kensington Gardens, which he considered hideous). Instead he promoted the abundance of simple, often neglected, meadow flowers, blurring the boundary between garden and wild countryside, and bringing the Arts and Crafts aesthetic into the garden.  His were amongst the go-to books for millions of British gardeners up until the 1930s, when he died and his fame began to fade.

Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights is quite simply one of the most life-affirming books I have ever read.  A collection of essays written over a year, it is a catalogue of the small joys of everyday life, which poet Gay describes with lyricism, humour and an acknowledgement that delight co-exists with pain, and can be rendered more precious by it.  In his preface Gay lists nine themes that he traces coming up repeatedly over his year of “delights” – one of them is his garden, and I am including this book because many of its most incandescent passage relate to flowers, and remind us of their power to surprise us and to offer us joy in the middle of whatever else we are going through (in fact, flowers recur so often as a topic that as well as being classified on book websites as “Philosophy” and “Social Sciences”, the book may also be found in “Gardening”; Gay is a passionate gardener and founder of a community orchard in Bloomington, Indiana). Throughout the 102 essays, on a multitude of topics including friendship, loss, the African-American experience and the meaning of community, flowers make repeated appearances and are a recurring motif resonating with hope.  Many of the essays focus on the flowers Gay plants, cherishes, unexpectedly encounters and observes with what he calls “supreme attentiveness”.  The essay “Flower in the Curb” is a meditation on friendship, memory, loss, our relationship to public space and the serendipity of sudden beauty, all in three paragraphs, and though there is much more than flowers in Gay’s records of his “intense fleeting attentions”, flowers are a constant theme and some of the most memorable and uplifting passages are woven through with their scents and textures, and their profound redemptive meaning to Gay.

  • Claudia, Kensington Central Library 

BioEpic – A podcast exploring The Biography Store.

Did you know that we have an insightful podcast exploring the Biography Store Collection?

A glimpse of The Biography Store Collection at Kensington Central Library

Over to Katie Williams to tell us more…

“Claudia Jessop and I wanted to seek new opportunities to promote the Biography Store Collection. With over 90,000 items in the collection it is very heavily borrowed by a wide variety of people and we wanted to shine a light more on the people whose biographies or whose lives are not celebrated as much. I have loved reading Claudia’s blogs about our collections and I thought that it would be good to get it out there into podcast form. So we formed a scooby gang, including Emma Marsh and Jackie Hastick, and we set about coming up with ideas for people who we wanted to celebrate and the logistics of how it could work.

We were very fortunate to get support from our Comms team and our first podcast was launched to coincide with our Black History Month 2020 programme. It was an absolute pleasure to celebrate the life of Claudia Jones, who was responsible for the Notting Hill Carnival and who shaped the cultural and social lives of so many people.

Our mission is this: to shine a light on those who have made an impact on our world.

Its been a really amazing experience not just discovering these people but crafting something which people will stream and enjoy. Episode 6 (about the wonderful James Baldwin) and Episode 7 (Lady Charlotte Guest) are now live “

Listen to BioEpic here:

National Bike Week

“Every time Iseean adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” said H. G. Wells, and I think I know what he means – there is something about seeing someone zooming down a hill, or stoically labouring up one, on a simple piece of machinery that uses only human muscle power to get them speedily from a to b, that is both reassuring and inspiring. Cycling is increasingly popular, and as we mark National Bike week from 30th May to 5th June, there can be no question that the more of us take to two wheels, the better it will be for our environment and for our fitness.    

   Our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library contains many books about professional cyclists, Olympians and Tour de France winners, but for this blog post I thought it would be interesting to focus on some people who didn’t cycle professionally, but in whose lives bikes played an important part in a variety of different ways. 

