Carmina Burana

On Saturday 28th October 2017, due to popular demand, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana returned to the Royal Albert Hall for a one-off performance. Presented by Raymond Gubbay, a leading promoter of classical music, 400 voices took to the stage to deliver a sensational cantata, beginning and ending with the familiar movement, O Fortuna.

Based on 24 medieval poems, Carmina Burana is sung in a mix of Latin and Middle High German, languages that the majority of the audience would not be familiar with. However, this did not put people off, resulting in an audience large enough to fill the entire hall who provided vociferous applause and a standing ovation.

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Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The scenic cantata’s full Latin name is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis which translates as “Songs of Beuern: Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images” – Beuern being the place the poems originated. Although this performance lacked “magic images”, the singers were accompanied by the exceptionally talented Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, made up of an impressive amount of string players, a handful of woodwind and brass, and a wide selection of percussion instruments. 

Of course, the entire performance would not have been possible without the presence of Andrew Greenwood, the conductor, whose important task was to keep both orchestra and choir in perfect harmony. Since his debut in 1990, Greenwood has conducted numerous operas in England and other theatres across the world and held the position of artistic director of the Buxton Festival from 2006 until 2011.

Although Carmina Burana is written for both voice and instruments, the RPO had far more to do on the spectacular night than anyone else. Since the headline performance was easily contained to one half of the event, the orchestra began with a recital of Gioacchino Rossini’s (1792-1868) William Tell Overture. The opening lines showed off the celli and basses as they began to set the Alpine scene. The rolling timpani and staccato woodwind introduced a gathering storm, coming to its height with the uproarious trombones and vibrant strings. As the tempest died away, the cor anglais (an Alpine horn in the original manuscript) plays its solo, eventually joined by the uplifting flutes representing birdsong. Finally, the trumpets burst forth with the memorable galloping theme and, in due course, the conclusion of the overture.

Following the overture, the RPO continue to show off their skills with the lesser known Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor by Max Bruch (1838-1920). This particular piece guest-starred Jennifer Pike with her 1708 violin made by Matteo Goffriller. Pike first came to fame at the age of twelve after winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award. She has since gone on to perform as a soloist with orchestras all over the world, making her an excellent choice of violinist for this concerto. Both Pike and the RPO professionally played the lengthy piece, finishing with the more recognisable movement.

However, it was Carmina Burana the audience came to see and the second half finally began with the long-awaited singers taking their places in the raised seats behind the orchestra. Since a 400-strong choir is unlikely to be easily obtainable, the performance was given by a mix members from a range of groups: English Concert Chorus, Highgate Choral Society, Royal Choral Society, and The Southend Boys’ Choir – the latter, despite having the least to sing, getting the greatest applause.

Beginning with the magnificent Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi, the choir and orchestra put all their effort into producing an impressive sound and enjoyable performance. The 24 poems were almost seamlessly delivered to an enraptured audience, the orchestra getting no break between movements. The choir was carefully choreographed so that only the ones singing remained standing, giving the others a welcome rest. Despite the rising and sitting of the singers, the performance was not disrupted thanks to the careful timing of the composer and his clear signals.

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This is the front cover art for the manuscript Carmina Burana written by Carl Orff.

When Carl Orff (1895-1982) originally composed the music for Carmina Burana, he intended for it to be performed in the theatre. Nowadays, as it was in this production, it is shown in concert halls without any acting. However, there was an occasion when the baritone soloist, Grant Doyle, had the audience laughing at his facial expressions and body language.

Due to the lack of action, it is unlikely that the audience would grasp the storyline, however, if someone could understand Latin and Middle High German, they would probably still be baffled by the lyrics. It is the melodies that Carmina Burana is remembered for, particularly those that have been used in advertisements and programmes on our television screens, for example, Only Fools and HorsesThe Simpsons, and an advertisement for Domino’s Pizza.

In 1847, Johann Andreas Schmeller (1785-1852), a German philologist, published the selection of 13th-century songs that he had stumbled across in a monastery at Benediktbeuern – hence the name Carmina Burana, “Songs of Beuern”. The authors of the poems remain unknown, however, it is believed they may have been scholars or minstrels. The poems cover a variety of themes that mostly deal with human behaviours, for instance, the fickleness of fortune and wealth, nature, and the enjoyment and risks of drinking and gambling.

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Codex Buranus (Carmina Burana)

When Orff came across the book of poems, he was not only inspired by the thought-provoking verses. It was the illustration at the beginning of the text that caught Orff’s attention and remained in his mind throughout his composition process. The drawing depicts a Rota Fortunae, or Wheel of Fortune, which is a symbol of the temperamental nature of Fate. The goddess, Fortuna, spins the wheel causing some mortals to suffer severe bad luck or tragedy, whereas others would hit the jackpot in life.

Around the edge of the wheel are the words Regnabo, Regno, Regnavi, Sum sine regno (I shall reign, I reign, I have reigned, I am without a realm). Orff took the concept of the Wheel of Fortune and produced a piece with five main sections made up of 25 movements that start at the top of the wheel and gradually make their way around through hope, joy, bitterness and grief, eventually completing a full circle. It is for this purpose that Carmina Burana both begins and ends with the most well-known movement, O Fortuna.

The first section, Il Primo Vere, begins in the spring with a song praising the comings of brighter weather after a sharp winter (hiemalis acies). The baritone soloist (Grant Doyle) views spring as a positive season: Omnia sol temperat purus et subtilis (The sun warms everything, pure and gentle). The chorus continues the theme, adding in words of longing, expressing their desire for lovers.

The end of this section changes from Latin into Middle High German with Charmer, gip die varwe mir (Shopkeeper, give me colour) in which the women beg the salesmen to sell them rouge to make themselves attractive to the young men. Although a fairly positive section, these final movements suggest there are pain and heartbreak on the horizon.

Fate turns the wheel and the second section, In Taberna (In the Tavern), introduces the first major vice. The baritone sings of how he is swept away by the wicked and immoral activities, yearning for them instead of caring about more virtuous behaviour.

“I am carried along like a ship without a steersman.”
Estuans interius, II In Taberna 

Bizarrely, one movement titled Cignus ustus cantat (The Roast Swan) is sung from the perspective of a swan. In this performance, the tenor Mark Milhofer gave an expressive performance from a balcony, lamenting that he was once a beautiful swan, swimming on open lakes, but “now I lie on a plate … Misery me! Now black and roasting fiercely!” Forgetting for a moment that swans cannot speak Latin and the more pressing point that dead ones cannot make a sound, the metaphor of the roast swan is a suitable analogy for the troubles people find themselves in when letting vices such as alcohol take over their lives.

