Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, 11 May – 25 September 2012

Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet, 1979 on display in Writing Britain © Fay Godwin

As the world’s attention turns to the UK this summer, the British Library will be celebrating some of the outstanding treasures of its English literature collections. Featuring a range of stunning items, some of which have never been seen before, Writing Britain will draw on the breadth of the Library’s collections to explore how writers from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Hanif Kureishi have been inspired by, and helped to shape, the nation’s understanding of landscape and place. www.bl.uk/writingbritain

From William Blake to the 21st century suburban hinterlands of JG Ballard, Writing Britain will examine how the landscapes of Britain permeate the nation’s great literary works. Taking location as its starting point the exhibition will allow visitors to read between the lines of great works of English literature, discovering the secrets and stories surrounding the works’ creation and critical reception over the years, shedding new light on how they speak to the country today.

Curated by the British Library’s English and Drama team, the exhibition will feature over 150 literary works, including many first-time loans from overseas and directly from authors, spanning the past 1000 years to the present day. Sound recordings, letters, photographs, maps, song lyrics and drawings as well as manuscripts and printed editions will feature alongside newly commissioned films and interviews with contemporary British authors.

Highlights include:

  • Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows, 1907/8 – the little known chapter The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, featuring the god Pan, dropped from many editions, in its early handwritten version.

  • Lewis Carroll, ’Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’, 1865, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s diary, 1862 – The Thames was an inspiration for one of the greatest children’s classics – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, here seen in its first handwritten version, and a diary entry recording the day the story was first told on the river.

  • James Rymer, The String of Pearls, 1846/47 – Sweeney Todd’s first appearance in an 1846 Penny Dreadful (a cheap and lurid serial) called The String of Pearls. In 1992, following research into the story in the British Library, Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli began an uncompleted version of Sweeney Todd in the form of a pastiche Penny Dreadful.

  • Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, Early 15th century – This early manuscript copy of The Canterbury Tales describes the pilgrims who assembled in Southwark, and references to the capital abound, including the Prioresses’ suspect French, learnt not in ‘Parys’ but the more humble ‘scole of Stratford atte Bowe’.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lakes’ Notebook, 1802 – A map from one of Coleridge’s notebooks kept between July and September 1802, recording his solitary exploration of the mountainous landscape of the Lake District.

The exhibition will focus on six themes designed to take the visitor on a journey across Britain:

Rural Dreams

This section will look at quintessentially British rural literature and the different ways in which writers have used the British countryside in their works. From the pastoral idyll as a sentimental vision of a pre-industrial past to nature as a representation of death and chaos, writers have explored the vanishing world of rural Britain.

Highlights in this section include:

  • Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie, 1959 – the manuscript of one of the great nostalgic paeans to rural living. Cider with Rosie is an autobiographical account of Laurie Lee’s childhood in Slad, Gloucestershire, an idyllic village community, at the very point at which modern technology such as motor cars began to sweep away the traditional ways.

The Industrial Muse

From the early 19th century onwards writers began to describe the effects of industrialisation, initially celebrating the changes. By the mid-19th century authors began to reveal the appalling conditions created in industrial centres such as Manchester and Birmingham. Later authors highlighted the effect of the economic depression of the 1920s-30s and the post-war desolation felt by many ahead of the rebirth of the provincial city in the 1950s and 1960s. The section ends with a move from social realism to contemporary traces of an industrialised past.

Key pieces include:

  • Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin, Remains of Elmet, 1979 – Ted Hughes spent his earliest years in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire (the ancient Celtic kingdom of Elmet), and celebrated the area in a poetical/photographic collaboration with the photographer Fay Godwin. Hughes wrote to Godwin: ‘Without your pictures there would have been no poems at all.’

Wild Places

This section will explore wild and dramatic landscapes in literature and what they reveal about the author. Writers have charted memorably terrifying encounters of man with the wild, and at the same time written about spaces of regeneration and enlightenment, powerfully redefining how we view much of Britain’s landscape today.

Highlights from this section will include:

  • William Wordsworth, ‘On Seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’, 1806, and Guide through the District of the Lakes, 1810 – The Guide was written to train the minds of his readers to the same loving response to the landscape of the Lakes that Wordsworth knew after many years of devoted observation. The draft of ‘On Seeing some Tourists of the Lakes pass by reading’ is heavily scored through, indicating the extent of editing to which Wordsworth subjected his own work and his decision to initially publish it.


This theme will look at the ways in which writers are inspired by the rivers, seashores and other waterscapes of the country. From nostalgic evocations of childhood bucket and spade holidays to powerful themes of death, rebirth and the eternity of nature, water plays a key part in our literary heritage.

Key pieces include:

  • Liz Mathews/Virginia Woolf, Thames to Dunkirk, London, 2009 – This one metre high and 17 metres long concertina book is a watercolour map of the length of the Thames, with text from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and lettered by Liz Mathews using a piece of Thames driftwood as a pen.

Cockney Visions

This section will explore how writers have represented London over the past 600 years, and how these visions continue to define how observers see the city. Beginning with Chaucer’s pilgrims, then progressing to depictions of the underbelly of London, as explored by writers like Dickens, and continuing to the present day with contemporary psychogeographers and how they have been influenced by earlier London wanderers including William Blake.

