Art makes us with Art Buds Collective

Edinburgh Libraries are teaming up with Edinburgh Art Festival to host art workshops for children this August delivered by Art Buds Collective.

Inspired by the diverse wildlife, histories and geographies of the Union Canal, we’ll use art to imagine a more planet friendly future.

Free artist-led workshops for children and families across the city – and on the water – will take you on a journey filled with sensory fun and big environmental questions. Use your creativity to rethink local green spaces and waterways and dream up a better world. Get set for adventures – exploring sound, movement, sculpture and sustainable art-making.
Book for these workshops via

Art Buds workshop, Edinburgh Art Festival 2021. Photo: Sally Jubb

Shapes in the city – invent, construct, climb!
Make huge, recycled sculptures inspired by bridges, tunnels and waterways! Created for ages 5 – 12. Parents of under 8s must book a place.

Tuesday 2 August, 10.30am – 12.30pm
Central Library, George IV Bridge, EH1 1EG (SOLD OUT)

Tuesday 9 August, 10.30am – 12.30pm
Fountainbridge Library, 137 Dundee St, EH11 1BG

Friday 19 August, 1pm – 3pm
Wester Hailes Library, 1 Westside Plaza, EH14 2ST

Sounds in the city  – listen, sculpt, get noisy!
Make sound sculptures in the garden, give a noisy performance, then finish with homemade pizza! Created for ages 4 – 8 and their families.

Friday 12 August, 11am – 1pm, Johnston Terrace Wildlife Garden, Johnston Terrace, EH1 2JT, limited access

Wonder on the water – investigate, make, fly your flag!
Set sail on a boat along the canal as we create maps and flags inspired by the history of our waterways. You might even spot some wildlife! Created for ages 4 – 10 and their families.

Friday 5 August, 3 – 5pm, departs from Union Canal at Leamington Lift Bridge, Leamington Road, EH3 9PD, wheelchair friendly and toilet onboard

Book your free tickets at Edinburgh Art Festival. To discuss access requirements, please contact

Art Buds Collective is a social enterprise dedicated to the delivery of sustainable arts education for children across Edinburgh. Creativity, the creative journey and protecting the planet are at the heart of their workshops. Follow Art Buds Collective on Instagram at @art_buds_collective

The Central Library Children’s Art Club is back!

Are you aged 8-12 years old? Do you like to make things?
If so, then please be in touch! Send us an email at:
or give us a ring on 0131 242 8040.

We’re hoping to restart the sessions on a fortnightly basis, provisionally on a Saturday morning from 10.30am – 12pm at the Central Library.
Term-time sessions to begin on the 10 September 2022.

Our plans are for a free programme of creative play and learning – a time to explore art-making – build curiosity, kindness, and wellbeing – and hopefully foster an ever more creative relationship with the world around us.

We look forward to hearing from you!

We’re also running three summer workshops at the beginning of July:

5 July, 2 – 4pm – Printmaking with paper: the seashore!

6 July, 2 – 4pm – Constructing castles: modelmaking with recycled materials

7 July, 2 – 3.15pm – Funky plant pot découpage

Please book a free place online for these summer sessions via
If you have any queries, please contact the Art and Design Library by phone on 0131 242 8040 or email

Edinburgh Women’s Mural online

Earlier this week we announced the unveiling of the Edinburgh Women’s Mural at Central Library which celebrates Edinburgh’s trailblazing women, past and present. The mural will be on display in Central Library until 2 July 2022.

But what if you’re unable to visit, or you simply want a sneak preview?

Stencilled portraits from the Edinburgh Women’s Mural

Well, you can find a selections of the pioneer’s portraits in a new mini-exhibition on Capital Collections and in a new story on Our Town Stories!

New drawing and art books for children

For this month’s blog from the Art and Design Library, Jen reviews a few of our 


They’re exciting additions, and we have more to come. We’re planning a collection of travelling stock to send out to our community libraries – so do keep a look out for some smart new books on our shelves.  

For this year’s spring/summer exhibition, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art are showing a Barbara Hepworth show at Modern Two. It opened on 9 April and will run until 2 October 2022.  

Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin therefore seems an apt title to begin with. Laura Carlin is an illustrator and ceramicist based in London, and the book feels so fresh. It’s a wonderful introduction, for anybody, to thoughts about form and shape. About what is it that we do in front of a sculpture; about how learning to see is a bodily thing; about how feelings and shapes collide; and how shapes talk to each other.  

I always love seeing the insides of books, so here are some sneaky shots. 

Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin
Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin
Meet Barbara Hepworth by Laura Carlin

As you can see, Laura Carlin’s illustration work is a fantastic medley of mixed media-collage-drawing/everything work. And as well as being about Barbara Hepworth and her sculptures, the book also includes prompts for how you might make your own sculptures inspired by the natural world.  

Some extra links – to the Hepworth Wakefield gallery and Barbara Hepworth’s biography page (great photos and snippets of inspiring thoughts); and her sculpture garden and museum in St Ives if you’re ever that end of the map.  

Laura Carlin won the prestigious V & A Book Illustration Award in 2011 for her illustrated edition of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man. And one of my favourite books of hers’ is A World of Your Own. On play and creativity, it just sparkles.   

There are more in this series. Tate Publishing is the publisher, and the series is called Meet the Artist. As with the Barbara Hepworth, Tate have commissioned a contemporary illustrator to respond to an older artist. Lizzy Stewart has made one on Turner; Rose Blake on David Hockney and Andy Warhol; Nick White on Giacometti; Hélène Baum-Owoyele on Frank Bowling, Helena Perez Garcia on the Pre-Raphaelites.  

They encourage observation and imagination, and they are brilliant creative introductions to art history, and to artmaking. 

(A further peek – these next couple of pictures are from the David Hockney book.)  

David Hockney by Rose Blake
David Hockney by Rose Blake

Another exciting little cohort in our new stock collection are several books by the French artist and educator Hervé Tullet . Art Workshops for Children; Draw Here; I Have an Idea!; andMy Stencil Kit: Draw, Colour and Create Your Own Stories.For sheer joy, energy, and a perfect explication of what it means to play, I totally recommend these books.

Here’s a look inside for you: 

Draw Here by Hervé Tullet
Draw Here by Hervé Tullet
Draw Here by Hervé Tullet
Art workshops for children by Hervé Tullet
Art workshops for children by Hervé Tullet

I find it endlessly interesting watching my toddler with his felt-tip pens. His compulsion and delight, the variety of things that need to be done to and with a felt-tip pen. Whoever knew. I can see the process of him learning – how do I hold this object; what can it do; it’s a tool, oh wow – and with that, comes his discovery of all kinds of concepts… His drawing is totally process-based, he’s busy exploring stuff (until suddenly he’s not!) but mostly he is, and it’s fun for him. What I love about the Hervé Tullet books is that he takes this boundless curiosity and intuitive need to create that all children seem to have, and he plays with it. It’s the visual equivalent of handstands or cartwheels, or just lying on the grass wiggling your toes. The books contain activities and workshops that are adaptable for pretty much any age group. It’s easy to forget how to play, and these books are a bundle of fun and cleverness that remind us how important it is.  

On this workshopping topic I’d just like to mention a couple of other books we have: Drawing Projects for Children; and Make Build Create. Both are by the artist-educator Paula Briggs.  

And here’s an endorsement for the Drawing Projects book by Quentin Blake – “A beautiful book, full of ideas and a vivid sense of materials – truly appetising and stimulating.”  

It wets my appetite too. The book is a collection of simple exercises and activities about making thoughtful and meaningful marks in all kinds of media. I find more each time I go back to them. There are also helpful notes for the facilitator/parent of an activity, and one of the tenets behind the books is that the facilitator need not be a specialist at all.  

Paula Briggs has also set up a charity called Access Art which is a treasure trove of resources for children’s art activities, both for Primary and Secondary age groups.  

And one more picture from some of our new children’s stock:

If you’re at high school reading this, or you’re the parent of someone who is, I thought I’d include a few gems from our stock – some personal gems anyway, from my personal canon, as I’m sure everybody has their own. 

The writer and illustrator, Mervyn Peake, creator of Gormenghast, wrote a little treatise on drawing called The Craft of the Lead Pencil. Originally published in 1946, it is full of the essence of what drawing is (or should be). It is a simple telling, just a few pages long. We have it compiled in another book, Mervyn Peake: Writings & Drawings. 

