Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee is the title of a wonderful exhibition now on at the Royal College of Physicians, Regents Park, London. For a show dedicated to the most famous magician and alchemist England has ever produced, the RCP doesn’t strike one as the obvious venue. Yes, John Dee was a doctor but not that kind of doctor – unless you count drawing a patient’s astrological chart as an aid to diagnosis. Which in John Dee’s day – the Sixteenth Century – it would have been.
John Dee (1527 – 1609) was an extraordinarily gifted mathematician, engineer, navigational expert and astronomer. He was also an astrologer, magician and alchemist who devoted much of his life (and a considerable fortune) to discovering what he thought would be the key to the universe: the language God used to talk to Adam in the garden of Eden, the ‘Enochian alphabet’.
Cracking this language, he reasoned, would open up to him the secrets of nature, God’s creation. Bonkers, yes, but what I love about Dee’s fantastical ideas is the spirit of enquiry they sprang from; at heart he was a scientist, using – as other natural philosophers did – magic and alchemy as tools of discovery alongside more factual disciplines like mathematics and astronomy. In my research into Elizabethan magic for my children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, John Dee provided the perfect example of a conjurer using spells and charms in a positive – as opposed to a destructive – way.
A great scholar, Dee amassed 3.000 books in his house in Mortlake. Unfortunately judgement of other people’s trustworthiness doesn’t seem to have been one of his strengths and in 1583 his own brother-in-law, left in charge while Dee travelled abroad, allowed the library to be plundered. Around 100 of the missing books were stolen by a man called Nicholas Saunders, and these were eventually bequeathed to the RCP, giving the college possession of the biggest portion of Dee’s original library still in one piece. This exhibition offers a fabulous chance to see 50 of them, together with a number of Dee’s own magical implements such as his obsidian mirror and crystal ball (useful for showing angelic spirits with whom he tried to converse).
Doodles in the margins – astrological tables, geometric shapes, human profiles and in one case, a splendid ship in full sail – give a delightful sense of the man who originally owned and loved these books. Go see! You have until 29th July, 2016.