Edinburgh’s mysterious book sculptures to go on display

Ten book sculptures left anonymously in famous literary locations throughout Edinburgh last year are to be showcased together for the first time in an exhibition which will go on tour around Scotland.

Between March and November 2011, a mysterious artist delighted Edinburgh’s literary scene by leaving a series of intricate book sculptures on the doorsteps of various local institutes and art groups that support literature. Left in quiet areas, patiently awaiting the attention of unsuspecting staff, the sculptures each bore a unique message that included the line, “in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…”

March 2011

The story began in March 2011 when staff at the Scottish Poetry Library discovered a seemingly abandoned sculpture which had been crafted by someone taking a knife to a paper book. From the book, the artist crafted a delicate, beautiful paper tree, now known as the ‘Poetree’, beside which lay an equally delicate paper egg. The egg contained bits of paper scribbled with various words, which were found to be Edwin Morgan’s words to ‘A Trace of Wings’. No hint where it came from or who had left it, the only clue was the gift tag which read:

“ It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree…

…We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books…a book is so much more than pages full of words…

This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas… a gesture (poetic maybe?)"

June 2011

Shortly after, the buzz of the initial find subsided, the crowds who gathered to catch a glimpse of it went home, and the media found something else to talk about... until late June, that is, when a second sculpture was stumbled upon in the National Library of Scotland. This time, the artist had taken Ian Rankin’s ‘Exit Music’ and transmogrified it into an old-fashioned gramophone player, with a coffin to boot.

With tentative fingers pointed towards Rankin himself, the only other clue was the tag which read:

“For @natlibscot – A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…(& against their exit)”

All though this was evidently not a one-off act of generosity, no one suspected that it would be a serial one, and that a third sculpture would appear just days later.

Following the coffin and gramophone, the third literary sculpture showed up in a place no one would expect, at local art house cinema, the Filmhouse, thus proving that in Edinburgh, a UNESCO City of Literature, literature is everywhere and anywhere you want to find it.

Given that the Filmhouse takes pride in highlighting the magical connection between scripts, literature, authors and film, and has always supported the city’s reading campaigns, this wasn’t such a random choice for the third instalment after all.

The third gift was perhaps the most breath-taking yet: a paper cinema complete with an audience reclining leather book-spine seats, captivated by a Wild West scene which is, quite literally, unfolding before them.

On closer inspection, a mini Ian Rankin was seated amongst the audience, clutching a bottle of Deuchars - his favourite beer – thus strengthening the Ian Rankin connection. However, this suspicion was quickly put paid to as Rankin replied to questioning that he was “simply as baffled as everyone else."

July 2011

A few weeks later as Edinburgh’s literary scene was abuzz again, on a quiet windowsill in the Scottish Storytelling Centre a dragon was found. Nestled in a delicate green paper egg which rested on a bed of paper grass, the dragon found its home in a quiet part of the Storytelling Centre which doesn’t see much footfall. So much so in fact that the staff had no idea how long it had been sitting there, or where it really sits within the gift chain.

Upon reading the tag you realise that, sometimes, the things that need to be said, get said:

“For @scotstorycenter

A gift in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…

Once upon a time there was a book and in the book was a nest

And in the nest was an egg and in the egg was a dragon

And in the dragon was a story…”

The conspiracy theorists were quick to suggest that the dragon’s nest was created from Ian Rankin’s novel, ‘Knots and Crosses’.

August 2011

As festival season in Edinburgh took firm hold of August, as thousands upon thousands of visitors flocked to Edinburgh’s streets, cafes, theatres, parks, museums and galleries to soak up the last morsel of culture that the city has to offer during the summer, two more sculptures were gifted. On Edinburgh International Book Festival terrain, no less.

The first was addressed to Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust staff, Ali Bowden and Anna Burkey, who were utterly mystified to discover that it was made from a personal favourite of them both – James Hogg’s ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner’.

The tag beautifully read:

“To @EdinCityofLit – a gift LOST (albeit in a good book)

This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas

'No infant has the power of deciding by what circumstances (they) shall be surrounded'

- Robert Owen”

The second sculpture found at EIBF – a large teacup, saucer and spoon, on a stand - was found in the bookshop. The tag read:

To @EdbookFest – a gift

This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas… & festivals xx”

Much to Ian Rankin’s relief, these two gifts seemed without any links to his writings, leaving the sculptor shrouded in mystery. Which is exactly what the recipients prefer. Not knowing is part of the beauty.

The mystery gifter certainly was busy in August as, astonishingly, a third carving popped up in the Central Lending Library.

This time, a large magnifying glass sat suspended above a book which captured the line from Edwin Morgan’s ‘Seven Decades’ :”When I go in I want it bright, I want to catch whatever there is in full sight.”

The accompanying tag showed the sculptor’s sense of humour as he/she appears to reference funding cuts faced by libraries with the poignant line:

"To @Edinburgh_cc – a gift. This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas…

Libraries are expensive”

November 2011

August went and Edinburgh’s customary winds and rain came, dragging along Autumn in their wake. The days got shorter, the nights longer, and the suspense of finding an eighth paper carving subsided under the weight of winter workloads and Christmas chores.