Similarly, Kimon Nicolaides’ The Natural Way to Draw, is a wonderful (old) how-to book. It is a year’s schedule of drawing that looks at the components of making a drawing – gesture, line, form, feeling, the materials you are working with… – and always with an eye on artists working in the past.  

Also in the 1970s, John Berger (1926 – 2017), artist, art historian, and writer, wrote his influential Ways of Seeing to accompany the BBC TV series of the same name. And in the early 2000s, he wrote a little book of essays and fragments on drawing. It begins,  

For the artist drawing is discovery. And that is not just a slick phrase, it is quite literally true. It is the actual act of drawing that forces the artist to look at the object in front of him, to dissect it in his mind’s eye and put it together again; or, if he is drawing from memory, that forces him to dredge his own mind, to discover the content of his own store of past observations… “

This is illustrated so well, I think, by the artist Sargy Mann in an introductory essay to a book on Bonnard’s drawings. It is about how the very best drawing is discovery, and about how we see. 

We have a lot of books on drawing, of course; on artists’ drawings and artists’ sketchbooks. Come and look at the golden oldies. (How does Rembrandt draw? How did he draw so much heart, I’d love to know that. And Hokusai – he draws with so much facility, so much life – we have his Manga sketchbooks in one of our stores. Originally published in 1814, they are a handbook of over 4,000 images. They contain drawings of everyday life, people, expressions, architecture; drawings of the natural world and animals; myths and stories.) 

And here are just a few extra pictures I pulled off the shelves from our drawing section to entice you: 

Drawing and Painting by Kate Wilson
Drawing and Painting by Kate Wilson
Drawing water by Tania Kovats
Drawing birds by John Busby
Drawing books from the Art and Design Library collection
Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller
Comics Sketchbooks by Steven Heller
Anatomy for the artist by Sarah Simblet
Anatomy for the artist by Sarah Simblet
Botany for the artist by Sarah Simblet
Sketching books from the Art and Design Library collection

What I mainly want to say though, is, we have lots and lots of great books. Please do come into the Art and Design Library and explore! 

Edinburgh Women’s Mural

During Women’s History Month in March this year, Central Library began work on creating a public mural celebrating Edinburgh’s trailblazing women, past and present. This was inspired by another project entitled ‘Work in Progress’ by the artists Jann Haworth and Liberty Blake which has been running in the USA since 2016.

We had a fantastic response from the local community, and we’d like to say a big thank you to everybody that contributed, whether you provided nominations for our list of unsung heroines, or helped spread the word, or attended one of our stencil workshops. Thanks also go to Creative Scotland, who awarded us funding for the project, and to local artist Madeleine Wood and graphic designer Greg Stedman.

The Edinburgh Women’s Mural is now finished and ready to display, at Central Library! See below for a sneak peek of one of the eight panels. How many people can you recognise?

Edinburgh Women’s Mural – detail

Please come in to visit us and have a look at the full mural. We’d love to hear your comments and feedback, and if any portrait on the mural inspires you to learn more about a particular individual or subject, staff will be on hand to signpost you to relevant books and other resources from our collections. There will also be a “who’s who” to help you identify each of the women depicted, and a supporting display of interesting material about the women of Edinburgh. 

Check out this short video about how we made the stencilled portraits:

As you will see, one of the women featured prominently on the full mural is the Rector of Edinburgh University, Debora Kayembe. She kindly took the time to speak to us about her inspiring life and varied career. Watch her video here: 

We look forward to seeing you at Central Library, and if you are interested in attending one of our upcoming mural-themed free talks and events, please watch this space, or keep an eye on social media channels! 

The Edinburgh Women’s Mural is on display at Central Library from 23 May to 2 July 2022.

Most remarkable views of Edinburgh

A new exhibition on Capital Collections showcases the “most remarkable buildings of the city of Edinburgh”. The images are taken from a volume credited to the Honorable J. Elphinstone and dated around 1740.

Many of these highlighted buildings endure as iconic landmarks today, whilst others have since disappeared.

A view of St. Roques, image from Capital Collections

One lost to time, and already a ruin in the 1700s, was St Roque’s Chapel which stood close to Blackford Hill. It was dedicated to a saint associated with the prevention and cure of plague. Many victims of the disease visited the chapel hoping for divine assistance.

Another church still stands but has moved from its original location. In the Elphinstone print, Trinity College Church is located in grounds close to where Waverley Station is now. It was dismantled to make way for the station and after a delay, rebuilt on Chalmers Close, and known today as Trinity Apse.

A perspective view of the Trinity College Church with the adjoining buildings, image from Capital Collections

Elphinstone’s authorship of some of these images is uncertain. Some of the images appear to be of a slightly different artistic style. One image in particular raises questions. “A view of the new-bridge of Edinburgh” depicts the original stone-arched North Bridge. However construction on this first North Bridge began in 1765, many years after the dating of this volume and also after the death of John Elphinstone. You can read more about the puzzling provenance of these images by going to the exhibition on Capital Collections.

A view of the new-bridge of Edinburgh, image from Capital Collections

Regardless of the doubt over who created all of these images, they remain an interesting and valuable record of Edinburgh’s architecture and cityscape during the 1700s.

View the exhibition of the most remarkable buildings of the city of Edinburgh on Capital Collections.

What would make it onto a shortlist of the city’s “most remarkable buildings” today? Perhaps the Scottish Parliament building, or Dynamic Earth, or Fountainbridge Library?

Aleksandra Zawada – Ceramics display

A new exhibition of ceramics by Edinburgh artist Aleksandra Zawada opens on the main staircase at Central Library running from 5 April to 28 May.

Aleksandra Zawada studied Painting at Edinburgh College of Art. She lives and works in Edinburgh. Aleksandra creates hand-built, creature-looking sculptures. Her work is focused on simplicity of forms and yet is playful. Borrowing from an artist’s imagination as well as surveying ancient and oriental ceramics, she creates deliberately irregular, at times rough, works with a distinctive sense of style (and often humour!)

Aleksandra’s pieces are hand-built from mainly raku clay and bisque fired. They are hand-painted using oxides and glazes and then fired again. The artist’s love of colour makes her work not shy away from using strong tones. However, she often uses ones that reference historical glazes. Her sculptures are unique, escaping straightforward categorisation.

Aleksandra writes, “My work is inspired by Ancient; Oriental, Japanese and Outsider ceramics, and colour comes from my training as a painter. I respond to clay in the process of making. I have always had an affinity for simple materials and for works that are tactile. 

I do not make many pieces. 

My work is immersed in a dialogue with all the sculpture that has inspired me regardless of their origins and times they were made. Subconsciously, I am making my own museum collection.”

A selection of books on ceramics complementing Aleksandra’s work from the Art and Design Library at Central Library are included in the exhibition.

For more information on the artist go to, or follow on instagram at

Breaking the News photography competition

Enter Edinburgh Libraries’ Breaking the News photography competition and become part of a community archive of Edinburgh memories.

Show us what’s happening in your area! Take a photograph that tells a story from your neighbourhood. The story can be big or small but should be related to your community.

For example, what is the greatest change happening where you live? What are people interested in locally? What events are taking place?

Aeroplane Enthusiasts 1990s, shared by Living Memory Association on Edinburgh Collected

The competition is free to enter but all submissions must be submitted via Edinburgh Collected ( where they will become part of an online community archive for Edinburgh. The image should be titled and can include a text description of up to 1500 characters but the image should really tell the story.

There are fantastic prizes to be won! Enter for a chance to win:
1st prize – afternoon tea for two at the Radisson Blu Hotel, Edinburgh
2nd prize – afternoon tea for two at the Mercure Hotel, Edinburgh
3rd prize – an Edinburgh Monopoly board game.

Entrants must create an account with Edinburgh Collected to upload your image(s) and add the tag ‘BreakingTheNews’ when uploading entries to the website so that they are identifiable. (Please also read the Edinburgh Collected terms and conditions.)

The competition runs from 1 April to 30 June 2022 and is open to all.

Potterow Port – skaters, shared by arghnothingworks on Edinburgh Collected

This competition is part of a wider project in collaboration with the British Library and the Living Knowledge Network of libraries on the theme of Breaking the News.

