Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 to 1965 @ the Barbican

Layout

The Barbican gallery is a big exhibition space, spread over two floors. On the ground floor, as you come in, there’s the ticket desk and shop, then you walk through a doorway on your right into the ground floor display space. This is divided into three successively larger ‘rooms’, the third and final one being a fairly big atrium. You then emerge from these into a corridor which runs back alongside the atrium spaces back to the shop, and off which are three alcove rooms or ‘bays’.

Back by the shop there are stairs up to the first floor gallery which runs round the walls and allows you to look down onto the atrium space you’ve just left, so you can see paintings and sculptures from above. You can walk right round this gallery but there are only alcoves or bays on along two sides of it, four bays on one side and four on the other. 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 = 14 distinct display spaces.

14 rooms, 14 themes

So when the curators set out to design this exhibition of post-war British art they had 14 spaces to play with and have come up with 14 topics or subject areas, accordingly. Starting in room 1, the visitor walks through 14 themed aspects of post-war British art, which are also arranged in a loosely chronological order, starting just after the end of the Second World War and ending in 1965.

‘Cyborg collages’: First Contact by John McHale (1958) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © Estate of John McHale

The new

The curators have made one key decision which defines the entire show: believing that post-war artists had to cope with the aftermath of ‘a cataclysmic war that called into question religion, ideology and humanity itself’, they have consciously chosen to focus on THE NEW ARTISTS of the period. They have ignored artists who’d come to prominence between the wars (so no Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, for example; no Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, no Stanley Spencer, Surrealists or Bloomsburyites).

Instead the curators have tried to catch the mood conveyed by The New Generation of young artists who emerged immediately after the war and set a new tone. The result is that, although the exhibition contains the huge number of 200 works of painting, sculpture and photography, by an overwhelming number of artists (48) it has a surprising unity of feel.

Leaving aside the (excellent) photographers, the paintings in particular demonstrate what you could call a kind of damaged abstraction. There’s a blurred, grey and brown, muddy quality to much of the work. There are lots of earth tones, earth grey, earth cream, earth browns.

West Indian waitresses by Eva Frankfurther (1955) Ben Uri collection, presented by the artist’s sister Beate Planskoy © the Estate of Eve Frankfurther

The war hadn’t pulverised a specific landscape, as in the images of the Western Front made famous during and after the First World War. It had ranged far more widely than that. Crucially, it had permanently damaged mankind’s view of itself.

It was hard to be optimistic about people or ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ after news of the concentration camps broke in May 1945, and then the atom bombs were dropped in August 1945. And then the H bombs and the start of the incredibly fearful and menacing Cold War. Many artists struggled to believe in anything positive and channelled their energies into devising novel ways to express their horror and despair.

With so many works by so many artists, there are some exceptions, but overall I’d say this is quite a grim, depressing exhibition, with much to be justifiably depressed about. If you put the (five) photographers to one side, then there’s hardly any figurative work, and when there is (Auerbach, Freud, Bacon, Bratby, Cooke, Souza) it is heavily stylised or deliberately distorted. There are certainly no landscapes. It is an accumulation of damaged psyches.

From murk to clarity

It occurred to me that you could arrange almost all the works along a spectrum from Murk to Clarity. Then you further could sub-divide these categories. What I mean is that the murky end of the spectrum could be divided into images which look like:

  • bodies melted in a nuclear blast (Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter King)
  • bodies eviscerated in some grotesque medical calamity (Magda Cordell)
  • people drowning in Holocaust concentration camp mud (Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff)
  • bodies blurring into hunks of meat (Francis Bacon)
  • bodies reimagined as abstract shapes, blots, drabs and dribbles of paint (Gillian Ayres)
  • bodies combined with inorganic materials such as metal to become ominous cyborgs (Lynn Chadwick’s semi-abstract sculpture of a demonic bird, John McHale’s robotic family, Elisabeth Frink’s menacingly humanoid Harbinger Birds and the St Sebastian sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi)

The murkiest of the murk

I’ve always heartily disliked the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Both applied unbelievable amounts of paint to their canvasses to create nightmare brown meringues of mud. They themselves in interviews claimed they were seeking to get at the essence of the subject or to capture the fleeting nature of reality or some such. They obsessively painted London scenes such as two big muddy paintings here, of the Shell building on the South Bank and Willesden railway junction.

But for me the key fact is that both were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and, to me, all their paintings powerfully, oppressively convey the feel of the grim Polish winter mud in which so many of their fellow Jews were worked to death, starved to death and exterminated.

‘Drowning in the mud of the Holocaust’: Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach (1964) Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts © The Artist

Clarity

At the other end of the spectrum is what I’ve called Clarity, which can be sub-divided into maybe three rooms or artists:

  • artists in the Concrete room
  • Lucian Freud
  • Surface / Vessel room

In the room called Concrete are a set of surprisingly calm, clean, crisp, white abstract images. Victor Pasmore was a celebrate figurative artist when, in the late 1940s, he underwent a conversion to abstraction. By 1951 Pasmore had established a circle of younger artists who were equally committed to the cause of geometric abstraction, which they referred to variously as ‘Concrete’, ‘Constructionist’ or ‘Constructivist’ art, artists including Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Robert Adams and Denis Williams.

Concrete is right next to the death camp vibe of the Auerbach room, Scars, and I really needed it. The white geometric shapes projecting from the canvas as Modernist friezes reminded me of Ben Nicholson (famous between the wars and so banned from this show).

Lucian Freud may seem an odd artist to group under the heading of clarity, but the exhibition features three of his earliest works which do, in fact feature this quality. Edgy, though. Distorted. The curators put it well when they say that ‘Freud’s forensic attention to small details suggests an uneasy vigilance, revealing anxieties just below the surface.’

‘Neurotic clarity’: Girl with Roses by Lucian Freud (1948) Courtesy of the British Council Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman Images, photograph

The third ‘calm’ room is titled Surface/Vessel. It features the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. What they have in common is the withdrawal of all bright colours and a return to the colour of canvas and clay, textured surfaces and irregular forms. I might have liked them because 15 years later they set the tone for the kind of abstract prints you could buy at Habitat and Ikea and my parents decorated my childhood home with reproductions of these kind of gentle, cream and earth brown soothing shapes.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing two works by William Scott: Message Obscure I (1965) and Morning in Mykonos (1961)

Room guide

The themed rooms are:

1. Body and cosmos

The first three rooms are the three progressively bigger ones on the ground floor. Each is dominated by a big signature work. This first room is dominated by Full Stop by John Latham. This seems pretty meh in reproduction which doesn’t convey its size. It’s huge, monumental, 3.5 metres by 2.5 metres, a Mark Rothko of a painting, and a hypnotic image. Is it a solar eclipse, a black hole, an enormously magnified piece of typography. Something has ended – but what?

‘The death of colour’: Full Stop by John Latham (1961) Tate © the Estate of John Latham

Much smaller is the set of three prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, born in 1924 the son of Italian immigrants, so an impressionable teenager during the war. It’s impossible to make the prints out as heads because the images look eroded and decomposed as if by acid or, as wall label suggests, evaporated in the atomic blast so many around the world feared was coming.

2. Post atomic garden

The second room is bigger, contains more but is dominated by the mutant bird sculpture by Lynn Chadwick named The Fisheater (1951). It was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s set on a slender tripod and aerial assembly, a slender outline of a bird made from thin metal rods and sheets of metal, looking a bit like the skeleton of Concorde, very slightly swaying in the ambient air, beakily looking down at us soft and vulnerable humans.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing The Fisheater by Lynn Chadwick (1951)

Fisheater epitomises the combination of light, modern industrial elements with unnerving menace which is one of the threads which runs through the show, as in the Paolozzi robots and the robot-humanoid nuclear family grimly depicted in John McHale’s First Contact (above).

