The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 Salvador Dalí

Eighty years ago on 19th July 1938, two of the most significant and influential figures of the 20th century met for the first and only time. These were Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psychoanalysis and Salvador Dalí (1904-89), a prominent Spanish surrealist painter. In order to mark the anniversary of this event, the Freud Museum in London held an exhibition to explore the connection between the two personalities, particularly Freud’s influence on Dalí and the Surrealist movement in general. The central focus of the exhibition was Dalí’s painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), which he brought with him to discuss with his idol.

On 27th September 1938, Freud moved into “20 Maresfield Gardens … our last address on this planet” with his wife Martha (1861-1951), sister-in-law Minna Bernays (1865-1941), youngest daughter Anna (1895-1982) and his housekeeper Paula Fichtl (1902-89). Whilst the home was predominantly Anna’s, who lived there for the rest of her life, it has become the Freud Museum as per the wishes of his daughter. Although this is not the house where the meeting between Freud and Dalí took place, it is an appropriate location for the exhibition since it is the place the neurologist moved into shortly after.

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Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on 6th May 1856 to Galician Jewish parents in the town of Freiberg, which at the time was a part of the Austrian Empire (now the Czech Republic). He studied for a doctorate at the University of Vienna and went on to develop a set of theories and therapeutic techniques known as psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism in Germany was to put Freud’s life and his work at severe risk.

In Germany, the works of Freud and other psychoanalysts were publically burned along with any book that contained radical thinking or was written by a Jew. As a result, members of the psychoanalytical community, the majority of whom were Jewish, fled to other countries in an attempt to escape the wrath of Hitler. Freud, on the other hand, was determined to stay in his home country, however, when the country was annexed by Germany in 1938, the harassment he received from the Nazis prompted him to flee to London via Paris.

On arrival in London, Freud moved into rented accommodation in Hampstead Village, which is where he was living when Dalí visited him. Later, on 27th September, Freud and his family moved into the house in Maresfield Gardens, in which, with the help of his son Ernst (1892-1970), he recreated an identical working environment using the same furniture he had brought with him from Austria.

Sadly, the final 16 years of Freud’s life was affected by mouth cancer. Although he continued to work, write and see a number of patients, the pain eventually became too much for him. A year after moving in, on 23rd September 1939, Freud’s doctor at his patient’s insistence, increased the doses of morphine until, finally, Freud breathed his last.

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Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, 1st Marquis of Dalí de Púbol, known professionally as Salvador Dalí, was born on 11th May 1904 in Catalonia, Spain. Dalí attended drawing school as a child and later discovered modern painting, for instance, Cubism. It was not until 1929 that Dalí began to experiment with surrealist art forms.

Dalí became a fan of Freud after he read the latter’s book The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) while an art student in Madrid in the early 1920s. The book, which introduced the idea of unconscious desire and self-interpretation, inspired Dalí to try to interpret “not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me.” These new ideas began to have a strong impact on Dalí’s artwork and way of thinking.

Not only were Dalí’s paintings affected by the revelation, but he also began to write. In 1933, he wrote a “psycho-analytical essay” called The Tragic Myth of Millet’s ‘Angelus’ in which he explored his obsession with the painting The Angelus by Jean-François Millet (1814-75). This essay, along with The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí took to his eventual meeting with Freud.

Dalí was determined to meet and talk with his hero, however, three attempts to meet in Vienna were unsuccessful. Shortly after he finished painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus in 1937, Dalí tried once more to arrange a meeting with Freud. Rather than contacting the psychoanalyst directly, Dalí wrote a letter to the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942), a close friend of Freud’s, asking him for an introduction. Zweig acquiesced, although warned Dalí that Freud was in poor health.

Zweig persuaded Freud to meet Dalí by convincing him of the importance of this meeting. According to Zweig, Dalí was the only genius among contemporary painters, “the only one who will last … the most faithful, the most grateful of the disciples you have among the artists.” So, finally, a meeting took place on 19th July 1938 in which Dalí’s wife and Edward James (1907-84), the owner of the painting, were also present.

Dalí’s painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is based upon a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses called Echo and Narcissus. Echo is a mountain nymph who falls in love with the beautiful Narcissus, a hunter from Greece. Narcissus, however, spurns her advances causing her to pine away until she is little more than an echo.

