Courtauld Impressionists

The World Renowned Courtauld Gallery, one of the leading university art museums in the UK, is currently closed for redevelopment, however, there is still an opportunity to view some of the collection. This autumn and winter, the National Gallery in collaboration with The Courtauld Gallery have selected over forty masterpieces from the  Impressionist and Post-Impressionist era to display in their spacious Wohl Galleries (rooms 42-46). Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne includes famous works from many French artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, and Seurat.

The Courtauld Institute of Art was established in 1932 with the shared vision of two men, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Arthur Hamilton Lee, 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947). On its opening, Courtauld granted his impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artwork to the gallery. Since then, numerous gifts, bequests and donations have been provided from all art movements, including the early 14th century, the Renaissance and abstract. Today, the gallery contains around 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints.

This particular exhibition is focused on the collections of Samuel Courtauld rather than the art institution he formed. Not only is it an impressive collection, combined with paintings from the National Gallery, it tells the story of the development of modern French painting from the 1860s to the turn of the 20th century. Arranged into twelve sections, each one focusing on an individual artist, the exhibition chronologically explores the changing styles and themes over the many decades as well as Courtauld’s taste in art.

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Samuel Courtauld © By courtesy of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Samuel Courtauld’s career as an art collector began in 1922 after attending an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was one of the first collectors to take an interest in French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and quickly assembled a large collection. Along with his wife Elizabeth, the Courtauld’s private art collection rapidly grew to more than 70 paintings.

With Courtauld providing the majority of the funding from his family’s wealth in the textile business, the Courtauld Institute was able to secure and introduce numerous paintings to the UK public. Samuel Courtauld had a significant role in promoting and encouraging the British love of Impressionism.

The first artist to feature in the Courtauld Impressionists exhibition is Honoré-Victorin Daumier (1808-79) and is the earliest French artist in Samuel Courtauld’s collection. He was chiefly a draughtsman and printmaker, however, Daumier also produced caricatures for satirical journals.

Daumier’s career spanned five decades during which he produced numerous sculptures and paintings that revealed his witty observations and commentary about life. Initially he was known for his humourous Parisian street scenes, however, later in life, he turned to literary scenes, such as Miguel de Cervantes’ (c1547-1616) 17th-century comic tale Don Quixote. Samuel Courtauld was inspired by Daumier’s “tragic humour” in his unfinished painting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (1868-72). The oil painting is full of fluid brushstrokes that make up an impression of two faceless men riding on horses through a rocky mountain gorge.

After Daumier, the exhibition moves on to Edouard Manet (1832-83), one of the most controversial painters of the Impressionist movement. Samuel Courtauld collected many of Manet’s works, including his final piece A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2). Whilst being inspired by famous artists of the past, such as Velázquez (1599-1660) and Titian (1488-1576), Manet was also a radical influence on many of the painters in his close circle and successors. Mostly, he was admired for his approach to space and colour within his work.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère was the purchase that established Samuel Courtauld as an ambitious collector. The Folies-Bergère was a fashionable place of entertainment popular in Paris in the 19th century. It was also popular for demi-monde or prostitutes who openly pursued their trade.  Although not entirely certain, it is likely the barmaids were also available to their clients, including Suzon, who Manet places behind a table full with bottles of alcohol. The mirror behind her shows a reflection of the hustle and bustle of the establishment and the presence of a customer at the bar. Unfortunately, this mirror has lead to much confusion and debate throughout the art world.

Critics have noted that the barmaid’s encounter with the customer shown in the mirror, does not match the lonely, isolated figure facing the spectators. Allegedly, x-rays have revealed that Manet initially painted a more accurate reflection but why he altered this remains unknown. These types of distortions and dislocations were common in Manet’s work, however, this is believed to be the most extreme.

Other works of Manet on display include Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862), Le Déjeurner sur l’herbe (1863-8) and Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The latter was painted whilst visiting another Impressionist painter, Monet, in the suburbs of Paris. Unlike Monet, Manet prefered to paint in his studio, however, this painting of his wife, Camille, and his son Jean is likely to have been produced en plein air.

Naturally, the exhibition follows Manet with Claude Monet (1840-1926), perhaps the most famous Impressionist painter. Monet was a master at plein-air painting, spending his lifetime producing paintings of his immediate surroundings. Originally, Monet was a keen painter of the French countryside, particularly where a body of water could be seen. Later in life, he turned his hand to areas in Paris and the suburbs, however, these failed to impress Samuel Courtauld.

In the 1920s and 30s, Courtauld made the purchase of four works by Monet for his private collection. These all came from the height of Monet’s career and Impressionist period. One was produced in the same place Manet had complete his plein-air painting, Argenteuil. In Monet’s landscape, Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), autumnal trees frame the River Seine, drawing attention to the handful of buildings on the opposite bank. Although Argenteuil was developing into an industrial town, Monet’s perspective captures it in a timeless manner.

The first Monet landscape Courtauld purchased was the much brighter Antibes (1888), which reveals a captivating expanse of the Mediterranean sea. Whilst in the north of France, Monet was focused on capturing cool light and colour, the strong sunshine in the south inspired him to intensify his palette. With only a simple tree in the foreground to break up the expanse of sea, Monet relied on a mix of blues and greens with touches of pink and red to suggest the effects of the bright sun on the water.

The Courtauld Impressionist exhibition is not only a showcase of a selection of artists, but it also explores the differences between those who fall under the Impressionism umbrella. Unlike previous and later art movements, Impressionism did not have particularly strong rules or regulations, and the artist opposite Monet in the gallery emphasises the differences in style within the group.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834-1917) was one of the founding members of Impressionism, exhibiting in all but one of their art shows. Unlike Monet who was interested in landscapes, Degas focused upon his love of horseriding, ballet and showed women going about their everyday life. Coming from a wealthy background, Degas was also able to afford to experiment with different techniques, including pastels, sculpture and drawing.

By the time Samuel Courtauld began assembling a serious collection of art, Degas was already famous throughout France and Britain. During the 1920s, Courtauld purchased a total of eight works by Degas, five for his private collection and three for the nation. The most expensive painting by Degas in the Courtauld Gallery is Two Dancers on a Stage (1874), which shows two female figures in standard ballet poses. Degas either painted this while watching a play or a dance rehearsal, however, it is now believed that the ballerinas are dancing the Ballet des Roses, which features in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. This oil painting was already in possession of a British collector, however, in 1927, Courtauld bought it from him for a much higher price.

The first Degas painting to be purchased by the Courtauld fund was one of his earlier works, Young Spartans Exercising (1860). Although Degas is known for his depictions of everyday life, this is an example of his experimentation with history painting. Described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plutarch, the picture shows a group of boys and girls preparing for a wrestling contest, something that was encouraged by the Spartan legislator Lycurgus. This painting is almost unique in comparison to all Degas’ well-known works; in fact, Young Spartans Exercising was never shown to the public during the artist’s lifetime and was discovered after his death.

Another famous Impressionist painter Samuel Courtauld admired was Pierre-August Renoir (1841-1919) who produced more than 5000 paintings during his 60-year career. Primarily a painter of people, Renoir used small brushstrokes to build up the radiance and vibrancy of light and colour. One of Renoir’s most popular artwork, Le Loge (1874) is used on advertisements for the exhibition at the National Gallery.