Terms and conditions
1. Closing date for entries is 30 June 2022
2. The photograph submitted must be your own work
3. You must agree to Edinburgh Collected terms and conditions
4. The place featured must be within the City of Edinburgh Council boundary
5. Add the tag ‘BreakingTheNews’ to all competition entries
6. There is no limit to the number of entries you can submit, but there will be only one winning entry per participant.

Happy Birthday, Mr Haydn

Portrait of Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, known by some as the father of the symphony, inventor of the string quartet, was born on 31 March 1732 and 290 years later, we celebrate the life and times of one of the world’s great composers.

Haydn died in 1809, in the midst of Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna. A few weeks before his passing, Haydn was most touched that Napoleon put guards around his house and the one of those guards sung to him from his oratorio “The Creation”.

Landscape near Rohrau

Many of Haydn’s 108 Symphonies were also given nicknames 5,6,7 – Le matin, Le Midi, Le Soir, No. 38 the Echo, No. 47 The Palindrome. No. 94 the Famous Surprise Symphony known for its ‘jokes’. There are 12 London symphonies completed on his two successful tours and 6 Paris symphonies.

Birthplace in Rohrau

In 1732, Bach was working on the B minor Mass, and also born that year were Abbas III, Shah of Persia, Carl Gotthard Langhans, German architect, Richard Arkwright, English inventor and George Washington who would become the first President of the USA. 

In 1732, Russia signed a treaty with Persia stating it would no longer establish claims on Persian Territories and another, The Treaty of the Three Black Eagles or the Treaty of Berlin, a secret treaty between the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire and Prussia against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.  

Spain completed the conquest of the Algerian cities of Oran and Mers El Kébir in the Oran Province, after a 17-day siege.  

Haydn was born in uncertain times and died in uncertain times.

At the age of 8 in 1740, Haydn’s musical ability was brought to the attention of Georg von Reutter, joining the choir school of St Stephen’s Cathedral there in 1740. Haydn arrived in 1740 in Vienna where the ailing, impoverished and almost forgotten Vivaldi was soon to die.  St Stephen’s Cathedral musical director, Reutter, was not the kindest of men and worked Haydn and his young colleagues hard, on sometimes little or no food. Haydn had no formal training whist at St Stephen’s but he picked up a lot whilst there just by listening and watching and gained a musical education simply by serving as a professional musician at St Stephen’s. 

Lean times followed until Haydn secured some work, briefly as valet-accompanist to the composer Nicola Porpora (singing teacher of the famous castrato Farinelli). Haydn was later to recall learning “the true fundamentals of composition” during his time with Porpora. In this period of moving onward and upward it is probably fair to say that Haydn was self-taught by learning on the job at St Stephen’s, gaining much knowledge whilst working as accompanist to Porpora, learning the compositions of CPE Bach and working through the counterpoint exercises in the text Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux. As his knowledge and skills as a composer increased so did the employment he sought and the employment he was offered, until in 1761 (a mere three hundred years before I was born) Haydn was appointed  Vice-Kapellmeister for the Esterhazy Family, a family which he would work for, almost all his life. In 1766, on the death of Gregor Werner, Haydn was instated as Kapellmeister responsible for all of the music in the Esterhazy estate.

Esterhazy Castle

These were prolific years for Haydn as attested in his large catalogue of work.

Haydn’s works were catalogued by Anthony van Hoboken in his Hoboken catalogue, Hoboken worked on this listing of Haydn’s works, first in card catalogue format in 1934 up until the publication of the third book volume in 1978. Unlike most other catalogues which sort works chronologically – for example, Mozart K1 is the earliest and K626 is the last great unfinished D minor Mass – the Hoboken catalogue sorts by musical genre. All the masses are Hob 22 then numbered 1-14, Symphonies are Hob 1 then 1 – 108 ( there are 104 symphonies but Hoboken includes 4 other works in this selection) and so on, through all of his different genres of works.

Oxford University

In 1791 Haydn was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 is called the Oxford. Haydn performed this work at his award ceremony, but this was not the work he presented to the university for his doctorial submission. A candidate for this doctorate was required to present a specimen of their skill in composition. The work he presented was the al rovescio (Palindrome) Minuet from his 1772 Symphony No 47. The Nickname The Oxford has been perhaps wrongly attributed to the symphony No. 92.

Garden House in Eisenstadt                                                                      
Haydn’s house in Eisenstadt                                                                   

On Haydn’s return from his second trip to London in 1795. He learned of the passing of Prince Anton and the succession of Prince Nikolaus II. Nikolaus II was keen to reinstate court music to where he thought it should be and keen also to place Haydn back in charge of that music scene. Haydn was by this time a much more established public figure and agreed to only return to the Esterhazy’s in the summer months. Leaving the rest of the year for his own work. The summer months were none the less prolific times. By the early 1800s, Beethoven was very clearly moving way from classicism and towards romanticism, Napoleon was elected Emperor of France and the decade saw the births of other notable composers – in 1803 Hectore Berlioz, and in 1804 Mikhail Glinka and Johann Strauss I. In Vienna, Haydn’s powers were waning, physically, and composing became more of a struggle. Very little new work appeared at this time, works that had been complete pre-1800 received performances or were revised and completed for performance. This final period of Haydn’s life saw the production off his two great Oratorios – The Creation in 1798 and The Seasons in 1801. 

Haydn’s final years are spent in quiet retirement cared or by his faithful servants and in his final illness Haydn was protected by a benevolent Napoleon, who provided a guard for Haydn’s House.

House in which Haydn died, Haydngasse, Vienna

In 1809, the same year that welcomed the arrival of the, yet to be, great composer Felix Mendelssohn, Haydn passed. Hopefully his journey to the next life was accompanied by the singing of his guards.

You can explore Haydn’s musical masterpieces in our collections. Naxos has a vast collection of works by Haydn, and in the Music Library we have a great collection of scores and parts from a vast array of works by Haydn.

Pop into the Music Library or search our library catalogue and reserve items for pick up at your nearest reopened library. 

And search all the entries for Haydn on Naxos, our music streaming service.  

Or watch concerts and operas on Medici TV.

Calvary Church with Haydn’s tomb, Eisenstadt

The Illustrations in this article are from The Joseph Haydn Memorial Portfolio, published in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s birth, by the Haydn Festival Committee of the Official Tourist Office for Lower Austria, for the Haydn Birth-place Benefit Fund in Rohrau on the Leitha.
The twelve original drawings are by Igo Potsch, Austrian artist, lithographer, painter and poster artist as well as art teacher. Potsch was born in 1884 and died in 1943. Born in Graz, he was a student of the artist Heinrich August Schwach and Paul Schad-Rossa in Graz and studied under Victor Mader at the Institute of Graphic Arts and Research in Vienna where he taught from 1922 to 1928. 

Ignatz (Igo) Potsch
copyright: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Muirhouse Library does potatoes

“How on earth are we going to make green eggs and ham?” wailed a frazzled mum in March 2018, faced with a nine-year-old who had a “brilliant idea” for her World Book Day costume.

It used to be a real school-gates phenomenon. World Book Day morning and you’d see floods of children of primary school age trooping past draped in sheets, with knobbly knees sticking out of cardboard boxes, clutching twig bows-and-arrows or draped in glossy princess dresses, lightning scars drawn on with eyeliner. But it wasn’t fun for everyone. Working parents shook their heads hopelessly wondering how they’d pull something creative together. Children who wished for the expensive superhero suit in the supermarket were disappointed, and others just hated dressing up and spent the whole day on the edges of the event.

But we’re now seeing a rash of creativity that is smaller-scale and based on objects which children can make by themselves. Not to dress up a whole child, but maybe…. A potato? That’s a bit more manageable.

Some of the amazing potato transformations from the Muirhouse Library display.

A potato character is a great way of making something small and funny that ties in with the general theme. Trying to think up who or what to depict is a great way for children to revisit what they might have read through the year but that’s only the start of it. A potato is round and knobbly and slightly damp. Not the easiest thing to dress. An engineering problem for sure. And as the potatoes started arriving back at the library in all their glory, we saw amazing solutions from our participants! Paper was a popular choice. Some people drew beautiful reworkings of familiar illustrations, like Tessa’s Famous Five, and attached them to potatoes. We also had a sculpted paper dress on Saoirse’s Amelia Fang and paper ears on Aidan’s Pikachu. Who knew you could draw on a potato with silver pen? Well, Mary did – and she also pinned lines of sequins on her potato king. Lots of them. Freya’s beautiful Spinosaurus had a long pipe cleaner tail. Hamish also made a dinosaur… with his potato shaped and cut into different body parts. But we really had to take our hats off to Malachy, who covered his whole potato in plasticine and added more plasticine sculpture and cocktail stick teeth to make a truly terrifying Venom sculpture.

