Dances, Death Rites and Dedications: The Art of Dying

  • by Adam Barham, Art Library, Leeds Central Library

Throughout history, death has inspired artists to create stirring and thought-provoking work. As death affects us all and invokes a whole range of emotions, there are myriad examples of death-inspired art. These include explorations of the nature of death, depictions of deaths and funerals, as well as dedications and monuments for the dead. Artwork of this kind provides an illuminating insight into different attitudes towards our mortality. It also provides a useful starting point for conversations about dying, death and bereavement. To mark the upcoming Dying Matters Awareness Week (8-14 May 2017) we have delved into our Art Library archives in order to showcase some death-related art books.

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Plate XLII from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Old Man

Our first item is the wonderfully titled ‘The Dances of death, through the various stages of human life: wherein the capriciousness of that tyrant is exhibited: in forty-six copper-plates’. A Dance of Death, also known as a Danse Macabre, is a representation of a dance in which people are summoned to die by spectral personifications of Death. In each scene, Death enters to claim his victim and we see the nature of their death. Some deaths seem calm and dignified, others less so. Several versions of the Dance of Death have been produced. This particular version, published in 1803, includes etchings produced by an eighteenth-century printmaker called David Deuchar. The etchings are based on woodcuts produced by the sixteenth-century German artist Hans Holbein, although Deuchar made some alterations to Holbein’s work.

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Plate XXIX from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Judge

Most versions of the Dance of Death show the dying moments of people from all walks of life, ranging from the most powerful to the most unfortunate. The intention is to remind us that death is the great leveller: everyone will die, regardless of their station in life. Our 1803 version follows this tradition, showing the deaths of kings, emperors, clergyman, farmers and beggars. This version also incorporates criticisms of those at the top of the social scale. In the depiction of a judge’s death, for instance, the judge appears to spend his final moments taking a bribe (see above). Criticisms are also levelled at those with dubious morals. The illustration of a gambler’s death, for instance, suggests that the gambler’s lifestyle has caused him to be claimed by the Devil as well as Death (see below).

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Plate XL from ‘The Dances of Death…’ – The Gamesters

Our second item comes from the world of painting. ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’ explores a variety of paintings held by our close neighbours, Leeds Art Gallery. One particularly relevant painting is Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’ (below). Knoll’s painting shows a grieving Victorian family about to bury their mother in a country graveyard. The family includes young children, who have obviously lost their mother far too early. According to the guide, Knoll chose this subject to highlight the hardships of country life to his rich city-dwelling patrons.

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Frank Knoll’s ‘The Village Funeral’, pictured in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Gallery’

Our next item represents funerary art. Practised in most cultures of the world, funerary art includes any creative work produced in connection to repositories for the dead, such as graves or sepulchres. It can also include memorials and dedications to the dead. Some striking examples of funerary art can be found in ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’, published 1898-1901. Monumental brasses are brass sheets engraved with depictions or dedications to the dead; they are often found covering tombs in churches. ‘The Oxford Portfolio…’ contains rubbings of these brass engravings, all beautifully presented on large folio-size sheets.

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

Brass rubbing from ‘The Oxford Portfolio of Monumental Brasses’

We stay with funerary art for our last item. ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’ contains over 600 illustrations of stone tomb monuments from various centuries, including obelisks, headstones and incised slabs (stone slabs with designs engraved into their surface). The illustrations are rendered in a delightfully painstaking fashion; besides their value as an archaeological record, they are quite stunning to look at in their own right.

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Illustration from ‘Ancient Sepulchral Monuments’

Further examples of death-inspired artwork will be on display in the Art Library throughout May 2017. The display will feature books and images relating to artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Lady Butler and John Everett Millais.

Speed-dating our Library Treasures II: Small Books and Big Ideas

  • by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

You may recall that, during our 2016 Library Fest programme, we trialled a new event: Speed-date our Library Treasures. Put simply, this was an opportunity for the public to engage with a wide range of some of our most interesting and unique stock items, all curated by passionate Librarians, and in a decidedly non-traditional library environment (i.e. a pub).

We’re delighted to report that – such was the success of #speeddatetreasures – we took little hesitation in opting to run the whole thing again this year, as part of our recent 2017 Library Fest series. So, for those of you who were unable to make it, here is a brief run-through of the items we had out on show during the two sessions:

Oliver Twiss

Rhian, our Collections Manager, spoke about this fascinating 1830s edition of Dickens’ Oliver Twist, an edition with, as it were, “a twist”: this copy is, in fact, a pirated, plagiarised and parodic version of that well-known text, adapted by one Thomas Peckett Prest for a working-class audience hungry for cultural forms suited to their tastes. You can read more about Oliver Twiss on a previous blog post.

