Fire in the Earth

Campi Phlegraei by Sir William Hamilton (Library ref: E096.045/1776 J18)

from Campi Phlegraei by Sir William Hamilton (Library ref: E096.045/1776 J18)


The new  Stones & Bones exhibition (opens 13th February 2015) at the Library of Birmingham got us thinking about some of our explosive collections relating to natural history.  Volcanoes have long held fascination for us. Kate Humble is currently presenting a TV series ‘Into the Volcano’ where she explores an active volcano in the South Pacific. Our archive collections tell us that she is by no means the first to do this.

A hundred years earlier, Helen Caddick, Edgbaston’s Victorian traveller and educationalist described in great detail in her diaries, her walks across the lava flows of Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, recalling with excitement

“scorching hot but marvellous to see close to, all on the move and boil”.

And another hundred years before Caddick’s adventures, Gregory Watt, son of steam engineer James, was descending into the still active Mount Vesuvius. Watt’s perilous descent into the crater to explore volcanic rock is recorded in a letter to his father in which he is highly critical of his guide who is clearly (and fairly understandably!) a bit nervous about the route:

“Our rascally guide refused to take us down the crater, led us to several impractical places…..we had to recourse to threats and at length the villain promised to try to find a way ‘tho it was going to certain death.”

Campi Phlegraei

from Campi Phlegraei by Sir William Hamilton (Library ref: E096.045/1776 J18)

Both Caddick and Watt provide us with vivid written descriptions of their volcanic exploits, conveying the recklessness of their journeys and the excitement they felt at being so close to ‘the core of the earth’.  One further volume from our collections adds the visual element for us.

Sir William Hamilton was the British ambassador to Naples in the late 18th century.  During his time in Italy, Hamilton developed an interest in the geology of the area, through witnessing the volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Vesuvius was particularly active in the 1770s and the area surrounding it was known locally as the ‘campi phlegraei’ – flaming fields.

Hamilton was particularly interested in challenging commonly held views of volcanoes as purely destructive, arguing for the role of volcanoes in shaping the geology of the landscape over a long period of time. Following his appointment as a fellow of The Royal Society, he set out to document his observations through drawings and accompanying text. He employed the artist Peter Fabris to sketch the volcano in its changing states. These sketches were then printed and hand coloured alongside Hamilton’s letters on his observations that he had written to the Royal Society.

Complete editions of the Campi Phlegraei are rare, partly due to the popularity of the plates which were often ripped out of books and framed as prints. Our edition came to us as from the library of John Cadbury, probably via his grandson William Adlington Cadbury, a great donor to the Library’s collections.  You will be able to see these beautiful illustrations, Watt’s letters, Caddick’s diaries and many other archives and artefacts at the Library’s upcoming Stones & Bones exhibition in The Gallery on floor 3 from 13th February 2015.

Stones & Bones is a  partnership exhibition with the University of Birmingham’s  Lapworth Museum of Geology and brings together archive and museum collections, (including a piece of the Rowley Rag and dinosaur bones!) to tell the 600 million year old history of the region.

At different times the Midlands was like the Mississippi delta, the Bahamas and the Sahara desert. More recently, the area was a cold glacial landscape with mammoths and woolly rhinos, separated by warmer periods when hippos and lions roamed the area.

The Stones & Bones exhibition will explore what impact these discoveries had on the region, culturally and industrially and what these investigations can tell us about our world today. The exhibition will have a strong family focus with interactive workshops, family events and talks. Don’t miss the Great Dinosaur Egg Hunt or the Exploding Volcanoes Workshop!

Stones & Bones is an exciting collaboration between Library of Birmingham and the Lapworth Museum of Geology at the University of Birmingham.
Visit the Stones & Bones exhibition and take a trip through time!

Related Events

Stones & Bones Curator Tours March and April. Tickets £5.00

Saturday 24 January 12 – 2pm. Botanical Treasures Show and Tell.  Drop in to view some of our wonderful examples of early Botany from our Early and Fine Printing Collection. Heritage Learning Space Floor 4. Free.

Monday 16 February 2 – 3pm Survivors of the Ice Age With Professor Alice Roberts in the Studio Theatre. Tickets £3.00

Nikki Thorpe, Collections Curator

3 responses to “Fire in the Earth

  1. How do I pronounce PHLEGRAEI ?

    • macgregorrachel

      Hi, thanks for this – we hoped you enjoyed the blog post. Our resident classical scholar advises us that it is pronounced Fleh-gr-eye-ee. Hope this helps!

  2. thanks yes it does

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