We also approached Morrisons – who are our next door neighbours in our current home at Edinburgh College – to see if they could spare some short-dated potatoes. No food waste here! We were delighted with their generous response – not only a whole trolleyload of tatties to distribute for decoration, but also a beautifully wrapped prize to give to our favourite potato! Thanks Morrisons! (It had to go to Malachy – we hope Venom enjoyed the sweeties).

Malachy’s ‘Venom’ potato was the prizewinner.

Our potato display in the library attracted lots of positive attention from visitors and we were happy to celebrate World Book Day in partnership with our creative young community.

And if you ever want to make green eggs and ham – don’t do as I did in 2018 and sit colouring in a piece of ham with a felt tip pen at 11pm at night… just be more Malachy and make it out of plasticine!

Pathogenesis – artworks by Cordula Marks Venters in the Art and Design Library

A new exhibition opens in the Art and Design Library, Central Library, running from 19 March to 26 May featuring artworks by Cordula Marks Venters.

Cordula Marks Venters is a German-born, Edinburgh-based artist and illustrator. In her work, she explores a broad range of themes and subjects, including the microscopic world, dinosaurs, mythology and nature. She finds inspiration on the forest floor, in the night sky, in the rocks below her feet and the prehistoric life-forms that fill her imagination.

St Corona by Cordula Marks Venters

The exhibition of artwork is entitled Pathogenesis. Viruses, bacteria and a motley crew of other characters inhabit the world of Pathogenesis.

This exhibition came out of the Covid pandemic. Viruses were the unseen threat, occupying our everyday lives and terrifying us – as diseases have done throughout human history. Yet, when these viruses and other pathogens are viewed under the microscope there is undeniable beauty. On examining their shape, form and functionality, we can also appreciate their enormous adaptability and resilience. They are survivors, just as we try to be.

Playing with the concept of pathogens in human or animal form offers wide scope for the artistic interrogation of a key question: who are the real dangers in our world?

All works by Cordula Marks Venters.

To find out more about Cordula’s work, upcoming events and to sign up to her mailing list, please visit or find her on Instagram @cordulamarks.

The Art & Design Library encourages applications for exhibitions from local artists and community groups. To find out more and apply email or drop in and see us in the Central Library. 

Bestiary – what is it?

This month’s blog from the Art and Design Library is on the


Today, the word bestiary, is loosely defined. Pretty much any collection of animals – descriptions of animals, or stories about them – can be understood as a bestiary. But more specifically, what was a medieval bestiary? (And what is it that is so compelling about bestiaries; why do the pictures and the stories sit so strongly in our imaginations?)

The relationship between humans and animals is as old, complex, and interwoven, as time. All people everywhere, throughout history, have thought about what that relationship might be: the hows, the whys, the whats, of looking at animals. What are we looking at when we look at an animal? What do we see, what do we feel and think? How do we value animals, and how then do we act towards them (or how do we not act?)

All big fat questions, especially in an age where the natural world is so threatened, and the climate crisis so real…

To think our way back into a medieval mind and a medieval conception of how animals sit in the world, is, of course, a difficult thing to do. So what can bestiaries tell us about that medieval mind, or the mind of a medieval somebody who was aristocratic or royal. (The medieval somebody would need to be aristocratic or royal, to be able to own an expensive and elaborately decorated book like a bestiary…)

What is a bestiary?

A bestiary is a medieval encyclopaedia of animals – of sorts. It was both a natural history text and a religious text. Animal symbolism was very important in the middle ages, and the central question when encountering an animal (or a rock or a plant; some bestiaries included these too), was: 
How is this animal significant to your inner moral world? And how does its behaviour and characteristics throw light on your understanding of the Christian faith? This hedgehog here, the one the picture is making you think about, curled up, bundled up, the wind blowing as you watch it. What does it tell you about God?

British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

(The balls on the hedgehogs’ spines are grapes (or maybe figs or apples). The story goes they carry them away at harvest time to feed their young. Other stories: they curl up when people approach and creak like a cart. A cooked hedgehog could be made into medicine; and when the north wind blows a hedgehog will close the hole to its lair.)

Bestiaries were also extremely popular. They were full of religious allegory, but they were light and comic too, they were entertainment.

The real and the fantastical

Bestiaries contain entries on animals that are both real and fantastical. The unicorn sits alongside the lion which sits alongside the owl which sits alongside the griffin. No distinction was made between the real and the fantastical.

If a medieval prince looked at our lives, steeped as they are in technology and an online world, would they find the real life/fantastical relationship we lead equally as strange as we find theirs? Perhaps.

The origins of the medieval bestiary

There are a number of sources for the bestiary. One principle source is a Greek natural history text called the Physiologus which was written in Alexandria between the 2nd and 4th centuries (and by the late 4th century, a Latin translation was also available).

Other thinkers significant to bestiaries were Saint Ambrose, Isidore of Seville, and Rabanus Maurus. And so what developed in 12th century Europe was a large compilation of different texts. The texts were not set in any way, and the order and number of animals would change from bestiary to bestiary.

And for some beasts and stories…

The Lion

The lion is the king of the beasts, and it’s one of the animals with the most stories. Here are a few of them.

When a lion’s cubs are born, they’re born dead, but three days later they are brought to life by the mother breathing on them and the father roaring at them. That lion’s mouth is a fearful thing – breath, life, roooooarr! We learn to roar like a lion as toddlers. Our conception of the importance of lions (and similarly dragons) starts early. This story is, of course, about the crucifixion and the resurrection. All bestiary stories come with meanings.

Other lion tales.

When a lion is in the mountains and notices it is being hunted, it rubs out its tracks with its tail.

It always sleeps with its eyes open.

A lion is frightened (not unsurprisingly) by hunters and spears, and so looks at the ground. Lions are afraid of the sound of creaking cartwheels, fire, and seeing a white cock.

There are more…

The Whale

Two Fishermen on an Aspidochelone in a bestiary, about 1270, unknown illuminator, possibly made in Thérouanne, France. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink on parchment, 7 1/2 × 5 5/8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XV 3, fol. 89v.
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program
Unknown French illuminator, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The whale is so enormous it can be mistaken for an island. It can lie on the surface until plants grow on its back. When sailors land on a whale, and when they light a fire, the whale feels the heat, and then – splash – down it dives, deep into the sea, taking the sailors with it.

When a whale is hungry and it opens its mouth, the smell is so sweet that little fish are drawn towards it. They swim inside, and the whale swallows them down.

The Christian allegory follows. The whale, tempting and luring, represents the devil, which drags those he deceives down to hell.  

Here’s a link to a great little animation. (And a lot of other interesting things.)

The Unicorn

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.
British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The unicorn is a wild creature. It is strong and fast, and resembles a small goat or an ass or a horse. It has a long straight horn in the middle of its head with a spiral groove running up it. To capture a unicorn, a young virgin girl must sit by herself in a forest, and the unicorn will come and lay its head on her lap. Sometimes it suckles from her breast. Then, out of the wings, come the hunters, and they kill or capture it.

The horn of the unicorn can be used to detect poison. If you dip a unicorn horn in a poisoned drink, it purifies it. Powdered unicorn horn is also an aphrodisiac.

And the allegory? The unicorn represents the incarnation of Jesus in the virgin Mary’s womb – and his subsequent capture and death. Its fierceness and wildness is the inability of hell to hold him. The single horn represents the unity of God, and the unicorn’s small size, Christ’s humility in becoming human.

The Kingfisher

There are kingfishers in the Botanic Gardens. I always look out for them, and I always find seeing them an amazing thing. They are streaks of blue that dash low over the water. Their call is a soft rapid high-pitched squeaking.

In the bestiaries, kingfishers lay their eggs in the middle of winter, when the storms are at their strongest. They lay them in the sand, and for seven days they hatch them. They then look after them for a further seven days. All the while they are nurturing them, the sea remains calm, unseasonably so for the time of year. And because (one of) the Latin names for a kingfisher is halcyon, sailors call this time the “halcyon days”.

