By the 1580s, John Dee had amassed a library containing hundreds of volumes. His collection covered his principal interest: everything. He was well-read, informed and listened to. We may think of him today as a dark figure furtively practising the occult from his home in Mortlake but it wasn’t that simple. Yes, he did that but, yes, he also did much else besides. Either way, whilst travelling in Europe his brother-in-law, to whom he had entrusted his collection, allowed it to be ransacked and broken up. Dee never came close to bringing his library back together again. Now, the Royal College of Physicians is displaying some of the hundred or so volumes that came into their possession in the seventeenth century that were part of Dee’s collection.
It’s a simple conceit but a rather brilliant exhibition. The books are displayed so that we can see Dee’s own notes in the margin. Like any good student sometimes he merely underlines a passage of interest, at other points he scribbles at length. What they show is a man of relentless, restless intellect and curiosity who saw no divide between the spirit and rational worlds because nobody had yet come along to prove which was truly the best way to understand the world. He was a mathematician, astronomer, spy (one suggestion being that his attempts to contact ghosts as described in his diary are an elaborate code for his secret service) and many other things too. What he wasn’t, ever, was a Doctor or Physician in any real sense. But we now know him as Doctor Dee in part because of how his legacy was set up by people who only focused on the fantastical elements of his life. As this sensitive and compelling exhibition shows we have done an supremely interesting, if not always accurate, man a major disservice.
John Dee’s house in Mortlake is long gone although there is a block of flats in SW14 called John Dee House. The library went before the house. And the reputation of the man has drifted more and more towards legendary. There are many facts we can’t know and a lot we can only infer but what this exhibition does so well is reveal who John Dee was and what he did, whilst leaving space for the enigma and myth to thrive.