Renoir painted many scenes of theatregoers, particularly those sitting in theatre boxes, which revealed the lifestyle of many Parisians. Le Loge shows Renoir’s brother Edmond and a model, Nini Lopez, seated in a box. Whilst Edmond looks upwards through a pair of binoculars, Lopez faces forward, opera glasses beside her, which she probably used to peer at members of the audience, rather than the action on stage. Dressed up as she is, Lopez was there to be noticed, suggesting an ambiguous social status.

Another theatre scene, also one of the first works purchased by the Courtauld FundLa Première Sortie (1876-7) reveals a different type of theatregoer. As the title suggests, the young woman leaning expectantly forward in her seat is on her first formal visit to the theatre. Unaware of the eyes of the audience on her from below, Renoir captures her eagerness to see the performance and experience theatre life.

It was not these theatre portraits, however, that initially attracted Samuel Courtauld’s attention. Instead, it was the intimate Woman tying her Shoe (1918), which he and his wife Elizabeth purchased in 1922, the first French work of art they bought.

Samuel Courtauld’s first purchase from the Post-Impressionist period was Jane Avril in the Entrance to Moulin Rouge (1892) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). The National Gallery quote Courtauld admiring the “fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Toulouse-Lautrec,” implying he believed it to attest to the end of Impressionism.

Jane Avril was a leading performer at the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris. She was also Lautrec’s favourite model and close personal friend and, as a result, appears in many of his works. It is said that Courtauld was so taken with this painting, he was annoyed when its delivery was delayed.

Whereas Lautrec was squeezed into a corner, it is impossible to miss Georges Seurat’s large canvas Bathers at Asniéres (1884) on the wall of the next room. Seurat was obsessed with light and colour but dissatisfied with the way the Impressionists’ had approached the idea. Employing a pointillist technique, Seurat placed dots of different colour paint to make up an entire recognisable scene. Bizarrely, this particular masterpiece of industrial workers resting on the banks of the Seine was rejected by the Paris Salon in 1884. Four decades later, long after Seurat’s untimely death at the age of 31, the Courtauld Fund bought the painting for Britain.

The Courtauld Gallery owns a couple of other works by Seurat, including Young Woman Powdering Herself, which is a portrait of Seurat’s mistress, Madeleine Knobloch. Seurat never explained the meaning behind this painting, however, he used his trademark pointillist technique to execute the rounded and angular forms in the scene.

A fan of Seurat’s pointillism was the French artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). Initially a founding member of the Impressionists, Pissarro adopted this new technique later in his career. Of his many paintings, Courtauld only selected town scenes, such as The Boulevard Montmartre at Night (1897) – a contrast to his preference of Monet’s works.

The final room of the exhibition features Samuel Courtauld’s favourite artist, Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), of whom he purchased an incredible eleven works as well as drawings and personal letters. Courtauld’s fascination with the artist is clear with the purchase of Hillside in Provence (1890-2), which he purchased with his own money for the nation because the Courtauld Fund was almost exhausted.

At the time of purchase, the British public was sceptical about Cézanne’s work, often sparking intense debates. It appears Courtauld took a risk by purchasing so many of his paintings, however, it was a risk that paid off. The first Cézanne Courtauld purchased was one of his most daring compositions, Still life with Plaster Cupid (1894), which went against traditional laws of composition and perspective. Nevertheless, it was a painting Courtauld treasured his whole life.

One of the most expensive of Cézanne’s works purchased by Courtauld was The Card Players (1892-6); it is also one of Cézanne’s most iconic works. It is a scene of two men, probably farm labourers, playing a game of cards whilst seated at a small table. True to Cézanne’s style, the perspective is inaccurate, a feature that critics believe was not deliberate. Despite these distortions, Courtauld coveted the painting so much that he considered trading in another of Cézanne’s works in order to pay for it.

With Cézanne’s work taking up half the room, the final three artists in the exhibition are squeezed into the remaining space. This includes Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) who developed an outmoded Impressionist approach to painting in his later years. This can be seen in Blue Balcony (1910), which Samuel Courtauld purchased to fit in with his collection of Impressionist art.

A rather surprising fact appears in the description of Paul Gauguin’s (1848-1903) Te Rerioa or The Dream (1897). Painted while in Tahiti, two women watch over a sleeping child, whilst the Tahitian goddess Hina looks on from a painting on the wall.

“Te Rerioa (The Dream), that is the title. Everything is a dream in this canvas; is it the child? is it the mother? is it the horseman on the path? or even is it the dream of the painter!!! All that is incidental to painting, some will say. Who knows. Maybe it isn’t.”
– Gauguin in a letter to Daniel de Monfreid

The theme of the painting is a stark contrast to all the other paintings in Samuel Courtauld’s collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, however, that is not the most intriguing thing about it. According to the description, Courtauld sold one of his Cézannes in order to afford to buy it. Judging by his infatuation with Cézanne, Courtauld must have truly believed Te Rerioa to be something special to go to such lengths to purchase it.

The last painter to mention is Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). Most of his work belongs to the Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, however, the Courtauld Fund was able to secure four paintings, including a version of his famous Sunflowers, Chair and A Wheatfield with Cypresses (1889), the only van Gogh to feature in this particular exhibition.

From Daumier to van Gogh, Courtauld Impressionists takes spectators on a journey through the art of the 19th and early 20th century. It is interesting to see the differing style and method of each painter, particularly as they all worked at similar times. It is difficult to put into words the changes that occur over those years; the best way to understand the shifts in style is to see the paintings for yourself.

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne is open to the public until 20th January 2019. Tickets are a reasonable £7.50 and can be booked online in advance or purchased on the day from the ticket desk. Under twelves may view the exhibition free when accompanied by a paying adult.

Mantegna versus Bellini

A tale of two artists: family and rivalry is the theme for the National Gallery’s current exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in collaboration with the British Museum. Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini are two of the greatest Italian painters of the Renaissance. Whilst it may appear the younger Bellini began his career by copying Mantegna, the already established artist, his work developed into groundbreaking paintings of which no one had seen the like before. With temporary loans of dozens of rarely seen artworks, the exhibition, Mantegna and Bellini, provides the opportunity to study the similarities and differences between two artists who shaped Italian art.

 

 

It started with a book. On entering the exhibition, visitors are faced with a glass display case containing the London Drawing Book of Jacopo Bellini. Although this does not contain the works of the two artists in question, it is a key object that links their stylistic development together.

Jacopo Bellini (c.1400-70) was one of the founders of the Renaissance style of painting in Venice and northern Italy. His sons, Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni (c.1430-1516) learnt the art of painting and drawing under his tutelage, however, it was not until Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) joined the family, that the younger son, Giovanni, began to make his name known.

Mantegna was born in Padua and adopted by the artist Francesco Squarcione (c.1395 -c.1468) in whose studio he also worked. Unfortunately, the young artist believed Squarcione was exploiting his pupils and took him to court so that he could become an independent painter. As a result, Mantegna was free to go where he wished, marrying into the Bellini family in 1453.