Unfortunately, the chorus is still determined to drink and begin listing a whole range of people who enjoy coming to the tavern in a humorous movement, In taberna quando sumus (When we are in the tavern).

“The mistress drinks, the master drinks, the soldier drinks, the priest drinks, the man drinks, the woman drinks, the servant drinks with the maid; the swift man drinks, the lazy man drinks, the white man drinks, the black man drinks, the settled man drinks, the wanderer drinks, the stupid man drinks, the wise man drinks, the poor man drinks, the sick man drinks, the exile drinks, and the stranger, the boy drinks, the old man drinks, the bishop drinks, and the deacon, the sister drinks, the brother drinks, the old lady drinks, the mother drinks, this man drinks, that man drinks, a hundred drink, a thousand drink.”
– In Taberna quando, II In Taberna 

The third section finally sees the soprano, in this instance, Jennifer France, take the stage.  Cour D’Amours is about love, encouraging young men and women to get together, with a warning that those who do not will never gain any pleasure. The soprano sings of a girl in a red dress in a short movement called Stetit puella (A Girl Stood) and later sings In trutina (In the Balance) faced with the choice of love or modesty; she chooses love.

By the end of the section, man and woman have both given themselves over to lust, whilst the Wheel of Fortune ceaselessly continues turning. The 24th movement, however, suggests that they are not completely happy with their impulsive decisions and are, perhaps, feeling guilty. Ave formosissima is sung like a prayer with lyrics such as “Hail, pride among virgins, glorious virgin, Hail, light of the world, Hail, rose of the world …”

Now the Wheel has turned full circle and the orchestra and chorus join together once more in a final rendition of O Fortuna. As impressive, if not more, this final movement ended with the audience on their feet, applauding the phenomenal voices of the choirs and soloists. The mix of voices with tenors, bass and altos on one side and sopranos and choir boys on the other, made a harmonious sound that was a joy to listen to.

Orchestras tend to get forgotten, the singers receiving the majority of attention, however, being able to watch the instrumentalists on stage revealed how much effort they put in and were equally praised in the final bows. The orchestra also had a movement they performed alone, Tanz (Dance), which would have been coupled with a dance when shown on a stage rather than in a concert hall.

Raymond Gubbay’s production of Carmina Burana was an excellent accomplishment and worth bringing back to the Royal Albert Hall for this particular night. It does not matter if the lyrics are not understood – besides, even though the programme provided an English translation, it had lost its poeticness – it is the music and the sound of different voices coming together in harmony that gives off the greatest impression.

By far, O Fortuna is the most spectacular of all the movements, with its well-known moving melody. Although it signalled the end of the performance, hearing it for the second time came as an absolute joy; it is a song that could be listened to time and again, never losing its splendour.

Regardless of who is presenting it or who the singers and musicians are, Carmina Burana is worth listening to. It is feasibly the strangest selections of poetry to be turned into song, however, Carl Orff’s manuscript is a phenomenal, unique piece of work.

Raymond Gubbay returns to the Royal Albert Hall with a Classical Spectacular on 15th-18th March 2018, a performance of the very best of classical music, including a rendition of Carl Orff’s O Fortuna. 

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Reflections​

Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites

Organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Tate Britain, the Arnolfini Portrait painted by Jan van Eyck (c1390-1441) takes pride of place in an exhibition about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Although this portrait was painted 400 years before the founding of the group, it had a significant impact on a group of British artists who wanted to break away from the stagnant style of painting of the 1800s. Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites explores the connection between one famous oil painting and the many artists it inspired.

The Arnolfini Portrait was obtained by the National Gallery in 1842, the 186th piece of work added to the growing collection. What made it extra special was the nationality of the artist. Jan van Eyck lived in the Netherlands and this portrait was the first painting the gallery received from this country. Available to public view for the first time, many flocked to see and study the painting, including William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and John Everett Millais (1829-96), the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Jan van Eyck is the most acclaimed painter of the Early Netherlandish School and one of the first to use oil paints – he was originally believed to be the inventor of oil painting, but this has since been disproved. Little is known about his early life, however, from 1432-9, van Eyck helpfully dated all his paintings, allowing art historians to determine his whereabouts and the people with whom he associated. Two other van Eyck paintings are in this exhibition, however, it is the Arnolfini Portrait, sometimes called Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434), that remains his most famous.

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Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

In this exhibition, the portrait is referred to as the Arnolfini Portrait and reveals a man and woman holding hands in a bedroom. This couple has been identified as members of the Italian Arnolfini family, the man possibly being Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini who lived in Bruge at a similar time to van Eyck. From the date of the painting, 1434, it has been determined that the woman was Arnolfini’s second wife.

The figures are dressed in the fashions of the time, which today look rather peculiar. Arnolfini’s dark purple coat or jerkin appears to be made of velvet, but it is his black hat that makes him look rather odd. His wife, on the other hand, is much more brightly clothed in a fur-lined green gown.

Although the foreground characters have now been identified, the purpose of the portrait was lost for many years. This resulted in a large number of theories about the intended subject of the painting. Some believed that it showed a husband and wife, and others believed that it was a promise of future marriage. The theories escalated with the notion that the woman was pregnant, therefore a hasty marriage is occurring in private, however, the old-fashioned costume may be the cause of the appearance of a swollen stomach.

The National Gallery does not pay too much mind to the purpose of the painting, preferring to draw visitors’ attention to the items in the background. Although the room appears to be rather small with plain walls and uncarpeted flooring, other objects suggest the couple is richer than they may initially appear. On the window sill sit a few oranges, which were an expensive fruit during the 1400s, and above the couple hangs an intricate, polished chandelier.

The key element of the Arnolfini Portrait, however, is the convex mirror hanging on the wall behind the couple. Mirrors were considered a luxury at the time of painting, therefore, also hint at the wealth of the Arnolfini family. Within its reflective surface, two male figures can be seen entering the room, giving the painting more depth and sparking more theory about its purpose – some suggested that the figures in the mirror could be witnesses of the marriage.

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The mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait

The mirror itself is quite fascinating; van Eyck has successfully painted the glass to look like a real mirror, but the detail in the frame is even more impressive. Around the edge are ten small circles showing the scenes from the Passion of Christ. Although they are tiny, each scene has been carefully painted fully.

According to a ten-minute film included in the exhibition ticket price, the Arnolfini Portrait was not appreciated by people at the time of completion. It was not a popular piece of work and often changed hands, being passed from one owner to the next. However, this all changed in the 19th century. The realistic nature of the outcome was highly admired, as well as the pristine condition it was in despite its age. At this time, paintings would often degrade quickly, therefore, many were intrigued by the artist’s technique.