The Political Sway Pole

This political cartoon from the 1880 Parliamentary Election was introduced by Antony from our Local and Family History department. Depicting the five candidates for the Leeds seat, the cartoon forms part of a wider collection of over 200-similar images. Antony has previously given a talk on this collection, and you can see an edited version of his lecture notes and slides elsewhere on this blog.

Windyridge Manuscript

Phil, who works across the Local and Family History and Information and Research departments, led our ‘dates’ through the history and significance of a book that is – by any measure – one of the Treasures we are most honoured to hold in the Central Library: Willie Riley’s manuscript edition of his 1912 bestselling-novel Windyridge. Riley, from Bradford, based his story of the young artist and photographer, Grace Holden, on the area around Guiseley.

Phil is a familiar figure in the local history community, where he gives regular talks on the Central Library’s Treasures collections; in particular, a Cistercian Missal that most likely belonged to the library at Kirkstall Abbey.

The Book of Nouns

This tiny book bears more cultural, historical and intellectual weight than you might expect from its compact appearance. Ross, Librarian-Manager for the Local and Family History department, introduced the  The Book of Nouns and has this to say:

The Book of Nouns, or Things which may be seen is a miniature children’s book dating back to the very early 19th Century.

It measures only 6cm by 4.5cm and is about 1cm thick. Our copy was printed in 1802 by Darton and Harvey of 55 Gracechurch Street, London, but a note inside suggests the book was first published the year before. Its tiny pages alternate between short lists of things (‘a Mace, a Nest, Oaks, a Pink, a Quill, a Rake’) and beautiful engravings – not always of the same items.

So, for instance, you’ll find a turkey, a jackal, a well, a rook and an archer among the 64 images inside. Very occasionally, there’s also a brief fact, such as ‘The otter lives on fish, roots & plants’ but, for the most part, it’s up to you to guess why each item was included.

It’s not a dictionary (although from page 56 onwards it does suddenly decide to start following the order of the alphabet) and not everything inside is named. In fact, it took another old book to explain for us the way in which it’s intended to be used. ‘The use of this little trifle is to connect reading with intelligence,’ explains A Catalogue of Books, for the Amusement and Instruction of Youth (1801): ‘When each name is read, the thing it signifies should be shewn’.

Leeds Printed Broadsides

Karen, also from our Local and Family History department, brought along this fascinating collection of stories, songs and proclamations, gathered as it was by the eminent Leeds-folklorist Frank Kidson. Karen has this to say about this selection:

I chose for my Speed Dating item ‘Leeds Printed Broadsides’ which were collected by Frank Kidson, Leeds author, artist and folk song collector. Broadsides were a form of street literature, printed on one side only, and produced in large numbers on the early printing presses, and sold for as little as one old penny. They contained accounts of events, news, proclamations and songs or rhymes, and were sold in the streets and at fairs and other gatherings.

The special aspect of this collection is that they are all original prints from Leeds printing firms, such as Barr, Andrews, and Buchan, and some also have notes in Kidson’s own hand. He was about as much of a Leeds man as it possible to be, having been born in Centenary Street, just prior to the building of Leeds Municipal Buildings and Library, and on the site of what is now Victoria Gardens.

Circus Playbill

Just one from our large collection of Leeds theatre playbills and programmes, this particular selection, selected by Helen from our Local and Family History department, advertises the appearance in Leeds of a man made (even more) famous by The Beatles: Pablo Fanque. The story of Pablo’s time in Leeds is told in several previous blog posts.

Spare Rib

Finally, Sally, the Historypin Outreach Librarian for Leeds Libraries, brought along copies of the feminist journal Spare Rib. Here’s Sally on these inspiring pieces of political history:

Spare Rib is a second wave feminist magazine running from 1972 to 1993, of which in Central Library we have bound copies from 1976 to 1993.

The magazine was a reaction to – and rebellion against – traditional women’s magazines, which covered topics such as beauty, domesticity and romance. Spare Rib highlighted and protested issues previously un-touched by women’s magazines including sex, racism, eating disorders and women’s rights in foreign countries; along with passionate reader’s letters, culture reviews and listings.

Spare Rib is a treasure as it is an important piece of recent social and cultural history, inspiring a new generation of modern feminism, while also highlighting darker issues in modern society; issues mirrored in these magazines from thirty-years ago.


Please get in touch to find out more about any of these items, or browse the Treasures, Special Collections and Research Guide sections of this blog to find out more about our holdings. And keep an eye out for Speed-dating III…coming soon!