In order to teach Narcissus a lesson for the way he treated Echo, the goddess Aphrodite causes him to become obsessively enamoured by beautiful things. After luring Narcissus to a pool of water, Aphrodite leaves him peering at his reflection. Unaware that the image is of himself, Narcissus falls in love with the handsome youth he sees in the water. Unable to leave the alluring image, Narcissus stays there burning with desire until he too, like Echo, fades away. All that remained was a white flower.

Dalí’s oil painting shows Narcissus sitting in a pool looking down at his reflection. A striking landscape resembles the Cap de Creus, a headland located northeast of Catalonia where Dalí was born. The mountains in the far distance, however, also alludes to the Austrian Alps that Dalí saw in Zürs where he painted the canvas.

As well as painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, Dalí wrote a poem of the same name. The verse begins with the melting of the snow god, “his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections starts melting with desire.” This imagery could also be another reason Dalí included the melting snow caps in the distance. The phrase itself, of course, foretells the fate of Narcissus.

Two forms dominate the foreground of the painting. The easiest to see is the stone-like bony hand on the right-hand side of the canvas. On the top of the thin fingers balances a fragile egg or bulb from which an individual white narcissus flower blooms. This is another indication of the fate of Narcissus.

The form on the left, not as easy to make out the first time, is the crouching figure of the golden youth Narcissus. His head is bowed and hidden from the audience by the placement of his knee, however, it is clear from his stature that he is solely focused on what he can see in the reflection of the pool.

The more the two figures are compared, the more obvious it becomes that they share identical contours and structures despite depicting entirely different objects. The index finger on the hand is the same shape and dimension as Narcissus’ left arm. The thumb replaces Narcissus’ left leg on the opposite figure and the egg clearly represents his head.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a show of Dalí’s dexterous skill in being able to employ the use of trompe l’oeil, which literally translates into English as “eye-fooling.” The hand, which appears almost three-dimensional as though it could be physically felt, is more predominant than the figure of Narcissus. The image of the Greek youth is set slightly further back than the hand, resulting in the eye noticing the egg and flower before seeing the main character of the story.

In a clever yet subtle way, Dalí has managed to make the myth of Narcissus play out before the viewers’ very eyes. Being slightly less strong in colour than the hand, the brain begins to dismiss the figure of Narcissus, focusing on the more precise object. Thus, Narcissus appears to fade away.

“If one looks for some time, from a slight distance and with a certain ‘distant fixedness’ at the hypnotically immobile figure of Narcissus, it gradually disappears until at last it is completely invisible. The metamorphosis of the myth takes place at that precise moment, for the image of Narcissus is suddenly transformed into the image of a hand which rises out of his own reflection …”
– Dalí, in the preface to his poem

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Although the figure of Narcissus may appear to fade away, the more the painting is looked at, the more the eye sees. Relating back to the Greek myth, Dalí has included a group of naked bodies – both male and female – in the background who, like Echo, have also fallen in love with Narcissus. By parading their bodies around, they are attempting in vain to draw Narcissus’ attention away from his reflection in the pool.

The reason Dalí was eager to show this particular painting to Freud was that he had found inspiration from Freud’s own work. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus echoes Freud’s theory of narcissism, which he wrote about in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Freud defines narcissism as “the displacement of an individual’s libido towards that individual’s own body, towards the ‘ego’ of the subject.” This, in turn, sums up what has happened to Narcissus through his obsession with his own reflection.

The much-anticipated meeting with Freud was a bit of a let down for Dalí. Prepared to show himself as an example of “universal intellectualism”, Dalí was unnerved by Freud’s passive silence throughout the encounter. Rather than having a two-way conversation, Dalí attempted to talk to Freud whilst Freud, in turn, stared mutely at the artist. Dalí had hoped the psychoanalyst’s interest in narcissim would spark a discussion about his painting, yet nothing of the sort occurred. Similarly, Dalí brought with him a copy of the surrealist journal Minotaure, featuring the essay he had written about The Angelus for Freud to read, however, Freud, “continued to stare at me without paying the slightest attention to my magazine.”

From Dalí’s account of the meeting, Freud appears to be rather rude, causing Dalí to involuntarily raise his voice and become more insistent, practically begging Freud to read his work or even respond to his questions. Reportedly, the first thing Freud said during the encounter after staring at Dalí for some time, was directed at Stefan Zweig, who was also present: “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!

