As a brand new PhD student in London, one of the best ways to meet lots of new people in a casual setting in one’s first term is, of course, the time-honoured tradition of the institutional Christmas party. As a new student in the Institute of English Studies, I was lucky enough that the Christmas party was held not in a dingy departmental common room, but in the nearby premises of Maggs Brothers, an antiquarian rare booksellers on Bedford Square.
Being based in Bloomsbury is ideal for me as it means close access to museums, particularly the British Museum, next door to Senate House. Pertinently for the Institute of English Studies, Bloomsbury also has a long and rich history as a locus for the book trade, as are nearby Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court.
Due to its location and its courses in book history, codicology and palaeography, the Institute therefore has close connections with many antiquarian book dealers, many of whom attend the summer school. Its particularly close association with Maggs resulted in a very fabulous Christmas party!
This meant that, in addition to the mandatory cheese and wine at such events, we were also surrounded by beautiful rare books and manuscripts to look at. We were treated to a tour of the building, which featured a staircase decorated with photographs of multiple generations of Maggs, after which we were also shown some of the books in the Maggs collection. These books ranged from the large and magnificent to the small and quirky.
One book which particularly took my notice as a textile researcher was a copy of Isabel Marks’s 1901 Fancy Cycling for Amateurs, which included not only instructions for cycling tricks and ‘Her First Pair’, a poem dedicated to ladies’ cycling bloomers, but cutting patterns for cycling skirts and gaiters. Among the cycling tricks demonstrated in the book are photographs of a woman cycling with a sword! As a rather poor cyclist myself, it was fascinating to see an early proponent of women’s cycling so enthused by the freedom offered both by cycling itself and by the sartorial innovations associated with it.
Among the older books on display were a pair of books which had been bound in covers made from repurposed late medieval manuscripts, a beautiful example of early modern recycling. I had known about the practise of reusing manuscript parchment folia in the binding process during the early modern period, but had not before seen books which used these folia as decorative outer covers, a fitting acknowledgement of the artistry of medieval scribal technique.
All in all, it was a particularly fabulous Christmas party which successfully lifted the spirits on a gloomy December evening. I don’t know what will be in store for 2020’s Institute Christmas party, but can only hope it manages to be half as good as 2019’s.
Miranda Rainbow is a first year PhD student at the Institute of English Studies, and her research focuses on understanding the Norman Conquest through the Bayeux Tapestry: analysis, interpretation and reception.