It felt like the people of Blackburn aren’t aware of their museum and art gallery; when I finally make the effort once Saturday afternoon I am the only visitor. It doesn’t especially advertise itself as a premiere national destination, it’s unassuming Victorian façade could be any municipal building, and I’m expecting to see some fine, worthy work and perhaps some quirky local amusements.
It certainly has that. I learn of the reputation of the people of Blackburn as pissheads of the highest order, while on the landing is two of those incredible drawers of pinned insects so beloved of the Victorian era with some astonishing specimens.
But the true treasure to me I was utterly unprepared for. The Hart Collection is approximately eight hundred items, primarily printed books and manuscripts. These beautiful objects, illuminated books of hours and psalters, large and ancient tomes with stunning woodcut images. Just to look at the text, the lettering inked by hand and pressed to the paper, I could gaze all day just at the artistry of it all, the books as artefacts.
They are presented traditionally, a darkened room, crystal-clear cabinets each with their own little lectern allowing them to rest open at pages of particular beauty or significance, while also teasing at all the other pages you can’t flick to. They make me want to wear white gloves and reverently lift and turn the leaves. Some, especially the medieval prayer books, you want to sit nestled in your lap, in a big armchair in the great hall of an ancient castle with a roaring fire.
So far I guess what I’ve described you could see at any prestigious collection of manuscripts, but then I read the labels to discover that this was no simple collection of old books. Here are printings by Caxton, Guttenberg, William Morris’ printing of The Canterbury Tales. This is no ordinary collection, nor is it the result of hoarding so much that gems are bond to crop up, but it is evidently a carefully curated collection formed in the most discerning way, and therefore even more astonishing, and exciting that the museum have only in the past few years been able to start to explore and catalogue the contents.
At one point I’m distracted by the rest of the room. A quite cool collection of money set up in glass ways so you can see both sides, and a collection of Japanese prints that to call charming is to downplay their quality. But I’m drawn back to the Hart Collection, I’ll continue to be drawn back as the contents is explored and exhibited. I spend a final few moments with one particular text, a particular favourite, a particularly curious and influential page of solid print, the funny and moving black page of Tristram Shandy. It makes me smile as I leave.