Eventually, Freud did engage Dalí in some form of communication, although whether Dalí was satisfied with this, it cannot be certain. Freud told Dalí: “It is not the unconscious I seek in your pictures but the conscious.” Comparing Dalí’s work to the famous masters, i.e. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-19), who Freud wasted no time announcing he preferred, Freud explained that usually an unconscious idea is hidden in a painting, however, Dalí’s work is a mechanism to discover unconscious ideas.

Despite Freud’s behaviour at the time, it appears from written correspondence to Zweig after the event that he was pleased to have made Dalí’s acquaintance and was particularly interested in some of the ideas the painter had attempted to discuss.

“I really have reason to thank you for the introduction … I was inclined to look upon surrealists – who have apparently chosen me for their patron saint – as absolute (let us say 95 per cent, like alcohol) cranks. The young Spaniard, however … has made me reconsider my opinion.”
– Freud in a letter to Zweig

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Sigmund Freud by Dalí

Since nothing overly significant happened as a result of the meeting, there were very little directly related resources the Freud Museum could use for their exhibition – other than the painting of The Metamorphosis of Narcissus, of course, which was lent by the Tate Collection for the occasion. Dalí did, however, sketch a portrait of Freud during the meeting, which permanently hangs in the first-floor landing at 20 Maresfield Gardens.

In display cases around the exhibition room were items related to both Dalí, Freud, narcissism and the myth of Narcissus. This included books and essays written by both men, handwritten letters and a couple of intriguing objects. Unbeknownst to Dalí at the time of painting, Freud owned a small bronze figure of a hand holding an egg, not dissimilar to the hand in Dalí’s painting. Since it is a Roman figurine from the 1st or 2nd century AD, it is thought that Dalí may have discovered another version elsewhere from which he took inspiration.

The exhibition Freud, Dalí and the Metamorphosis has now finished, however, the Freud Museum continues to welcome visitors to see the house. Although Freud only lived in the house for a year, the open rooms pay homage to his life, his work and his legacies. Anna Freud is also remembered through some of the furniture, photographs and paraphernalia that belonged to her. The Metamorphosis of Narcissus will return to the Tate Collection where it may be viewable by the public.

The Freud Museum is open on Wednesday – Saturday from 12pm until 5pm. Admission fees are £9 per adult, £5 per 12-16 year old and free for under 12s. Other concessions apply. Tickets are valid for a year and everyone is encouraged to come back more than once.

Delivering the Unexpected

Since 28th July 2017, the newly opened Postal Museum provides public access to its collections and a highly detailed history of the 500 years of constant progress and innovation. The original National Postal Museum in the City of London opened in 1969 but was forced to close its doors in 1998. Now situated in the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre complex in Central London, the brand-new museum offers an in-depth history of the Post Office suitable for all ages.

Shortly after the opening of the museum, a unique opportunity was unveiled that gives visitors the chance to explore the underground secrets of Britain’s communication network. Closed since 2003, the hundred-year-old Mail Rail allows humans to ride the tracks for the first time. Twenty-two miles of track lie under London that once took letters and parcels from one sorting station to the next at approximately 30 miles per hour. Although vehicles can go much faster these days, the trains sped up the delivery of mail from days to hours. Today, a tiny train is able to show visitors the insides of the narrow tunnels and travel back in time to see the workers of the past century.

The history of the British postal system begins with Henry VIII (1491-1547) in 1512. Previously, individual couriers were sent from one household to another with a message. The king, however, perhaps wanting his correspondence to have more protection, employed Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545) as Master of the Posts, later Governor of the King’s Posts. Initially, this service was only for the King and those in his palaces but in 1635, Charles I (1600-49) approved an expansion of the network to stretch as far as Edinburgh and be used by anyone, so long as they could afford it.

Postboys as young as 11 were employed to travel on foot or by horse in all weathers, sometimes travelling as far as twenty miles without a rest. Equipped with only a horn to blast every four miles to warn people of their approach, the boys were susceptible to attacks by thieves and highwaymen. Due to this, the time of delivery could not be estimated and many people began to complain about the late arrivals.

As a result of the late delivery complaints, Henry Bishop (1611-91), the Postmaster General in the 1660s, devised the world’s first postmark, or Bishop Mark. “A stamp is invented that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer my dare detayne a letter.” This helped prioritise the order the letters should be delivered.