“A picture has just been added to the National Gallery which affords as much amusement to the public as it administers instruction to the colour-grinders, painters, and connoisseurs, who, since the day of its exhibition, have crowded rooms to admire its singularity and discuss its merits. To every one it is a mystery. Its subject is unknown, its composition and preservation of its colours a lost art.”

– Illustrated London News, 1843 (a copy features in this exhibition)

Jan van Eyck used paintbrushes to apply the oil paint to the canvas, however, he also used his finger to help blend the colours together. This may also have helped to produce the smooth finish since no individual brush stroke can be detected.

It was after the Arnolfini Portrait was put on display that three young students from the Royal Acadamy began their revolutionary art movement. Hunt, Rosetti and Millais were disappointed with the High Renaissance method of teaching they were receiving at the academy, therefore, were fascinated with the painting by van Eyck. They decided to revive the techniques used in the early artwork in Italy and the Netherlands of the fifteenth century, produced before the emergence of Raphael and his style of painting. As a result, they named their movement “The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood”.

Although the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood only had three founding members in 1848, they quickly added other artists to the group who shared their dissatisfaction with the Royal Academy. They developed rules, which whilst never published, were closely followed by all members of the brotherhood.

  1. To have genuine ideas to express.
  2. To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express it.
  3. To sympathise with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.
  4. To produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

The Pre-Raphaelites aimed to produce genuine ideas that evoked emotion. They moved away from the popular military victory and classical history paintings in favour of what they thought were more serious subjects. Some of their outcomes had a religious nature, however, they also took inspiration from literature, for example, Shakespeare and Tennyson.

“… absolute, uncompromising truth in all it does, obtained by working everything down to the most minute detail, from nature, and from nature only.” – John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Mariana 1851 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

Mariana by Sir John Everett Millais (1851)

The Pre-Raphaelites were not only influenced by van Eyck’s style of painting, they were particularly intrigued by the use of the mirror in the background. The National Gallery has focused on this motif rather than the movement in general, with a selection of Pre-Raphaelite artworks that feature mirrors.

One painting that the National Gallery has deemed important enough to use on advertisements for the exhibition is Marianna (1851) by Sir John Everett Millais.

Millais was a thriving portraitist whose paintings of beautiful young women earned him popularity. He had a taste for Shakespeare plays and Tennyson’s poems and often painted scenes based upon them. Mariana was a character in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure but also features in a poem by Tennyson. In this particular scene, Mariana has been sent into exile by her fiancé Angelo after her dowry was lost at sea.

The mirror in this composition does not play much of a role, however, an accompanying drawing in the exhibition suggests that Millais originally intended to include a mirror behind Mariana’s head. However, art critics still link Mariana with the Arnolfini Portrait. They claim that Mariana’s rich blue dress emphasises the curvature of her spine and slim figure in a similar way that the bright green gown in the van Eyck painting amplifies the swelling stomach of the Arnolfini woman.

The National Gallery explores the different ways that mirrors are used in the artworks by Pre-Raphaelite painters. Some painters used mirrors in a metaphorical sense, often to suggest ideas or feelings that could not be conveyed through the main section of the painting. One example of this is William Holman Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience (1853).

The Awakening Conscience 1853 by William Holman Hunt 1827-1910

The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt

Hunt’s painting shows a wealthy man with his mistress who appears to be in a slight state of undress. She is captured in a position suggesting she is just raising herself up from the lap of her lover. Her facial expression clearly illustrates that something has captured her attention beyond the painting’s frame. This is where the mirror plays a vital part.

Beyond the two figures, Hunt has positioned a large mirror which reflects what those studying the painting cannot see. The mirror is facing a window that looks out into a brightly lit garden. No one can know for certain what the lady has seen, however, the picture notes at the National Gallery suggest that she may have been reminded of her lost innocence. She is rising up as if her conscience has been awakened and it is not too late to escape her morally corrupt situation. “… the sunlit garden reflected behind her suggests that she will choose a path towards spiritual enlightenment, and that faith will be her salvation.”

As time went on, members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement began to move away from their initial aims, blurring the lines between their radical ideas and the commencement of the Aesthetic Movement. Not all Pre-Raphaelites were sucked into this new concept, however, those that were, took their mirror motif with them. With a new aim of creating art for art’s sake, the mirrors were used to emphasise beauty and reality rather than having any stronger symbolic nature.

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Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) by William Holman Hunt

From the selection of paintings that the National Gallery grouped into this category, the one that stands out the most is Il Dolce far Niente (1859-66) which was also painted by William Holman Hunt. Hunt was one of the Pre-Raphaelite painters who prefered to convey an enlightening purpose or narrative, which makes this particular painting an anomaly.

Il Dolce far Niente, which translates into English as “it is sweet to do nothing”, is a portrait that focuses on female beauty. The convex mirror in the background, tying it in with the majority of the other paintings in the exhibition, shows a reflection of the snug domestic scene, however, adds little else to the composition.

Apparently, the original painting was intended to be a portrait of Hunt’s fiancé, Annie Miller, but the engagement was eventually broken off. Hunt later repainted the face to turn it into a portrait of his wife, Fanny Waugh, whom he married in 1865.

When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood combined their fascination of the convex mirror with their love of literature, the perfect poem was found. The Lady of Shalott (1832) by Sir Alfred Tennyson (1802-92) provided painters with potential scenes to show off their artistic style inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait. This ballad tells the story of a woman under a curse who cannot engage with the outside world. The only safe way to view the goings on outside her prison is through a mirror that faces a window. She spends her time painstakingly reproducing these reflections on a loom until one day she catches sight of the striking Sir Lancelot. Forgetting herself, she watches him from the window; the mirror cracks and her death is inevitable.

The poem, written in four parts and nineteen stanzas, supplied the Pre-Raphaelites with many scenes to illustrate, making good use of the prominent mirror. Four examples are shown in the exhibition, revealing different interpretations. Three of the four chose to encapsulate the curse in action, emphasising the cracking mirror and the Lady of Shalott facing the window, distraught with the realisation about what she has done.

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The Lady of Shalott (1894) by John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), was born at the same time the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was established. Although the movement had largely come to the end by the time he started his career, he was still influenced by their style. Waterhouse was also guided by other artists’ techniques of his era, for example, Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1865-1940), therefore his outcomes are not as smooth and detailed as the founders’ artwork.