3. Strange universe

The third ground floor space is the biggest, lined with huge paintings by a variety of artists, but it is dominated by a signature work, three metal sculptures, about man-size mutant cyborgs made out of complex metal and engineering detritus, welded together and melting at the edges as if they’re robots which have been brought to a halt and slightly melted in the ultimate nuclear apocalypse. They’re by Eduardo Poalozzi who, I think, has more pieces than anyone else in the exhibition and emerges as its presiding spirit.

‘Humanoid figures assembled from electrical scraps and castoffs’: Installation view of Postwar Modern showing Saint Sebastian by Eduardo Paolozzi (1957)

This room also features some enormous paintings by Magda Cordell which are splashed with red and orange and look like the freshly flayed and eviscerated carcass of a humanoid life form.

Figure 59 by Magda Cordell (1958)

4. Jean and John

The first of the bays off to the side of the ground floor corridor contains 8 or so paintings by the husband and wife artists Jean Cooke and John Bratby. Bratby’s stylised but basically figurative still lifes of their home, with boxes of cereals on the kitchen table, were nicknamed ‘Kitchen Sink’ art, presumably before kitchen sink drama came along. Although figurative and colourful, these paintings somehow bespeak the horrible, pokey domesticity of English life and it came as no surprise to learn that Bratby was jealous of his wife’s talent, destroyed much of her work and beat and abused her. See what I mean by grim?

5. Intimacy and aura

This is the room with the neurotic early paintings by Lucian Freud which I mentioned above.

But it also features the first of the photographers, Bill Brandt. Photography, with its figurative realism, comes as a big relief after four rooms loaded with paintings of bleakness, despair, mutant robots and huge abattoir paintings. But it is even more of a relief to discover that Brandt is represented here by a series of photos of female nudes. It’s not that they’re nude so much as that they’re studies of people who are young, fit and healthy. It is a sudden oasis in a desert of radioactive despair.

Apparently Brandt had been renowned in the 1930s for his photojournalism (thus breaking the curators’ self-imposed rule that no-one from between the wars has a place) but 1945 saw a radical shift in his practice as he began experimenting with nude studies indoors. Not only indoors, but in spare, spartan uncarpeted rooms. So, although fully realistic, these studies also have a strange, spooky, spectral mood. Arguably these photos, although entirely naturalistic, manage to share the same sense of nervy ominous as so many of the paintings and sculptures.

The Policeman’s Daughter, Hampstead, London 1945 by Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

6. Lush life

This room is a surprise. One entire wall is a hugely blown up photo of the interior of a new model home designed by the visionary architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s a photo of their stand at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It was titled ‘House of the Future’ and the furniture was created using plaster, plywood and paint masquerading as the moulded plastic they’d like to have used but couldn’t afford, the kind of new super-slimmed-down ideals for living designs which were being pioneered and mass produced in America and which featured in the Barbican exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing the wall-sized photo of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1956 ‘House of the Future’, with just one yellow ‘egg chair’, made from moulded reinforced polyester, on the low dais.

The American theme is echoed in a series of humorous collages created by Eduardo Paolozzi (is he the most represented artist in the show?). It’s a series of A4 sized collages he created by cutting up images from glossy American consumer magazines, titling the series Bunk. Of course they’re meant to be ironic and subversive and whatnot, but what really comes over is the power and optimism of the original images. Particularly when set against the post-atomic, post-Holocaust nihilism of so much of the rest of the show.

Bunk! Evadne in Green Dimension by Eduardo Paolozzi (1952) Victoria and Albert Museum, © The Paolozzi Foundation

7. Scars

As described above, the Auerbach and Kossoff, drowning in mud, Holocaust despair room.

The room also has a little TV on which is playing a film of a 1961 event carried out by another Jew (the curators emphasis the common ethnicity of these three artists), Gustav Metzger. Metzger pioneered an art of ‘auto-destruction’ in the late 1950s, staging works that enacted their own disintegration, mirroring the violence he felt in a world hell bent on its own destruction. In the grainy old film Metzger is wearing a gas mask, with St Paul’s in the background, while he sprays acid onto canvas which promptly shrivels and dissolves. ‘Happenings’ had been happening in America among beatnik audiences art colleges throughout the 1950s. This appears to be Metzger’s variation on the idea which – as so often in this exhibition – accentuates the negative.

8. Concrete

As described above, a roomful of works by Victor Pasmore and his fellow ‘Concrete’ artists. I especially enjoyed the small-scale, abstract sculptures by Robert Adams. Calm and healing.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing works by Robert Adams, being: Divided form (1951), Rectangular bronze form number 7 (1955) and Balanced bronze forms (1955).

9. Choreography of the street

More photography, thank God. The black and white snaps of Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne who specialised in capturing children at play in the gritty, ruin-infested post war streets. Mayne’s most famous body of work was created between 1956 and 1961, capturing the working-class community of Southam Street in North Kensington, west London. One of his photos was used for the cover Colin MacInnes’s novel, Absolute Beginners (1959), a copy of which is here in a glass case.

Street scene 1957 by Roger Mayne © Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library

Reminds me a bit of the photo of young toughs in Finsbury Park, 1958, which marked the start of Don McCullin’s career.

The lovely and hugely evocative photos of kids playing in bomb sites are interspersed with a series of collages by Robyn Denny and Eduardo Paolozzi (surely Paolozzi is the most featured artist in the show?). And alongside these, collages and in the radical print designs created by Henderson and Paolozzi for their company Hammer Prints Ltd (1954 to 1962).

10. Two women

The two women in question are German refugee painter Eva Frankfurther and home-grown Mancunian photographer, Shirley Baker. Baker documented the changing face of Manchester in the 1950s and early 60s as the old slums were demolished and cleared for high rises and social housing. She walked the streets with a camera always in her bag, taking wonderfully evocative black and white photos of wretched slums and the old-style, working class inhabitants. In 1965 she started experimenting with colour photography and some of her colour photos are feature here.

I was lucky enough to go to the Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers Gallery a few years ago – none of the colour photos here are as good as her black and white ones. In a funny kind of way, colour shots of this kind of scene look oddly older, more technologically dated, than the pure black and white ones.

Anyway, the point is… look at the rubble! And in 1965! Twenty years after the war, large parts of England were still struggling to drag themselves into the modern age.

Hulme 1965 by Shirley Baker © Nan Levy for the Estate of Shirley Baker

11. Cruise

The wall label in this room informs us that:

Cruising, or looking for a casual sexual encounter in a public place, was central to the expression and exploration of male same-sex love and desire in the postwar years…

And so it is that one wall features a couple of early works by David Hockney, large browny-black background with all kinds of graffiti, words, lines and squiggles drawn across them:

The title My Brother is Only Seventeen (1962) was derived from graffiti that Hockney read on the toilet walls of Earl’s Court station, a popular cruising spot.

My Brother is only Seventeen by David Hockney (1962) © Royal College of Art

But the real revelation of this room is arguably the best thing in the exhibition. In 1954 Francis Bacon painted a series of seven huge paintings depicting a man in a dark suit sitting at the bar of a hotel, although the background has been stylised to become the slender bars of some kind of cage set against a very dark background. Three of the series are hung here, side by side.

Man in Blue I by Francis Bacon (1954) Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © The Estate of Francis Bacon

A photo like this doesn’t do the paintings any kind of justice. They are not only enormous but also, despite their stylised subject matter, have the depth and resonance of Old Master paintings. It took me a while to realise that, unlike all the other rooms in the show, the walls of this room are painted black, as if we are in a very old museum or gallery, and these three Man in Blue paintgins have the power and depth of Old Masters.