However, a gloomy Wednesday in November proved that lighting does indeed strike twice as a second sculpture was uncovered in the Scottish Poetry Library, with the telling note: “Often a good story ends where it begins”.

This astonishingly crafted work-of-art – a cap made of feathers and gloves styled on bee’s fur, all made of paper – takes its cue from one of Norman MacCaig’s utterly romantic poems, ‘Gifts’: “Gloves of bee’s fur, cap of the wren’s wings”.

Also written on the note was “10/10”, an indication that this master’s work was done: the story had been told.

The extended note read further:

"Often a good story ends where it begins. This would mean a return to the Poetry Library. The very place where she had left the first of the ten.

Back to those who had loved that little tree, and so encouraged her to try again... and again.

Some had wondered who it was, leaving these small strange objects. Some even thought it was a "he"!... As if!

Others looked among Book Artists, rather good ones actually...

But they would never find her there. For though she does make things, this was the first time she had dissected books and had used them simply because they seemed fitting...

Most however chose not to know... which was the point really.

The gift, the place to sit, to look, to wonder, to dream... of the impossible maybe...

A tiny gesture in support of the special places...

So, here, she will end this story, in a special place... A Poetry Library... where they are well used to ‘anon.’

But before exiting... a few mentions. There could be more, because we have all colluded to make this work... Just a few though.

- the twitter community who in some strange way gave rise to the idea in the first place

- @chrisdonia who gave the story a place, a shape and some great pictures

- and not least @Beathhigh whose books and reputation have been shame-lessly utilised in the making of a mystery...

... But hold on. Someone’s left behind a pair of gloves and a cap... ?”

Needless to say, the staff were thrilled that the Scottish Poetry Library set the scene for the story’s conclusion, but hang on…wasn’t this only sculpture number eight?!

The crafty culprit clearly intended for the Cap and Gloves to be the last instalment of her project, but only eight had been discovered, meaning two more sculptures remained hidden in Edinburgh’s iconic cultural spaces.

On an already momentous day in late November, celebrating National Museums Scotland’s 1,000,000th visitor, another very special visitor was discovered: a blood-speckled Tyrannosaurus Rex bursting from the tattered pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’; the very book which formed the crux of the 2009 ‘One Book – One Edinburgh’ UNESCO City of Literature reading campaign.

The tag, with #9/10, read:

“For @natMuseumsScot. A gift.

Your friends at @edbookfest suggested you might like this…

In support of libraries, books, words and those places that house our treasures.”

No one had to wait long for #8/10 as on the same day, at the top of the Royal Mile, nestled down Lady Stair’s Close, the final piece of the puzzle was found atop the donations box in the Robert Louis Stevenson room of the Writer’s Museum. Here sat a mind-blowingly intricate and atmospheric street scene, all moon, wispy clouds, birds and people and mystery; all whole diorama contained between the pages of Ian Rankin’s ‘Hide and Seek’:

“For @curatorEMG. A Gift.

'The stories are in the stones', Ian Rankin

In support of Libraries, Books, Words, Ideas…and Writers”

Ten sculptures out of ten. The circle had been squared, rendering followers of this story of mystery, suspense, art and literature both jubilant and morose in equal measure; there were to be no more chapters in this tale.

However, the mysterious gifter had one final surprise up her sleeve: an epilogue; #11/10. And the recipient was perhaps one of the most poignant literary institutions in all of Edinburgh – Ian Rankin.

August 2012

To this day, the sculptor remains a mystery. We know that she is a she, and despite a social media frenzy which saw this story unfold on over 100 blogs and news sites, capturing the imagination of millions around the world, her identity has never been revealed.

Now, for the first time ever, the sculptures are to embark on a nationwide tour of libraries (and Wigtown Book Festival) from September – December 2012 in an exhibition in celebration of the written word.

Scottish Poetry Library Director Robyn Marsack says, “These book sculptures have moved us not only because of their exquisite and intelligent craft, their tribute to what all of the recipient organisations try to nurture and share, but also because they are the purest of gifts, unrequested and anonymous. They remind us that we are a community that can dream, and nudge the impossible into the actual: a cap of feathers, a glove of bee’s fur.”

The tour will coincide with the publication of a beautiful gift book about the sculptures, to be launched when the works’ return to Edinburgh in November.

Dates of the GiftED tour, which is supported by Creative Scotland, are:

Aberdeen Central Library: Friday 17 Aug – Thurs 6 Sept

Dundee Central Library: Fri 7 Sept – Thurs 25 Sept

Wigtown Book Festival: Fri 28 Sept – Sun 7 Oct

Mitchell Library, Glasgow: Tues 9 Oct – Sat 27 Oct

Dunfermline Carnegie Library: Tues 30 Oct – Sun 18 Nov

Scottish Poetry Library: Sat 24 Nov – Sat 8 Dec

Last updated 13 Feb 2013