Nevertheless, Waterhouse was one of the painters who attempted to demonstrate the curse of the Lady Shalott. The background contains the typical circular mirror complete with the crack symbolising the protagonist’s demise. The lady herself is tangled up in the skeins of wool, emphasising that she cannot escape her dreadful fate.

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“I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) by Sidney Meteyard

 

The painting that does not depict the breaking of the mirror is, perhaps, the most striking of the selection, if not the most beautiful in the whole exhibition. Sidney Meteyard (1868-1947), who was too late for the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood but worked in a later revival of the style, used rich, dreamlike colours to illustrate the fairytale-like ballad. Taking the title directly from a line in the poem, “I am Half-Sick of Shadows, Said the Lady of Shalott” (1913) reveals the lady dozing in front of the mirror and loom after witnessing two lovers who can still be seen in the convex mirror.

“But in her web she still delights/To weave the mirror’s magic sights,/For often thro’ the silent nights/A funeral, with plumes and lights,/And music, when to Camelot;/ Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed;/’I am half sick of shadows,’ said/The Lady of Shalott.”

– The Lady of Shalott, Tennyson, Part II, final verse

The expressive colours emphasise the dream-like state the Lady of Shalott. It suggests she may be dreaming of the lovers or imagining herself in a similar scenario, which she will never get to experience in real life. The flowers in the foreground, which help to frame the painting, also indicate the romantic, intimate scene the lady has recently witnessed.

From this exhibition, the National Gallery stresses the influence the Arnolfini Portrait with its convex mirror had on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, these were not the first people to be affected in this way. Long before Hunt, Rosetti and Millais began to make a fuss about the Royal Academy’s teaching methods, the painting was spotted by a seventeenth-century artist in the Spanish Royal Collection. Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) was enamoured with van Eyck’s portrait and went on to produce the second most famous mirror in the history of Western art.

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Partial copy of “Las Meninas” (1862) by John Philip

The original painting, Las Meninas (c1656) is very famous and recognisable, however, it is currently hanging in the Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid. Fortunately, the National Gallery was able to display a partial copy of Las Meninas produced by John Philip (1817-67) in 1862. This copy shows approximately one-quarter of the original composition showing the detail in the bottom left-hand corner.

The partial copy by the Scottish artist brings in to focus the mirror hanging on the wall amongst a selection of framed paintings. This feature is likely to be overlooked in the original, the lighting drawing attention to the girls in the foreground.

Whilst the mirror is not round, as it is in the Arnolfini Portrait, it adds a further dimension to the painting. In the dark glass, the figures of the King and Queen of Spain can be seen, who do not feature anywhere else in the composition. This has resulted in the meaning of the painting remaining ambiguous, with critics coming up with varied suggestions about the purpose of the King and Queen’s presence.

The Pre-Raphaelites were not impressed with Las Meninas in the same way that the Arnolfini Portrait struck them. Although it contained a mirror, the painting style leant more towards impressionism than van Eyck’s hard-edged style. It was the photorealistic aspect that the Brotherhood wanted to replicate more than anything else.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites is a visual journey of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the effect a single painting can have on a large number of people. By limiting the display to paintings featuring mirrors, the National Gallery compares and contrasts the various interpretations artists developed. It is interesting to see how one key idea – a mirror – can result in so many different outcomes.

Occasionally, the National Gallery’s claim that various paintings were inspired by the Arnolfini Portrait is debatable, but, assuming this conclusion was reached by experts, visitors can only take their word for it. Regardless of whether the connection is obvious or not, the selection of paintings is beautiful and intriguing, and worth taking the time to study.

The National Gallery provides an audioguide at a small extra cost and has detailed notes throughout the exhibition explaining the paintings and the thoughts of the Pre-Raphaelites. By introducing the public to poems, such as The Lady of Shallot, the exhibition is as educational as it is entertaining.

Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites remains on display in the Sunley Room at the National Gallery until 2nd April 2018. Tickets are £10 on weekdays and £12 at weekends. 

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian horseman with a spear in his right hand; Gold; late fifth to early fourth century BC; Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Supported by BP, the British Museum’s major exhibition explores the lives of a barbaric tribe known as the Scythians. These Eurasian nomads inhabited the majority of the western and central Eurasian steppes for hundreds of years with evidence dating as far back as 900BC. Since 300BC, the Scythians gradually disappeared leaving very little proof of their existence.

For centuries, historians have had to rely on Greek historians and Assyrian inscriptions for information about these primitive humans, in particular, Herodotus, “the father of history”, a fifth century BC Greek historian, with his magnum opus The Histories.

“For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea.” – Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric

Ancient manuscripts, whilst useful, are not always the most reliable of sources, therefore, a lot of Herodotus’ description is not to be completely trusted. Fortunately, within the past couple of centuries, the discoveries of graves and burial mounds in the areas the Scythians occupied have revealed a wealth of information about these ancient Indo-Europeans.

Objects excavated from Scythian tombs have been carefully stored at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia and are temporarily on loan to the British Museum where they can be viewed in this outstanding exhibition. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia contains objects that are over 2,000 years old, astonishingly preserved in the permafrost of the cold landscape. Glass cases of gold and bronze jewellery, clothing, weapons and everyday items relates the story of a rich civilisation of formidable warriors.

Set in a darkened gallery, highlighting the exhibits with lit cabinets, the curators have created an atmospheric display complete with soundscapes that set the scene of the temperate grasslands, beginning with the resonance of a strong wind and moving on to the clamour of galloping horses. Wall-size digital panoramas present a computer-generated landscape complete with horsemen dressed in what it is believed the Scythian’s wore. Although the remains of items found during excavations provide enough information to understand the lives and culture of this society, these creative extras help to paint a fuller picture.

 

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Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A full-length portrait of Tsar Peter I (the Great) (1672-1725) introduces visitors to the man responsible for the first excavation of a Scythian burial site. For scientific purposes, Peter the Great sent men on an expedition to Siberia to study the land, not realising that he would receive more than he bargained for.

 

After accidentally discovering an ancient burial mound full of armour, sophisticated jewellery, belt buckles and weapons, the Tsar decreed that all findings should be brought back to St Petersburg to be documented. He also instructed that detailed drawings be produced of each object. Some of these are on display positioned next to the original item.

At least 250 Scythian gold artefacts found themselves in Peter the Great’s inventory, which prompted him to commission the building of the first Russian museum, Kunstkamera (cabinet of curiosities). Unfortunately, the Tsar was not to see the opening of his enterprise since he died earlier that year.

