Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A View of the Private Case, 1962

I first read Peter Fryer’s Private Case—Public Scandal: Secrets of the British Museum Revealed (London: Secker and Warburg, 1966) in 1999. The opening pages of the book are memorable for the way in which Fryer teases the reader with a lengthy meditation on a photo that appears in a 1962 guide to the BM. The photo, Fryer informs the reader, affords the reader an unexpected view of The Private Case. Fryer neither names the guide, nor reproduces the plate, leaving the reader in the dark concerning the image, despite his lengthy description, at the same time as he is complaining that the reader is left nin the dark by the BM concerning the existence of the Private Case itself.

I recently re-read Fryer’s Private Case while I was preparing my Foxcroft lecture and went searching online for the image he describes. I had no success, so I worked out the name of the guide (it is The British Museum: A Guide to its Public Services (London: British Museum, 1962), 72 pp., 9 plates, issued at 6s.) to see if any copies were available locally. They weren’t; so I have bought a copy (from Canada!), transcribed the relevant section of Fryer’s text (pages 9–13), and posted the photo he describes—including an enlargement of the section of the image he focusses on—below. I hope it will be useful to anyone else reading this fifty-year old exposé, who has gone looking online for the image.

In 1962 the trustees of the British Museum published, after 203 years, the first comprehensive guide to the public services offered by that institution. In seventy-two pages this booklet told the seeker after knowledge how to find … [10] The innocent reader of this booklet, as he glanced at the picture facing page 33, could have had no inkling that the photographer was standing hard by a collection of books which have never been available in toto to the public; a collection in which no student, least of all a ‘humble’ one, can ever ‘rely’ on finding the material he needs, even when [11] it is there; a collection in which the checking of references is attended with endless difficulties and frustrations; a collection which, by decision of the trustees, found no place at that time in the general catalogue and is not even now, and is not to be, represented in the subject indexes based on the general catalogue. The caption to the picture in question reads: ‘The Arch Room housing incunabula.’ … the arch room, to which only members of the staff are admitted, does house a great many such books, no doubt in ideal conditions of temperature and humidity. It also houses about five thousand erotic and sexological works in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, and Latin, including what might be called the cream of the world's pornography.

 So far as I am able to judge, the Ministry of Works photographer must have positioned his camera pretty closely to the locker press known as ‘P.C. 25’, where The Confessional Unmasked (1851) rubs joints, as it were, with Ten Tales from the islands of Alu, Mono, Fauru (Leipzig, 1912-13) by Gerald Camden Wheeler, and where Human Gorillas: a study of rape with violence (Paris, 1901) by 'Count Roscaud' squeezes up against the original French edition (1883) of Padlocks and Girdles of Chastity (Paris, 1892) by Alcide Bonneau (1836-1904). The picture shows, in the next bay along, a jacket thrown nonchalantly over the back of a chair by some ardent labourer in this vineyard, and behind it are visible one empty press and about half of a second. The first of these presses, which I fancy is now numbered 'P.G 13', is being filled, as cataloguing proceeds, by the magnificent Dawes collection, willed to the British Museum by this country's last great collector of erotica, the late Charles Reginald Dawes. … [12] …

 If, as I imagine, the half-visible empty press in the photograph is now 'P.C. 14', it is partly filled with the collection of a friend of the late Stephen Ward. He is said to have decided, some time during the Profumo affair, that his collection of erotica might cause him some embarrassment if police discovered them on his premises. The British Museum officials accepted his gift with mixed feelings … [13]
 It is not untypical, again, of the department of printed books that the arch room is described in the caption as housing only incunabula when, throughout the entire department, its principal claim to fame is that it houses erotica. But to advertise this fact in a guide to public services would have been to violate one of the museum's strongest taboos. The BM collection of erotica is without doubt the most comprehensive in the world. The Kinsey collection, at any rate so far as the classics and other older examples of this genre are concerned, does not hold a candle to it. … [however] At the time when the guide to the museum's public services was published, in 1962, not a word was ever said to readers, either orally or in any printed or duplicated guide, to suggest that the library possessed a good many important books which were not to be found in the general catalogue — unless a reader happened to ask about a particular book and was persistent. And even then he might be told, in error, that the BM did not have a copy when in fact it had. This has been my experience several times.

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