   The bicycle was vital to the clandestine work of resistance fighters and spies during the Second World War. It enabled operatives to make a quick getaway, travel anonymously, and blend into a crowd. Many heroes and heroines of the Special Operations Executive, responsible for covert operations behind enemy lines, made daring and essential use of their bikes, among them Australian Nancy Wake.  Parachuted into France in 1944, Wake’s mission was to liaise with local resistance fighters and distribute the weapons and funds sent to them from Britain.  When her team’s radio and codes were lost during fierce fighting with German troops, they were left with no way of updating and contacting the SOE in London; on a borrowed bike, Wake peddled a round trip distance of 300 miles to get access to the nearest means of communication.  Without the thousands of bicycles used for essential missions, the outcome of the war may well have been different.  Wake’s story and those of many of her valiant colleagues are told in Squadron Leader Beryl E. Escott’s Heroines of the SOE from our Collected Biography part of the collection (biographies of groups of people – this is a 3,000-book sub-collection within the collection).

Bikes have been vital to less dangerous peace time missions – for decades the image of the district nurse and midwife was linked to the bicycle (viewers of the BBC’s Call the Midwife will be familiar with the cape-flapping leap onto the bike in response to urgent calls).  Joan Markham and Joanna Jones are two of the district nurses whose memoirs we have; both books’ dust jackets feature evocative illustrations of the women with their bikes. In Nurse on the District, Jones describes battling loneliness as a young nurse newly arrived in postwar London but never loses her sense of humour.

In My Little Black Bag, Markham describes her wartime work in one of the poorest areas of Manchester. “I had ridden a bike since the Fairy Cycle days [a popular inter-war children’s bike] and, as a good horsewoman is one with her horse, so I was with my old iron steed”, she says.  [pic 3 and 4] 

   Emily Chappell gives insight into the life of a bike courier in London – with the increase in delivery services, more and more people are earning their living on two wheels and her beautifully written book What Goes Around describes our city from the vantage point of a keen observer zipping through traffic on other people’s crucial errands.  This is a memoir about much more than the experience of this particular job, investigating memory, imagination, community, and what it is to inhabit an endlessly changing city. 

   Though she was briefly famous, Annie Londonderry began and ended her life in obscurity, and was a very incongruous person to take on the challenge of proving that a woman could circumnavigate the globe on a bike, in 1894. Born Annie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant to the USA from Latvia, 24-year-old Annie was the wife of a very religious man and mother of three young children  – and had never ridden a bike before she resolved on her outrageous challenge.  A brilliant publicist, Annie donned the still-shocking bloomers (see the March Biographies from the Basement blog post!) after the first leg of her journey convinced her that long skirts and a corset were just not going to be viable.  She covered her clothing with embroidered advertisements in return for sponsorship – she even rented out the spokes of her wheels to be adorned with advertisements in ribbon form.  Her major sponsor was Londonderry Water, which explained her change of name – also a safety measure, as riding under the name Cohen or her married name Kopchovsky would have exposed her to the antisemitism that was rife at the time.  Annie’s accounts of her trip fell on a spectrum between wild exaggeration and outright fantasy – she spun gripping tales of countries she never visited at all – and she is certainly one of the extraordinary eccentrics of our collection, who you can encounter in the wonderful biography Around the World on Two Wheels by her great nephew Peter Zheutlin.

   Bikes can play a part in journeys of a very personal kind, and have their fair share of romantic associations. The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love by Per J Andersson pretty much does what it says in the title, which is to trace the story of Artist Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia who fell in love with Charlotte Von Schedvin , a young Swedish woman whose portrait he painted while she was travelling through India in a van in 1975.  After two years of correspondence, the pair found that their feelings for each other had not faded, and Mahanandia resolved to join her in Sweden.  You can guess how he made the journey; the two married and had two children, and Mahanandia has enjoyed a successful career as an artist in Sweden.

   Another life changing bicycle ride was undertaken by Mike Carter, who in One Man and His Bike recounts how at the age of 45, while commuting to work on his bike, he made the decision to peddle around the whole of the coast of Britain, a distance of 5,000 miles (many cyclists claim to have their best ideas while cycling; indeed Carter reminds us that Albert Einstein claimed that the theory of relativity came to him while on his bike).  His life-affirming encounter with people and places is touching and humorous; recollecting how therapeutic hours on his bike have got him through emotionally difficult times since childhood, he expresses how the solitary contemplative cycle ride forms a connection between our own intimate emotions and the world that waits to be discovered at the end of an adventurous (cycle) path.