From these initial findings, and the many that have since occurred, a lot has been deduced about the lives of the Scythians. With the ancient texts by historians such as Herodotus to help place them in context, each object tells modern researchers about the Scythian’s beliefs, lifestyle and abilities. It is assumed that it was a funerary custom to be buried with important possessions, and most graves contained someone form of armour and weapon – even the females.

Although it cannot be proved, the burial mounds suggest the Scythians believed in some sort of religion, perhaps one where they believed they would need certain items in the afterlife, for instance, arrows. Herodotus notes, “Ares, the God of War, was the only deity whom the Scythians worshipped and to whom they built altars.” However, how the historian came to this conclusion is unknown and could be an assumption based on the Scythian’s fighting abilities. Further examination of the recently discovered decorative metalworks implies the warriors may have believed in other divinities too.

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Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC.

The first example of the Scythian’s careful metalwork is on display at the entrance to the exhibition. Labelled a gold belt plaque, it is understood that this made up one half of a belt buckle. Although many of the artefacts presented at the British Museum are made of gold, it is likely that these would have belonged to nobility or royalty, thus implying something about the Scythian social structure.

Rather than being a plain, functional buckle, the goldsmith carved a detailed scene involving the death of a warrior. The deceased is lying on the ground in the arms of a female deity wearing a high ponytail – this goes to disprove Herodotus’ theory that the Scythian’s only worshipped the Greek god of war. On the left is a tree of life from which a quiver hangs from a branch, presumably belonging to the fallen man. On the right are a pair of horses, which emphasises the importance of the animal to the Scythians.

Scythians were not just formidable fighters, they were capable of defeating their enemies on horseback. Evidence suggests that they took great care of their horses and relied on them for many things including transport, milk and meat. Skeletons of horses have been found in many graves next to their owner, implying they were sacrificed in honour of the warrior’s death. Studies of the bones suggest that the horses were given a death blow to the forehead, potentially with an axe.

It was not only belt buckles that Scythians produced in lavish designs, the display cases contain jewellery, ornaments and appliqués for clothing and weaponry. Many of these have been made with gold, but bronze was also a popular material. Although highly detailed, these accessories were smaller than they seem in photographs, which was necessary in order for the Scythians to be able to wear or transport them. The above belt buckle was one of the middle-sized plaques at 16.1 centimetres wide and weighing 465.04 grams.

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Deer-shaped gold plaque. Barrow 1, Kostromskaya, Kuban region. The second half of the 7th century BC.

An example of a larger plaque is this deer-shaped ornament that probably adorned a case for a set of bow and arrows. It is approximately 30 centimetres long and is made from a thick sheet of gold. The animal is typical of what has become known as “Scythian animal style art”. The ornamental antlers indicate that this was made by a very skilled artisan and, due to the material, belonged to a member of the Scythian royals.

As the journey through the exhibition continues, the displays go from impressive ornaments to the more mundane, everyday life objects expected of an ancient civilisation. The weather conditions in the Altai mountains where the majority of Scythian burial sites have been found meant the ground was often frozen. It is because of this that so many items have been preserved. Clothes and fabrics, which would easily decay under normal circumstances, are still recognisable and show the workmanship and effort that went into making them. They are not the primitive garments many have envisaged people wearing thousands of years ago, they are well designed and suitable for the harsh weathers to which they would have been subjected.

 

Similarly to their belt buckles, Scythian clothing was not only a matter of function, they were richly decorated too. Before reaching the examples of clothing, the British Museum has laid out some of the gold appliqués that would have been sewn onto important figures’ clothing in intricate patterns, but this was not their only method of embellishment.

An example of a woman’s shoe has been found in extremely good condition. Made from leather, delicate patterns have been sewn across the toe and ankle in a material that imitates silver – presumably, this would have belonged to someone of high ranking. Interestingly, the sole is enriched in pyrite crystals, which, although may have made a sturdier bottom, was probably a method of showing status. Scythians spent a lot of time on horseback, therefore the soles of their feet would be visible to those on the ground.

From the clothing found in the graves and the accounts of ancient historians, artists have been able to determine what the Scythian’s outfits may have looked like. Both men and women wore trousers to make riding horses easier, however, women may also have worn skirt-like garments. Women also wore “high caps tapering to a point and stiffly upright” (Herodotus) but the purpose of this remains unknown.

The belts that may have been ornamented with golden plaques, would have been less about keeping one’s trousers up, instead used as a method of storing weapons. Evidence of a wide variety of tools and weaponry has been unearthed, including double- and single-edged swords, daggers and spears. The Scythian’s weapon of choice, however, was the bow and arrow.

The Scythians were the finest bowmen of their time and were capable of shooting at a considerable range. Their bows were crafted in a way which made them capable of accuracy, an important aspect when relying on them whilst on horseback. The arrows themselves were sharp and deadly, and if the shot was not fatal, removing the shaft may have proven to be. Ancient texts suggest that the Scythians may also have covered the tips in poison; no one could escape with their lives.

“None who attacks them can escape … ” – Herodotus

These ancient Siberian warriors, with their power and strength, were also human, and therefore, needed items similar to those still used today. Wooden bowls and cups made from pottery were also found in burial sites, however, these were probably used for something more significant than the average meal.

In comparison to their jewellery and clothing, their forms of crockery were fairly basic. In this instance, the item’s function was probably more important than what it looked like. Nevertheless, a lot can be learnt about the Scythians from these simple objects.

Backing up the claims of Herodotus, excavators have come across a hemp-smoking set, which insinuates the Scythians occasionally smoked to get intoxicated by the fumes, either for pleasure or part of a religious ceremony.

“Let us not again this evening
With our shouts and noisy uproar
Get ourselves as drunk as Scythians,
Let’s get moderately tipsy
And our best songs sing with fervour.”
– Anacreon (c.582-485BC), Greek poet

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Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC.

The exhibition ends with a closer look at the notable burial tombs that kept these amazing object safe for two or three thousand years. The graves were dug deep into the ground – another reason they have been so well preserved – with a wooden structure at the bottom. These were, apparently, similar to log cabins carpeted with felt. Within this chamber, a coffin, made from a tree trunk, was placed with body and important possessions inside. The graves that contained horses revealed the animal’s skeleton outside of the coffin but within the walls of the cabin. According to the British Museum’s blog, the horses were always positioned facing east – something to do with religion, perhaps?

The wooden coffin in the exhibition shows how well protected its contents were, with its thick walls and sturdy roof. It also conveys the impression that the Scythians took death seriously and were, perhaps, not as savage as past historians have made them out to be.