After his marriage to Nicolosia Bellini (d.1460), Mantegna was able to study the drawings of Jacopo Bellini. As can be seen in the illustrations, Jacopo was interested in architecture and perspective, which inevitably rubbed off on his son-in-law and then his son.

Whilst Mantegna had already experienced life as an artist, having to work hard to make a living, Giovanni Bellini had grown up in an extremely wealthy family of Venetian painters and had not endured the same fate, nor yet developed his own style and place amongst Italian artists. Looking to his brother-in-law for inspiration, Bellini appropriated many of the established and highly inventive artist’s ideas, gradually forging a name for himself.

 

 

The first and most obvious example of Mantegna’s influence on Bellini is their similar versions of The Presentation at the Temple. These show the moment Mary and Joseph present their child, Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth. Here, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 2:22–40, they meet prophet Simeon and prophetess Anna. Both paintings show the Virgin Mary tenderly holding the tightly swaddled Christ Child while Simeon comes forward to take him. In the background between these main figures, Joseph watches the proceedings.

In Mantegna’s version, which was painted shortly after his marriage, there are two figures stood either side of the painting. These are thought to be portraits of the artist himself and his wife, Nicolosia. The composition is rather claustrophobic, the framing being just enough room to hold the upper bodies of Mary and Simeon with their halos.

Bellini’s version, however, is observed from further away, allowing room for an extra character on either side. It has not been officially determined who these people represent. To produce this piece, Bellini traced Mantegna’s original, which had been completed over ten years beforehand, keeping the poses, facial expressions and types of clothing almost exactly the same. The changes appear in the colours of the fabrics, the brightness of the scene and the lack of halos upon the Holy Family’s heads.

To some, the paintings are so similar that Bellini’s version appears to be blatant plagiarism. On the other hand, there is enough difference to make it his own. It is as though Bellini is trying to say to Mantegna, “Look what I can do,” or perhaps even, “Anything you can do, I can do better!”

 

The Presentation at the Temple is just one of many examples the National Gallery uses to emphasise Mantegna’s influence on Bellini. Another is The Agony in the Gardenwhich Mantegna first produced at the end of the 1450s, inspiring Bellini to produce his own version at the beginning of the following decade. The paintings refer to chapter 14, verses 32-43 in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while his disciples, Peter, James the Great and John the evangelist sleep.

It is thought that Mantegna was initially inspired by a drawing by Jacopo Bellini. This Bible passage was an unusual choice to represent at this time since many Biblical paintings came in sets, representing the birth, life and resurrection of Christ; The Agony in the Garden was the first stand-alone religious painting in western art.

Mantegna’s rocky terrain and sharp colours give the painting a harsh atmosphere and a portent of the events to come emphasised further by a dead tree and vulture on the right. A host of angels stand above on a cloud clutching Instruments of the Passion, another omen of Christ’s impending death. In the background is the city of Jerusalem from which a troop of soldiers follow Judas’ lead to arrest Jesus.

Although Bellini took inspiration from Mantegna, on this occasion his outcome is not a copy of his brother-in-law’s. The events depicted remain the same, however, Bellini has introduced his own interpretation. Bellini chose to include only one ghostly angel standing aloft on a wispy cloud carrying a cup and plate as symbols of the approaching sacrifice. The colours and the way Bellini portrays light in his composition gives the painting a more tender feel. Unlike Mantegna’s version, it suggests hope, a hint of the resurrection, a sign of prayers being answered.

 

 

Up until the 15th century, Biblical paintings showed the characters, Jesus, the Holy family and so forth as beautiful, angel-like beings. They were figures that personified the love of God and served as examples of the ideal human being. During Mantegna and Bellini’s careers, these notions began to change. Although traditional scenes of the nativity and the Madonna remained popular, artists began to change the way they portrayed the death of Christ. Instead of a peaceful, serene outcome, Mantegna and Bellini focused on painting the torture of Christ, revealing through him the sorrows of man.

 

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised …
– Isaiah 53:3

The National Gallery provides more examples of Bellini’s depiction of the “despised and rejected” Christ, however, both artists were keen to express the lifeless body and the grief on the faces of his mother and disciples.

 

Whilst Bellini was intensely impacted by Mantegna’s art and style, Bellini’s evocative landscapes and application of colour equally inspired Mantegna. As their careers developed, the landscape became an integral part of their paintings. Rather than spend all their energy painting the foreground and characters, the brothers-in-law paid equal attention to the backgrounds of their compositions.

Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, for example, could simply have been portrayed in a room with bare walls. Instead, the artist has included a huge open window overlooking the city of Mantua, where he was currently residing. Likewise, Bellini in Madonna of the Meadow did not solely focus on the tenderness of the mother and child. In the background is a landscape complete with the buildings of a distant city. The inclusion of these structures maintains the original teachings of Jacopo Bellini who enjoyed sketching architectural drawings.

One of Bellini’s greatest examples of a landscape is Assassination of St Peter Martyr. This tells the story of Saint Peter, a Dominican friar, who was ambushed by assassins on the road to Milan. Saint Peter received a head wound and was repeatedly stabbed to death. This incident takes place in the lower left of the painting, leaving a huge amount of canvas that Bellini fills with an expressive landscape.

The death of St Peter takes place in a wooded area outside of a city; the buildings can be seen through the trees. Oblivious to the saint’s demise, woodcutters are chopping down branches for firewood, an intended allusion to the way in which the saint was killed.

The most impressive landscape the gallery displays by Mantegna is Triumphs of the Virtues. Unlike the first few rooms in the exhibition which show religions paintings, this is a mythological image that reveals Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, expelling the vices from the Garden of Virtue. Some of the other characters are identified as Diana, the goddess of chastity, escaping from a centaur who, in this case, is a symbol of lust and desire. In the sky, the three primary moral virtues, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, watch over the proceedings.

As well as expertly telling the mythological tale, Mantegna painted a magical landscape full of luscious green meadows and mountains. In the foreground, arches are made up of foliage and, in keeping with the whimsical story, the tree nearest Minerva is shown with a human head.

 

Despite the familial connection and the clear influence they had on each other, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini only worked in close proximity briefly before Mantegna took up the post of court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua. Although the artistic style of work is close enough to be mistaken for the other, the direction they went with themes and purposes gave them individuality within the art world.

Mantegna had a great interest in antiquity and attempted to recreate ancient Rome in some of his paintings. Three of nine large canvases covered the walls in the final room of the exhibition of the Triumphs of Caesar, which shows the arrival of Julius Caesar in Rome. These are thought to have been commissioned by Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519), the 4th Marquis of Mantua, although, they were later acquired by Charles I in 1629 and now remain in the Royal Collection.

Another example of Mantegna’s interest in antiquity can be seen in The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome commisioned by Francesco Cornaro (1478-1543), a Venetian nobleman, in 1505. Rather than painting a life-like illustration of the scene, Mantegna painted a sculptural relief. Although the background is coloured a red marble or wood, the stone figures are completely monochrome. This goes to show Mantegna’s skill with the paintbrush; producing a black and white painting is only half the challenge, making figures look like stone is a true success.