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Unlike today where the price of sending a letter depends on the size and weight of the envelope, people were charged per sheet of paper used. Not only that, it was the receiver who was charged, not the sender. In order to cut the costs, many letters were “cross-written” where, rather than using an additional sheet of paper, people wrote on top of their writing in a different direction. Unfortunately, this made letters rather difficult to read.

Another way people tried to cut the cost was to read the letter immediately then hand it back to the postboy. Tricks like these continued until the Postal Reform in 1840, which established a better pricing system.

Postmarks were not the only thing introduced to improve the delivery of the mail. In 1782, theatre owner John Palmer (1742-1818) proposed the idea of the Mail Coach to carry all the mail and a couple of armed guards. Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) approved the plan and a trial journey commenced from Bristol to London that took a total of 16 hours. Horse-drawn coaches were far quicker than individual riders and soon the Mail Coach service was extended to cover the majority of Great Britain.

One of the first things visitors see on entering the Postal Museum is one of the old Mail Coaches. Locked compartments held the letters being delivered to major cities, which were protected by armed guards who rode on the outside of the coach. A guard was recognisable from his scarlet coat with blue lapels and gold braid, and a gold braided black hat, which the museum has examples of for visitors to try on.

The guards were expected to defend the mail with their lives and were, therefore, armed with a blunderbuss to scare off potential thieves or attackers. Soon, passengers were allowed to use the Mail Coach to travel into the cities, the wealthy paying for a seat inside and the poor sitting with the guards outside. These were long journeys and not always pleasant. On one occasion in 1816, the Exeter to London Mail Coach was attacked by a lioness that had escaped from a circus. Although the guard fired his blunderbuss, it was a Newfoundland dog that eventually scared off the beast.

With the developing railways, there was less need for the Mail Coach, therefore, after a final journey in 1846, the service stopped altogether. Trains were far more efficient at transporting mail from one city to another, however, there was still an issue about how best to deliver individual post from the sorting offices to the recipient. Initially, postmen would have walked on foot or used horses for longer journeys but in the late 1800s, a number of alternatives were trialled. A few of these can be seen at the museum.

In 1880, the GPO Carrier Tricycle was trialled in Coventry, which consisted of a large basket on a metal frame supported by three wheels. The postman sat behind the basket and pedalled along. At a similar time, a pentacycle or Centre-Cycle was trialled in Horsham, Sussex. Consisting of five wheels and two baskets, the postman sat high up in the middle to pedal the machine forward. Unsurprisingly, neither of these contraptions were used for long, however, the bicycle was a very popular method of transportation. By the 1930s, postmen were collectively covering 200 million miles a year on their bicycles, a feat they kept up until the bikes were phased out in 2014.

“On a perfectly smooth and level surface, the ‘Centre-Cycle’ may be everything that can be desired – but for ordinary travelling, it is said to be an impractical machine.”
– Feedback from Mr Phillipston, 1882

At the beginning of the 20th century, motorbikes were used to reach the less accessible areas of the country, for example, the rural routes that were more difficult to navigate by bicycle. The First World War brought an end to their use due to petrol rationing, however, they came back into use for a short time at the end of the 1940s.

Prior to Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) reign, sending a letter could be extremely costly, often costing as much as 12 loaves of bread. This all changed after the 1837 Post Office Reform proposed by Rowland Hill (1795-1979). On his suggestion, postage was paid by the sender, not the recipient, based on the weight of the letter. The only issue was working out how to establish a pre-payment method. A competition was held inviting suggestions from the public, from which the proposal of an adhesive stamp was selected. Only letters containing a stamp would be delivered, so they needed to be designed in a way that would be difficult to counterfeit.

Hill wanted the stamps to be “as beautiful a specimen of fine art as can be obtained.” He suggested a profile illustration of the 18-year old Queen’s head based on a medal that had been minted in 1838. In May 1840, the first stamp in the world was issued. Named the Penny Black, the stamp cost one penny and revolutionised the postal system. A year later, the stamp was reprinted in the colour red so as to be easier to detect. Due to the success of this endeavour, another stamp, the Two Penny Blue was printed for larger and heavier letters.

From here on until the 1960s, stamps featured the reigning monarch’s profile on a variety of different coloured background depending on the cost. In 1965, however, Postmaster General Tony Benn (1925-2014) introduced special commemorative stamps to mark anniversaries or events of national importance, for example, the Olympics, jubilees, charity events or Christmas. Designers were given free rein to experiment with designs so long as the monarch’s head was incorporated in some way and the stamp’s value was clearly shown. Finally, the Queen must approve of the design.

