Post by Karen Jacques and Clare Baker, Collections Assistants at the John Rylands Library:
Over the last 12 months we’ve had the privilege of working on the Archive of Dom Sylvester Houédard or dsh as he preferred to be known; and what a challenge it’s been! The archive, well Accession 1 of the archive, consists of 97 boxes of material with only a handwritten list to accompany it. Our project was to discover in more depth what was held inside these uncatalogued boxes.
dsh was born in St Peter Port Guernsey. He read history at Jesus College, Oxford and served his National Service in British Intelligence in India. He became a monk at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire in 1949. As a monk he embraced the reforms implemented by the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965. The need to encourage dialogue between religions, especially non-Christian faiths, was a cornerstone of his belief system. At the same time he contributed to biblical studies and became the literary editor for the Jerusalem Bible, 1961.
He also became a leading figure in the avant-garde Concrete Poetry Movement. His work appeared regularly in exhibitions and ’zines. The Rylands holds his collection of poetry and art magazines from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, which Fran Horner, a placement student at The John Rylands Library blogged about last year. And it’s this juxtaposition of Benedictine monk, serious theologian and hipster, deft exponent of conceptual art and concrete poetry that makes him such a fascinating character.
Although the collection is mainly made up of dsh’s theological writing, it quickly became apparent that there is a wide breadth of material, topics and formats included. There were many sheets of paper covered in tiny spidery, almost illegible, writing, but we also discovered art works, typestracts, reversals, concrete poetry, photographs as well as contributions from other artists and poets. This isn’t a collection rooted in the personal; unlike his fellow archive companion and friend, Li Yuan Chia, this is an eclectic and intriguing mix of religious and ‘arty’ material.
Of particular interest to us were the seemingly random objects lurking between the theological musings, which we would like to share. It’s unclear why these items are in the collection – were they used to inspire his artistic practice or like us, did he find these quirky items amusing or perhaps he just mislaid them in amongst his papers? I think the gentle aromatic aroma of minty chocolate will live with us for a while, not the usual musty bookish wafts you expect from an archive, but a squished After Eight mint sandwiched between sheets of paper; a
#BizarreBookmarks or monk-ish nibble maybe?
Enjoyable highlights were the solid jelly baby and the petrified liquorice torpedo – both transformed into works of art. Alas these are no longer part of the archive and have been removed by our Conservation Department, although captured here for posterity by the Imaging Team.
We came across a tiny clay bird’s nest containing even tinier eggs carefully wrapped in tissue paper with no note of explanation. We decided this was another element of dsh’s quirky nature. This item was accompanied by a lone marble overshadowing the nest and eggs. To us this was just another example of objects within the collection having no rhyme or reason for their inclusion, but we find interesting none the less.
We were intrigued by the solid ‘balls’ balloon attached to silver card with the words ‘inflate ’n knot’ n shake’ n rotate’; the disintegration of the balloon and it’s firmness adding poignancy to the item as it contrasted with the usual expectations and nature of a balloon.
Discovered in the midst of dsh’s works was a plastic spanner, cheekily attached is a note that reads: ‘Take this flexible little spanner and fling it into the works of various institutions throughout the land. CAUTION: The manufacturer accepts no responsibility if this spanner bounces back’. Gosh! Anarchy on the shelves in the Rylands!
And we were amused to see that an everyday envelope containing screws wrapped in a disintegrating elastic band had been preserved – such an ordinary find, one that will resonate with many, but why has it been saved among dsh’s papers? Or is it an oversight?
Through this collection we saw a very serious side to dsh through his theological research and teaching, a creative side through his poetry and artworks, but also a lighter more playful side demonstrated by these everyday items. It’s intriguing to ponder on why he had kept them and what significance they had to him. What would the objects you keep or fail to throw away tell future researchers about you?
Permission has been granted by the Prinknash Abbey Trustees to use images from the dsh Collection.
With many thanks to the imaging staff at The John Rylands Library for the brilliant photographs too.