A Woman’s Work is Never Done…

by Sally Hughes – Assistant Librarian Manager, Local and Family History

A talk on the history of the voice and influence of women could go on for hours, but I promise you, mine doesn’t!


(Image copyright of Leeds Library and Information Service,

The Local and Family History Department were asked by colleagues at Leeds Museums service if anyone would like to give a talk on women as part of their month-long programme of talks and events for International Women’s Month. I jumped at the chance, then immediately regretted it, knowing I would have to learn a lot after deciding that my talk should span the timeline of our collections…so only about 350 years or so….!

Don’t worry though, I’ve done it! And I’d like to think it’s fairly concise. I discuss the dawn of a genre of books for women in the 1700’s to improve their appearance, lifestyle and demeanour, to the radical Spare Rib magazine of the 1970s and 80s. I’ve also somehow managed to squeeze in a couple of hundred years in-between  All the books and magazines discussed in the talk are items we have in our collections at the Central Library and I’ve used this opportunity to get some of them out of the stacks that often don’t see the light of day, yet deserve to be shared and are wonderful resources and windows into the past.

accomplished woman2

All are welcome to my talk, Making Our Voices Heard: The Changing Influence and Image of Women told through Leeds Libraries Collections at Leeds City Museum, 28th April 1.30pm.

I’ll be bringing all sorts of treasures from our collections along with me, and would love to see you there.


From Bread to Ghosts: Speed-dating Library Treasures

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Our amazing series of Library Fest events finished over the weekend and we hope you managed to attend a few! One that we particularly enjoyed took place last Thursday night, when we invited some adventurous and open-minded members of the public to “speed date” some of our favourite library treasures.

Working pretty much as you might expect (or not! this was the first time we’d ever run an event like this and even we weren’t sure exactly what might happen…) – eight Librarians (including representatives from the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds) sat at eight tables with eight members of the public. Each Librarian then spoke – passionately! – about their individually-selected item for three minutes, before a beautiful old-fashioned bell was ding-donged and each of our guests moved on to the next table, to be lovingly introduced to a new library treasure.

The event was a great success and we hope to run it again soon. In the meantime, why not have a look at the photographs and text below, which will give you some flavour of the wonderful array of items we presented for perusal?

“The Bread Arch”

bread arch

Helen from our Local and Family History department presented this item. She describes it as: “This is one of our collection of prints showing the bread archway that was built to welcome the Duke and Duchess of York, who were visiting Leeds to open the new Medical school and Library at the Yorkshire college (later to become the  University of Leeds). Built on Commercial street out of 1500 loaves baked by W. Morris over an iron and wooden frame, the arch was only in place for the day of the visit. The bread was distributed to the poor the next day along with soup and tea!”

Selections from our Playbills collection


Introduced by Sally from Local and Family History, who says of this ‘colourful’ set of items: “City Varieties Playbills from 1954 to 1962, showcasing the height of entertainment at the time – Vaudeville and strip shows! In these ‘raunchy’ playbills, women are depicted scantily clad with stage names such as ‘Miss Fluffles’. These performers would be the main entertainment for the evening, above a range of singers, dancers and comedians.”

Comic Guide to the Leeds City Art Gallery

leeds city art gallery

Vickie from our Art Library spoke about this fascinating little book of cartoons. She says: “‘Comic Guide to the Leeds City Art Gallery’ was published in 1893 in aid of the Poor Children’s Summer Holiday Fund, which was set up to take disadvantaged inner-city kids to the seaside for a few weeks. The guide itself is by a Fred Reynolds, who was probably a local caricaturist/illustrator. The main reason I like it is that Reynolds has taken art and painting, traditionally high-brow culture, and made it into something to poke fun at, which in turn makes it more accessible and communicative with a younger or unfamiliar audience.”

Universal Fortune Teller & Bonaparte’s Book of Fate / Mother Shipton’s Wheel of Fate & Wheel of Fortune / Zadkiels Universal Dream Book


The enigmatically-absent Lisa, from our Central Library, introduced this selection of weird and wonderful materials. You can read more about them on a previous blog post.

The Lady’s Dressing-Room


This book was introduced by Rhian from the Central Library, who says: “The Lady’s Dressing Room is a Victorian advice manual that instructs women on what they should wear and gives various tips on beautification from how to remove your freckles, to taking care of your hair and how to fasten your stockings correctly. It even advises on the art of growing old gracefully. Etiquette and advice manuals provide a fantastic insight in to Victorian society where the middle classes were expanding but had a terrible anxiety about how they were supposed to look and behave. The Lady’s Dressing Room is particularly interesting as it shows what was expected of women during this time. My favourite line is ‘The husband should always find the wife fresh, beautiful, sweet as a flower; but he should believe her to be so adorned by Nature, like the lilies of the field’. So a lady must always look her best but never show that she has tried too hard!”