 

Unlike Mantegna, Bellini remained in Venice his whole life, often completing commisions in many Venetian and religious buildings. Despite being away from his brother-in-law, they remained in contact and had similar interests. Bellini was also interested in antiquity, finishing commissions Mantegna left incomplete after his death. At this time, however, the term antiquity also referred to events written in the Old Testament, such as the story of Noah.

The Drunkenness of Noah was completed about a year before Bellini’s death and shows the daring and revolutionary ideas of the artist. Traditionally, Biblical paintings reveal positive stories and messages, however, this painting based on Genesis 9:20–23 reveals Noah’s vices rather than his virtuosity. Noah is lying naked on the floor in drunken slumber whilst his sons, Shem and Japheth, attempt to cover him with a red cloth. His third son, Ham, however, laughs at the sight of his father.

Bellini also received commissions for portraits, however, he much prefered to paint portraits of characters rather than real people. The most beautiful of these is Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene which, unlike his other paintings with expressive landscapes, has a black background; the characters are lit from a light source outside of the frame.

Although not overly elaborate or detailed, Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and Mary Magdalene attracts attention with its chiaroscuro effect and the glossy finish to the painting – an element that is lost looking at the image online or on paper. Mantegna’s medium of choice was egg tempera, which Bellini initially used before developing a preference for oil paints. Oils allowed for deeper colour and contrast in shading.

There is no doubt that Mantegna and Bellini were two of the greatest painters in Italy during the 15th century, however, for an exhibition expressly about the pair, very little is alluded to about their lives, personalities or whether the brothers-in-law got on well together. This exhibition does not let Mantegna and Bellini’s personalities come through. It eliminates them in preference for detailed comparisons about how they painted and drew the same subjects, such as The Agony in the Garden and The Presentation at the Temple.

Of course, it is interesting to see the similarities and difference between the two artists, but on leaving the exhibition, visitors remain none the wiser about who the two painters really were. Did they have happy lives and happy marriages? Do their paintings reflect their personalities? Did Mantegna mind Bellini copying his work? Were they rivals or is this a label art historians have assumed? So many questions …

Despite these misgivings, it is incredible to see all these paintings in one place, especially as many belong to private collections and are rarely lent out to other organisations. It is interesting to see the famous paintings as well as the lesser known and to be able to witness the growth from early career to pioneers of the Renaissance. Although Mantegna and Bellini’s lives are not much revealed, the history, development and changes in paintings from the 15th century is fascinating.

Mantegna and Bellini is in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery until 27th January 2019. Tickets are between £12-16 and can be booked online or bought on the day. 

 

I Object!

Who better to curate an exhibition about dissent than Private Eye editor Ian Hislop (b1960), the most sued man in Britain? Rummaging through the collection at the British Museum, Hislop has uncovered over 100 controversial items revealing physical evidence of past protest. After three years of careful examination, the museum exhibits his findings to the public in a temporary display, I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent.

As editor of the leading satirical current affairs magazine, Ian Hislop is constantly asking whether the stories and supposed facts are true. The majority of objects in the British Museum celebrate the lives of past rulers and societies, often admiring their strengths and successes, however, Hislop was determined to uncover objects that challenged these histories. The exhibition investigates the other side of the story, looking at the downtrodden, the protestors and those with a different point of view.

The exhibition begins with Ian Hislop’s favourite items before going on to explore objects of dissent from all over the world and time. Given the nature of his magazine, it is unsurprising that Hislop was drawn to satirical cartoons, particularly Treason!!! drawn by Richard Newton in 1798. Sketches of this nature are mostly harmless and only mock the subjects depicted rather than physically attack. A few examples of cartoon prints, including this one, make a mockery of the British monarchy in the late Georgian Period.

Newton’s caricature shows a stout, middle-aged man breaking wind at a portrait of King George III (1738-1820), the reigning monarch at the time. The man is labelled “Mr Bull”, referring to John Bull, the name of the national personification of the United Kingdom, England in particular, who was often depicted in political cartoons to represent the nation. George III is the “mad king who lost America” who was intermittently “mad” for the last 11 years of his reign. Although this etching was published before he succumbed to his mental illness, George’s quarrels with his American subjects resulted in the loss of the American Colonies in 1776. This may have contributed to the public’s dislike of the king, prompting magazines to publish satirical images of their “unfit ruler”.

Ian Hislop included a handful of other cartoons from this era, for example, a hand-coloured etching by James Gillray (1756–1815) titled A voluptuary under the horrors of digestion (1792). Gluttony, sexual amorality and avarice were frequent topics for caricaturists during the 18th and 19th century. Gillray attacked the Prince of Wales, later George IV, (1762-1830) with a portrait revealing him to be an obese and ungainly man, surrounded by items that expressed his desires for women, money, drink and food. Whilst this may seem a nasty attack on the royal family, it was widely known that Prince George was frequently bailed out by the government.

“A fantastic, very ancient, small act of rebellion.”

Some of Ian Hislop’s findings date back to the ancient world, objects of which the British Museum has in abundance. Most people would assume that graffiti is a modern issue, however, Hislop found evidence of a piece that is at least 3000 years old. With an estimated date of 1300-1100 BC, an ostracon, or stone fragment from the ancient Egyptian village Deir el-Medina, is defaced with a crude drawing of a sex scene. Whilst this may not show dissent as such, Hislop included this “very silly” object as evidence that people of the past are not much different from people of today.

Another stone, this time dating from 650 BC, contains another form of graffiti. This brick formed part of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s (c.634 BC – c.562 BC) Babylonian building and is stamped with his names and title. The brickmaker, however, has cheekily added his own name in Aramaic in the top-right corner. It is not possible to tell what “Zabina’s” intentions were with this small act of rebellion but Hislop likes to think the gesture made the culprit feel good.

42707514_1229925277132806_7316189399589322752_nSticking with the theme of ancient wall graffiti, Hislop included a primitive example of wall art from the Post-Catatonic era amongst his favourite objects. The accompanying description states that the image is thought to depict an early man venturing towards his “out-of-town hunting grounds”. If the shopping trolley in the drawing and the term “Post-Catatonic” has not triggered alarm bells, the name of the primaeval artist “Banksymus Maximus” is a dead giveaway that the item is a fake.

The wall art or Peckham Rock, as it is now known, was created by the anonymous street artist Banksy. Although the style of art may resemble those found in caverns, this hoax cave painting was produced with a marker pen on a piece of concrete. Whilst clearly a fake, it is the story behind its creation that earns it a place in the I Object exhibition. In 2005, the artist secretly installed the stone in one of the British Museum galleries where it remained undiscovered for a number of days. Although amusing, Banksy was, in some way, ridiculing ancient artefacts.

Frequently, religion has caused wars and unrest throughout the ages, a fact that is evidenced many times throughout this exhibition. Whether being forced to worship a god they do not believe in or, alternatively, being banned from worshipping one they do, people have responded in a number of different ways.

After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547) banned the Catholic faith, going as far as to execute those who refused or tried to continue to worship in secret. Many Catholic relics and buildings were destroyed during this period of time, however, some had the foresight to hide or bury their belongings for safety. As a result of this, numerous Catholic artefacts still exist, as evidenced in the display cases of the exhibition.

