The Library of Obscure Wonders

art nature illustration botanical classes workshops

Month: September, 2012

Building Bookshelves out of Library Books

Book Sculpture

Book Sculpture by The Library of Obscure Wonders.
Photo by Charlie Murphy

Every now and then the library takes on a 3-dimensional form and goes on tour. We are currently planning a short tour  next year so I’m making some new light-weight bookshelves for travelling and I’m making them out of  old library books.

It’s not that I enjoy destroying library books, quite the opposite, but I do enjoy making new books (and shelves) out of books nobody wants anymore. Old,  water damaged, scrawled in books, out of date encyclopaedias, tatty Jeffrey Archers or Mills and Boon novels, books which really have reached the end of their life span. The Library of Obscure Wonders recycles them.

This all started the  year before last when the Library of Obscure Wonders was asked to create a public sculpture for Pollard Hill Library in South London. This was to herald the opening of a new library building to replace an old one. When they closed the old building they went through all their books and decided to throw out all the damaged, out of date ones. But what were they to do with them? Well thats where we came in. They said “take your pick of the old books and build us a sculpture out of them”. So that, along with children’s workshops and a public talk, was what we did. (For more information and pictures of this project visit

Some of the books we kept almost as they were, but others we broke down and turned into paper pulp, then from this pulp we made new paper and paper-mache. I recommend John Plowman’s Papermaking techniques book if you are interested in paper making yourself.

During this process we researched a lot about paper and found that you can make almost anything out of the stuff! (well thats a bit of an exaggeration) People have made sailable boats, houses, armour, tables, clothes, all sorts. So we thought in future, instead of buying new shelves for our books and art displays, we might as well try to build everything out of recycled paper and card. So that is what we’re doing. I particularly like working with recycled materials because the material has a recognisable history, character even, that can be allowed to influence the new work.

In the studio as I attempt to build shelves and display cabinets.

Hand made paper from old library books and Blue Eyed Mary Flowers.

Hand made paper from an old Mills and Boon book, with ‘Blue Eyed Mary’ flowers from my garden.

Apple (Malus domestica)

Drawing of half an apple showing the inside.

Study of an Apple. Silverpoint. J V Roberts.

“hallucinating Apples, i went down to the shop and bought one. Counting out my last 23 pence at the counter felt like a righteous act and I treated it like that. walking home I felt like I was holding the Centre of the Universe in my hand.” manfromuranus


Beware of the apple, it is a sinful fruit. A master at the art of temptation.The symbol of immortality, health and fertility in Norse myth, it gave the gods their eternal youth.

It is an ancient fruit originating from Asia, perhaps the first ever cultivated.

When the Greek goddess of dischord was not invited to the party she threw a golden apple on to the dance floor, with an inscription that read “to the fairest”.  Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claimed the apple. Paris would have to judge which of them was the fairest. Aphrodite wanted the golden apple so much she got Paris to vote for her by offering him Helen of Troy, and so started the Trojan war.

Atlanta was tricked by the tempting apple when Aphrodite gave 3 apples to Hippomenes.  Atlanta would only marry the man that could win against her in a race, but she was fast and no man could beat her . Then Hippomenes laid down the apples Aphrodite had given him, placed them one by one in Atlanta’s path so she slowed down to retrieve them. Hippomenes won the race so Atlanta had to marry him as she’d agreed with her father.

Then there is of course the apple of the tree of knowledge, so delicious looking on that branch. It couldn’t have taken much persuading from the snake or Eve, Adams mouth was watering.

An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but be careful who it does bring. An old tradition was to toss an apple to the person you loved, and if the loved one caught the apple it meant they loved you in return.

Studies of an old slightly rotten apple. Silverpoint on paper. By JV Roberts

Golden Apple from Aphrodite


Mythological person with one leg and one large foot.

A sciapod shading himself from the sun, pen and watercolour on handmade paper, JV Roberts.

Sciapods are mythological dwarf-like people with one leg and one  very large foot. The name comes from “shadow feet” in Greek. They are able to leap with surprising agility (Pliny Natural History) and are in the habit of lying on their backs in hot whether using their feet as shade against the sun. In this position they can be mistaken for large mushrooms.

Nematode Worms

Ink drawing of a nematode worm on paper, by JV Roberts

Pen drawing of a nematode worm by JV Roberts.

One in every 8 creatures is a nematode worm.

Several years ago I undertook a painting commission for a Scientist at Cancer Research UK. I remember he took me on a tour of his laboratory and on casually looking down a microscope I discovered these, nematode worms. They looked incredible! I could see their insides and watch their digestive systems in action.

Although the Scientist’s information on his research into human blood cells was both fascinating and baffling, it is the visual memory of the beautiful nematode worms that sticks with me the most, and the knowledge that they’re everywhere and I never even knew they existed.

A handful of soil will contain thousands of microscopic worms. Nematodes are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth. In size they can range from 0.3mm to over 8 metres (found in the guts of whales).Both parasitic and free living types exist and they live in almost every environment, from fresh water to oceans, mud, desert, the bottom of gold mines, it is rumoured that there is even a type of nematode that have developed to live in beer matts.

“In short, if all the matter in the universe except the nematodes were swept away, our world would still be dimly recognizable, and if, as disembodied spirits, we could then investigate it, we should find its mountains, hills, vales, rivers, lakes, and oceans represented by a film of nematodes. The location of towns would be decipherable, since for every massing of human beings there would be a corresponding massing of certain nematodes. Trees would still stand in ghostly rows representing our streets and highways. The location of the various plants and animals would still be decipherable, and, had we sufficient knowledge, in many cases even their species could be determined by an examination of their erstwhile nematode parasites.”

Nathan Cobb, Author of  Nematodes and there Relationships 1914

The Cyclops


Example of a Cyclops

A cyclops is a primordial giant with a single eye in the centre of his forehead. They are strong, stubborn and emotional. They are also very good blacksmiths and the noises proceeding from the heart of volcanoes can be attributed to their operations. Cyclopes are present in Greek and Roman mythology . On escaping Troy after the Trojan War, Aeneas landed on the Island of the cyclops.

Other creatures similar to the Cyclops include:

The  Arimaspoi, a legendary people who lived in the foothills of the mountains north of the Black Sea. They liked trying to steal gold from griffins so were constantly at war with them.

The Hitotsume-kozo of Japanese folklore are the size of ten-year old children, resemble Buddhist monks and have a “single, giant eye peering from the center of the face, along with a long tongue”

And apparently Odin, king of the Norse Gods, gave up one eye to gain wisdom and power.Cyclops ID Kit - mask, filing cabinet, drawings, bones, an eye.