Black upon black, depths of blackness, inky impenetrability and ominousness. Possibly the best part of the entire exhibition was standing in front of these three enormous variations on a dark, baleful image and letting it soak right in to your soul.

12. Surface/vessel

As described above, a calming, peaceful room of the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.

13. Liberated form and space

Big colourful paintings by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Heron and Frank Bowling. From the reproductions I thought I’d like the Ayres, but in the flesh I found them a too big and I didn’t warm to her use of ‘dribbles, splashes and stains’ of paint, as the curators themselves describe her work.

‘A world of abstract shapes and dripping paint’: Break-off by Gillian Ayres (1961) Tate © the Estate of Gillian Ayres, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, London

By the same token, I didn’t warm to the press release photos of paintings by Patrick Heron, but in the flesh found them to be some of the very few genuinely colourful, vibrant and life affirming paintings in the entire exhibition. The wall label explains that, like Pasmore and other post-war artists, when he moved from figurative to abstract painting Heron experienced a great sense of liberation.

June Horizon by Patrick Heron (1957) Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection (The Hepworth Wakefield) © The Estate of Patrick Heron

14. Horizon

The exhibition ends on an oddity.

We met Gustav Metzger in the Scars room, represented by a film of one of his auto-destructive events. Here, at the end of the exhibition is a blacked out room with half a dozen film projectors projecting onto two walls a series of abstract swirling shapes, which were to become super familiar in the Psychedelic movement and subsequently in the lava lamps of millions of suburban bedrooms. Metzger had moved away from the ‘auto-destructive art’ of the 1950s and towards what he now titled ‘auto-creation’, in which the work of art takes on its own life. This immersive room, complete with bean bags (but no spliffs) is titled Liquid Crystal Environment and was created in 1965 using heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides in a projector.

It’s an odd piece to end on because it seems so out of synch with the rest of the show. It feels like a little bit of the Psychedelic Sixties which has got lost in an exhibition which is overwhelmingly about the grim psychic damage, the anxieties and angst of the early Cold War, with the long memory of the Holocaust festering under the shadow of nuclear apocalypse.

Maybe it’s meant to feel cheerful but it doesn’t, which might explain why the two or three times I walked past I didn’t see anybody on the numerous beanbags.

Immigrants

An impressive number of the artists were refugees from Nazi Europe (Auerbach. Kossoff, Metzger, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Eva Frankfurther, Magda Cordell). But the curators go out of their way to include artists from colonial backgrounds, non-white immigrants from what was still the British Empire. These include:

  • Francis Newton Souza (India), with his intimidating, highly stylised black Christs (1958) in the first room
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (Pakistan) with a series of Islam-inspired abstracts in the same room as Heron and Ayres
  • Kim Lim (Singapore Chinese) with her delicate abstract sculptures

The Barbican’s birthday show

The curators point out that the exhibition has been timed to coincide with the fortieth birthday of the Barbican’s opening, for it was in the grim post-war period that the Barbican Estate was first conceived, to occupy what was at the time an enormous bombsite in the heart of London.

The Barbican itself, a grim, forbidding, concrete bunker, on an oppressive grey, rainy day, was the perfect setting for an exhibition about the damaged lives, damaged psyches and damaged country which – despite occasional bursts of colour – is what comes over so powerfully in this show.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

The world of Stonehenge catalogue by Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin (2022)

All the catalogues to British Museum exhibitions come in the same format and style. They are big, heavy and black. The front cover image emerges out of a dead black, matt black background as if from an unfathomable past – the cover of the Nero exhibition had this style, and the Peru exhibition, and in the case of this catalogue it is a collage of a night-time photo of Stonehenge itself dominated by the most striking exhibit in the show, the Nebra sky disk (made in Germany 3,600 years ago).

Front cover of The world of Stonehenge catalogue.

The hardback versions are very heavy and have the dimensions of coffee table books, 13.8 inches tall by 11.5 inches wide. But the classic coffee table book consists of mostly full-page photos or illustrations with captions and minimal text. Whereas, although it has photos on almost every page, beautiful photos of Stonehenge and scores of other prehistoric sites, and hundreds of images of finds and relics, they are what you might call moderate size, and embedded in a great deal of information-rich prose.

Main ideas

I dare say the authors (Duncan Garrow and Neil Wilkin) had numerous ideas they wanted to get across, but three really big ones came over for me:

1. What is a henge?

Ironically Stonehenge is not a henge. A ‘henge’ is a type of Neolithic earthwork which features a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank (the term was coined by British Museum curator Thomas Kendrick in the 1930s). So the ‘henge’ in Stonehenge doesn’t refer to the stone circles at all; it refers to the circular ditch and bank which surrounds the stone circle. There are some 120 henges, or prehistoric circular ditches with a bank, scattered across the British Isles, but there’s a much larger number of stone circles, at over a thousand. Whole passages of the catalogue are devoted to discussing in detail many of these other stone circles, particularly in Ireland and in the Scottish islands of the Orkneys and Hebrides, all accompanied by beautiful photos (pages 95 to 99).

Anyway, even the ditch part of Stonehenge isn’t a ‘true’ henge because its ditch runs outside its bank (Stonehenge catalogue, page 19).

Henges often have entrances i.e. an earth bridge across the ditch, sometimes marked just inside by a pair of flanking wood poles or standing stones – but far from being consistently aligned with astrological features i.e. the sun or moon, there is a wide variety of placement and no consistency or pattern. Henges which are large enough to contain a sizeable central flattened area where structures were subsequently erected are called ‘henge enclosures’.

Because another key thing about henges is that the wooden or stone circles built inside them were often built a lot later so the two might not have had the same purpose or meaning. Maybe stone circles were built within henges because they had become holy sites, but the cultures which built them were separated by up to 1,000 years in time.

2. Packed landscape

Nowadays we see Stonehenge as a strange and mysterious edifice, standing unique and solitary on the windswept Salisbury Plain. But nothing could be further from the archaeological truth. If there’s one thing to take away from the exhibition and the catalogue it is that, in its day, Stonehenge was embedded in a crazily busy, heavily developed landscape.

The Avenue We now know there was a wide ‘avenue’ carved into the chalk which led off northeast from the henge, before bending east, then south to join the River Avon.

Blick Mead This is a chalkland spring about a mile east of Stonehenge and excavation at the site indicates that there was continuous human habitation here from 10,000 to 6,000 years ago, an immense period of time, and covering the early stages of the construction of Stonehenge (p.36).

Bluestonehenge Very recent excavations have discovered that at the landing place from the river there was a flattened area and another circle, 60 feet wide. Excavations have revealed 27 holes which held stones. No stones remain but flakes of stone suggest they were ‘bluestones’ like the ones used at Stonehenge, so archaeologists speculate that some time after it was erected, the circle was taken down and the stones moved to form the middle circle at Stonehenge (p.89).

Bush Barrow less than a mile south-west of Stonehenge is a burial site dating to around 3,900 to 3,700 years ago. The burial chamber contained one individual accompanied by some of the most spectacular grave goods ever found in Britain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Car park postholes Just 250 yards north-west of Stonehenge three massive pits have been discovered which held upright wooden poles. The holes and poles date back ten thousand years and mark the earliest known human building activity in the area (p.29). At this point Britain was still fully connected to the continent by the large area of land, subsequently drowned to form the North Sea, and now referred to as Doggerland (p.33).