Incidentally, other phrases we use that come from bestiaries are “crocodile tears”, as a crocodile always weeps after eating a man. And “licking into shape”: bear cubs are born shapeless, and are literally licked into shape by their mothers.

How many are there?

Lots. In 2019 the J. Paul Getty Museum put together an exhibition, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World and it’s still possible to explore it online. Many bestiaries were made! See the Wikipedia list here.

What is it that is so compelling about a bestiary?

Who knows. They are about wonder, they do all the things that a picture and a story does – wonderful things. The animals we meet in bestiaries are animals that sit in trees and on mountain-tops, but they also include animals that don’t; fantastical animals. The real animals sit side-by-side with the fantastical animals. The fantastical feels real, and the real fantastical. And that feels pretty wonderful.

Some further links I came across researching this blog:

Some blogs from the British Library – on the medieval bestiary; and another one of beastly tales (again there are lots). 

A London Review of Books article of the exhibition publication for the J. Paul Getty exhibition mentioned above, Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, edited by Elizabeth Morrison with Larisa Grollemond (Yale University Press; 2019).

A link to a project on the Aberdeen Bestiary.

A compilation of digitised material on medieval bestiaries.

And a few books from the library…

If you’ve enjoyed reading about these bestiaries, please do come and explore our collections.

Browse our catalogue or come on into the library. (And of course, we have many books on many things… Please do come and take a look!)

LGBT History in the Art and Design Library

Today, we had over to Nicky from the Art and Design Library team to tell us about LGBTQ+ connections found in the department’s collections.

As February draws to a close, I’d like to share my – new-ish, LGBTQ+ member of staff – exploration of our collections using LGBT History Month Scotland’s 2022 theme, ‘Blurring Borders’, of thinking beyond borders and about LGBT community and liberation around the world. Some of my discoveries can be found in this month’s Art and Design Library book display.

Framing the picture

Why does it matter that an artist or designer is or was what we’d describe today as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (including non-binary and genderqueer), queer, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA+)?

For some artists or designers their sexual orientation and/or gender identity have not been significant to their work. However, for many others, including those selected for the display, making visible aspects of their own life experiences, bodies, minds, feelings, identities, world views and spaces is crucial, and these lives and work often not only blur borders, but push and transgress artistic and societal, sexual or gender conventions and transcend geopolitical boundaries. Collectively, too, the act of making lives and work of LGBTQIA+ artists and designers visible can support community building, can represent shared histories and stories, desires, pain and joy that were previously ignored, censored or silenced by criminalisation and social and moral attitudes, can help counter stigma, and can enable and support activism and campaigns for liberation.

How do we know that artists and designers are or were LGBTQIA+?

Contemporary and 20th century artists and designers often explicitly acknowledge(d) or embrace(d) sexual orientations and gender identities that are or were not heterosexual or cisgender in their lives and/or as subjects of their work and so can be safely included under today’s rainbow umbrella. But, the language we currently use in English to recognise and (re-)claim the rich complexities of human sexual orientation and gender identity is relatively new, is continuously evolving and contested, and would be meaningless to like-minded folk of the past. For example, art created by LGBT+ people is often referred to as ‘Queer Art’, however, the term queer had, and for many people still has, negative and painful connotations, while for others still, myself included, ‘queer’ has been reclaimed as a positive term extending beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, it’s important to consider the historical contexts in which artists and designers of the past lived and worked and, if they left behind any personal writing, how they described themselves or were described by their contemporaries. A film specially made by the National Galleries of Scotland for LGBT History Month 2022 addresses this topic and a resource created by Norena Shopland and Dr Daryl Leeworthy for Glamorgan Archives in 2018 explores the challenges of uncovering in historical documents the lives of people we would now describe as LGBTQIA+.

When considering artists and designers around the world it is also important to consider the cultural and geographical contexts in which they live(d) and work(ed) and the impact of imperialism and colonialism on people we’d today describe as LGBTQIA+ in those locations (more on that below). I also must recognise the position I’m viewing artists and their work from, as a white person educated in the UK with books, articles and interpretations about Western traditions and framings of art, design and architectural history. These themes have been addressed in a recent talk by Dr Churnjeet Mahn (University of Strathclyde) for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Finally, how much does it matter that I’m a queer person exploring LGBTQIA+ artists’ and designers’ lives and work? Does that give me greater or different insights and understanding than a heterosexual person? I’m still thinking a lot about all of this!

The display

Getting to know artists and designers whose lives and work could fit with this year’s LGBT History Month theme and then finding books that were both available and fitted in the display case took quite a bit of work! I eventually settled on a display that highlights three themes: artists and identities in 1920s and 1930s Paris; HIV/AIDS advocacy and connections to cultural heritage; and everyday lives and individual and collective liberation.

1920s and 1930s Paris was the European centre of avant-garde art and literature, and along with Berlin, also of LGBTQ+ life (before it was described as such). Paris-born photographer Claude Cahun, Czech painter Toyen and Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray were all part of that world.

Claude Cahun (1894–1954; originally named Lucy Schwob) chose a new name for herself which suited her attitude to gender: in her book Disavowals, she wrote, ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’ Her own, changing image, her identity and performance were all a focus of her photographic and written work. Featuring in many photos was Cahun’s life partner, Marcel Moore (1909–54; originally named Suzanne Malherbe), who an artist in her own right. They, two Jewish, LGBTQ+ women, later moved to Jersey where, as members of the local resistance, courageously fought the World War Two Nazi occupation of the island and experienced its liberation in 1945.

Toyen (1902–80; originally named Marie Černova) was a painter and member of the Czech avant-garde group of artists, designers, architects and poets, Devětsil, during the 1920s and 1930s. Toyen, like Claude Cahun, chose a gender-neutral name and also used masculine pronouns. Toyen’s surreal and symbolic paintings, subject of a recent exhibition in Hamburg, have been described as composed ‘of unreal beings and strange objects’, ‘materialisations of latent psychic states’, with ‘emotive value’, ‘disturbing impact’ and ‘in many cases these enigmatic objects have a clear libidinous subtext’ (The Czech Avant-Garde of the 1920s and 30s, pp. 74–5.)

Eileen Gray (1878–1976), whose partners included women and men, renovated her own Paris apartment using modern, up-to-date forms as well as materials and accessories that recalled earlier tastes and dark colours traditionally associated with masculinity. Her design choices and style have been described as hinting at the privileged decadent, male homosexual aesthetics of the late 19th century; as a critique of the exclusively masculine world of Modern architecture and design; and of ‘creating an imaginative space’ for ‘a community of kindred spirits’ to make their emerging collective identity, as what we’d now probably describe as lesbian and bisexual women, visible. (Jasmine Rault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity, pp. 49–50.)

Beyond the Art and Design Library you can borrow books and read more about Paris’s community of wealthy, immigrant women with women sexual and domestic partners in the 1920s and 1930s in Diana Souhami’s books Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art and No Modernism without Lesbians.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s (1955–89) 1987 photographic print with graphite and coloured pencil, Sonponnoi, brought together personal experience of HIV/AIDS, the skin lesions of AIDS-related Karposi’s Sarcoma and associated stigma at the height of the AIDS epidemic and his Yoruba heritage on his own body. In the figure of Sonponnoi, often also known as Shapona or Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, a Yoruba God of smallpox shunned by other Gods, Fani-Kayode ‘found a resonant symbol of an outcast God: one that embodies infection, carrying the threat of death, yet also offering protection.’ (Alex Pichler, A Queer Little History of Art, p. 99)

The rainbow, red-heart and denim costumes designed by Peter Minshall (b. 1941) for the ‘Sacred Heart’ band,  to ‘play’ at Trinidad Carnival 2006 are featured in the book Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean. The band’s performance showcased creatively political messages about mending the heart of Trinidad and Tobago broken by corporate greed and corruption and tackling stigma of HIV/AIDS.

