Oranges and lemons: research trip to the Huntington Library

Monday 24 June 2019

Georgina WilsonOranges and lemons: Georgina Wilson (Balliol 2012) describes a research trip she made to the Huntington Library in California as a DPhl candidate in English.

It is not immediately obvious that books printed in London in the 16th and 17th centuries would have ended up among the orange groves of southern California. But nestled in 120 acres of gardens is the Huntington Library: home to an internationally renowned archive of not only books but photographs, maps and ephemera spanning ten centuries. This archive was gathered under the auspicious eye of Henry E. Huntington, born in 1850 and into the wealth of the transcontinental railway construction.

Huntington made his mark on the cultural as well as the geographic landscape of the US: along with his wife, Arabella Yarrington, he set up the Huntington Hotel in 1907 and the Huntington Library in 1919. The Huntington Library – or to give it its full name, The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens – was intended to be an institution ‘for the advancement of learning, the arts and sciences and to promote public welfare’. Today the art galleries and hothouses sit at the end of a twisting drive scattered with orange trees, beyond which lie yawning acres studded with flowing water features and knobbly cacti. Over 750,000 visitors a year flock to the Huntington where Thomas Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy (1770), the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c.1400) and over 1,000 plant species are on display for all to see.

Unlike these treasures with their near-constant buzzing crowd of visitors, the majority of the library’s books surface fleetingly from the stacks in another white-washed building, off limits to the general public. Here 1,700 scholars a year sit huddled over printed books, manuscripts, photographs and maps in the lamp-lit grandeur or the airy openness of the two readings rooms. In January 2019 I was lucky enough to become one of those scholars, as I packed my bags and embarked on a three-month Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded trip to the west coast. As an early modern English literature PhD student my aim (according to my application) was to wade through some of the masses of archival material of the late 16th- and 17th centuries. I’m particularly interested in literary and material ideas of navigation – how readers make their way through books, how books construct geographical and cosmographical landscapes. That meant that going to the archive was the perfect opportunity to get my hands on interactive ‘instrument’ books – books with rotatable paper dials like compasses, books with printed rulers to be cut out and stuck on wood: books, in short, that draw attention to themselves as physical objects as well as the bearers of printed texts.

Going to the Huntington wasn’t only a matter of unfolding 400-year-old paper diagrams, exclaiming over a compass-holder cut into a book’s binding, or bemusedly reading the tale of John Taylor, a 17th-century ferryman who claimed to have rowed down the river Thames in a paper boat. It also meant being in a new intellectual environment of early and mid-career academics: lectures, seminars, and drawn-out lunches in the sun with other PhD students who’d upped sticks from their faculties for a few months of uninterrupted research. We challenged each other, compared projects, and did laps of the bonsai garden in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Channel 4 filming team who had purportedly landed for season four of a well-known fantasy drama. My time at the Huntington shaped my PhD and gave me space to research and write. I returned home with a taste for fresh orange juice, and for strengthening the ties of Balliol and Oxford with the international academic communities in which teaching and research flourish.