STACKED ON library shelves in a far-flung corner of the University of Leeds, thousands of rare books hid the treasures contained inside locked under thick covers.
But now, thanks to a new £1.9m gallery, a collection of 200,000 rare books and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts have a home worthy of their status.
Among the special items in the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery are a copy of William Shakespeare’s 1623 first folio, a 4,500-year-old Babylonian clay tablet, a draft manuscript in the hand of a 14-year-old Felix Mendelssohn and a map and compass used by Bertie Ratcliffe, the first prisoner to escape back to Britain from Germany during the First World War.
Much of the collection comes from the University’s Brotherton Collection, which built on a library of rare books and manuscripts bequeathed by Lord Brotherton, the Leeds industrialist who funded the building of Brotherton Library 80 years ago.
From this, successive librarians built collections of artefacts, manuscripts and rare books of enormous cultural significance over many decades.
Leeds University Library is the only one in the UK to have five collections awarded Designated Status – recognised as having outstanding national and international importance – by Arts Council England.
The new gallery will mean dozens of these rare books will be able to be publicly displayed for the first time, having previously been housed deep within the Brotherton Library.
Three exhibition spaces will provide space for a permanent exhibitions, community events, and a temporary exhibition space that will help bring to life important anniversaries and events.
The first will examine the role of conscientious objectors in the first world war, while later this year an exhibition will mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare.
Dr Stella Butler, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said: “This new gallery is allowing us to put a collection that has been hidden away in a far corner of the University open to the public, allowing us to shout about their treasures. We have some truly wonderful items.
“The first thing you see when you walk into the gallery is Shakespeare’s first folio from 1623, which perhaps aside from The Bible, in the most important book in the English canon.
“It’s a very special piece that people will be blown away by.”
Also on display is the “visually stunning” Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to Russian writer Ivan Bunin in 1933, and part of the Leeds Russian Archive.
The permanent collection will be constantly evolving, to ensure the objects are conserved, and giving the gallery the opportunity to show the depth of the collections. It has been funded by a grant of almost £1.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and a private donation from the Brotherton-Ratcliffe family.
Leeds University Vice-Chancellor Sir Alan Langlands said: “It gives us great pleasure to open up these wonderful treasures to new audiences.
“We hope that residents of the City of Leeds and far beyond will join us on campus to explore centuries of history represented across an amazing range of objects.
“We greatly appreciate the strong support of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the generosity of the Brotherton-Ratcliffe family in making this possible.”
Fiona Spiers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund Yorkshire and the Humber, said: “This is an extraordinary collection and one with great significance nationally and internationally.
“We are delighted to be able to fund this fantastic new gallery, which will allow people to explore the incredible range of artefacts for the first time.”
Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery is open 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5pm on Monday.
The treasures within
Here are a handful of the treasures included in the gallery:
- Mr William Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, & tragedies, London, 1623 - The First Folio;
- Ivan Bunin’s Nobel Prize medal and certificate, 1933;
- Maps, sardine tin and a compass associated with First World War prisoner Bertram Ratcliffe, 1917;
- Babylonian clay tablet, c.2500 BC, the oldest item in the collection;
- A.W., A Booke of Cookrye, London, 1584 - an Elizabethan collection of recipes.
- Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Sonata, 1823 - A handwritten score;
- Letters from Charlotte Brontë and her brother Branwell Brontë.