   Whether or not you are a cyclist yourself, I am sure you will find something of interest in these books and the 90,000 others in our Special Collection of Biographies.  Don’t forget to listen to our BioEpic podcast, available from Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Google, Breaker and Pocket Casts. 

  • Claudia, Kensington Central Library 

The History of Vaccinations

Every time I hear that someone I know has had their Covid 19 vaccination, I feel a sense of relief, and I was delighted to have my own first dose the other day.  Though the situation continues to be challenging for us all, and has brought so much sad loss, the vaccine gives us hope.

The history of humanity has been the history of a struggle against infectious disease.  Just a generation or two ago, diseases we now know only from history books and period dramas ravaged the population of this country and our lives have been transformed by our access to vaccinations against them.  Many of our older books in the Biography Collection still have notices pasted inside about what to do if the books have been exposed to infectious diseases. (Pic 1) (Until last year, these labels seemed like quaint relics of a distant reality – none of us imagined having to put books in quarantine again – but they show the prevalence of many serious contagious diseases not very long ago.)  Talk to someone in their 70s or 80s, and the chances are they will recall the death of someone they knew from these once all too common infections. My mother recalls with horror the death of her three year old cousin from diptheria at a time when it killed an average of 3,500 children a year in England and Wales, and my mother-in-law lost her father far too young due to TB (tuberculosis); a generation earlier, two of my grandmother’s siblings died in young adulthood from the same disease.  No family was untouched by the tragedies wrought by these lethal infections.

In the Special Collection of Biographies, we can find the stories of many of the people who developed vaccines, thereby saving millions of lives.  It would take too long to look at the inventors of all the most important vaccines, but here is a whistle-stop tour of just a few of them:

Edward Jenner

Edward Jenner was the father of vaccination; in the 1790s he investigated the fact that milkmaids had a far lower rate of smallpox infection than average, and worked out that the cow pox they were catching from cattle was making them immune to the much deadlier smallpox (killer of 10% of the population at the time).  He had the revolutionary idea of introducing just the right amount of disease to produce immunity in healthy people.  Amongst many books about him, we have the earliest biography, published by his friend John Baron in 1838 (Pics 2 and 3)

Louis Tompkins Wright

Over a century later, Louis Tompkins Wright revisited smallpox vaccination in a military setting and invented the procedure of interdermal vaccination.(Pic 4) He was inspired by his doctor father, Ceah Ketchan Wright, whose achievements would have been impressive in any context, but were particularly remarkable given that he was born into slavery in Georgia. Wright followed his father into the profession, graduating from Harvard in 1915.  Serving as an Army Medical Corps Lieutenant in France during the Great War, he perfected the method whereby vaccine is injected into the skin rather than more deeply, which enabled him to vaccinate soldiers quickly and with reduced risk of infection. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his war service, and was subject to poison gas attack which affected his health for the rest of his life, and caused his death aged 61. He became a civil rights activist and was president of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) from 1935 until his death in 1952.  As the first African American to serve both as surgeon on the staff of a desegregated hospital (Harlem Hospital, where he eventually became Chief Surgeon) and as a police surgeon, Wright fought racism throughout his career, and protested against segregated medical care.  As his father had inspired him, so he inspired his two daughters, who both went on to become ground-breaking doctors and cancer researchers.

Jonas Salk

Polio was a huge problem in the twentieth century; panic would erupt, and public swimming pools be closed, when the disease went through a community.  It could be fatal, and could lead to permanent paralysis, sometimes meaning that the only way the sufferer could survive would be to live inside an “iron lung”, which enabled them to breathe but made any kind of normal life impossible.  Jonas Salk, the son of uneducated Russian Jewish immigrants to the USA, developed the vaccination in 1955. (Pic 5) He had previously developed a vaccine for flu, which the pandemic of 1918 had shown was a viral infection rather than a bacterial one, as had been believed.  He struggled with the huge fame and adulation he experienced after making his life-saving discoveries.