Frida Kahlo’s (1907–54) powerful body of work, most famously her self-portraits, share many details from her life including her family and her Mestiza and European heritage; her revolutionary, left-wing politics; her marriage with painter Diego Rivera; and expressing the pain and vulnerability associated with her physical disabilities and miscarriages. Kahlo was known to have had relationships with men and women outside her marriage, including with Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, but few of her paintings seem to address this. One painting which has been interpreted in this way is Two Nudes in a Forest (1938): one of the women could be Kahlo herself with her lover. Other, different interpretations for this painting also exist.

The paintings of Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) celebrated everyday life in India and also provided a space for the artist to explore his own sexuality. His 1981 work ‘You Can’t Please All’ is considered his coming-out painting. It features a self-portrait and the re-enactment of a fable which is believed to reflect Khakhar’s desire to accept his sexuality.

In his book From Here to Eternity, Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) documents his everyday life as a gay man, with friends and family, his HIV+ status and his involvement in LGBTQ+ activism in Canada, the UK and India. He includes a photograph of a poster announcing a 2013 demonstration against the Indian Penal Code Section 377. This legislation was introduced by the British colonial government in 1860 and criminalised ‘unnatural offences’ such as ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The penalty for these offences was imprisonment for life. Activism in and beyond India and a case at the Indian Supreme Court finally achieved a repeal of the Penal Code in 2018. For LGBT History Month 2022, the Human Dignity Trust has created a timeline showing the history of LGBT criminalisation around the world. In many countries including India, 19th century colonial legislation, such as the Indian Penal Code, imported moral standards that outlawed locally understood and accepted diversity in gender and sexuality. The repercussions of this aspect of colonialism continue to be felt today.

Find out more

In the Art and Design Library, you can find many more books on the lives and work of artists and designers under LGBTQIA+ umbrella and on wider themes:

A Queer Little History of Art (a very useful introduction!)

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Lubaina Himid

Tove Jansson (did you know that Moomin’s friends Thingummy and Bob represent Jansson’s relationship with Vivica Bandler and Too-ticky her long-time partner Tuulikki Pietilä?)

Zanele Muholi

Raqib Shaw

Amrita Sher-Gil

The Two Roberts: Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde

Art and Queer Culture

Decolonising the Camera

Sunil Gupta’s work as a curator in Disrupted Borders

Passions: Discourses on Black Women’s Creativity

A Queer History of Fashion

Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960–85

Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement

Beyond the Art and Design Library and links in the text above, I used the following resources to inform this blog post:

Art UK LGBTQ+ resources

Tate Queer Lives and Art online guide

Association for Art History resource portal on anti-racism and decolonial approaches to art history and visual culture

Disability Arts Online

Queer Migration and Intersectional Activism, London Borough of Newham LGBT History Month 2021 panel featuring artists including Sunil Gupta

Queering Black Britain, University College London

Carissa Chew, Inclusive Terminology: Guide and Glossary for the Cultural Heritage Sector, National Library of Scotland, May 2021

Churnjeet Mahn and Rohit K. Dasgupta, ‘Cross-border queers: how we’re digging up lost histories of LGBTQI+ South Asian migrants in Britain’, gal-dem, 24 February 2021

Arya Karijo, ‘Stop imposing your imperialist Western transphobia on my people’, openDemocracy, 31 March 2021

Kerstin Olsson, ‘Layers of (In)visibility: Remembering Eileen Gray’, Master of Architecture and Planning thesis, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, 2021

Many conversations with LGBTQ+ friends, former colleagues, and project contacts at West of Scotland Regional Equality Council, Edinburgh Caribbean Association, Thistles and Dandelions project and Next Step Initiative – thank you!

Alphabet books

We’re starting a new series on the blog for the Art & Design department at the Central Library – and it seems fitting, for a new blog and a new year, to begin with the topic of 


I’ve been trying to dredge up some early memories of alphabet books, but I can’t picture any, none at all in fact. My mum was a bookish person, my older brother a bookish brother, my dad was a lover of newspapers; we must have had them… 

When, as babies and children, do we develop the concept of a letter of the alphabet – and all that that letter entails? How do we develop that concept? This is a question that interests me. My son is coming up for two and we’ve read him alphabet books… If I could somehow, miraculously, climb into his fastly developing brain, and take a look at his conception of a letter of the alphabet, what would I find? 

His favourite alphabets so far have been Lowly Worm’s ABC by the ever so wonderful Richard Scarry, and an ABC of the British Museum where each letter is accompanied by an object photographed from the museum’s collections. There is a ceramic cat; a pair of antique glasses; an umbrella (and an index of miniature pictures at the back of the book telling you more about them)…. I wear glasses, the flat upstairs has a cat. My son pokes at my eyes; he points at the ceiling and yells “cat!”. In the Richard Scarry, on the D is for Drawing page, six mice holding horns sit in a car that’s been made out of a pencil. We beep the horns, he beeps the horns, and the book is a success.   

My own memories of the alphabet consist overwhelmingly of an alphabet song. One that I knew I had to learn because the letters within it were a foundational system of organisation. It was like learning to count, or learning the points of the compass, there was a right and a wrong, and nothing in between. I remember where in the house I sang the song. I remember the song floating above me up the stairs: “LMNOP”… I loved the sound of this particular group of letters. They were pastel-coloured, soft and curly. They were lollipops and ice cream. It got steely and angular after that (Q?), the path a little foggy (R?), but “LMNOP” I loved. Even now the rhythms of the letters remain – and as I work in a library, and often find myself putting books in order on a shelf – I pull out this childhood rhyme. “LMNOP”, says my inner ear. There are many alphabet songs. The one I knew is pretty ubiquitous and is sung to the same tune as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which itself comes from the French folk song, “Ah! Vous dirai-je, maman”. The folk song was first published in 1761, and the alphabet song was first copyrighted in 1835 by the music publisher Charles Bradlee, in Boston. 

As a child, letters feel like possessions. The letters of your own name are special, and the first letter, especially special.  

In the 16th century, a child might have had a ‘hornbook’ in the place of an alphabet book. A hornbook was shaped like a small paddle, with a handle to hold it by, and the letters were usually printed onto paper or vellum, and covered over by a very thin layer of animal horn (so that it was see-through). The letters were then fixed onto wood or leather for protection, unless they were incised letters, cut out of metal or ivory or bone. Some were even made out of gingerbread to entice little minds into remembering through their stomachs. Often, a hornbook might have the 5 vowels and a set of syllables on it, and perhaps the Lord’s Prayer – the Bible being the reason a child needed to learn to read in the first place. Education and religion were very much one.   

Crib book in Derby Museums
Mainlymazza, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the 17th century, the Czech philosopher, teacher and theologian, Jan Amos Komenský, also known as Comenius (1592 – 1670), did much to wed together our understanding of a letter with corresponding words, pictures and sounds. The eye and the ear – the senses – were to be used as opposed to tedious recitation of syllable tables. He urged teaching to begin with “the plain sounds, of which mans speech consisteth, which living creatures know how to make”, and he called these sounds a “symbolical alphabet”.  

These pages are from his textbook Orbis sensualium pictus, and they are like an alphabet of animal noises: the crow cryeth, the duck quacketh, the owl hooteth…  Orbis sensualium pictus is often thought of as one of the first picture books for children. The title translates as The Visible World or The World Around us, and it is full of pictures from the everyday life of a child. There are musical instruments, books, food, toys, shoes – and animals of course. 

As the impact of the printing press altered history and paper became cheaper, hornbooks developed into “battledores”. A battledore (its name comes from the racket used in an early form of badminton) was generally rectangular in shape, and folded into three parts. Individual letters began to have words attached, and illustrations too.  

The Child’s Battledore, from Newcastle University Library’s Special Collections

And gradually, small books: primers, became more and more popular. This example from the British Library Collections, The Child’s New Spelling Primer, dates to 1799 and contains the alphabet in upper and lower case, an illustrated alphabet, vowels, consonants, short words, and two fairy tales, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood.

The Child’s New Spelling Primer; or, First book for children. To which is added the stories of Cinderilla, and the Little Red Riding Hood from the British Library’s Collections 

The prayer or Bible passage is now a fairy story, and as the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, learning the letters of the alphabet becomes increasingly set within a secular context.  