Coneybury henge A mile south east of Stonehenge is the remains of Coneybury Henge, an oval ditch around 45 metres by 55 metres in diameter, inside which are some pits and stakeholes and an arc of postholes which may have represented a post circle (p.44).

Durrington Walls Two miles north east of Stonehenge is Durrington Walls, which is now known to have been a substantial Neolithic settlement and site of the second-largest Late Neolithic palisaded enclosure known in the UK. Excavations suggest the settlement may once have included 1,000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, making it the largest settlement in northern Europe, the London of its time (p.86). Durrington was inhabited for about 500 years, from about 4,800 to 4,100 years ago.

Excavations as recent as 2020 revealed a number of pits and holes apparently designed to hold massive timbers, which could be part of a 1.2-mile-wide circuit of 33 foot pits. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument (p.84). Meat was consumed her in huge quantities. Pig was the most popular source of meat (p.87).

Professor Mike Parker Pearson has proposed the theory that the organic wooden nature of buildings and circles at Durrington may have symbolised food and community and Life, by contrast with Stonehenge, a site dominated by cold, lifeless, hard stones and laced with burials, a site devoted to Death and ancestral spirits, not living people (p.88).

Greater Cursus A mile to the north of Stonehenge is the Greater Cursus, an earthwork 1.9 miles long and between 330 and 490 feet wide. It was built before the stone circle, dated to 5,630 and 5,375 years ago, several hundred years before the earliest phase of Stonehenge 5,000 years ago. Cursus is the Latin word for racetrack, as this is what 18th century antiquarian William Stukeley mistakenly speculated it may have been for (p.57). In fact its exact purpose is unknown. Maybe it was a boundary between sacred and profane territory. Maybe it had a ceremonial purpose.

Lesser Cursus Same uncertainty surrounds the Lesser Cursus to the north-west of the Greater Cursus. The Lesser is  a 400 metres long and 60 metres wide earthwork. Its purpose is utterly unknown. It is mind boggling to learn that both long, deep, wide trenches were dug with reindeer antlers fashioned into basic picks, and ox shoulder blades used as shovels.

Barrows At the eastern terminal of the Cursus is a Neolithic long barrow. To the south-west of the Cursus is the Cursus Barrows Group, a round barrow cemetery which extends 1,200 metres west-to-east along a ridge and measures 250 metres wide (p.54).

In total a staggering 670 burial mounds are known in the landscape around Stonehenge, though the real number may be closer to 1,000 (p.197).

Larkhill enclosure Two miles north of Stonehenge a monumental enclosure has been discovered at the village of Larkhill which seems to be aligned to the solstices and was built 3,750 to 3,650 BC i.e. maybe 500 years before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Maybe it acted as a kind of template for the later building? (pages 19 and 56).

Winterbourne Stoke Two miles west of Stonehenge a massive barrow was built in around 5,500 years ago i.e. 500 years before the earliest building at Stonehenge (p.55).

Woodhenge And that’s not all – a short walk from the south of the henge is the structure called Woodhenge, a henge and timber circle dated to between 2,470 and 2,000 BC, about the same time as, or slightly later than, construction of the stone circle at Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating of artefacts shows that the site was still in use around 1800 BC.

The site consists of six concentric oval rings of postholes, 168 holes in total. Most of these held wooden posts but excavations in 2006 indicated that there were at least five standing stones on the site arranged in a ‘cove’. The deepest post holes measured up to 6 feet and are believed to have held posts which reached as high as 25 feet above ground. Those posts would have weighed up to 5 tons, and their arrangement was similar to that of the bluestones at Stonehenge.

Some theorists speculate that woodhenge maybe symbolised the organic transient world of Life, while the huge stone circle a mile away, which was also a burial ground, symbolised the cold eternity of Death (60 cremation burials dating between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago have been found in or just next to the henge, containing up to 120 bodies; p.67).

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Durrington South timber memorial And just 20 metres away from the periphery of Woodhenge is a completely separate edifice, the Durrington South timber memorial (p.100).

Summary

So what emerges is a picture of Stonehenge the opposite of how we see it today. Far from rising in splendid isolation from a flat plain, it would have been surrounded by numerous other circles of stone or wood, plus the long ditches of the cursuses and the dramatic wide Avenue leading down to another circle by the river. Maybe there were more paths or tracks between these various sites. Maybe pilgrims to the sites had to process around them in a ritual order, as Muslim pilgrims do at the sites of Mecca. Certainly the more we discover, the more densely packed the prehistoric terrain becomes and the more puzzlingly dense with long lost meanings and rituals.

Prehistoric sites around Stonehenge Ordnance Survey (source: Wikipedia) compare with the map on page 90 of the catalogue.

Avebury stone circle Not that much further afield, at Avebury just 25 miles north of Stonehenge, is another, huge stone circle with multiple associated henges and circles and causewayed enclosures and barrows.

Silbury Hill Between the two is Silbury Hill, the largest artificial mound in Europe, 30 metres high and 160 metres across, in the construction of which an estimated half a million tons of chalk were moved requiring about 4 million man hours of labour (p.94).

3. Speculation

It’s not surprising but it is noticeable how much of what the exhibition and the catalogue describe is pure speculation. Obviously it’s speculation by highly experienced experts in their field but, nonetheless, it is speculation, informed guesswork. This really struck home in a paragraph of six sentences on page 101, every one of which hinged on the verb ‘may’. ‘May’, along with ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ do a lot of work in this text. Maybe this, perhaps that, possibly the other. This carving could indicate, that dating might suggest…The reader moves from one conditional speculation to another.

On this same page the authors speculate freely that the close proximity of the two massive complexes at Stonehenge and Avebury may have played a part in social rivalry and competition (p.101). Maybe. Maybe not.

The entire chapter 3, about the possible religious beliefs of the henge builders, is a high point of speculation. Just about every relevant object is subjected to flurries of conditionality – these rock carvings may indicate some form of mythological story, these objects might have taken part in religious ceremonies, perhaps these sites had resonant astronomical significance.

  • The sight of flames baking the solar images to the bottoms of these special pots may have added an extra layer of meaning to their production and use. (p.129)
  • Lunulae may have been regarded as too powerful or special to be grave goods associated with any one individual. (p.129)
  • Perhaps the role or identity they conveyed on their wearer was fleeting or part of a rite of passage or ceremony. (p.130)
  • The bronze axe may have been a product of both Ireland and Cornwall. (p.130)
  • It may be impossible to divorce the benefits of trade from beliefs about the cosmos and the role and origin of the sun itself. (p.131)
  • In a ceremony with all kinds of sensory stimuli, from fire, smoke, sounds and spectacle, the movement of the cart may have enacted the passage of the sun through the heavens… (p.133)
  • The bird-sun-boat motif may symbolise a myth or story distinct from but related to the Scandinavian version… (p.135)
  • The chariot might have played a part in ceremonies that did not require a fixed temple… (p.135)
  • Two bronze horses from Scania, Sweden, may have come from a similar model, their glowing amber eyes, again, perhaps representing the sun. (p.137)
  • Sacrificing valuable objects that represented the sun to supernatural forces may be an example of exhortations to the powers of spirits or ancestors, perhaps perceived as the best way to guarantee fertility, regrowth and regeneration. (p.138)
  • [The Amesbury Archer] may have been a specialist metalworker, bringing knowledge of this new, apparently magical, craft… (p.165)

As I read on I became increasingly sceptical about such claims, for the simple reason that the experts  and their theories often radically contradict each other. The authors candidly explain the two or three theories about the meaning and purpose of every site and ditch and stone circle and passage tomb and bronze object and rock carving, and they are often interesting and stimulating speculations.

