It’s a chilly afternoon in February and I’m wandering through a London neighbourhood north of Great Portland Street tube station, in search of the Royal College of Physicians. Not only is the RCP the oldest medical college in England, but it’s also England’s oldest named museum. The college’s history as a museum dates back to 1656 when William Harvey, the first man to describe the systemic circulation of blood, donated his library and collection to it.
Finally, on the edge of Regent Park, I encounter this imposing and historical-looking statue. I sense that I’m close to the college; which, presumably, is housed in a similarly imposing and historical-looking building.
It turns out that I am close to the RCP, but I’m surprised to find that this glass-and-concrete, big-box-on-top-of-a-small-box structure serves as its headquarters. The current RCP building was opened in 1964. It was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, the uncompromisingly modernist architect responsible for the campus of my one-time alma mater, the University of East Anglia, and for the National Theatre building on London’s South Bank. In 2001, the year of Lasdun’s death, Prince Charles remarked that the latter building was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”
Lasdun’s RCP building, with its brutalist lines and angles, is not where I expected to find an exhibition devoted to the sixteenth-century mathematician, astronomer, bibliophile, cartographer, numerologist, alchemist, astrologer, teacher, traveller, ancient historian, amateur physician, royal advisor and reputed occultist Dr John Dee. Mind you, when Dee was in his early twenties, he lectured at the University of Paris about the geometry of Euclid; and as a geometer he might’ve admired the starkness of Lasdun’s lines and angles.
Like many a learned man from the medieval and Renaissance eras, Dr John Dee got a bad rap. Because in spite of being a brilliant scholar and scientist, he ended up with a reputation for being a magician. In fact, thanks to popular culture, he’s regarded these days as a black-magic badass – so badass that he’s been namechecked in songs by Iron Maiden and the Blue Oyster Cult. No doubt he’d be dismayed to know it, but poor old Dee is now in the pantheon of occult greats, alongside the usual suspects: Nostradamus, Robert Fluud, Helena Blavatsky, Grigori Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Anton LaVey. (And possibly Jimmy Page.)
In Dee’s time, the majority of people were uneducated and to them magic seemed indistinguishable from science. It was probably inevitable that he got the reputation he did. And actually, for the educated elite, the situation wasn’t that different – for back then the likes of astrology and alchemy were viewed as legitimate sciences. Insatiably curious about all strands of knowledge and inquiry, Dee naturally applied himself to areas we now see as pseudo-scientific or mystical; as much as he did to areas still seen as properly scientific.
Also, as an unquestioning Christian – and Christians were unquestioning in the 16th century – Dee wouldn’t just have believed in God. He’d have accepted the whole belief system of Christianity, about an afterlife, the soul, angels, demons, miracles, etc. No wonder Dee spent as much time poring over cabalistic angel magic or peering into crystals trying to communicate with the spirit world as he did writing treatises on the geometry of triangles or giving navigational advice to mariners wanting to travel to the New World.
Still, it probably didn’t help Dee’s reputation that the privy council of Queen Mary I had him arrested on charges of witchcraft. When Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, however, the establishment’s view of Dee changed. He became a courtier and was so trusted that he was allowed to give the first Queen Elizabeth advice on her health.
What I like most about Dee was his love for books and the fact that, for a time, he owned a library of 3000 books and 1000 manuscripts. Late in his life, he wrote, “The divers bookes of my late library, printed and anciently written, bound and unbound, were in all neere 4000… of my getting together… from divers places beyond the seas, and some by my great search and labour gotten here in England.”
I can imagine the anguish that Dee felt when, after journeying in Europe in the 1580s, he returned home and discovered that his library had been decimated. He’d entrusted its keeping to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond, who’d promptly started selling it off. A number of his books ended up in the library of Henry Pierrepont, the Marquess of Dorchester, which was donated to the RCP after Pierrepont’s death in 1680. Presumably it’s those items from Dee’s once-massive collection that form the core of the exhibition today. (Some even bear Dee’s annotations on their page-margins.)
As well as showing the books, the RCP exhibition tells Dee’s story with a series of information-panels, timelines and pictures. The sober tone of the written information is at odds with the pictures, which are the work of artists and illustrators more interested in the idea of Dee as a magician than in the idea of him as a scientist and book-lover. Hence, you see the famous drawing – atmospheric but wildly sensationalist – of Dee and his long-time associate Edward Kelley raising the spirit of a dead woman in a nocturnal churchyard.
You also see Henry Gillard Glindoni’s painting of Dee performing a magic ritual in front of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I. Recently, it was reported that x-rays of Glindoni’s painting have found a circle of human skulls around Dee, which were depicted on the original work but were then painted over. Possibly Glindoni covered the skulls at the request of a squeamish Victorian customer.
Dee’s books are fascinating to look at but inevitably, during my visit, it was a section near the exhibition’s end that attracted the most attention and the most taking of photographs. On display here are some of the more esoteric items associated with the learned doctor. For example, there’s Dee’s ‘magic mirror’, through which he allegedly ‘called his spirits’ – though evidence that the mirror, which was acquired by the historian, antiquarian and gothic author Horace Walpole in 1771, really belonged to Dee is thin on the ground. Then there’s his magical disc, used to attempt to communicate with angels. This “Is engraved with the ‘Vision of the Four Castles’, seen by Dee’s medium Edward Kelley on Wednesday 20 June 1584 while travelling through Poland with Dee.” Also used for contacting angels is a crystal ball, although again it isn’t certain that this was once in Dee’s possession.
The bulk of the exhibition is located on the RCP’s first floor, though it continues to the second floor too. And upstairs you’ll find a section entitled The Afterlife of John Dee, dealing with his legacy in popular culture. Indeed, barely were Dee’s remains in the ground – he died in 1609 – when William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest (1610-11), which may well have drawn on Dee as inspiration for the character of Prospero. Among the other artistic works with a Dee influence that are shown here are Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic-book series (1989-1996) and Damon Albarn’s 2012 rock opera Dr Dee: An English Opera. I was surprised, though, that Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee (1993), the novel that first introduced me to the man, wasn’t featured.
Neither did I see any mention of the two pieces of Dee-related literary trivia that I find most fascinating. Firstly, in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories about Cthulhu and the Elder Gods, Dee has the dubious honour of being the person who translated into English the Necronomicon, the fabled and fearsome grimoire that informs the whole mythos. Secondly, it’s been claimed that Ian Fleming got the idea for using 007 as James Bond’s code number from Dee, who wrote the same three numbers on correspondence meant only for the perusal of Queen Elizabeth I: 007 signified ‘for your eyes only’. That makes Dee the missing link between H.P. Lovecraft and Ian Fleming. What a star!
But Dee, I imagine, would have preferred to be remembered as a star of science, learning and books. The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians goes some way to celebrating his role in those things whilst reclaiming his reputation from the world of the occult and supernatural. It continues until July 29th.