A brief video at the museum shows how the stamps are printed. They also have on display the plaster cast of Queen Elizabeth II’s (b.1926) head produced by Arnold Machin (1911-99) that was used to produce the iconic portrait that has adorned Britain’s stamps since 1967.

Until July 2019, the Postal Museum is exhibiting special Christmas editions of British stamps featuring the iconic duo Wallace & Gromit. With initial drawings from the creator Nick Park (b.1958), the display reveals the design process of these particular stamps. From drawing to photographic production shots, an enormous amount of effort and work is put into making the tiny stamps for people to buy in order to send their Christmas cards.

With no need to collect payment, a postman’s job was far easier and quicker than it had once been. Yet, with more people able to afford to send letters, queues at post offices were considerably long and often in inconvenient places for people who did not live in a town or city. Something needed to be done to improve this situation. The solution came from a Surveyor’s Clerk, Anthony Trollope (1815-82), more famous for his novels, for instance, He Knew He Was Right (1869), who suggested the idea of roadside posting boxes. In order to trial these boxes, green hexagonal pillars were set up in various places on the Channel Islands. After their success, Britain established its first postbox in Carlisle in September 1853.

The colour of postboxes quickly changed from green to red in order to make them more visible in leafy areas. Since then, all British postboxes have been red and contain the regnal cypher of the reigning king or queen at the time they were produced. Attempts to revamp the original design have occurred over the past century and a half, for instance, the economic Wall Box that was introduced in 1857. Pillar boxes were expensive to produce, so these were preferable in some areas of the country.

The first cylindrical postbox was introduced in 1859, although it still had a hexagonal lid. A couple of years later, another hexagonal model was designed, named after its creator John Penfold (1828-1909). Whilst aesthetically pleasing, it was too expensive to produce, thus the production of cylindrical pillar boxes began again. The red and black models known as Victorian Type A and Type B, were the first to combine a cylindrical body with a convex circular lid, just like the ones still used today.

Despite finding a design that worked well, the Post Office continued to try and improve their post boxes, gradually working their way through the alphabet until they reached Type K. The Type K Pillar Box was considered to be a very modern design at the time of production in 1980. Unfortunately, the “cigar-shaped” body was not very popular and was discontinued in 2000. The Type F Pillar Box proved to be more popular, however, its rectangular shape meant it was prone to rust. The last of these boxes were removed in 2002.

The Postal Museum displays many of the different types of post boxes that have been seen in Britain since the 1850s. These include a blue pillar box intended for air mail post and a red cylindrical box with the regnal cypher of Edward VIII (1894-1972). Production began on boxes featuring Edward VIII’s name as soon as his father died, however, only a few had been produced by the time he abdicated, making these boxes very rare.

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London Postal District Map

The invention of the post box encouraged more people to write and send letters. Whilst this was something to encourage, the more post there was, the more difficult it was to sort, especially in London. London was a growing city and was receiving roughly 100 million items of mail a year. Today, London is approximately 607 square miles, meaning that mail sent to the city could be for addressees many miles apart. To tackle this problem, Rowland Hill came up with yet another new idea.

Taking a map of London, Hill drew a 12-mile radius around central London and then divided this into ten sections. Each segment was given an initial relevant to its position on the compass, e.g. N, NE, E, SE and so forth. These he called Postal Districts. People were encouraged to add the relevant area code when addressing letters to London. This was of particular help to the workers on the London Mail Rail which began operating in 1927.

It was not until the 1930s that other cities in Britain began to copy London’s Postal District system. The rest of the country, however, had not yet been introduced to this way of operating. The first modern postcodes were trialled in Norwich in 1959, however, it was not until 1974 that the entirety of Britain was included.

The Postal Museum contains more history than imaginable about the development and continuation of the General Post Office. From early beginnings, through wars and many other changes, the Post Office has continued to function and has had a great impact on modern society not just in Britain but throughout the world. Posters, interactive stations, games, fancy dress and displays of old items help to tell the remarkable story of a service that originated with a king who wanted his correspondence to remain private.

Today, the world would not function without the thousands of post workers and delivery drivers that help to deliver our mail. The popularity of postmen, post boxes and so forth has become ingrained in our culture; they have seamlessly been incorporated into our books and televisions. The 1980s saw the arrival of Postman Pat (1981) who with “his black and white cat, Early in the morning, Just as day is dawning … picks up all the post bags in his van.” In the same year, the cartoon spy Danger Mouse (1981) began operating from a London pillar box.