Ian Hislop’s favourite example of Catholic dissidence is the Stonyhurst Salt. To the untrained eye, it looks like an elaborate, but secular, salt-cellar, however, it was made out of recycled fragments of religious reliquaries. As well as using the silver from the church plate, embellishments were added to emphasise its religious connotation. Silver and crystal may have been used to symbolise Christ’s purity, and the rubies and garnets, Christ’s blood.

By disguising items in this way, Catholics were silently protesting against Henry VIII’s rules. Although at risk of arrest or death, these Catholic dissenters helped to preserve a part of English history, as well as amuse Ian Hislop. “I can imagine the rich (and obviously Catholic) owners of this object saying to their guests, ‘of course, Catholicism has been banned, we wouldn’t dream of having such items of Catholic worship here. By the way, this is a salt-cellar – would you like some?’”

The other religious object Ian Hislop draws attention to is known as the “Wicked Bible”. Published in 1631 under the names of Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, this edition of the King James Bible earned its name due to a printing error that changed the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14) to “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Printing errors are common and this could be the case of an unfortunate slip, however, Hislop remains unconvinced. He thinks it is a rather big coincidence that the printing error just happened to be in that particular verse. Nonetheless, regardless of the circumstances, the publishers were fined £300.

If it is not religion, it is politics that becomes the target of ridicule and objection. There is no politician in existence, past or present, that has been loved and admired by everyone. General elections prove the point with debates and demonstrations that attempt to encourage people to “vote yes”, “vote remain”, “dump Trump” and so forth. These, however, are loud messages to the world but Hislop has uncovered quiet, even subliminal, methods.

Many countries acknowledge the commercial holiday Halloween, where tradition claims spirits of the dead come to visit on the eve of All Saints Day. No country celebrates this idea more than Mexico with their three-day festival Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. Amongst other things, members of the public decorate cemeteries with bright coloured flowers and calavera or skull shapes. Mexican newspapers often dedicate cartoon skeletons to public figures in the style of the famous calaveras of José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican political illustrator.

As part of the I Object exhibition, Hislop has included two skeleton papier mâché figures used in celebrations from the 1980s. Day of the Dead has been celebrated for centuries, however, in its modern manifestation, the festival has become an opportunity to mock traditional hierarchies and authority figures. One of the figures represents a corrupt factory owner and the other ridicules Uncle Sam the personification of the American government.

This year, with the anniversary of female emancipation, the “votes for women” penny coin has become highly recognisable throughout the country. With the advent of social media, it is now easy to spread a message or opinion, however, in the early 1900s, people had other methods of expressing their thoughts across the nation. By stamping this slogan on one penny coins, suffragettes ensured hundreds of people would carry their messages in their own purses.

The suffragettes were not the first group of protestors to use defaced coins in their campaigns; the exhibition displays a few coins from other eras. The earliest example comes from 1797, which shows an engraving of a hanging man and the words “The Pope” on one side of a one penny coin. Although not certain, this could be interpreted as support for Napoleon Bonapart (1769-1821) who had imprisoned two popes during the French Revolution.

Nowadays, coins are no longer used to spread messages throughout the country, however, a few people have resorted to writing on paper notes. Examples from the USA and Britain, including a £20 note sporting the words “Stay in the EU”, reveal the strong opinions of an individual. Unlike the coins, which were cheaper and less costly to produce, there are unlikely to be many duplicates of these defaced notes, therefore, this method of protest is less effective.

Whilst defacing a paper note may not draw much attention, a rogue engraver managed to place permanent messages in the 10 and 50 rupee notes in Seychelles. Although not easy to see unless you are looking, the artist has hidden the words “scum” and “sex” within the design. It is not clear what the anonymous engraver aimed to achieve but, as Ian Hislop says, “This is so childish that it made me laugh.”

Many of the objects in the exhibition, such as these rupees, have hidden messages, which were less easily discovered, thus protecting the culprits from punishment. These concealed acts of resistance allow people to register their own protest and opinions in the safety of their own homes. In some ways, it is a method of coping for those who feel oppressed by those in power. On the other hand, some choose to be extremely vocal and expressive about their opinions.

Throughout time, people have taken to the streets in protest for all sorts of reasons. Within the past century, hundreds of marches have taken place in cities around the world demanding equality, peace, retribution and so forth. Many of these protests develop their own slogan and branding, which are displayed on banners and placards, however, some people go as far as to express their opinion with their clothing.

Hislop has included old and modern examples of clothing that expressed the views of the wearer. One of the oldest of these is a ring containing the portrait of Charles I (1600-49), worn by supporters of the king during the war against parliament. A silk garter, from 1745, also expressed an opinion about royalty. The wearer of the garter expressed his support for Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88), known as “Bonny Prince Charlie”, with an embroidered statement: “God bless PC and down with rump.” Prince Charlie attempted to reclaim the English throne for the House of Stuart during the Jacobite rebellion. “Rump” referred to parliament, the same parliament who had beheaded Charles I, also a Stuart.

When going to an exhibition at the British Museum, it is the expectation that the items on display will be fairly old, however, a few contemporary examples of dissent have found their way into the exhibition. Although not an item of clothing, a bright yellow umbrella featuring lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine, hangs from the wall of the gallery. This belongs to the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong where students and other members of the public demonstrated outside government headquarters for genuine universal suffrage. In order to control the crowds, police used tactics such as tear gas, however, this did not deter the outraged protestors.

Protestors were quick to invent ways of protecting themselves from police tear gas raids by equipping themselves with umbrellas to shelter their faces. Whilst this began as a means of protection, the idea quickly caught on, and the umbrella became a symbol of the protest. Soon, branded yellow umbrellas were available and by merely holding one, people visually associated themselves with the movement.

“I’m quite pro-dissent. I think it leads to a healthier world.”
– Ian Hislop, 2018

Throughout the exhibition, Ian Hislop provides his observations and opinions about the objects he uncovered in written speech bubbles alongside general information about the items. This helps visitors make sense of the various forms of dissent and understand why Hislop felt it necessary to share with the public. Hislop greatly admires many of the people behind the ideas shown, stating, “I have spent my life risking no more than the odd libel writ or fine. I’m always impressed by people in other societies and in the past who have done this for real, risking their lives, livelihoods, places and families in order just to say ‘No’.”

It is easy to see why Hislop was so interested in these 100 or so objects, however, seeing them all at once with very little time to process information, becomes rather overwhelming for visitors. The exhibition is not set out in a clear order, leaving people confused about which sections to view first, often leading to clashes of people coming from opposite directions. From the entrance, perplexed visitors pass five objects and find themselves at the exit wondering where to go next. Incidentally, these five objects are Ian Hislop’s favourite items in the entire exhibition and, therefore, the best bits.

Ian Hislop set out to discover truths and opposing opinions, in which he has ultimately succeeded. His enthusiasm for his findings is clear throughout his commentary and it is, admittedly, interesting to discover the various methods of dissent employed throughout history. Many of the items look “normal” without explanation, however, their creators have been very clever and inventive. The exhibition raises questions about the history taught in schools and the true version of events.