But the net effect is that a moderately intelligent layman like myself soon comes to realise that there are two utterly distinct levels at play here: on the basic level are the objects themselves, the sites and henges and stones and carvings and axes and metal objects, together with concrete, factual information about the sites where they were discovered – and then, completely separate, is a distinct second layer of speculation, initially tied to these objects but often roaming off into misty worlds of speculation, fantastic descriptions of night-time ceremonies, of the multi-sensual impact of religious rites, for which there is no evidence beyond the authors’ imaginations.

It is also noticeable that many of the conditional speculations are in the direction of current academic and modishly woke concerns: in other words, the academics tend, often without any evidence whatsoever, to rope in ideas about ‘gender’ and ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ as if they were writing a Guardian article or a BBC documentary or a Tate gallery label.

I was particularly struck by the half dozen times they speculate that pots and beakers may have contained ‘intoxicating substances’ to help participate in cult rituals. This sounds cool and modish but there is absolutely no evidence at all of any such substances, after thousands of years there couldn’t be. It’s just a cool Channel 4-type guess or speculation that fits the mood of our drug-soaked times, that gives otherwise dry scholarly articles a rakish, rebel air.

A hundred and fifty years ago the Victorians superimposed their ideas of race and history and religion onto these objects, and now contemporary archaeologists are projecting our values onto them, in turn. The artifacts are like Rorschach tests, complex but unknowable objects onto which scholars project very vividly the concerns and clichés of our own day.

So reading the book tells us about its subject, an encyclopedic overview of the archaeological knowledge of the years 8,000 to 800 BC. But it’s also like looking in a mirror at the values and issues uppermost in the mind of the academic community of archaeologists and ethnographers and ancient historians.

What this aspect of the book displays in spades is the human need for narrative and explanation and causation, all subsets of the fundamental human need for meaning and purpose. A woman friend of mine goes to as many exhibitions as I do, but rarely reads the big wall labels explaining the detailed historical context, or the small labels describing individual exhibits. She just enjoys the objects for what they are, here and now, enjoys them as necklaces, earrings, pendants, figurines, whose presence ennobles and enriches your life, even for a few moments, as you walk among them, with no straining after meaning or context. Just for their beauty alone. I wish I had her courage.

Plain v-perforated jet buttons from Harehope Cairn, Peeblesshire, Early Bronze Age, 2200 to 1750 BC. On display at The world of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum (Photo © National Museums, Scotland)

Prehistoric trivia

Impossible to summarise such an encyclopedic text, but certain facts stood out:

– Stonehenge was built between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago, roughly contemporary with the construction of the great pyramid at Giza, the Sphinx (4,500 years ago) and the royal cemetery at Ur in Iraq.

– The first modern to carry out fieldwork, map and describe Stonehenge was antiquarian and founding trustee of the British Museum William Stukeley, during the 1720s. He was instrumental in popularising the notion that Stonehenge was built by the Druids which is wildly incorrect, out by a period of some 3,000 years (Stonehenge started construction 3,000 BC, Druids active when the Romans landed in 43 AD).

The relevant periods are:

  • the Mesolithic: c. 12,000 to 6,000 years ago
  • the Neolithic: c. 6,000 to 4,500 years ago
  • the Bronze Age: c.4,500 to 2,800 years ago

– Collective monuments to house the dead were built in Britain and Ireland for the first time around 6,000 years ago (p.21).

– The period 6,000 to 5,000 years ago i.e. the millennium before Stonehenge was the era of burial chambers and tombs and chambered graves which occur all across the British Isles which often contain numbers of dead, particularly in the period 5,750 to 5,400 years ago (pages 60 and 62). After 5,400 these developed into ‘passage tombs’ with passageways leading into one or more connected burial chambers all covered by stone lintels themselves covered in earth and grass (p.61).

All of the art and decorative work (on stone) from the early Stonehenge period (6,000 to 4,500 years ago) is abstract and non-figurative: lots of circles, whorls and lozenges (p.119).

– 4,500 years ago a major cultural change. The sarsen stone phase of Stonehenge was completed and stone circle building across Britain came to an end. Maybe due to the immigration from the continent of people who brought metal working, the Beaker People. Instead of communal activity or worship, Stonehenge became the focal point of scores of individual burial mounds. Offerings of weapons and tools start to be made at natural places, for example springs and rivers, miles away from man-made henges and circles, as if religion became more personalised, local and easy. Again and again the curators speak of ‘the waning influence of Stonehenge commencing with the arrival of the metal smelting people 4,500 years ago’.

– The last person to be buried at Stonehenge was interred between 4,400 and 4,200 years ago, an adult male aged 25 to 30 who had been shot by several arrows. It is widespread evidence like this which leads experts to suggest that, with the arrival of the Beaker People, society became more individualistic and violent (p.161).

– The agricultural revolution spread from the Middle East from about 9,000 years ago. By about 7,000 years ago it had reached most of north-west France. But then there was an epic delay, and evidence of the farming revolution in lifestyle (fixed settlements, agricultural implements, seeds, domesticated animal bones) didn’t appear until a millennium later, around 6,000 years ago. Why the huge delay? Nobody knows (p.41).

– Knowledge of domesticating plants and animals wasn’t transported to Britain in the abstract. Neither the plants nor the animals naturally existed in Britain. Wheat and corn, cows and sheep and goats and pigs and chicken had to be physically transported across the Channel in primitive boats (p.43).

– A thousand years after the first stones were erected, and several hundred years after the last reconfiguration of the stones, some of the big sarsen stones were decorated with carvings. A total of 119 carvings have been identified, 115 axes and four daggers (p.195). In the curators’ opinion this shows the Beaker People-era shift from communal edifices to the veneration of the new, metal, portable objects. Presumably it indicates the way axes and daggers had not just practical utility but some kind of numinous power.

– In the late 3,000s the emphasis switched from communal effort to create a vast edifice like Stonehenge towards numerous burials of individuals, indicating a switch towards the prioritisation of families and individuals. No fewer than 670 burial mounds are known in the vicinity of Stonehenge (p.197).

– About 3,500 years ago bronze artifacts become so common across Europe, implying a step change in trade routes and exchange of metal ores and finished products, that some scholars refer to it as the ‘bronzisation’ of Europe, comparable to modern ‘globalisation’ (p.209).

– The focus of society moved away from the heartlands of the Wessex chalkland towards the coasts. Analysis of bronze and gold objects shows that the original ore was imported across the Channel. Bronze Age ships and their cargoes have been discovered. It is at this period that precious objects begin to be deposited in waterways, springs and lakes, presumably to propitiate spirits. The huge communal effort required to build Stonehenge belongs to a long distant past.

– There was an increased shift to living close to water, reflect in and permitted by advances in boat and canoe building. In a landscape with few if any roads, waterways were the easiest way to travel and to tap into what all the evidence suggests were farflung networks of trade and connectivity (p.238).

– The closer we come to historic times, the more violent societies all across Europe became. Metal means weapons and armour. The late second millennium BC refers to 1300 or 1200 BC and the authors repeatedly compare the design and use of decorated axes, helmets, maces and armour with that described by Homer in his epics about Troy, set at a legendary epoch often dated to 1300 to 1200 BC.

– The Bronze Age, which is said to have commenced about 2,500 BC, is said to end about 800 BC with the relatively quick introduction of the much more durable, useful medium of iron, having lasted about 1,700 years.

– Not only iron but glass begins to be found in the record from 800 BC and a new type of complex interwoven zoomorphic designs which we nowadays call ‘Celtic’. It was a big revelation to me to see Celtic patterns, designs and culture as the end point of all the previous changes, as a relatively brief phase barely even a thousand years long before the arrival of the Romans in 43 AD.