The Jolly Postman (1986), whose portrait accompanies children around the museum, was the first in a series of books written by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Whilst the story follows the Postman on his daily round, children can open miniature envelopes and read the letters inside.

A more recent book, however, focuses on a particular Post Office employee. This is Tibs the Post Office Cat (2017), a story based on the life of a real cat who lived in the Royal Mail Headquarters at St Martin’s-Le-Grand. Famed for his tremendous weight – he was 10kg at the time of his death in 1965 – Tibs spent his time keeping the building free of mice.

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Benugo cafe at the Postal Museum

The Postal Museum is a place suitable for all ages to visit. There are plenty of things to keep children entertained for hours whilst adults enjoy learning about the history of the Post Office. Make sure to book a place on the Mail Rail to avoid disappointment.

Admission to the Museum and Mail Rail costs £17.05 per adult and £10.45 per child. Those wishing to only visit the Museum can pay a reduced entry fee of £11 with free entry for children. See website for more details.

A Walk Through British Art

“Our mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art.”
– Tate

On the site of the former Millbank Penitentiary prison, the new National Gallery of British Art opened its doors to the public in 1897. Since then, the building has undergone fifteen extensions, more than doubling it in size. From a collection of 245 artworks at its inception, the Tate Gallery, as it was renamed in 1932, now owns over 70,000 works. Since 2000, the gallery has been known as Tate Britain and contains art dating back to the 16th century.

Whilst the Tate Britain hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year, there is a permanent display of hundreds of famous works. Set out in chronological order and titled Walk Through British Art, each room shows visitors paintings and sculptures from different eras, gradually revealing the changes in styles over time. Beginning in the 16th century and stretching to the present day, the gallery offers insight into the various art movements and artists that have lived and worked in Britain.

Whilst the Tate Modern, another gallery owned by the Tate Collective, is a more appropriate venue to see contemporary works, Tate Britain is the perfect place to study the changes in British art, both rapid and slow, between 1545 to the 1910s. Although other art galleries display numerous paintings from a whole range of eras, no place describes the journey through British art better than Tate Britain.

A Man in a Black Cap 1545 by John Bettes active 1531-1570

A Man in a Black Cap – John Bettes, 1545

The Walk Through British Art begins with the oldest dated painting in the gallery’s collection: A Man in a Black Cap. As the numbers in the background confirm, this oil painting was completed in 1545 and a panel attached to the back of the oak-wood canvas records “faict par Johan Bettes Anglois” – done by John Bettes, Englishman.

Nothing much is known about John Bettes (active c. 1531–1570) except that records state he was living in Westminster in 1556 and had previously been working for Henry VIII (1491-1547) at Whitehall Palace.

Art historians compare Bette’s painting to the style of the German artist Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1543) who also worked for the king. The sitter, however, is unknown but it is believed he was 26 years old due to the inclusion of the Roman numerals XXVI.

The journey through British art starts with works from 1540 to 1650 during which time portraiture was popular, particularly within family dynasties. To put it into perspective, these paintings were produced during the reigns of Henry VIII and his children up until Charles I (1600-49) and the civil war. Thus, it is only natural to find a portrait of Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

There is some discrepancy over the artist responsible for Portrait of Elizabeth I, which was produced roughly around 1563. Referred to as the “famous paynter Steven”, this portrait has been attributed to the Flemish artist Steven van der Meulen (d. 1563/4), however, it has recently been suggested that the Dutchman Steven Cornelisz. van Herwijck (1530-1567) may have been the artist.

Often it is difficult to identify artists from this period because not many signed their work. This is the case with the panel An Allegory of Man of which the original purpose has also been lost. Unusually for the time, particularly the years following the Reformation, this is a religious piece of work featuring the figure of the resurrected Christ. From the 1540s onward, it was not permitted to publicly display religious images.

In the centre of the meticulously detailed scene is the figure of “Man” surrounded by a scroll on which the Christian Virtues are written: “Temporans, good reisines, chastity, almes deeds, compassion, meekenes, charity and paciens.” Surrounding the Man are several figures, including Death represented by a skeleton, who are preparing to fire arrows, each named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins. This provides an insight into the beliefs and values of Christians, particularly Catholics if the angels are anything to judge by, during the 16th century.