I love the feeling of stumbling over an image that strikes me, right inside, and does something special. It happens every now and then, for whatever magical reason, but my takeaway from writing this blog was coming across the alphabets of the artist, Walter Crane. Walter Crane (1845-1945) was affiliated to the Arts and Crafts movement. He painted, he designed textiles and stained glass, wallpaper, ceramics – and importantly, for our purposes  here – he made books. As a book illustrator he was very influential, and behind his illustration work, was the belief that good art and good design could stimulate a child, and therefore help them to learn. His pictures are a feast of colour, pattern, architecture, and comedy. He sits in the tradition of Jan Amos Comenius. 

We have a small collection of Walter Crane picture books in our Special Collections. Some have been digitised and you can view our online exhibitions on Capital Collections. What I hadn’t realised until writing this blog was that we HAVE AN ALPHABET of his, The Absurd ABC, the very one that I kept stumbling across on Google image searches, that hit me in the stomach and that I loved so much. It’s tucked away in a compendium of his, Mother Hubbard’s Picture Book. 

And here is the “K,L,M,O,P” page: 

“Black!”, “Gold!”. Those two colours fit so perfectly together. The Absurd ABC, first published in 1874, plays with retelling popular nursery rhymes. So ‘C ‘is “for the cat that played on the fiddle, when cows jumped higher than ‘Heigh Diddle Diddle!’”. ‘M’ is “for Miss Muffet, with that horrid spider, just dropped into tea and a chat beside her.” 

Another alphabet book we have from the same period is Kate Greenaway’s Apple Pie ABC. (Please do also have a browse on Capital Collections under Kate Greenaway.) 

“A apple Pie/ B bit it/ C cut it/ D dealt it/ E eat it/ F fought for it/ G got it/ H had it/ J jumped for it/ K knelt for it/ L longed for it/ M mourned for it/ N nodded for it/ O opened it/ P peeped in it/ Q quartered it/ R ran for it/ S sang for it/ T took it/ UVWXYZ all had a large slice and went off to bed.” 

The rhyme is old and has many versions. It’s referred to by a certain John Eachard, clergyman and satirist, in 1671, or at least he refers to letters A-G. In its written form it appears in a 1742 spelling book, The Child’s New Play-thing. And by the 19th century, we know it was a popular rhyme for learning the alphabet. Kate Greenaway’s book dates from 1886 and I especially love the brisk ending of “UVWXYZ all had a large slice and went off to bed”. Incidentally, Public Domain Review have written an interesting article on the letter ‘X’ and the history of problem letters within alphabet books, “‘X’ is for…?” I’ll include the link here.

Today we have all kinds of alphabet books. A single letter might be represented with a single object; or a single letter with many objects. There are alphabet books made for babies; there are board books, touch and feel books… A particular illustrator might make an ABC featuring their own characters. Big publishers, Usborne, or Dorling Kindersley; they, too, make alphabet books, and please do have a look on our catalogue if you’re on the hunt for a child.  

When I asked my partner about his memories of alphabet books, he said he always liked them but he found them slightly bewildering. He wanted a story and some narrative logic, as opposed to an artificial sequence. It was like an acrostic or a literary game where the story is projected onto a pattern. In other words, he said, it’s as bewildering as the seemingly random patterns that real life takes. In terms of stories, a favourite would be Oliver Jeffers’ alphabet books where each letter has its own little narrative to tell. I brought it home and my partner loved it.

We haven’t always structured the world around the alphabet. For most of human history we haven’t, and although alphabetical order was first used in the 1st millenium BCE by Northwest Semitic scribes in the Middle East, organising by hierarchy, or geography, or chronology or category, were preferential for centuries. Here are a couple of links on the history of the alphabet, and alphabetical order: 
a Radio 4 In Our Time on the alphabet; 
a review to a book by Judith Flanders, A Place for Everythingwhich is available for borrowing. 

Thinking about library catalogues though, possibly the first to be arranged in alphabetical order was the Pinakes catalogue which was used in the Library of Alexandria, c. 300 BCE. Callimachus, an ancient Greek poet and scholar who worked there, is thought to have created the system, arranging the scrolls according to the first letter of an author’s name.

Please find books on Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway, and a very many ABCs on our catalogue. We also have books on decorated letters, illumination and all things alphabetical, so please do have a browse…! 

Printed people, plants and places – February 2022 exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The February exhibition in the Art and Design Library is a riot of colour from the self-taught Edinburgh artist, Keith Murray Allan. “Printed People, Plants and Places” features bright and expressive line and wash watercolours ranging from flower studies to lively portraits.  

“Porty Buskers” by Keith Murray Allan

Allan’s influences range from Van Gogh to comic book favourite Dudley D Watkins, mixed with what he describes as “the explosion of Punk’s anarchic colours” which marked his coming of age in the early ’80s.  Allan finds inspiration everywhere and loves to delve into collage and photography. The results of this heady aesthetic mix are spirited and vibrant and the Art and Design Library is looking fabulous thanks to his paintings.

“Pink flowers and jugs” by Keith Murray Allan

The exhibition runs throughout February – don’t miss it!

Did you know we host 12 exhibitions a year in the Art and Design Library? Feel feel to drop us an email if you would like to exhibit your art and photography with us – we would love to hear from you. Contact the Art and Design team via email:

Metamorphic – January 2022 exhibition in the Art and Design Library

The January exhibition in the Art and Design Library is ‘Metamorphic’, a visual meditation using traditional photographic techniques by members of Edinburgh LoFi.

Metamorphism is a process of transformation through which temperature and pressure cause profound physical or chemical changes.

Blue Seam – Stitched cyanotype on fabric by Ali Millar

This process usually refers to geological changes, but Edinburgh LoFi have chosen this theme for their 2022 exhibition as it seems apt both for the profound changes which have overtaken society in the past couple of years and also to refer to the physical and chemical reactions in traditional and alternative process photography.

The Edinburgh LoFi group was started in 2009 at the Beyond Words photography bookshop to promote and explore film photography. The group is now run collectively.

The Devonian North – detail from a Polaroid 600 installation by Elaine Robson

The group meets regularly to share their photography experiences across traditional, alternative and lomographic formats. They also run events, hold workshops and plan exhibitions. New members are always welcome and regular meetings are free to attend. You can find out more on the Edinburgh Lofi website.

Metamorphic runs until 29 January in the Art and Design Library at Central Library.

The Art and Design Library hosts 12 exhibitions a year and we warmly encourage artists who are interested in exhibiting to contact us via for more information. 

Snow in art

For our December cabinet display outside the Art & Design Library we’re displaying some wintry pictures and this is a blog post to go alongside it – to add a wintry commentary of sorts. Specifically, I thought I’d think about snow in art.

It’s snowing as I write this.

A cold wet snow, that’s falling in big lumps. We’re all chills and fevers in our flat; coughs are racking like boots against the (cold) floorboards. We have clammy skin, drippy noses, we’ve had too much tea, too much toast and soup. There is too little light, and condensation is rolling off the window-panes. It’s winter.

When I think about the Scottish winter and snow, and pieces of art that capture it, I think of Joan Eardley – immediately – of course. This year marks the centenary of her birth, and there have been some wonderful exhibitions across the city; please do have a read of our previous blogpost.

I find her the most beautiful and powerful of painters, for the sheer depth of emotion she conveys. In her painting, Catterline in Winter (1963), a row of cottages slips, like they are being tipped from beneath, off a snowy hillside. Above, unflinching, is a cold grey sky. The night has left its thumbprint in the shape of the moon, and we can feel how it lurks, in a vast forbidding way, all around us. There is a wetness in the snow and a bitterness. The picture is also a portrait of her Catterline home as Joan Eardley lived in one of the cottages, the furthest on the left, number 1 South Row. We can’t reproduce the painting here unfortunately but it’s on display in the left-hand cabinet half-way up the stone staircase to the Reference department.

In art historical terms, Joan Eardley’s work nods towards abstract expressionism, expressionism, romanticism, and en plein-airistes everywhere. But really, as an artist, she is herself, and she paints what it is like to be in the fields, and in front of the sea, in all that landscape and weather that’s happening out there. She moved to Catterline, a small village on the north-east coast from Glasgow. She painted outdoors, weighing down her work with ropes and anchors and stones. She wore oilskins. She got very cold…

As a child my family lived in Germany for a while, and I remember how snow happened properly there, every winter. Or at least in my memory it did. My dad gritted and shovelled the path in front of our house with a fluorescent orange snow shovel, and my parents dressed me in a red snowsuit. Which makes me think about the whiteness of snow – and how light and colour sit in relationship with it. 