– And that the late Iron Age also saw the advent of a completely new kind of edifice, the hill fort, which quickly became very widespread across the British Isles, and characterised the Britain the Romans discovered much more than the – by now – ancient and often ruined stone circles, chambered tombs, causeways and circular ditches which littered the countryside (p.243).

Video

The best video I can find consists of an interview with Mike Parker Pearson, Professor of Archaeology at University College London, who not only explains the sequence of building at Stonehenge but relates it a) in spatial terms, to the construction the huge nearby site at Durrington Walls (Pearson’s speciality) and b) in time, to the big cultural shift which took place with the arrival of the Beaker People about 4,500 years ago, which swept away the communal ethos – and, if the DNA evidence is to be believed – the actual populations responsible for the construction of Stonehenge and the many other henges and circles and chambers and barrows which are the subject of this big, beautifully illustrated and fascinating book.


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The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the  changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’.  This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.

Seahenge

In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

Respect

I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage


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Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

John Hassall @ the Heath Robinson Museum

In the early twentieth century John Hassall was one of Britain’s best known commercial artists. Starting his career in 1895, he quickly developed an impressive reputation as a book illustrator, a humorous cartoonist for postcards and magazines, an art school founder and teacher, a painter in oils, consummate clubman, and a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery decor. But it was through his commercial illustrations, and especially his posters – for travel companies, political causes, theatre and panto, and a host of well-known brands – that he made his name in an age when advertising hoardings were known as ‘the poor man’s art gallery’.

In the course of a hard working career Hassall designed some 600 posters, illustrated some 150 books and much more. By 1905 one magazine could dub him ‘the King of Posters’.

Skegness is SO Bracing – the famous poster featuring the jolly fisherman designed for the East Coast seaside town by artist John Hassall. Hassall was paid £10 (1908)

The small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum up in Pinner is hosting an excellent exhibition showcasing the full range of Hassall’s work, along with loads of photos, caricatures and paintings of the great man at work, and correspondence, brochures and whatnot relating to his many additional activities as art teacher and founder member of the of London Sketch Club and of the Savage Club.

Potted biography

John Hassall was born in Kent in 1868 but, when he left school at 18, art wasn’t his first choice. After twice failing entry to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1888 to begin farming with his brother Owen. The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence describing, and a set of sketches depicting, the tough life of rural Canada, as well as a couple of wonderful illustrations of well wrapped-up children hunting wildlife in the snow (a moose and a walrus).

Boys hunting moose by John Nassall

It was only when one of his illustrations of daily life in Canada was published in the London Graphic magazine that he decided to return to England and try his luck with an artistic career in 1890. On the advice of friends, he went to study on the Continent, first in Antwerp, then in Paris. He met a fellow artist, married and moved back to London in 1894, when a couple of paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

But it was only in 1895 that he was given an introduction to the firm of David Allen and Sons, leading printers of theatre poster. At the interview he was asked to demonstrate his abilities and quickly knocked out a sketch for a poster of the fashionable hit, The French Maid. He was hired on the spot and, over the next four years, went on to produce almost 600 posters.

Poster promoting Pontings department store in Kensington High Street by John Hassall

The range and variety of posters (and postcards and book illustrations) on display in this exhibition allows you to trace Hassall’s development as a commercial artist, and his deployment of different styles for different purposes.

Early influences

The very earliest posters, including the fully worked-up version of The French Maid design, included here, very clearly demonstrate the influence of the French style of posters. In fact the 1890s was by way of being a golden age of poster art, technological advances in printing allowing for an explosion of colours and styles, exploited by artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. This in turn triggered a craze among connoisseurs to collect poster art and Hassall had arrived back in London just as the craze arrived with him, partly triggered by a major exhibition in 1894. Here he is, in the early days, very much channeling the elongated, exotic and semi-abstract feel of Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau designs.

The Daughters of Babylon by John Hassall 1897

But as the exhibition shows, after just a few years Hassall had moved a long way from his Continental origins and developed his own, very distinctive style. The exhibition curator usefully defines this as consisting of:

  • bold outlines
  • flat colours
  • minimal letting
  • large areas of negative space

which Hassall combined to produce ‘an engagingly cheery style.’

I think that phrase about ‘negative space’ refers to the way that the use of shading to indicate perspective and/or light sources is dropped in order to produce flattened and simplified images. Probably the most extreme example of this is this almost surreal poster promoting the joys of Morecambe. Flat colours, bold outlines, minimal lettering, large areas of negative space. Look how far he’d come from his languid and cluttered, fin-de-siecle, Mucha phase!

Poster promoting Morecambe as a holiday destination by John Hassall

Hassall produced posters promoting a number of seaside destinations, of which the one for Skegness (at top of this review) became iconic. In 1936 the town invited him for a VIP day to celebrate its success and awarded him a vellum certificate, displayed in the exhibition! The town now boasts a statue of the jolly fisherman.

The Skegness poster became so iconic that it is occasionally riffed on by later cartoonists: the exhibition features two examples, including a very funny one by Peter Brooks where the figure of the jolly fisherman is replaced by a swivel-eyed Jeremy Corbyn.

Book illustration

In 1899 Hassall took on his first book illustration project. In total he illustrated some 143 titles, not including jacket and spine designs. As you can imagine, many of these were for children’s books, some for older readers, such as the adventure stories of G.A. Henty, but most collections of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Making use of flat colours enclosed by thick black lines, his poster style was very adaptable for children’s books, and he produced many volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy stories, such as Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes (1909).

Cinderella enters the coach by John Hassall

In 1900 Hassall was commissioned by Laurence and Bullen of Covent Garden to design a range of nursery wallpaper friezes and lithographic prints for children. He produced a frieze of seven prints of children with their toys designed to be mass produced, sold and installed as a literal frieze around nursery walls. They were retailed by Libertys and other upmarket stores. You can see a slideshow of these on the Hillhouse antiques website.

The exhibition points out that J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, became an overnight sensation, generating piles of merchandising and spin-offs. As one of the leading illustrators of his day, Hassall contributed to the sensation with a series of six panels illustrating scenes from the play which are, to the modern eye, oddly flat and stylised. They resemble the stark simplifications of his toy friezes and in this particular scene, as Peter enters the children’s bedroom, you can see how it is liberally decorated with examples of Hassall’s own posters and friezes, a pleasing example of self-referentiality. In fact Hassall was deeply involved in the production: he drew the official poster and designed the cover of the programme, which also advertised these large-scale panels for two shillings each (10p in modern money).

Illustrated panel of Peter Pan by John Hassall (1907)

Also magazine covers: by this time his strikingly simple but effective designs made him a popular choice to provide cover illustrations for a wide variety of magazines such as the Scout magazine, and many others, on display here.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a form of theatre for children so his ability with cartoon and caricature was well suited to produce reams of posters for each season’s pantos.

Original antique theatre poster for the Drury Lane production of Babes In The Wood by the playwrights J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins. Poster by John Hassall (1907)

In fact the exhibition includes the complete set of 26 illustrations from a book titled The Pantomime ABC projected as a slideshow up on the gallery wall, with humorous and sometimes genuinely funny poems for each letter by Roland Carse.

The Great War

The First World War was actually the busiest time of Hassall’s career. He continued his commercial work but added a whole new stream of patriotic content, ranging from recruitment posters, to illustrations for patriotic pamphlets and songs, as well as personally touring the front in 1915, and working as a special constable.

The war posters are interesting because they feature iron-jawed, cleancut young men who are quite distinct from his commercial cartoon-style work. They’re the clearest proof that he could adapt his style quite drastically to suit the client and the need.