This section includes:

  • William Blake, ‘London’, 1792 – William Blake was a staunch Londoner, who lived, and is buried, in the capital. Like the narrator of his 1792 poem, ‘London’, Blake would walk the streets of his neighbourhood, seeking inspiration, but alert to the visible signs of suffering ‘in every face’ he met.

  • Angela Carter, Wise Children, 1991 – After time in Japan, Carter settled in South London, and Wise Children is a lament for a lost London and a celebration of the dizzying linguistic richness of its inhabitants. It reflects on a century of London life and on divisions within the capital.

Beyond the City

Taking the edges of the city as its focus, this section will look at how the fantastic and forgotten have been uncovered and reclaimed by writers. From the literary reconstruction of suburbia from a place of security and uneventfulness to a place where the fearful or fantastic might lurk, this theme will also explore how the division between centre and periphery shifts as writers open up the overlooked.

Highlights from this section include:

  • J G Ballard, Kingdom Come (2006) and Crash – J G Ballard defined the hidden violence of anonymous peripheral landscapes: gated communities, hyper-real shopping malls, clinical airport terminals. The violence of the novel’s suburban portraits is reflected in the force of the revising hand on the manuscripts in the exhibition.

Jamie Andrews, Head of English and Drama, British Library, and lead curator of the exhibition, says: “We are very excited to share the wealth of the country’s literature in the summer of 2012 and to explore how writers from William Blake to Angela Carter have helped shaped the nation’s understanding of our landscape and surroundings. Writing Britain celebrates the incredible collection of great literary works held at the British Library, spanning more than 1000 years to the present day. These rare and unique collections will help give a fascinating and new insight into the creative thinking behind iconic British novels, poems and illustrations.”

The exhibition will feature a series of newly commissioned video interviews with British authors, exploring a sense of place in Britain today and how their work reflects Britain’s unique landscapes.

A programme of youth engagement, supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, in which young people will curate and interpret parts of the collection, will accompany the exhibition.

In addition to a compelling range of events and learning activities, Writing Britain will be accompanied by a new title, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, written by author and journalist, Christina Hardyment.

Writing Britain is part of the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week nationwide celebration from 21 June and running until 9 September 2012 bringing together leading artists from across the world with the very best from the UK.


Notes to Editors:

The Writing Britain exhibition is part sponsored by WS Atkins Plc and the associated learning and events programme is supported by the John S Cohen Foundation and the Basil Samuel Charitable Trust.

For more information please contact:

Eleanor Hutchins or Tom Ville at Four Communications

+ 44 (0) 870 626 9000


Evie Jeffreys or Ben Sanderson at the British Library

+ 44 (0) 20 7412 7110


Booking information

For further information please visit www.bl.uk and register for our e-what's on newsletter https://forms.bl.uk/newsletters/index.aspx

Exhibition opening hours

Monday 10.00 – 18.00, Tuesday 09.30 – 20.00, Wednesday – Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Saturday 10.00 – 17.00, Sunday and English public holidays 11.00 – 17.00

All galleries are accessible by wheelchair. Information can be requested from Visitor Services staff on: T +44 (0)20 7412 7332.


An exciting programme of talks, discussions, film and performances will accompany the exhibition – taking a deeper and sometimes surprising look at the themes of place and space. Speakers will include language expert David Crystal, landscape writer Robert MacFarlane, author Iain Sinclair and many others to be announced soon.

Learning programme

The British Library will be offering a range of learning activities to accompany the exhibition, including free workshops and lectures for Secondary and Further Education students that will support the English Literature and Language curriculum; Continuing Professional Development conferences for teachers; and projects with local schools.

Exhibition book

To accompany the exhibition the British Library is publishing a new title Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands by Christina Hardyment which will be available to buy from the British Library shop www.bl.uk/shop (T +44 (0)20 7412 7735 / email bl_shop@bl.uk )

Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands by Christina Hardyment / Paperback: £17.95 / Hardback: £25.00 / Over 100 illustrations / 240 x 220mm / 196 pages

The Paul Hamlyn Foundation is one of the larger independent grant-making foundations in the UK.

It makes grants to organisations which aim to maximise opportunities for individuals to experience a full quality of life, both now and in the future. In particular it is concerned with children and young people, and others who are disadvantaged.

It prefers to support work which others may find hard to fund, perhaps because it breaks new ground, is too risky or is unpopular.

It also takes initiatives where new thinking is required or where it believes there are important unexplored opportunities. www.phf.org.uk

About the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival

The London 2012 Cultural Olympiad is the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements. Spread over four years, it is designed to give everyone in the UK a chance to be part of London 2012 and inspire creativity across all forms of culture, especially among young people.

The culmination of the Cultural Olympiad will be the London 2012 Festival, a spectacular 12-week nationwide celebration bringing together leading artists from across the world with the very best from the UK, from Midsummers Day on 21 June and running until the final day of the Paralympic Games on 9 September 2012.The London 2012 Festival will celebrate the huge range, quality and accessibility of the UK’s world-class culture including dance, music, theatre, the visual arts, fashion, film and digital innovation, giving the opportunity for people across the UK to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Principal funders of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival are Arts Council England, Legacy Trust UK and the Olympic Lottery Distributor. BP and BT are Premier Partners of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival.

For more details on the programme and to sign up for information visit www.london2012.com/festival

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.

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