In over four centuries the Bodleian Libraries have assembled, through gift and purchase, many individual items which can be called works of genius. This exhibition looks at ways in which common attitudes towards genius are manifested in the physical form of a number of remarkable books and manuscripts, and considering the relationship between genius and learning, it explores ways in which the works of genius found in a university library can be acquired, collected and read.

Marks of Genius

The creative intensity and singular character of a writer or composer, or of an historical moment, is intimately expressed by the hand-written page. The commercial, technical and artistic innovations of certain printed books are testimony to the endless invention of genius. The pre-eminence accorded to a few individuals, or ‘giants’, among the many who contributed to the artistic and intellectual life of any given age, is reflected in manuscript and printed copies of their work and in subsequent endeavours based on their achievements. Books and manuscripts which are works of art in their own right are a reminder that genius is not necessarily solitary and self-sufficient; it can equally be collaborative, and is always embedded in the tastes and traditions of its time.

Genius and Learning

Some have seen learning as secondary, even irrelevant, to supreme genius. ‘Genius leaves but second place, among men of letters, to the Learned’, wrote Edward Young in 1759. ‘It is their Merit and Ambition, to fling light on the works of Genius, and point out its charms.… Genius is from Heaven, Learning from man.’ Others have disagreed. ‘The mental disease of the present generation’, maintained Samuel Johnson in 1751, ‘is impatience of study, contempt of the great masters of ancient wisdom, and a disposition to rely wholly upon unassisted genius and natural sagacity’. A person should first look to ‘the intellectual treasures which the diligence of former ages has accumulated, and then endeavour to increase them by his own collections’.