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The Freaks and Fascinations of 18th-Century Entertainment

Digital Bodleian (all images courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
Exhibition of dancing dogs (1785) (all images courtesy Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Last week, the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford launched an online portal to over 115,000 open-license images from their collections. Digital.Bodleian offers non-commercial use of this material, much of which was previously accessible only with a reader’s card.

According to the release, this is just the start of 1.5 million images the Bodleian plans to make available. The manuscripts, ephemera, maps, posters, and even a strong showing of games are on a user-friendly platform where images can be annotated or saved to private collections for later viewing and downloading. While there are many previous digitizing initiatives at the Bodleian, such as a collaboration with the Vatican Library and even a modestly executed trove of portraiture paintings, this site acts as one navigation for them all.

Digital.Bodleian homepage (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Digital.Bodleian homepage (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

It’s an overwhelming amount of material if you’re just browsing, but the library’s Storify timeline has some tips for getting started and the landing page offers curated collections. There are beautiful 19th-century lithographs of birds by John Gould; the Curzon Collection of over 1,400 satirical cartoons related to Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars; the archives of Sir Arthur Evans connected to the Knossos excavations; the Gough Map thought to be the oldest cartographic depiction of the UK; Victorian entomology works from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; 19th-century paintings from Calcutta of Hindu deities; and 19th-century board games (such as Whittington and His Cat and The Panorama of Europe).

Especially strong is the John Johnson Collection, with Digital.Bodleian concentrated on its 18th-century playbills and advertisements for various forms of amusement, from freak shows to waxworks. It’s one of the world’s richest collections of printed ephemera, founded by papyrologist John de Monins Johnson.

It’s a captivating and curious insight into what 18th-century Europe considered entertainment. There are panorama paintings, anatomical waxwork displays, a solar microscope, a house made of iron, and the more scientifically questionable “sacred truths attested from the miraculous onyx stone” and a Fiji mermaid likely sewn from a monkey and fish. Alongside are human oddities such as the gigantic “infant Hercules,” “John Bigg the Dinton Hermit” dressed in Druid clothes, and Thomas Inglefield illustrated in the act of drawing — despite possessing no arms or legs. But the most marvelous are the announcements of animals of every shape and provenance: a “most beautiful female dromedary” from Egypt; dancing dogs (which also perform a court-martial and sentence deserters to death); the “most astonishing and largest ostrich ever seen in Europe”; a “calf, alive, with FIVE LEGS”; a “young rhinoceros or real unicorn”; and the “finest taught horse in the world” (which appears to be playing cards). It seems all manner of novel invention, creature, or even something as mundane as a new type of rock was of fascination in the Age of Enlightenment.

Below are a few selections from the John Johnson Collection, just a small taste of the material at Digital.Bodleian.

Digital Bodleian
“Remarkable fungus in the museum of Ashton Lever esq. at Alkrington,” in Gentleman’s magazine (1772)
Digital Bodleian
“The Anatomical Waxwork” notice (1748)
Digital Bodleian
“Young rhinoceros or real unicorn” (1790)
Digital Bodleian
Ticket of Oct. 1799, announcing Anatomy by Mr Cruikshank and Mr Wilson (1799)
Digital Bodleian
“To be seen alive, alive O.” (1795)
Digital Bodleian
“Mr. Makeen: the Equestrian Hero” (nd)
Digital Bodleian
Handbill announcing a calf with five legs (nd)
Digital Bodleian
“The Iron House” (nd)
Digital Bodleian
Handbill of The Bell Inn announcing “A most surprizing large Warwickshire hog” (nd)
Digital Bodleian
Handbill of Glass-warehouse (1785)

Access over 115,000 images from the Oxford University Bodleian Libraries at Digital.Bodleian.

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