The majority of the other paintings from the 1540-1650s room are portraits, mostly of people who are no longer considered significant to British history today. These include the English court official Sir William Killigrew (1606-95) and his wife Mary painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). Whilst Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque painter, he famously became the leading court painter in England, hence why these two portraits are considered to be British art.

The period between 1650 and 1730 saw an enormous change, not just in art but throughout Britain. Whilst there was still antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, the threat of upsetting the Tudor monarchs was long gone. The country had seen the beheading of a king but by 1660 they were celebrating the Restoration of the Monarchy. With Charles II (1630-85) on the throne, Londoners suffered from the plague and the Great Fire of London. Later, James II (1633-1701) was overthrown by the Dutch stadtholder William III (1650-1702) in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Finally, to end this period of transformation, the United Kingdom was created in 1707.

All of these events had an impact on British art, which had previously been dominated by portraiture. During the Restoration, new genres began to appear, including landscapes and still-life. Whilst there have been many British landscape artists, the genre was introduced by the Dutch and Flemish artists who were coming to England in the hopes of better job prospects.

Still-life paintings became very popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, however, artists during the 17th century were already experimenting with the genre. One such artist was Edward Collier (d.1708), a Dutchman who arrived in England in 1663. One of his paintings, Still Life with a Volume of Withers ‘Emblemes’, gave still-life paintings another name: vanitas. The composition is built up with musical instruments, jewellery and wine, which represent life’s pleasures. This is emphasised by the Latin inscription of Ecclesiastes 1:2 “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, hence vanitas. Other objects, however, including the skull and the open book featuring a poem about mortality, gives the message that pleasure is fleeting and that death comes to all.

Now that the Stuarts were on the throne, it was once again safe to produce religious paintings, which both Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) and Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) did during this era. Lely’s painting Susanna and the Elders is based on a story from the biblical Apocrypha during which two elders of the Jewish community attempt to seduce the young lady, threatening to accuse her of adultery if she did not consent to their desires. Kneller, however, painted a slightly more positive scene involving the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Elijah and the Angel shows the elderly prophet being awakened by an angel who is making him aware that God has sent him bread and water to save him from starvation.

This period of art also introduces one of the earliest female artists, Mary Beale (1633-99). Beale, with the help of her husband, ran a professional portrait painting business. It is believed that Portrait of a Young Girl was produced as a study piece to help Beale improve her art technique by painting quickly in order increase the number of sales and commisions.

Prior to the 18th-century, the majority of world-famous painters came from the European continent, however, there began to be a rise in the number of painters born and educated in England. The most significant of these and, perhaps, the first internationally famous British artist, is Willaim Hogarth (1697-1764), whose self-portrait hangs in the Tate Britain along with his dog Trump. Hogarth is well-known for his narrative series of paintings that tell a moral story, particularly A Rakes Progress, which can be found in the Sir John Soane’s Museum near Holborn, London.

An example of Hogarth’s narrative moral series can be seen in the sixth frame of The Beggars Opera based on a scene from John Gay’s (1685-1732) play of the same name, which was first performed at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre in 1728. In this scene, the highwayman Macheath is being sentenced to death while his two lovers, who happen to be the daughters of the jailer and lawyer, plead for his life.

Tate Britain owns a handful of Hogarth’s work, which can be seen in the third room of the Walk Through British Art. In a display case are a few prints that were produced of some of his paintings. Prints became popular in the 18th century because they were cheaper thus more affordable to the people of lower status who wish to purchase artwork. It was also a means for the artist to earn some money; whilst a single painting would take months and earn a lump sum, several prints could be made at once and sold to many different customers.

Although British born artists were beginning to take the stage, painters from the continent were still flocking to London. This includes Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1768), a vendutisti painter (painter of cityscape views), who arrived in England in 1746. He was already known as ‘the famous painter of views of Venice’ but during his ten-year stay in the English capital, he painted many beautiful landscapes showing the grand London architecture. Landscapes include buildings such as the new and old Horse Guards and A View of Greenwich from the River.

The rise of British born painters continued during the later 18th century, helped by the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 by George III (1738-1820). The Academy was intended as a venue for public displays of art and an art school for future generations, both of which it remains today. With 34 founding members, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), who was knighted by the king in 1769, was elected as the first president. A number of Reynold’s works are owned by Tate Britain, including Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen.