Many of us will remember having the BCG vaccination against TB as school children – but may not know that the “BCG” stands for Bacillus Calmette Guerin, after Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin, the  French immunologists who created the vaccine in 1921 – of whom unfortunately only French language biographies have as yet been published. (Pic 6) Robert Koch had won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work identifying the TB bacillus, which made a vaccine possible – it is extraordinary to realise that at one time, 1 in 7 of all deaths throughout the whole of global humanity was caused by this disease. (Pic 7)

Grace Elderling

At the Michigan Department of Health, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Elderling (pic 8) developed the vaccination for whooping cough (pertussis). It caused violent paroxysms of coughing, with the characteristic sound that gave it its name, which could be fatal, especially in children who were 95% of its victims.  Both women had survived the disease as children and were keenly aware of how easily they might not have done. As the Great Depression had led to the department being starved of funds and staff, the women undertook their research unpaid and outside their normal working hours.

Maurice Hilleman grew up on a farm in Montana, and later said that the deaths of his mother and twin sister shortly after his birth made him want to save lives, and that working with the chickens as a boy had led to his interest in biology. (pic 9) He went on to develop an incredible 40 different vaccines, including those for measles, mumps, and hepatitis A and B.  It is estimated that his work saves 8 million lives worldwide every single year.

I hope you have enjoyed reading about these people whose discoveries have saved so many lives, and may be inspired to read their stories.  Check out our BioEpic podcast available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public for more stories of fascinating people.

Repair, Renewal, Rejuvenation!

This blog post will be a departure from previous ones in that I won’t be focussing on the content of a particular biography, but on the physical care of the books.

Inevitably in a collection of this size and age, some of our books become fragile and need TLC to extend their borrowing lives.  I am able to do basic repairs having been taught some very useful methods by the wonderful Georgia Vossou, conservator at City of Westminster Archives Centre.  Georgia is a fount of wisdom on the history of paper production and binding, and all the technicalities of how books are made and what to do when things fall apart.  (When it comes to general handling of old books, three of her golden rules echo in my head every day, and anyone who loves books old or new should remember them too – never take a book off a shelf by its spine – spines tearing away at the top is probably the single most common injury old books sustain, due to this – instead, hook your fingers over and gently push an old or fragile book outwards from the shelf from the other side; never stack books on top of each other, and never squeeze them too tightly onto a shelf!)

My skills are basic, and I limit myself to minor problems with less old and precious volumes.  For anything more complicated, we have been incredibly fortunate to have the skills of an experienced and qualified volunteer, Sylvie Beaufils, who has been working wonders with archival glues, tapes, paper and cloth.  It is a wonderful thing to see some of our most sadly out-of-sorts books returned looking beautifully strengthened, refreshed, and ready for another lease of life for our readers.

Here is a batch of 19th and early 20th century books Sylvie recently repaired. They date from between 1879 and 1930, and have a combined age of 704 years!

In these before and after pictures, you can see the work done to ‘Anna Jameson: Letters and Friendships’ edited by Mrs Erskine Steuart and published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1915 – the head and tail of the spine were completely tattered, but are now robust enough to sustain the attention of years more interested readers (provided they obey that golden rule of not pulling the book by its spine, which is probably what caused the problem in the first place)! Jameson was a 19th century Anglo-Irish art historian, thinker and early feminist.

 

Sylvie has worked similar wonders with F. C. Burnand’s My Time and What I’ve Done with It (Macmillan, 1874), restoring the author’s elegant portrait photograph to its rightful place and replacing a completely missing portion of the spine.

I had slightly given up hope for Notable Personalities of 1927 (Whitehall, 1927); the binding was completely coming away and what was a once handsome volume grandly bound in shiny oxblood leather, with gilt-edged glossy pages and weighing a significant amount, was in sad disarray.  Sylvie ministered to it with tinted Japanese paper and an elegant method of board reattachment; binding and pages are reunited, and it is now ready for perusal by anyone interested in looking at its hundreds of photographs of the movers and shakers of nearly a century ago.

I hope you have enjoyed this insight into the physical care of the collection.  Next time, I will take a closer look at the books Sylvie has repaired, going inside the covers for some surprising revelations about what is inside!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library