First World War recruitment poster by John Hassall (1916)

There are quite a few of the smaller cartoons, postcards, sheet music, pin badges and so on in a display case, the highlight of which, for me, is a copy of a satirical work he wrote and produced called Ye Berlyn Tapestrie a parody of the Bayeaux Tapestry featuring numerous examples of the perfidy of the beastly Hun.

Something the exhibition doesn’t include is any of the wonderfully realistic oil paintings depicting machines of war which Hassall made during the conflict. In these he applies all his skills he’s acquired over 20 years in the art of clear, striking composition, but infused with a wonderful ability to depict light and shade and depth. Its presence in stunning works like this (not in the exhibition) highlight how very much he excluded all these elements and abilities in his commercial work.

Short Seaplane by John Hassall (1915) The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

This section of the exhibition also showcases his broadly ‘political’ works, satirical cartoons about contemporary politics. These include a little sequence of cartoons produced in support of the little-known Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an excellent cause which I think some brave and foolhardy souls ought to revive in our day.

Anti-suffrage cartoon by John Hassall (1912)

Pick a favourite

I loved all of it, I loved everything I saw. Hassall was a commercial artist who aimed to please, whose works are designed to make the viewer feel good, to associate a positive feeling with the product being sold, whether play or panto, shop or product, book or story – and it works. This is a hugely enjoyable, interesting and uplifting exhibition. I defy any visitor not to come out with a broad smile on their face.

Pick a favourite? Well in the midst of his immense productivity and hard work, Hassall found time to create uncommissioned art works which he submitted to serious exhibitions and competitions. These were generally storybook in style and took as their subject classic moments from English history, such as the morning of the battle of Agincourt.

I found them very appealing because they remind me, I think, of some of the long distant children’s books about history I read when I was very young. They are packed with crowds, soldiers or raiders, they have a rugged Edwardian masculinity and vividness which I really enjoyed. Here’s a photo I took of a detail of the painting ‘The morning before Agincourt’, which was exhibited in 1900. (Apologies for the terrible quality, the exhibition is held in a darkened room and I have a terrible camera. I include it to demonstrate what I mean by the ‘manliness’ of the figures in his ‘serious’ art works.)

Detail from ‘Morning before Agincourt’ by John Hassall (1903)

In these historical paintings Hassall took the opportunity to reintroduce those elements he so rigorously excluded from his commercial work. There is deep perspective, there are complicated crowds instead of a handful of isolated individuals, and, when you look closely, there is a deliberate blurring or mistiness about the faces which gives them a strange dignity, which somehow implies that you are seeing them through a time machine, their faces flickering and blurring through the distance of 500 years. In every way except for the patriotic storybook subject matter, as unlike the minimalist clarity of his posters and commercial work as can be.

Procession by John Hassall (1901)

But if I had to choose one out of all the works on show here, it would be a classic example of Hassall’s commercial poster art, a clear composition, limned with bold black lines in the style of a newspaper cartoon, all background detail kept to a bare minimum in order to focus your eye on the main character which is drawn with affectionate humour.

It’s titled ‘Treasure Trove’ and is an original artwork for a brand of whiskey but, intriguingly, nobody seems to know which one.  I think I was partly attracted because the fish look the dead spitting image of the fish which feature in the Tintin adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure (and because both feature a man in an old-fashioned diving suit). I wonder whether Hergé knew and was influenced by Hassall’s work, by its clarity of composition, solid outlines and blocs of bare or negative space…

Treasure Trove by John Hassall (date unknown)


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty @ Barbican

‘The things we truly love, which form the basis of our being, we generally never look at.’

This is a wonderful exhibition, I enjoyed it very much indeed, went round four times and lingered in front of half a dozen standout pieces. After a year in lockdown, I found its  visual energy and originality and diversity immensely refreshing and revivifying.

In a nutshell, Jean Dubuffet (1901 to 1985) rejected the entire tradition of Western art and condemned the whole idea of ‘culture’ as it was understood in his day. As he put it:

Cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.

So he set about making art from scratch, basing his aesthetic on graffiti, children’s drawings, finding inspiration in the streets, the look and feel of bricks and dirt and stone and earth, experimenting with found materials like broken glass and torn fabrics, coal dust, pebbles, snips of string, butterfly wings, weeds, handfuls of gravel, unusual industrial oils and waxes and so on.

It sounds dire, but the two big take-homes from this exhibition are that:

  1. in his 45 or so years as a practising artist (1940 to 1985) Dubuffet developed an amazing range of distinct visual styles or approaches
  2. in each of these styles or approaches he created masterpieces, some of them quite stunningly beautiful

‘Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty’ is the first major UK exhibition of Dubuffet’s work in over 50 years, and it is big – it brings together more than 150 works from early portraits, lithographs and fantastical statues to enamel paintings, butterfly assemblages and the later, giant colourful canvases – but it isn’t big enough. I’d liked to have seen more, much more.

Coursegoules by Jean Dubuffet (November 1956) Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London © MAD, Paris/Jean Tholanc

Intro

The exhibition begins on the first floor with each of the dozen or so rooms filled with works which reflected his styles from about 1940 to 1961. These are very varied, with each room devoted to a different theme or project. They’re all quite small. It is a succession of rooms of small or medium sized paintings and small sculptures.

The exhibition explodes when you come back down to the ground floor and the 6 or so rooms here which feature a succession of big, awesome and sometimes overwhelming works. It’s a great adventure.

There’s a big introduction wall label, supplemented by a biographical timeline, and both bring out the unusual way that, although he moved from his native Le Havre to Paris when he was 17 to study at the prestigious Académie Julian, he left after six months, realising that he could create his own syllabus of favourite subjects, which included philosophy, literature and ethnography. Although he made friends with fellow artists such as becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger, he preferred to go back to Le Havre, marry and work for his father’s own wine business.

In the 1930s he established his own business and was still running it when the Germans invaded France in 1940 and it is typical of his stroppy, anti-establishment contrarianism that, later in life, he boasted about all the fine wine he sold to the occupying Wehrmacht.

1940s

In 1942 Dubuffet decided to start painting again, and adopted a naive style for painting scenes from Paris life. Early on he abandoned the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush and instead created a paste into which he could create physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. In 1944, as the Americans landed on the Normandy beaches, Dubuffet created a series in which he wrote rough, scrawled ironic messages in the style of graffiti onto fragments of newspaper.

In 1945 Dubuffet began to make portraits of friends. They impressed the wealthy American expatriate Florence Gould, and he ended up doing portraits in pen and ink or oil of most of her circle. He would stare at them for hours then go back to his studio and draw or paint them from memory, the key elements of their faces emerging in childish caricatures.

Dhôtel by Jean Dubuffet (July–August 1947) Private Collection © ADAGP,Paris and DACS, London

In 1947 Dubuffet had his first solo exhibition in America, which was a success among young American artists rebelling against the European tradition and looking for new directions. He met and impressed Jackson Pollock and there’s something of Pollock in his earth paintings and, more surprisingly, in his very late paintings (see below).

Between 1947 and 1949, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria, learned some Arabic and spent time in the desert with bedouin. When he returned to Paris he developed his thickly painted style into a specific set of desert paintings, trying to recapture the primeval sensation of being far from traditional culture, almost alone with the universe, the dense clotted surface gripping meaning, existence and all those other existentialist buzzwords.