Claude Monet was a master with regards colour and light on snow. He too dressed for the cold, in English tweeds apparently. I immediately think of his haystacks but he painted many snow-scenes.

Haystacks: Snow Effect by Claude Monet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He shows so perfectly how snow covers and transforms the forms within a landscape. The haystack is such a strange lump of a shape; we feel how it sits there right from the middle out.

Another snowy treasure – the Limbourg Brothers’ page for February in the late medieval illuminated manuscript, Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s part of a book of hours, a book of prayers to be said at canonical hours, made between c. 1412 – 1416, by three brothers, Dutch miniaturists, Herman, Paul and Johan. Cover the blue parts of the painting with your fingers and the snow feels so different – colder maybe? The blue is so strong. And precious. There’s an interesting blog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Limbourg brothers (mostly it looks at their earlier Belles Heures). And another all about the practical questions on drawing and illumination in the middle ages.

Another painting I wanted to mention was the German painter and printmaker, Franz Marc’s picture of a white dog lying down in the snow.

Dog Lying in the Snow by Franz Marc, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The dog was Franz Marc’s own dog, Russi. He paints him (or her?) in non-naturalistic colour; colour-wheel colours, that are pure and un-patterned – the brushwork is less busy than a Vuillard or a Bonnard. And the shapes are very soft and simple. The dog and the snowy ground it lies on are gently modelled and fit together like an interlocking wooden toy. The living creature and its environment are one, and neither seem to threaten.

Franz Marc was a founding member of Der Blaue Reiter group, an art movement important to expressionism. There was no manifesto to the group, and although the work looked in many directions, it shared a commonality in its desire to express spirituality through art. The Blaue Reiter artists were interested in the relationships between art and music and colour; in medieval art and primitivism, children’s art and folk art. And they had a special interest in how colour might convey spirituality and be imbued with symbolic associations. Franz Marc painted many animals. I find them very dignified and beautiful. The poet Mary Oliver, titled a collection of poems, Blue Horses (2014), after Franz Marc’s paintings –

I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
is the piece of God that is inside each of us…

To be outside in the snow, and then suddenly inside, in the warm, looking out at the snow… This is a feeling we all feel. We feel contentment and comfort coming indoors after being outside and I associate these feelings very much with memories of winter and childhood.

Jill Barklem’s Winter Story has always sat in my head. It’s part of her Brambly Hedge series, published in 1980, about a community of mice – Mr and Mrs Toadflax and their family and friends.

Brambly Hedge characters,
“Jill Barklem Sneeuw ill pag 4” by janwillemsen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The details, the observation, the miniaturised world… each page is exquisite. She even made working mechanical models for the world that she drew; a mouse mill and a dairy. I think of Shirley Hughes too, and how she manages to capture the glow of windows and doorways and inside spaces, while outside, sits the winter cold. That glowing warmth isn’t budging, there’s no way the cold can get in.

Tove Jansson’s character, the Groke, is a hilly-shaped mound of a creature, that appears in many of her Moomin stories. She’s always seeking out warmth, but anything she touches turns to ice or snow or dies. And then of course there’s Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman for childhood snow at its most magical.

I remember listening a few years ago to a podcast on architectural design, specifically air conditioning in fact. The podcast talked a little about the pleasure we feel in moving from one temperature to another – about the cosy inside space, and the cool summer breeze. And design thoughts on creating a thermally fluctuating space to mimic this pleasure; on ideas about how we perceive temperature, and can we see temperature as more of a sense? Do we need to move away from thermally neutral spaces and recalibrate how we cope with, and sense, our thermal environment? You can listen to the 99% invisible podcast here.

And a few extra thoughts.

On snow, and joy, I’d just like to include Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. It works for me every time.

On beautiful book jackets – Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter.

On frost fairs and the little ice age – the opening scenes in the film Orlando directed by Sally Potter. The young Orlando is a page in the Elizabethan court and falls in love with Sasha, a princess in the Russian entourage, as they skate through one of the Thames’ frost fairs.

Also a London Review of Books article on frost fairs by the poet John Burnside.

On ice skating and painting – Hendrick Avercamp!

On snow flurries – Alexander Calder and explore more on Calder by borrowing a book.

On any snowy painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder.

And lastly, any snowy woodblock print by Utagawa Hiroshige.

Books on all the artists mentioned are available to borrow from the Art & Design Library, Central Library. Please come and browse or search the Library catalogue online to reserve and pick up from a library of your choice.

A Place to Grow – Art and Design Library exhibition, December 2021

Through December (3rd to 24th), the Art and Design Library, Central Library, presents the exhibition of artwork ‘A Place to Grow’ by local artist C.E. Saunders.

C.E. Saunders, Behind my House

C.E. Saunders writes of her artwork and influences:

“My name is Clare Saunders, I was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland and have been creating and promoting my artwork for the past decade. My influences come from the Surrealists, Pop-Art, the Pre-Raphaelites and Post-Impressionism. The work I create is traditional, drawing, painting and collage and I tend to use water colour-based materials as well as fine liners and acrylic paints. I’m drawn to narrative and stories, film and theatre; this is often presented in the illustrative and bold appearance to my work.

In this exhibition ‘A Place to Grow’, some of the work is nostalgic and aspects of the city I grew up in are present. Lots of the pictures are from just before 2010 when I had left college and was attempting to ‘grow’ in a different direction or a different way. Nature plays a very solid role in this display, being one of my main inspirations, but is often interlaced with fantasy and dreams a homage to stories and stage sets.”  

The Art and Design Library welcomes applications to exhibit from local artists, schools and community groups. Email for an application form and to find out more.

Moredun Library has a makeover!

Moredun Library has had a bright and cheerful makeover, in collaboration with Out and About Edinburgh (Part of the Edinburgh and Lothians Greenspace Trust) and Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre.

A group of young people from Goodtrees Neighbourhood Centre and the Out and About team were keen to help brighten up public spaces in Moredun, by creating pieces of artwork in the community. A professional mural artist from Spectrum Arts was invited to work with the young people and together the group came up with a design for the front of Moredun Library.

The brief was to give the front of the building an eye-catching identity to show passers-by what the library is all about. What was previously a drab and dull shutter, is now a brilliant work of art created by local young people. The colourful backdrops are decorated with symbols representing some of the important things they associate with the library, including books, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, lightening bolts and even an appearance from Bookbug and other characters.

Jane Stewart Smith watercolours

Our latest Capital Collections exhibition highlights some more gems from our collection. The images are taken from 2 volumes of watercolours by Jane Stewart Smith.

Edinburgh based artist, Jane Stewart Smith was born in London in 1839. She principally produced scenes of Edinburgh’s streets and buildings in oil and watercolour.

She was the author of two books, ‘The Grange of St Giles’ (1898) and ‘Historic Stones of Bygone Edinburgh’ (1924).

She worked as a governess before she married Edinburgh framer and picture dealer John Stewart Smith in 1864, at the age of 24.

Antique buildings opposite Mint Close, Cowgate, 1868

Her paintings were a valuable record of areas that might be demolished, and their importance was evident later to those who had seen many changes in the city. As well as recording architectural landscape and detail, the pictures are full of atmosphere, with street life closely observed. We see traders, carters and washing hanging from the upper windows.

Stewart Smith would rise early to draw and paint these scenes before there were many people around. It was unconventional, daring even, for a women to work alone outdoors in the poorest and less salubrious parts of the town.

College Wynd, 1870

Her landscape paintings were included in almost every Royal Scottish Academy exhibition from 1865 to 1887.

As well as scenes of Edinburgh she also painted in Fife and East Lothian as well as other areas of Scotland. Other pictures shown at the RSA featured scenes of Shrewsbury, Chester, Rouen and Genoa.

When World War One broke out the Stewart Smiths had been married fifty years. They helped with fundraising with the Belgian relief effort through the Edinburgh French Protestant Church which they were both involved with.

Old Ecclesiastical House in Canongate, 1868

John Stewart Smith died in 1921. At that time, they had been living in Portobello together with a friend named Catherine Roberts, a retired dressmaker. Jane Stewart Smith died on 1 December 1925, aged 86.

Browse more of Jane Stewart Smith’s brilliant depictions of old Edinburgh on Capital Collections.

Find more information about Jane Stewart Smith on Edinburgh Footnotes.