Brotherton scroll


Laura and Rhiannon joined us from the Brotherton Library with an absolutely amazing treasure from their collections: a facsimile of the Genealogical History Roll that is on display in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery at the University of Leeds. Laura says of this wonderful piece: “The real item was made in Paris between 1461 and 1483. This manuscript chronicle, written in Anglo-Norman French, uses illustrations and family trees to describe the history of the world. It begins with the Biblical creation story and ends with the history of Louis XI, King of France. It is almost 18 metres long and made of 39 large pieces of parchment pasted together.”

Ghost Stories & Weird Experiences; Life After Death &c

2016-02-19 10.13.47

This spooky scrapbook was introduced by Ross from our Local and Family History department. He says: “The biggest mystery about Ghost Stories & Weird Experiences; Life After Death &c is who compiled it, but we’re equally unsure how it ended up in the library. I like to think someone discovered it in an attic and was too scared either to keep or destroy it. It’s a scrapbook of supernaturally-themed newspaper cuttings running from the 1920s to the 1940s, beginning with quaint tales of polite hauntings in stately homes, but gradually darkening and becoming more eccentric in its interests until (after a particularly gruesome tale of voodoo) it suddenly stops. In appropriately creepy fashion, the final pages of the book are blank…”

The Creation of the American Republic – Gordon S. Wood

american republic wood

Finally, Antony, also from the Local and Family History department, talked about this book. He says “This is a fairly obscure, heavy-weight piece of academic scholarship. Published in 1968, it’s hardly a ‘treasure’ in the sense the earlier items are. However, I selected it because I think it represents a part of the Library collections that are a treasure – and that is the 40,000 loanable books in our stacks. The vast majority of those books were published up to the 1990s and almost all of them are classics or key texts in their fields. This set of books allows anyone – with just a library card! – to gain a degree-level understanding of almost any subject they can think of. Your public library service at its finest.”

There you have it – a wonderfully-diverse set of items! Remember: all of these items (and many, many, more) are available to view during the Central Library opening hours. Contact us to find out more.

Library Fest 2016 is here…

…and we’re veryvery excited about it! There is a wide range of events taking place, with something of interest to everyone. A fuller list of events can be found here, but those we thought might be of particular interest to readers of this blog are listed below:

  • Ducatus Leodiensis, Local and Family History, 2nd Floor, Central Library. Celebrate the anniversary of Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis through a curated display of library treasures. Free drop-in event, all week
  • Inventing the Future, Foyer, Central Library. A display of patents – some outrageous, some important, all of them innovative – from the 19th-century to the present day. Plus – take part in the “inventors and inventions” quiz! Free drop-in event, all week
  • Treasures of the Library – on Tour! Otley Library. Philip Wilde will deliver his succesful talk about some of the oldest and rarest items in the special collections at Leeds Central Library, including a 15th-century illuminated manuscript, a 16th-century Atlas a probable Kirkstall Abbey Missal. Monday 15th February, 6-7.30pm: to book, call Enquiry Express on 0113 247 6016
  • Collections Up Close, Wetherby Library. Join us for a “show and tell” exploring some of our oldest and most fascinating archive materials. Tuesday 16th February, 10.30-11.30am: to book a free place, call Wetherby Library on 01937 583144
  • Prints, Playbills and Maps Showcase, Room 700, 1st Floor, Central Library. A visual celebration of the strange and wonderful history of Leeds. Join Librarians from our Local and Family History Library to explore the city’s forgotten past. Tuesday 16th February, 4.30-6.45pm: free drop-in event
  • Treasures of the Library, The Portal, 2nd Floor, Central Library. Another chance to hear Philip Wilde’s fascinating guide to some of the rarest items in our special collections. Tuesday 16th February, 5.30-7pm: to book, please phone Enquiry Express on 0113 247 6016
  • Speed Date our Library Treasures, Victoria Pub, Leeds. We’ve dusted off our most unique and underrated items and sent them down to the pub to charm some open-minded strangers! (in the company of our Librarian gooseberries). Thursday 18th February, 7-8pm and 8-9pm: to book, please visit 
  • Treasures of the Library, The Portal, 3rd Floor Meeting Room, Central Library. Your final chance to hear Philip Wilde’s popular talk. Saturday 20th February, 2-3.30pm: to book, please phone Enquiry Express on 0113 247 6016

We hope to see you at some – or all! – of these events.