Gifts and Books


16 June 2023

29 October 2023
Weston Library, Oxford
Broad Street

16 June to 29 October

Broad Street
Oxford, OX1 3BG
View Venue Website

Books and Gifts is an exhibition at the Weston Library that explores the importance of books as gifts
Books and Gifts is an exhibition at the Weston Library that explores the importance of books as gifts

About the Gifts and Books exhibition

The Bodleian Libraries presents Gifts and Books, a new exhibition exploring the importance of giving and receiving books. The exhibition, at the Weston Library, asks what this apparently simple act, practised for centuries, reveals about human relationships and beliefs.

The giving and receiving of gifts is fundamental to human societies.

Drawing on material from ancient Sumerian writing tablets to contemporary fiction for children, Gifts and Books will explore the importance of gift-giving through books and across time and how this apparently simple act reveals wider interactions, relationships and belief systems.

Generosity. Power. Reverence. Love. Struggle. Obligation. Visitors can explore people’s motivations for giving books across the ages, including as a religious offering, a mark of friendship, or a way to strengthen political alliances. 

Of the many intriguing items on display is a stunning book made by a young Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I. She wrote out her translation of The Mirror or Glass of the Sinful Soul and included a finely embroidered cover framing the initials of Queen Katherine Parr, to whom she gave the book as a New Year’s gift in 1544. The strategic exchange of books was a common practice to cement relationships in the fickle world of the Tudor Court.

A guitar bought by the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley will also be on display, highlighting gift-giving as an act of friendship. Shelley gave the instrument to his friend Jane Williams shortly before his death. It will be displayed alongside his manuscript of the poem ‘With a Guitar. 

To Jane’, which reimagines Shelley, Jane and her husband Edward as characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Love tokens are represented further in a First Folio of Shakespeare, opening at a scene from As You Like It, where Orlando writes love poems and pins them to trees and a 1950s program by computer pioneer Christopher Strachey that generates love letters.

The exhibition delves into the relationship between writing, gifts and religion, with pieces highlighting how gift-giving has been used across cultures and faiths. A Buddhist narrative, The Birth Story of the Deer, written on a set of palm-leaf folios, exemplifies the ideal of sacrificing oneself to attain perfection. 

A beautiful Qur’an manuscript that later belonged to an Indian ruler will also be on display, as will a spectacular medieval Jewish prayer book and books of Christian devotion that include portraits of the donors who paid for their exquisite craftsmanship.

Books have often been commissioned, adapted and regifted. A beautiful, illuminated page from the Ormesby Psalter will be on display, featuring two different sets of patrons: one from a pair of families whose marriage alliance seems to have faltered, another showing the wealthy churchman Robert Ormesby, after whom the book is now named. Like other medieval precious objects, it was given and re-given at different times due to its value and altered to suit new owners.

The exhibition shows how gifts and books can be bound up in relationships of power, politics and protest. For example, it features the extraordinary Olaudah Equiano, who was treated as property or even ‘given’ as a gift by those who had enslaved him, but who managed to gain his freedom and write his own life story.

The power of the gift to encourage creativity is further explored through books for young readers, many of which show the act of giving as both joyful and powerful. Writers including Oscar Wilde, Patience Agbabi, Shirley Hughes, Philip Pullman and Zetta Elliott are all represented here.

Go and explore the meaning of gifts, exchange and the stories we tell about them.

This exhibition is curated by Dr Nicholas Perkins, Associate Professor and Tutor in English, St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford.



Gifts and Books exhibition highlights

Ormesby Psalter, 13th century
Ormesby Psalter, 13th century

Ormesby Psalter, 13th century

The Ormesby Psalter is one of the masterpieces of East Anglian art. This lavishly decorated book of psalms was a gift to Norwich Cathedral in the later 13th century. It has a protective ‘chemise’ wrapper made from animal skin. MS. Douce 366

Book of Hours (England, 13th century)
Book of Hours (England, 13th century)

Book of Hours (England, 13th century)

Page from a book of hours, depicting Jeanne de Baillencourt kneeling in prayer with Virgin Mary and Christ.

'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' (1789)
‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ (1789)

‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ (1789)

Title page opening of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, one of the earliest examples of a formerly-enslaved person relating their experiences of slavery and their progress toward emancipation

Percy Bysshe Shelley's guitar
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s guitar

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s guitar

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley gave this Pisan guitar to his friend Jane Williams around April 1822. Along with the guitar, he presented her with a copy of his poem, ‘With a guitar. To Jane.’

All images © Bodleian Libraries