Goodbye John Dee!

Over the past 6 months, we had become accustomed to the presence of a new friend who had taken up temporary residence on our first floor gallery.

On 28 July we said a fond farewell to John Dee, as our exhibition ‘Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee’ came to an end. The books were returned to their shelves, the paintings came down, and the man who had brought us so much delight in recent months was put back to bed.

John Dee. Engraved portrait by Robert Cooper, c.1800

John Dee (1527–1609) was a remarkable and fascinating figure. We have learned about him through putting together the exhibition, from the research of visiting scholars, by hearing our incredible guest speakers at events and from our wonderful museum visitors. The more we’ve learned, the more we have come to understand not only the extraordinary life that Dee led, but also the many ways in which his memory and legacy still resonate today, 400 years after his death.

Bearded faces drawn by John Dee in Opera. Arnaldus de Villanova, published Venice, 1527

John Dee was – perhaps surprisingly – also incredibly endearing. We have learned about his inquisitive mind as he fastidiously recorded weather conditions in Louvain, and have witnessed his almost sulky reaction to an account of the Trojan War that didn’t feature a wooden horse. We have seen his penchant for pop-up books, and we’ve seen how Dee engaged with his library by making the most elaborate, almost otherworldly doodles in the margins of his books: strange men with bearded faces, and a fanciful Tudor galleon.

John Dee’s annotation of a ship, in Opera omnia, volume 2. Cicero, published Paris, 1539–40.
Pop-up pyramids Elements of geometrie. Euclid, translated by Henry Billingsley, published London, 1570.

One of our intentions with the exhibition was to present John Dee as we know him: through the surviving remains of his library, cared for by the RCP since 1680. The image and concept of John Dee have been reinterpreted again and again over the centuries, and we hope that the story we have been so privileged to tell can add an extra piece to the puzzle and help cement John Dee in the public’s imagination for many more years to come.

Sarah Backhouse, exhibitions officer

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Sarah Backhouse ,
Exhibitions officer

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