I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent remains open to the public until 20th January 2019.  Tickets are £12 per adult and photographs may be taken throughout the visit. Under 16s may visit for free, however, some of the content is unsuitable for young children. 

Splendours of the Subcontinent

For over 400 years, Britain has had connections with the Indian subcontinent, beginning with the East India Company in 1600. After the trading company was dissolved in 1858, two-thirds of the subcontinent became part of the British Raj, a union of the London India Office, the British Indian Government and Queen Victoria (1819-1901). Through this connection, Britain became the owners of many Indian works of art, paintings and manuscripts, which are still part of the Royal Collection today.

Some of the manuscripts and artworks were given as diplomatic gifts to the British Sovereign, whereas, others were given to individual British officers visiting the subcontinent. Queen Victoria was the recipient of many of these offerings, as was King George V (1865-1936) in the 20th century.

Recently, the Royal Collection showed off the brilliance of its Indian collection of art in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Splendours of the Subcontinent introduced the public to past relations with the Indian subcontinent and the style of art unique to Asia. Split into two halves, the exhibition examines Four Centuries of South Asian Paintings and Manuscripts and explores A Prince’s Tour of India. The latter reveals the diplomatic tour Queen Victoria’s eldest son took around the subcontinent, covering 21 regions and culminating in hundreds of artworks.

 

A PRINCE’S TOUR OF INDIA 1875-6

On 8th November 1875, Albert Edward (1841-1910), the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – arrived in Bombay, starting off his four-month tour of the subcontinent. Travelling by boat, rail, or even elephant, the Prince visited over 90 Indian rulers or maharajas, presenting them with British jewellery, books and gifts and receiving local gifts of art in return.

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Peacock barge inkstand 1870-76

The first object in the exhibition is an impressive peacock barge inkstand made of gold and decorated with rubies, sapphires, diamonds and pearls. This was given to Prince Albert as a memento of his trip down the River Ganges on one of the state barges that it replicates. Complete with oars, an anchor, flagpole and mast, the stand separates into nineteen pieces, revealing two inkwells, a pair of scissors, a penknife and two pen nibs.

The prow of the barge represents the state bird of India, the Indian peafowl or peacock, with its tail spread and inlaid with sapphires and diamonds.  On the opposite side, the stern takes the form of the head of a Makara, a dragon-like mythological creature associated with Hinduism. Birds and flowers decorate the deck and the mast is engraved with a dedication to the Prince of Wales, making it a personalised gift from Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1855-1931), the Maharaja of Benares.

Most of the gifts that Prince Albert received had been carefully thought out by the Indian rulers to ensure that they showed off the range of techniques and skills of their craftsmen as well as reflect the regions he visited. They expressed the culture and customs of the Indian population, which was becoming popular amongst Europeans at the time, since the 1851 Great Exhibition in London where Indian artwork was greatly admired.

A typical gift for royalty at the time was weaponry, particularly ceremonial swords and daggers. Presented by Ali Murad Khan I Talpur, Amir of Khairpur, Prince Albert received a foot-long sword made of fine watered crucible steel. This material gives the blade a unique rippled water-like pattern typical of bladesmiths in Iran, where it was most likely produced. The hilt, however, is more European in style and may even have been welded by a European metalworker. The hilt was engraved with a leaf-like pattern, decorated with diamonds, rubies and pearls, and finished off with a silk tassel that remarkably still remains attached to the pommel after 150 years. The scabbard is wooden, covered in deep-blue velvet with golden mounts and jewels arranged to look like flowers.

Royal CollectionThe Prince received a large number of swords, daggers and knives from all over the Indian subcontinent. This was probably of no surprise to him since he would also have been presenting gifts of this nature to the rulers he met. There were, however, a few more unusual presents.

Whilst in Jaipur, Prince Albert was presented with a silver astrolabe inscribed with the coordinates for Greenwich, the British centre of time-keeping. An astrolabe is a scientific instrument that can identify stars and planets as well as be used to navigate.

The significance of this gift was its connection to the city of Jaipur. Although astrolabes had been introduced to South Asia as early as the 14th century, it was during the reign of Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur (1688–1743) that the instrument became highly valued. The Maharaja was a keen astronomer, which led to the development of five observatories, one situated in Jaipur itself.

An intriguing gift, one that must have appealed to any children visiting the exhibition, was a set of eleven brass military figures. The Prince is thought to have received them whilst visiting Madras during the second month of his tour. They were originally part of a much larger set commissioned by the Raja of Peddapuram, Timma Razu (d.1796) but, after his death, the figures were separated, with many ending up in personal collections in both India and Britain. The figures reveal the many people and animals that made up the Indian military.

The majority of gifts the Prince received contained a remarkable amount of jewels and gemstones. In order to magnify their beauty, Indian craftsmen backed the stones with reflective foil, which enhanced their colour. The framework of the items was generally gold, either 22 or 24 carats. This showed the wealth and opulence of the rulers at the time.

Prince Albert received a lot of jewellery on his trip, however, the item the Royal Collection focused on was a piece he bought himself. Purchased from a peddler or boxwallah in Trichinopoly, the Prince of Wales presented his mother, Queen Victoria with a gold bangle on 24th May 1876 for her 57th birthday. “I received a number of lovely things. Arthur gave me a charming old Spanish fan from Seville & Bertie 2 beautiful Indian bracelets from Trinchinopoli & Jeypore.” [sic] (Queen Victoria’s journal)

The bangle looks rather large and heavy, made from gold and fashioned to look like the heads of several Makara (dragons). The two largest heads have been given rubies for eyes and a ruby-topped screw holds the hinged bracelet together. It is similar in style to that of Rococo, which had been introduced to Europe during the 18th century.

Many of the gifts, including jewellery, were purpose-made presents to welcome the Prince of Wales to India. One example is a red glass scallop-edged brooch decorated with a gold portrait of the Prince and Princess of Wales. This was presented to the future king by Ranjit Singh, Raja of Ratlam, along with a matching necklace.

Other presents the Prince brought home with him included a number of ornate address cases – boxes or pouches to keep the written welcome address he received at each location. Another box he was presented with was a small opium box, a traditional item in central India where the drug was harvested. The golden design was produced in a similar manner to the brooch received in Ratlam, however, this time it depicted Krishna, one of the Hindu gods.

Prince Albert departed from India on 13th March 1876, loaded down with the hundreds of gifts he had received. Knowing they were of extraordinary quality and design, he felt it right that the objects should be admired by the British public. Shortly after his return, the gifts went on display at the Indian Museum in South Kensington (now part of the Victoria and Albert Museum) where they were viewed by 30,000 in the first week. It is estimated that a total of 2.5 million people saw the gifts in Britain, with thousands more seeing them on tour in Copenhagen and Paris. The funds raised from the exhibitions were used to aid the construction of Aberdeen Art Gallery in Scotland.

FOUR CENTURIES OF SOUTH ASIAN PAINTINGS AND MANUSCRIPTS

Whereas the former half of the exhibition focused on objects accumulated in a four-month period, the second section spanned 400 years. Through the works of art collected by the British and Royal Family, a story about the relations with the subcontinent can be pieced together. The subcontinent, or South Asia, encompasses the area of five modern-day countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, however, at the time, it was usually referred to as India.