The Scythians would not have known how well preserved their deceased and possessions would be, but thanks to the diligence of their burial processes, they will be forever remembered as a formidable civilisation rather than the stuff of legend. Archaeologists are even able to determine their physical appearance due to the survival of mummified heads and bodies. Warning: the head and tattooed skin of a Scythian is on display for those with strong stomachs to marvel over!

The British Museum has excelled itself with this exhibition of such a fierce but sophisticated culture. It takes visitors on a journey through the lives of a nomadic tribe that, until recently, has only existed in myths and legends. Being able to see the objects up close (and the body parts) brings the stories to life and reveals how advanced the human race was in terms of survival as far back as the early Iron Age.

Only a week remains before Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia closes to the public. The items will be returned to the State Hermitage Museum so, unless you are planning a trip to Russia, this is your final opportunity to see this amazing proof of a rich, ancient civilisation.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum until 14 January 2018. Tickets are £16.50, Members/under 16s free. 

Just One Year

When I opened this blog in 2010 I had no idea I would still be using it now. It was not my choice to sign up, it was a requirement for my graphic design degree course so that tutors and examiners could check up on our Week-By-Week Planning and Personal Reflection. As the course approached the end of its final year, this blog also became a portfolio that could be used to show potential employers. However, after earning my degree I stopped using this blog and temporarily forgot about it.

A couple of years ago, I came back to my blog to upload new design work I had voluntarily done for various churches and organisations. At this time I was also attending an art group and decided I would keep a weekly blog about my progress. Soon, I discovered that I enjoyed writing and my blogs became longer and less about myself.

This year (2017) marked a big change in the purpose of my writing; I no longer post my own work, instead, I write about places in London I have been with a fantastic friend of mine. I plan to keep this up over the next year, in fact, because we have been to so many places, I already have blogs lined up until the end of February!

I find writing comes to me naturally, whereas, graphic design would often cause me a great deal of stress. Nevertheless, I have continued to draw for fun throughout the year and thought now would be a good opportunity to share some of my favourites with you.

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This was my first ever attempt at a coloured portrait! Those who knew me during college days will know that I only ever worked in black and white, so this was a big step for me. I was very pleased with the outcome – no, I was AMAZED at the outcome. I could not believe that I had drawn it. I was really proud of myself. Since then, I have only drawn in colour!

Within the last couple of months, I have experimented with drawing animals from photographs I have found on the internet. The first one was a dog wearing a cap seated on a chair. I could instantly imagine it as a painting and had the urge to give it a go (although I used coloured pencil).

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I continue to surprise myself with the artwork I produce. I have come so far in the past seven years. In fact, anything I drew pre-2010 is absolute rubbish! I will continue to draw in 2018, and perhaps I will share more of my artwork with you.

Thank you for continuing to follow and read my blogs. Happy New Year!

At Home in Antiquity

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage, 1895 (detail). Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Earlier this year (7th July – 29th October 2017), Leighton House Museum in Kensington put on the largest exhibition of an illustrious Victorian artist to be shown in London since 1913. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity displays over 100 paintings that reveal the artist’s interest in both the domestic life of antiquity and his own home life.

Leighton House was the perfect location for an exhibition of an artist who portrays many ancient foreign scenes in his work. Originally the house of Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1st Baron Stretton (1830-96), a famous British artist of a similar era to Alma-Tadema, the house is full of decorative art and furnishings from all over the world.

The exhibition prevented visitors from appreciating the full extent of the house’s decor, however, the ‘Arab Hall’, fitted with an indoor fountain, remained untouched by the display. Here are a collection of ceramics, textiles, woodwork, windows and tiles from Leighton’s travels to the Middle East, particularly Damascus in Syria, and date as far back as the 17th-century.

The rest of the house is decorated in a similar fashion, however, Alma-Tadema far outshone the setting. His paintings are so exquisitely detailed, it was impossible to focus on anything else in the room. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity has certainly been a star attraction for the museum this year.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912) was born Laurens Alma Tadema in a small village in the Netherlands. His father died when he was only four years old, leaving his mother to singlehandedly raise six children, three of whom were from her husband’s previous marriage. His mother encouraged the learning of artistic skills, however, intended her son to train to become a lawyer.

In 1851, however, at the age of fifteen, Laurens suffered a physical and mental breakdown that was misdiagnosed as a fatal case of consumption. Assuming he did not have long to live, Laurens was left to spend his days at leisure, often drawing and painting. Fortunately, the young man regained his health and decided to pursue a career in art.

A year later, at sixteen, Tadema moved to Belgium in order to study at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. Although he did not complete the course, he found himself a position as a studio assistant to Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, later working for the Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys (1815-69) who introduced him to the history of Belgium and France. Settings of these areas between the 5th and 8th centuries became a key topic of his early work. A few of these were displayed in the drawing room at Leighton House.

 

 

Although painted with exceptional skill, Tadema’s themes were not very popular amongst the clientele of the 1860s. As a result, Tadema decided to change tact, something that was sparked by his marriage to Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin on 24th September 1863.

The happy couple’s lengthy honeymoon took place around Italy in cities such as Florence, Rome and Naples. The ancient facades inspired Tadema to produce Roman genre scenes. As well as Rome, Tadema became equally interested in ancient Greece and Egypt, researching them thoroughly in order to produce accurately detailed oil paintings. Although he was predominantly interested in the ways of life and the architecture of the periods, he also painted a few biblical scenes.

 

 

Tadema and Pauline had two children (their firstborn, a son, died in infancy). Their daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943) often became the subjects of their father’s paintings. Although his painting style did not alter, these scenes show a remarkable contrast with his imagined scenes. They reveal the differences in the household and fashions of the eras of focus.

Sadly, Pauline died of smallpox in 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Spiralling into depression, Tadema’s work suffered and he eventually took the advice of his doctor to go to London to seek medical treatment. During his visit, he met the seventeen-year-old daughter of a physician, Laura Theresa Epps, and fell instantly in love. They were married in July 1871.

 

 

Tadema began his life in England with his new wife and daughters who were also artistically inclined. Some of Laura and Anna’s paintings were on show at Leighton House but were greatly outshone by the work of their husband and father.

It was at this time that Tadema adopted the English version of his name, Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and surname to create a name that would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.

Alma-Tadema became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, receiving many awards including being made a Royal Academician on 19th June 1879. He was eventually knighted in England by Queen Victoria in 1899, the eighth artist from the continent to receive this honour.