Exaltation du ciel by Jean Dubuffet (1952)

Right from the start Dubuffet had dismissed the traditional concept of perspective. You can see it in these desert paintings where 90% of the picture represents the earth with only a sliver of sky at the top, creating a claustrophobic sense of total immersion.It is also a dominant feature of the butterfly paintings

1950s

In the 1950s Dubuffet moved to Vence in the South of France where the climate would be better for his wife, Lili, who had weak lungs. He was inspired by the natural scenery. In 1953 he was on holiday with his friend Pierre Bettencourt who was a lepidopterist, catching butterflies and sticking them to boards. This inspired Dubuffet to experiment with incorporating butterfly wings into paintings. The result was a series of entrancing painting-collages. These were really lovely, inspiring, worth dwelling over each one and savouring.

Landscape with Argus by Jean Dubuffet (August 1955) Collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

In the late 1950s (starting September 1957) Dubuffet embarked on a new series which he called ‘Texturologies’. He developed a technique of putting oil paint onto branches of trees or bushes and then speckling canvases. Sounds silly but the result is a set of captivating canvases which can be enjoyed from metres away as shimmering collections of micro-spots or from close up as surfaces teeming with thousands of dots of a range of earth colours.

Jean Dubuffet with soil (1958) (© Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris; photo: Jean Weber and © Fondation Gianadda, Martigny)

1960s

In 1961 Dubuffet returned to Paris after 6 years’ absence and was astonished at its transformation from battered survivor of the war to booming consumer society. He developed an entirely new aesthetic (or reapplied his existing one) to capture the busy-ness of the capital’s streets – what he called the Paris Circus – in paintings which were consistently large and dominating. Many have a deliberately sketchy scrappy style, scratchy but vivid and alive. I was particularly entranced by La main dans le sac.

Caught in the Act by Jean Dubuffet (September 1961) Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London © Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Right from the start of his career Dubuffet had ignored the entire tradition of perspective, preferring to create a two-dimensional presentation of space, filling every inch of the picture plane, sometimes overlapping solid objects as in the butterfly collages. It is this utter rejection of perspective and a child’s motivation to fill every centimetre of the surface which creates the cramped effect of his works.

L’Hourloupe

One day in 1962 Dubuffet was doodling during a phone call, creating zoomorphic rounded shapes then colouring them with tints of blue and red and stumbled across an entirely new look. He called them ‘L’Hourloupe’ and they developed into a whole new cycle of work, created over a decade and encompassing paintings, sculptures, architectural environments and performances. He created 175 freestanding pieces which he called praticables.

The series culminated in a theatrical performance of a show named ‘Coucou Bazar’ at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1973 performed to music composed by Ilhan Mimaroglu. This ‘living painting’ was a one-hour spectacle with sixty artworks animated by performers, motors and remote control. Later the show was recreated in Paris, and then, in 1978, in Turin with music composed by Dubuffet himself. My God, what would that have sounded like?

Hourloupe figures by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

The room devoted to the Hourloupe pieces is the largest in the exhibition and, as well as half a dozen large paintings in this style, it includes a low stage holding no fewer than 16 of the life sized cutouts and four dazzling costumes. This was an amazing visual spectacle. I was entranced. I looked at them from all angles possible. So simple, just doodly lines of black against pure white and tinted with blue and red, so big and fun and goofy and strange and delirious.

Hourloupe figure by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

1970s

In the second half of the 1970s Dubuffet created a series titled ‘Theatres of Memory’, a reference to the history book, The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. They are a return to assemblage (the term he preferred to collage) layering fragments of paintings over each other, arranging and rearranging cutout figures, colours and shapes into the discreet panels.

The largest and one of the most stunning pieces in the show is Vicissitudes (1977). At over 3.5 metres wide it’s huge and fills an entire wall. Dubuffet was now 75 and making works like this involved ‘a good deal of gymnastic exercise on a ladder’. I found myself totally absorbed by this piece, and came back to it again and again.

Installation view of Vicissitudes by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

I love the way it’s made of panels which each have a distinct colour palette and style; but the way the panels are very much not arranged symmetrically or classically and yet, at the same time, feel right. The arrangement and patterning feels just so. This has been true throughout the exhibition.

Works from this series were exhibited in New York in 1979 and influenced, among others, artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and my first reaction on seeing it was ‘Basquiat!’, not least because these very same galleries hosted a massive and awesome Basquiat exhibition just two years ago.

1980s

At the end of the 1970s Dubuffet returned to black and white ink drawings, now with the fluid grace of a master. I liked these a lot, but they were a bit eclipsed by another series of large colour paintings, which he called Mires, dense clusters of interweaving lines and shapes in primary colours. Whereas the Theatre of Memory pieces had recognisable, if cartoon-like, faces and other real world objects, the Mires are exercises in pure colour and pattern, extensions of earlier ideas but also surprisingly reminiscent of the Jackson Pollock who he met in New York in the late 1940s.

Fulfilment (Epanouissement) by Jean Dubuffet (November 1984) Collection of Milly and Arne Glimcher © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Art brut

A key aspect of Dubuffet’s achievement was the almost single-handed establishment of the concept of art brut, which can be translated as ‘raw art’, in the 1940s, and which later acquired the tag, in the English-speaking world, Outsider Art. (The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972.)

From the outset, Dubuffet was drawn to other untrained artists, graffitists, tattooists, spiritualists, prisoners in gaol or inmates of asylums, whose creativity felt much more inspiring to him than anything on display in the city’s museums. From 1945 he began to collect them in a systematic way, always keeping his eye open for the strange and non-conformist. During and after the war he built up his own collection of such art, which he called art brut or ‘raw art’.

In 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The collection he established became known as the Collection de l’art brut. It contains thousands of works and is now permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.

He believed that mainstream culture, fully incorporated into international capitalist consumer culture, assimilates every new development in art, and by doing so takes away whatever power to disturb or astonish that it might have had. The result is to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution: only art brut is immune to the ravening maw of ‘culture’, cannot be easily absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated.

Thus a major aspect of the exhibition, a simple but inspired idea by the curators, is to dedicate not one but two entire rooms to pieces from what grew into a huge collection of outsider art which Dubuffet himself amassed. 18 artists are featured from Dubuffet’s huge collection, including Aloïse Corbaz, Fleury-Joseph Crépin, Gaston Duf., but two artists, in particular, stood out for me:

Laure Pigeon

Laure Pigeon (1882 to 1965) was a French medium who produced an oeuvre of 500 drawings related to her Spiritualist practice. When he heard that her entire oeuvre was about to be thrown away after her death in 1965, Dubuffet rang the executors and asked if he could have them. The exhibition includes half a dozen examples of her dynamic dark blue cutouts, like Matisse with attitude.

11 December 1953 by Laure Pigeon (1953) Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne. Photograph by Marie Humair, Atelier de numérisation

Madge Gill

Madge Gill’s monumental calico drawings in which scores of cartoon faced-women appear trapped in huge, complex skeins of material.

Faces*

Faces by Madge Gill (1947)

The last room is showing a ten-minute video made up of excerpts from various films about him and interviews shot in the 60s and 70s and 80s. At one point he says there’s only really one way of being normal and it’s boring; but there are a 100 million ways of not being normal and they are all fascinating!

Here’s a montage of Dubuffet art works which gives you a good sense of the variety of effect he could create from such disparate materials.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the ‘modern’ celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, mobile phones, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

And in fact I’ve just come across the same idea, on page 4 of Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War, where he writes:

From the outset, the conflict attracted wide interest across Europe, accelerating the early seventeenth-century ‘media revolution’ that saw the birth of the modern newspaper.
(Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson, page 4)

So surely the widespread availability of gossip sheets and scandal mongering publications was a matter of degree not kind. Artists of the late-17th century (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had earned types of ‘fame’ and certainly tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

1. That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and 2. there were more and more of them, because the population was growing, and the number of literate consumers was steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


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