Many of the South Asian paintings and manuscripts in the Royal Collection date from the seventeenth century when the Mughals, a Muslim, Persian-speaking dynasty, were an Empire richer and stronger than any in Europe and ruled over the majority of the Indian subcontinent. Throughout their reign, they had contact with British monarchs, including Elizabeth I and Charles I but their Golden Age would not last forever.

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The Public Reception of John Low (1788-1880) by Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, King of Oudh, 4 March 1834

The last Mughal emperor, Alamgir II died in 1707, sparking wars of succession and foreign invasion. At the same time, Britain’s East India Company was gaining fortune and strength, and, in 1765, the Empire surrendered the region of Bengal to the company. From here on, it was not long before the trading company’s power spread throughout South Asia.

One of the first artworks in this half of the exhibition was an oil painting by A Dufay de Casanova (active 1829-37) of the King of Awah on an elephant near the banks of the Gumti River on his way to meet East India Company Resident, Colonel John Low (1788–1880). Although this was not an artwork produced by natives of South Asia, it helps to put into context the events that tied Britain with India.

The manuscripts acquired from the Mughal Empire were all written by hand and many were also illuminated with delicate paintings. The majority were written in Persian, therefore, read from right to left as opposed to European books. The Royal Collection displayed manuscripts that contained lyrical poetry, many by the poet Hafiz of Shiraz (1325-90). These were written with the intention of being sung and were often performed in Mughal courts.

Illuminations or illustrations were produced with brush and ink on discoloured paper, for example, the miniature of a chameleon on a branch by Ustad Mansur (active c. 1600-20), the leading animal painter in one of the Mughal courts. The image is scientifically precise and, although small, is full of intricate detail, such as the minute scales along the body.

Interestingly, on display were artworks that resembled typical religious paintings from Europe. At times, the Quran and the Bible merge together, featuring the same characters but with slightly varying stories. Take, for example, the quote, “And also We made the son of Mary and his mother a sign to mankind, and gave them a shelter on a peaceful hillside watered by a fresh spring.” (Quran 23:50) Mary and Jesus are important in the Christian world as well as in Islam, therefore, it is unsurprising to see them in Islamic art. What is unexpected, however, is the artists’ decisions to copy western artworks, for instance, the reinterpretation by a Mughal artist of Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) engraving of the Virgin and Child (Madonna by the Tree, 1513). Unfortunately, the gallery did little to shed light on the artists’ intentions.

During the Georgian era, the British royal family received many letters and manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent. One of these was the impressive chronicle Padshahnama or Book of Emperors, which had been produced around 1656. Commissioned by the fifth Mughal emperor Shah-Jahan (1591-1666), the book is a propagandist celebration of his dynasty, with the objective of emphasising his politics and ideologies.

As those who were lucky enough to be at the gallery at the appointed time for the talk about the Padshahnama will know, the manuscript was once bound together as a book, only taken apart 25 years ago for conservation purposes. This made displaying individual sheets much easier in this exhibition because they could be framed and placed at eye level around the room.

Containing 44 illustrations in total, the Book of Emperors was completed by fourteen different court painters, however, the South Asian style of painting is consistent throughout. Each painting reveals a significant event during the reign of Emperor Shah-Jahan, for example, his coronation and his involvement with a lion hunt conducted on elephant-back.

It is almost impossible to remember everything that was displayed at the Queen’s Gallery exhibition due to the sheer size of the collection of work from the Indian subcontinent. Some objects and artworks stick in the mind more than others, for instance, the Miniature Holy Quran scroll that unravels to reveal all 114 chapters on the thin, narrow surface. This is thought to have been a gift to George IV in 1828 from Nawab of the Carnatic.

Other artworks include books, photographs, paintings and more manuscripts, particularly ones that focus on the Hindu religion that was and is so predominant in India. These tell various stories involving the many gods worshipped in Hinduism, for example, the avatars of Vishnu in the epic text Bhagavata Purana.

It is easy to forget the relations with Southern Asia that the British had in the past. When imagining works in the Royal Collection, people think of paintings of Kings and Queens or famous artworks purchased throughout Europe. The amount of art from South Asia is absolutely phenomenal and opens up a whole new world with foreign customs and beliefs.

Splendours of the Subcontinent allowed visitors to see into the lives of other people whose traditions seem exotic and fascinating in comparison to our daily experiences. This groundbreaking exhibition revealed a different part of British history as well as the history of India and their style and method of craftsmanship.

Although the exhibition has come to an end, Splendours of the Subcontinent revealed how vast the Royal Collection is and it entices us to discover what else it has hidden behind closed doors. Future exhibitions can be eagerly awaited and are unlikely to disappoint the British public and tourists in London.

The Order of St John

St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell has been a London landmark for many centuries. From medieval priory to Georgian coffee house and Victorian pub, the building is now a museum exploring the history of a military order of ancient origins from its beginnings in Jerusalem to its present day role with the St John Ambulance Service. Combining historic weapons, medals, hospital equipment, art and a cannon given by Henry VIII, the Museum of the Order of St John spans 900 years of history and a fascinating story.

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The St John Ambulance logo of a white eight-pointed cross on a black background is recognised around the world where it appears on the sides of ambulances and on the uniforms of its volunteers. Although the charity has only been around since 1877, the symbol dates back almost 1000 years. The Brother Knights in the ancient hospital in Jerusalem were also recognised by the symbol on their robes.

 

The History of the Order of St John began shortly before Pope Urban II (d.1099) declared a crusade to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslim Arabs who had been in control since AD 638. In 1080, a hospital was established in the city by a group of monks under the instructions of Brother Gerard (c.1040-1120) who would shortly become the founder of Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), which was officially recognised by the Church in 1113.

The purpose of the hospital was to care for the many pilgrims who had become ill on their travels to the Holy Land. The Hospitallers, as they were then recognised, took in people of all faiths and race, treating everyone equally. It was only after the fighting in the Crusades that the hospital workers became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

From the description of the hospital provided by the museum, the Hospitallers/Knights were ahead of their time in terms of care and treatments. Brother Gerard combined traditional Muslim practices with those used in the western world in order to improve medical care. He was also concerned with healthy eating, emphasising the importance of fresh fruit as an aid to recovery.

During the 11th and 12th century, only rich people could afford to sleep in a bed, however, Brother Gerard insisted each patient should have a bed “as long and as broad as is convenient and each should have a coverlet and its own sheet.” The wards were also well-aired and clean and workers, both male and female, were encouraged to pray for the speedy recovery of the sick.

In some ways, the hospital was a combination of a hostel and a hospice with clothing, shoes and money provided to those who needed it as well as beds. The Hospitallers also looked after orphaned children and provided an ambulance service for the injured. Typically, the hospital could house 1000 people but at times of need could find space for double the number.

 

Unfortunately, the antagonism between Christians and Muslims, in general, meant the hospital in Jerusalem could not last forever, especially after Emperor Saladin (1138-93) led a Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. Jerusalem was captured in 1187 and the Knight Templars moved their Order and hospital to Acre in the north of Israel. Yet, by 1291, Muslim forces had succeeded in recapturing the entire Holy Land, forcing the Order of St John to seek refuge in Europe.