As the years progressed, Alma-Tadema’s output dwindled. This was less to do with his age and more to do with a new passion – decorating his home. Various pieces of furniture and photographs of the place in which he lived featured in the exhibition, however, the most interesting was the collection of thin paintings that made up the ‘Hall of Panels’. In a room of his house, forty-five individual door panels were displayed along the walls containing paintings produced by friends and acquaintances of the artist. Seventeen of these were assembled for the exhibition at Leighton House including one by Frederic Leighton himself, The Bath of Psyche (1887). Other artists include John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) and, of course, his daughter Anna.

 

 

Laura Alma-Tadema died age fifty-seven in 1909 and her husband was not far behind her. After arriving in Wiesbaden, Germany in the summer of 1912 to be treated for a stomach ulcer, the Victorian artist passed away on 28th June 1912 at the age of seventy-six. He received a state burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, with the rapid developments of art movements during the first half of the 20th-century, Alma-Tadema’s classical paintings were rejected in favour of the modern experiments of new artists. For a while, his works were forgotten about, however, his depiction of antiquities was discovered by filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott, who used his historically accurate paintings to construct scenery and develop characters.

As part of the exhibition, the curators at the Leighton House Museum set up two adjacent television screens, one to show the painting and the other to play scenes they inspired. Clips were shown from eight films including Gladiator (2000), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and The Ten Commandments (1956).

The final room of the exhibition contained two of Alma-Tadema’s most impressive works. The majority of his paintings are exceptional for the way in which flowers, textures, metals and pottery are depicted. Alma-Tadema would source items to use as references and be very perfectionistic about his work. He was also particularly adept at painting stone and marble, earning him the title ‘the marbellous painter’. Evidence of these skills can be seen in The Finding of Moses (1904) and The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).

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The Finding of Moses, 1904

The Finding of Moses was one of the last major works before Alma-Tadema’s death and was based on the biblical scene in Exodus 2:6. The Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come to bathe in the River Nile, has discovered the baby Moses hidden in a basket amongst the reeds. The scene shows a procession back to Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Alma-Tadema expertly painted realistic, full-length portraits of shaven-headed male attendants carrying Pharoah’s daughter on an intricately decorated chair. Beside her, two female attendants hold Moses aloft in his basket.

It is evident that Alma-Tadema undertook a significant amount of research to complete this painting. Amongst the decoration on the clothing and the daughter’s chair are symbols indicating her status and hieroglyphics identifying her as the daughter of Ramesses II.

The colours are fairly typical for a dusty Egyptian landscape, however, Alma-Tadema offsets the composition with the inclusion of delphiniums in the foreground, boasting another skill of his. The rich blues and purples turn the painting into something resembling a frieze and are a perfect contrast with the yellows and oranges of the pyramids in the background.

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The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888

The Roses of Heliogabalus is set in an entirely different era. The painting depicts a (probably fictitious) event during the life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (204-222). The teenage ruler sits at a banquet table leering down at his guests as a swarm of pink rose petals descend from a false ceiling. Whilst roses and their beautiful colouring generally have positive connotations, this scene is an imagining of something far more sinister, as written in the biography Augustan History (4th century):

“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

As in all Alma-Tadema’s paintings, the Roman citizens are painted in a perfect likeness – almost photographic. However, the most phenomenal aspect is the sheer amount of rose petals depicted, drowning the emperor’s victims. Thousands of petals have been painted on top of the canvas, each one painstakingly detailed. This goes to show Alma-Tadema’s dedication to his work (and his perfectionism).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was amongst the most financially successful painters of the Victorian-era and it is hard to believe that his work was rejected and ridiculed in the years after his death. Leighton House Museum curated a fantastic exhibition that not only shows off the impressive artworks, teaches the current generation about an artist who deserves to be remembered.

So much can be learnt by looking at Alma-Tadema’s work from artistic technique to historical context. A single painting can be studied for hours, each square inch containing so much detail.

Why this artist is not more widely known is baffling, but now there is hope as a result of the incredible exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity that Lawrence Alma-Tadema could become everyone’s favourite artist. It will be interesting to discover which artists the museum will reveal to the wider public next.

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity was organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (the artist’ hometown) and came to London following an exhibition at the Belvedere, Vienna bringing over 130 works to Leighton House Museum as the only UK venue for the show.

Churchill War Rooms

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Winston Churchill making a radio address from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. © IWM (H 20446)

Everyone has heard stories about the Second World War, Britain’s involvement and the famous speeches of wartime-Prime Minister Winston Churchill. With the conflict still fresh in the older generation’s minds, the media is forever portraying the battles, the bombed-out cities and living conditions of the public on our wide-screened TVs. It is a topic that is unlikely to ever be left alone.

Although documentaries and films tend to focus on the violence and dangers of war, a lot of it was fought in secret, unbeknownst to the general British public. In more recent years, these classified undertakings have gradually been revealed, bringing to light many unsung heroes.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965), the prime minister during the war, is obviously not overlooked in British history, however, at the time, it was not clear exactly what he was doing. Nevertheless, the hidden location beneath the streets of London, where Britain’s leaders made decisions to lead the country to victory, has been revealed to the public in London’s Westminster. The Cabinet War Rooms were situated underground in the basements of the New Public Offices and since 1984 have been widely available to tourists. The Imperial War Museum has restored many of the rooms to their original appearances to give an authentic insight into the daily life of the War Cabinet. Adding a Churchill Museum in 2005, the site was renamed Churchill War Rooms and celebrates the life of one of Britain’s greatest heroes.

“This is the room from which I will direct the war.” – Winston Churchill, May 1940

After descending the stairs underground, paying a fee of £19, and receiving an audioguide, visitors find themselves in the masses of corridors hidden beneath the Treasury Building (the former New Public Offices) opposite St James’s Park. At some times narrow and claustrophobia-inducing, these corridors connect a series of rooms where vital meetings and work took place during the Second World War. Even the main corridor, now mostly empty, would have been full of typists crammed together at small desks, toiling away at the never-ending piles of written correspondence.

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Cabinet Room at Churchill War Rooms. Source: Imperial War Museum

The audio tour begins with a glance into the Cabinet Room where the Prime Minister would chair meetings with his advisers and Chief of Staff (heads of the army, navy and airforce). The room is displayed exactly as it would have looked like before a meeting commenced, with paper and pencil in front of every seat, and ashtrays ready to receive the ashes from Churchill’s legendary cigar.

Churchill’s position at the table is clearly marked by a posher, more comfortable chair, whereas everyone else had to make do with the uniform basic versions. For the interest of visitors, a diagram is provided detailing the seating plan, explaining the importance of each meeting attendee.

The audioguide directs each visitor around the war rooms, explaining the uses of rooms and adding in interesting bits of information. Although some information boards are positioned around the corridors and rooms, the audioguide is much more beneficial, providing details about and describing the atmosphere during the war years.

