A Visit to the British Library’s “Harry Potter: A History of Magic”

By on

by Catherine Batac Walder, courtesy of Fine Books and Collections

Nearly a month since its opening, we finally got to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library in London. I’ve seen some of the items on the internet before (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s original sketches on Pottermore) and heard the quotes from past interviews with the author, but it was of course extraordinary to see the objects from her collection in person.

This is the first major exhibition that explores the rich and diverse qualities of her stories, in relation to traditions of folklore and magic. There was a video of Rowling shown in which she said that that she invented 90-95% of the magic in the Potter books; the exhibit gives us an idea of the kind of research she would have done in creating Harry’s world.

A room with books that looked as though they were suspended in the air was a fitting entrance to the exhibition that was divided into the following sections: The Journey, Potions, Alchemy, Herbology, Charms, Astronomy, Divination, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Care of Magical Creatures, and Past, Present, Future. The Harry Potter Studio Tour in London explores the films, but this BL exhibit is for the fans of the books and is definitely geared towards older fans. My seven-year-old kept herself busy jotting down answers in the Family Trail booklet (why she’s interested in “how to make potions to gain admirers” is beyond me), but I couldn’t make her marvel at Rowling’s original sketches or the “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” manuscript annotated by the author and her editor.

Typed pages, unedited, of different early versions of the books didn’t excite her, either. I showed her Rowling’s detailed map of Hogwarts with the giant squid that lives in the lake and this was at least met with a little bit of interest. But I have a feeling that those notes and drawings on table napkins and crumpled scraps of paper left a mark on my daughter, of how there’s no limit to our creativity and how important it is to record our thoughts the moment they strike us, before we lose them. Together we looked at Rowling’s drawing of the “opening to Diagon Alley in six stages”--the author draws rather well, I realized, and this served her well in bringing to life her imagination through visual images. “I try to be meticulous and make sure that everything operates according to laws, however odd, so that everyone understands exactly how and why,” she once said in an interview.

One item that I found interesting was an apothecary’s sign featuring a handsome unicorn that would have stood outside a shop in the 1700s. Then there was Bald’s Leechbook, “an attempt to incorporate everything that is known about medicine from the Anglo-Saxon and Mediterranean world.” Another big, conspicuous item on display is the Battersea Cauldron found in the Thames at Battersea in 1861 (pictured below). There is also the “Oldest Atlas of the Night Sky” (China, c. AD 700) and the “Ripley Scroll,” a 16th-century alchemical manuscript that describes how to make the Philosopher’s Stone (pictured above). I had to check carefully to see if that was the authentic 15th-century tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, and indeed it was, on loan from Musée de Cluny in Paris. There were also playing cards, crystal balls, Chinese oracle bones, a fortune telling teacup, a broomstick, tea leaves, and the list goes on and on: a history of magic all in one place.

Jim Kay’s paintings and sketches were a joy to behold. He had this intricate drawing of a greenhouse and clearly, he drew that not just as an artist but also as someone who once worked at Kew Gardens. There was a five-minute film showing him at work at his small studio in the back of his house. He’s got a small garden but he gets inspired by anything in it, a line or a color, and he goes back to the studio thinking that might work and he has a go at it. He would sometimes call upon personal experience when completing a work, such as he did for his drawings of the shops along Diagon Alley.

Before visiting, my only advice is to make sure you’ve eaten as you could easily stay for three hours, and there is just a lot of things to digest. Blame it on my headache (due to lack of proper food), but there was just so much information that, in the end, I couldn’t distinguish reality from fantasy anymore. Consider this text about a mandrake, “The best way to obtain the plant safely was to unearth its roots with an ivory stake, attaching one end of a cord to the mandrake and the other to a dog. The dog could be encouraged to move forward by blowing a horn, dragging the mandrake with it. The sound of the horn would also serve to drown out the plant’s terrible shriek,” from Giovanni Cadamosto’s Illustrated Herbal (Italy or Germany, 15th century). If this information is from a nonfiction book, surely it must be real, right? And in one glass case, the Invisibility Cloak from a “Private Lender” was on display, too, so I couldn’t have been the only one dreaming this up.

The last room in the exhibit, “Past, Present, Future,” showed several pieces including an annotated first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone auctioned for charity and the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child Model Box that was used by the creative team of the West End production. I liked this room as it’s a testimony to the growing world of Harry Potter, and to us fans it is such comfort that there will be books within books, and that the stories will never end, even after all fantastic beasts are found.

We concluded our Harry Potter day out by visiting St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel just across the road from the British Library, the impressive building seen in the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry and Ron missed their train to Hogwarts and took the flying Ford Anglia. Nearby is King’s Cross Station where the trolley and Platform 9 ¾ could be found.

--Catherine Batac Walder is a writer who lives in the UK. She has contributed several posts from abroad over the years, most recently: “Q & A with Harry Potter Anniversary Edition Illustrator Levi Pinfold,” and “Sitting With Jane: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Life in Hampshire.” Find her at: http://gaslighthouse.blogspot.com.