The Order briefly moved to Cyprus before settling on Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, in 1309. Another hospital was set up and the Knights remained here for 213 years until the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), conquered the island. The Museum owns a copy of the Rhodes Missal, an illuminated manuscript printed in 1504 that contains the services for a Roman Catholic Mass. In another display case, the Museum shows two handwritten letters from brothers Rostand and Claude de Merles to their father whilst on their journey to Rhodes to join the Knights.

 

Forced out of Rhodes in 1532, the Knights were, temporarily, without a home. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-58) offered to rent them the island of Malta, which they eventually settled on in 1530. Again, they quickly set up a hospital for “pilgrims and to all the sick that happened to come to Malta from all parts of the world.” Once fully established, the knights began to build a fortified city, now the capital of Malta, Valetta.

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Jean Parisot de la Valette

The capital city was named after the military commander Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568). Born into a noble family in south-west France, Valette joined the Order of St John at the age of 20, thus being present at the Great Seige of Rhodes. Later in his career, he became the Master of the Galleys then, in 1557, the Grand Master.

During his time as a knight, Valette was captured by Muslim pirates and forced to be a galley slave for a year. Although slaves were required to row for 12 hours a day on very little provisions, Valette beat the odds by living three times as long as most slaves before his rescue.

The city named after the military commander was where many of the knights were housed on the island. It was also the location of the Order’s religious centre, the Church of St John the Baptist.

The Order of St John remained on the island of Malta until the 18th century, when, as fate would have it, their home was once again invaded. On this occasion, it was General Napoleon Bonaparte who ousted the knights from their location, thus ending their rule over the Mediterranean.

 

Although patients of all faiths were treated at the hospital, the Hospitallers like to treat each individual as though he or she were Christ, the Son of God. Only the best possible supplies were used including silver plates and decorated medicine containers, which can be seen on display in the museum. Many other items belonging to the Knights are also preserved in glass cases to offer insight into their lives.

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The Cardsharps – Caravaggio

As well as objects, there are a few paintings, such as panoramas of Jerusalem, however, one artwork initially appears out of place. This is The Cardsharps by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the painting does not add any further insight into the lives of the Knights Templar, Caravaggio was a Knight of the Order. Accused of murder in 1606, Caravaggio fled to Malta where he was made a Knight; unfortunately, he later upset another member of the Order causing him to flee back to Italy.

 

Down the road from the museum is the remainder of the Order of St John’s English priory. In 1144, the Order was gifted 10 acres in Clerkenwell to establish its religious community. The English Knights of the Order of St John remained at St John’s Gate until 1540, when Henry VIII abolished all monastic orders. Since then, the church has changed many times, particularly after extensive damage by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. Although the church was rebuilt in 1958, the majority of the original architecture has been lost. Nonetheless, the Order of St John Museum offers guided tours of the church and crypt on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When not open for tours, a small gallery and garden are available to the public.

 

The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem lives on in the St John Ambulance Association set up in 1877. The founders wanted to reflect the Order’s ethos of caring for the sick and revolutionising health care. First Aid classes were given to the public, which encouraged a large number of “ordinary” people to sign up to become part of a trained St John Ambulance Brigade. By training volunteers, more people were on hand to help the injured and the sick, thus saving more lives that could have perished whilst waiting for a doctor.

The Brigade also provided medical resources during the wars of the 20th century, the first being the South African War (1899-1902). Over 2000 members of St John enlisted, with the army’s medical staff, the medical orderlies making up approximately 25% of the volunteers. Later, during the First World War (1914-18) St John, along with the British Red Cross organised Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which provided nurses, ambulances and hospital supplies for wounded soldiers. A similar feat occurred during the Second World War (1939-45) in which they also provided food parcels, clothing and provisions for prisoners-of-war, particularly those stranded on the Channel Islands.

 

The museum has a number of resources, photographs and medals belonging to past members of St John Ambulance. These include examples of old medical objects, such as a triangular bandage, tourniquet and first aid kits. Interestingly, the majority of the photographs are of women of whom 100,000 had served in VADs by the time the Armistice was called in 1918. One of these volunteers was Veronica Nisbet who joined the John Ambulance Brigade in 1915 when she was 28-years-old.

As part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook from the years 1916-19 can be viewed by the public. The museum details a little of her life but her incredible story is best viewed through the photographs in the online version of her scrapbook. As a VAD Nurse, Veronica was taught the basics of first aid, nursing and hygiene in order to volunteer during the First World War. After enlisting to work abroad, Veronica was sent to the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France, the largest of the British voluntary hospitals. Veronica’s scrapbook shows pictures of the insides of the hospital, which could contain 750 patients at a time, and the nurses’ accommodation. There are also photographs of other St John Ambulance Brigade members and the activities provided to entertain the injured soldiers.

Throughout WWI, the Hospital Étaples cared for over 35,000 patients and was run by 241 members of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Despite the expert care, the building was constructed from several wooden huts, which was not the best conditions for patients recovering from serious injuries. Nonetheless, many soldiers survived due to the medical aid they received from the volunteers. Unfortunately, in 1918, the hospital was struck by a bomb on two occasions, the first killing five members of staff and the second a further eleven. The building was too damaged for the hospital to continue, however, the staff moved what they could to the coastal town of Trouville where they operated for the remainder of the war.

 

St John Ambulance is still going strong today and has members of all ages and backgrounds. The association has spread throughout the world with divisions being formed in other countries. Its primary aim is to be the difference between a life lost and a life saved and has been a valuable service to the modern world.

Since the association’s conception, branches have been formed to include younger people with the leading First Aid training provider. St John Ambulance First Aiders support local communities and emergency services and is determined to work with schools and develop youth programmes. As early as 1922, the St John Cadets was founded for teenagers to attend and get involved with all their great work. This also provided training for the future, either within St John or in other medical professions. Eventually, in 1987, a group for younger children was formed. The St John Badgers cater for 6 to 10-year-olds, providing them with basic first aid knowledge and the chance to earn badges to sew onto their uniforms. Finally, in 1989, LINKS units were opened at universities to provide opportunities for students to be part of a unique team of lifesavers. In total, over half of St John members are under the age of 25.

St John Ambulance relies mostly on volunteers and donations in order to keep running its expert service. To help with funding, the St John Fellowship was formed on St John’s Day 1983, which raises a generous amount of money every year. Supporters help to set up and run exhibitions, displays, concerts and competitions as well as assist at many national events.

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The Museum of the Order of St John is an excellent place to visit in London for those wishing to learn more about the original Knights of St John and the St John Ambulance. A concise timeline helps to make sense of the mass of objects displayed within the gatehouse that date back several centuries and the information about St John Ambulance is very fitting with the anniversary of the end of the First World War. It is also reassuring to know there are so many kind and caring people in the world, despite the many conflicts.

For children, some of the details may be beyond their comprehension, however, the museum provides a fun sticker trail with simple questions to keep youngsters entertained. There are also colouring sheets and simple, child-friendly first aid tips to take away.

The museum is free to enter, however, a donation of £5 is recommended for the tour of the church and priory. The museum receives no government funding, and needs continued financial help to maintain the historically important buildings and collections.