There are still secrets to be revealed about the war rooms, mostly because a lot of the rooms were stripped bare at the end of the war with many items being thrown away. Fortunately, the most important rooms were left as they were, and in some cases, photographs have assisted museum workers to reconstruct the various chambers.

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Transatlantic Telephone Room

Some of the secrets the Imperial War Museum has unearthed were not even known to the majority of people who worked there. One of these was the Transatlantic Telephone located off the centre of the main corridor. Originally a storeroom, a lavatory-style lock was added to a door in 1943, giving rise to the rumour that Churchill had been given his own private toilet (there were no flushing toilets available to anyone underground). However, this cupboard-sized room had actually been adapted to accommodate a secure radio-telephone link between the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the United States of America.

Although not allowed to enter these small rooms, doors are left open so that visitors can peer in at the 1940s decor and furnishings (although rather sparse) and imagine what working underground must have felt like. Also on show are the private rooms such as bedrooms, kitchen and dining areas, built with the intention of being used during bombing raids.

Included in the tour is Churchill’s bedroom, although it is reported he only stayed the night there three times. However, he did make good use of the room, retiring there for a nap during the afternoon. Often, Churchill would dictate his speeches to his Private Secretary whilst lying on his bed, which would then be given to a typist to type out ready for use later in the day. In fact, Churchill made four radio speeches directly from his bedroom using microphones installed for this very purpose. The wall behind the bed is covered with a large map of Europe, implying that the Prime Minister would plot out potential landing sites for invasion.

The most important room of the entire Cabinet War Rooms was the Map Room. Here, officers from the army, navy, airforce and Ministry of Home Security would sit awaiting phonecalls to tell them of the latest news in Europe. This information would then be passed on to “plotters” who would attach pins, ribbons and so forth to wall-sized maps, displaying the latest situation and location of enemies and allies. From these maps, potential courses of military action could be assessed and planned –  a vital contribution to the eventual victory.

To try to prevent confusion, the Map Room contained phones of varying colours, each connecting to different correspondents. White phones were connected to the armed services, black to the outside world, and green to intelligence services. Rather than ringing, which would have caused an incessant racket, the phones would light up to indicate an incoming call.

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The private rooms contain items that had to be sourced elsewhere by researchers because nothing remained of the original furniture and so forth. The Map Rooms, however, were left exactly as they were when the lights were turned off after six years of war. Other items have been fortunate to survive and are also on display around the corridors and rooms to create an authentic appearance. This includes a door complete with key rack where many of the original keys to the rooms still hang, as well as a gun rack mounted on the wall of the corridor (thankfully, the guns are nailed down).

“The greatest Englishman of our time – I think the greatest citizen of the world of our time.” – Clement Attlee, Churchill’s wartime deputy, speaking in the House of Lords the day after Sir Winston’s death

The Cabinet War Rooms were already in use during the year before Churchill became Prime Minister. Neville Chamberlain held the first war cabinet meeting on 21st October 1939, however, it is Churchill who the war rooms have now been named after. In some ways, it is thanks to Churchill that the war rooms were built. In a meeting in July 1936, Churchill asked the present Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “Has anything been done to provide one or two alternative centre of command, with adequate deep-laid telephone connections and wireless, from which the necessary orders can be given by some coherent thinking mechanism?”

Despite so many people being involved, Churchill was certainly the leading man in the underground rooms and deserves the recognition he has received. In celebration of his life, a third of the tour of the Cabinet War Rooms takes place in a museum dedicated to the Prime Minister. The Churchill Museum tells the story of Winston Churchill’s extraordinary life from birth until his death at the age of 90.

The museum is split into five sections that can be viewed in any order, although the audioguide suggests sticking to a clockwise path around the exhibits. The most pertinent of the five sections is set between 1940-45, which outlines Churchill’s time as War Leader. The other sections cover his childhood (1874-1900), his entry into politics (1900-29), his political exile (1929-39), and his life after the war (1945-65).

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His aristocratic parents, Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, sent him to boarding school at the age of eight and had very little to do with his early years. Rather than immediately following his father’s footsteps into politics, Winston opted for a military career, eventually becoming a Boer War journalist for the Morning Post. However, Churchill could not avoid the pull of politics for long, and as of 1900, started a new career as the Conservative candidate for Oldham.

To begin with, Churchill was not the popular man he was destined to become and clashed with many other politicians. With so much antagonism against him, Churchill returned to military service in 1915 until 1924 when he rejoined the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, he fell out of favour with the subsequent Prime Ministers, eventually becoming exiled from politics in 1929. However, with the beginning of the war in 1939, Churchill was given the responsibility of the role of First Lord of the Admiralty and eventually began to earn respect. As a result, at the age of 65, Churchill was chosen as the new Prime Minister after Chamberlain’s resignation.

From 10th May 1940, Churchill supported Britain through the war, working extensively in the Cabinet War Rooms. Evidence of his hard work can be seen in the museum through visual, audio and interactive displays.

02_churchillIn the centre of the museum stands a 15-metre-long, digital, interactive table that provides a timeline of Churchill’s life. By using a touchstrip at the edge of the table, visitors can select and explore dates and events during Churchill’s life, viewing over 2000 documents, images and videos. This lifeline is continuously updated as more is discovered about the prodigious War Hero.

Unlike the War Rooms, preserved in their original appearances, The Churchill Museum is a contemporary feature. With so much to watch, read, hear and touch, the large room becomes crowded and overstimulating as everyone tries to explore the life of the famous figure. But with so much to learn, it is inevitable that the room becomes cramped and filled to capacity. Fortunately, the Imperial War Museum provides an in-depth guidebook which can be purchased at the entrance, or later in the gift shop. However, seeing personal items belonging to Britain’s most famous Prime Minister is much better in person, than within the limited pages of a book.

Following the audioguide and taking time to look at everything in the museum may take a couple of hours. A café is located two-thirds of the way through the tour, providing refreshments and a selection of lunches to replenish people’s energy for the final section, which includes the Map Rooms.

The Churchill War Rooms is a vital place to visit to get a true sense of the wartime efforts of the British government. If you are willing to pay the price (£19 adults, £9.50 children), it is certainly worth a visit. School history lessons barely cover the Second World War in comparison to the information provided in this secret bunker. You are guaranteed to learn something new.

The Churchill War Rooms is only a 20-minute bus ride from IWM London or HMS Belfast. It is also close to a wide range of famous tourist attractions including Tate Britain, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace. St James’s Park is also on the doorstep.