By the end of the 18th century, more British artists were on the scene and a wider range of styles and themes were being painted. William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) became the Prime Minister at the tender age of 24, a term that coincided with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. These events influenced many artists, including John Copley Singleton (1738-1815) whose painting pays tribute to Major Francis Peirson who lost his life during the attempted French invasion of Jersey.

The island of Jersey had once been part of France, however, since 1066 it had been in the possession of the English. The Death of Major Peirson shows the death of the young man as well as the victory of the British against the French. In one painting, Copley manages to depict both the victories and horrors of war. Whilst Britain may have won the battle, not everyone lived to see it.

In complete contrast to Copley’s work is Thomas Gainsborough’s (1727-88) portrait of Giovanna Baccelli, which was painted at roughly the same time. Giovanna was an Italian ballet dancer who became brief friends of Marie Antoinette (1755-93) until the French Revolution unfolded. Gainsborough paints her in a lively but elegant manner, using small, light brushstrokes to evoke a sense of movement, which suggests Giovanna is dancing rather than posing. This is a far more positive painting than the war paintings that were simultaneously being produced.

Another popular theme during the late 18th century was literature and mythology. Just as they are today, plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) were well-known and popular amongst the various social classes. Tate Britain displays a couple of paintings based on scenes from his plays, the most eye-catching being Titania and Bottom by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Although born in Switzerland, Fuseli spent the majority of his working life in Britain and was particularly fond of the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His oil painting shows the events of Act IV, Scene I in which Oberon, the king of the fairies, has cast a spell on Queen Titania, causing her to fall in love with Nick Bottom, whose head has been transformed into that of an ass.

Also prevalent at this time were mythological scenes, particularly the tales written about in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the 4th president of the Royal Academy, painted an imagined scene of the Greek poet Homer reciting The Iliad to a small audience. Although no one knows who Homer was or even if he ever existed – some scholars suggest the stories had more than one author – Lawrence accurately portrays the way the epic poems would have been “read”. Paper books did not exist during Homer’s time, therefore, bards learnt the words and travelled around Greece telling the story in instalments at different locations.

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811 by Richard Westmacott 1775-1856

Jupiter and Ganymede, Richard Westmacott, 1811

Not all the artworks at Tate Britain are paintings. British Sculptor Richard Westmacott’s (1775-1856) Jupiter and Ganymede is a marble relief of Ganymede, a shepherd boy, being abducted by an eagle as written about in stories from classical mythology. The head of the Roman gods, Jupiter, was attracted to the handsome youth and took the form of an eagle so that he could seize Ganymede and take him to his home on Mount Olympus.

Later on in the Walk through British Art, another well-known sculpture is displayed, which many people will recognise from the centre of Picadilly Circus. This is the Model for “Eros” (or Anteros) on the Shaftesbury Memorial, Picadilly Circus produced by Sir Alfred Gilbert (1854-1934) in 1891 and eventually cast in Bronze in 1925.

During the early 19th century, Britain faced more wars, most famously the Battle of Waterloo which saw the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) defeat Napoleon (1769-1821). As well as victory, these conflicts brought more death and destruction as shown in JMW Turner’s (1775-1851) The Field of Waterloo, which depicts a group of people searching through masses of corpses for their loved ones. Despite these hostilities, artists continued to paint and new styles began to emerge, particularly in relation to landscape paintings.

Two British painters, in particular, held the forefront in landscape painting: Turner and his contemporary, John Constable (1776-1837). A marked contrast can be seen between Constable’s sketch of Hadleigh Castle in Essex and the landscapes produced by artists in the previous century, for instance, Canaletto’s painstakingly detailed cityscapes. Although this version of Hadleigh Castle was only a preparatory oil painting, Constable’s rapid brushstrokes and almost Impressionistic sky suggest artists were moving away from the traditional methods of painting. Constable’s gloomy and sombre sketch reflects his mood – his wife had just died – rather than the atmosphere he experienced on site.

Britain’s most famous landscape painter is arguably Joseph Mallord William Turner who gifted the majority of his work to the British public in his will. Tate Britain has an entire gallery devoted to his atmospheric watercolour landscapes, however, a Walk Through British Art focuses on a couple of his oil paintings. As well as his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, the gallery displays a mythological piece based on the poem Hymn to Apollo by the Greek poet, Callimachus (310-240 BC). The Greek sun god is on a quest to build a temple for his oracle at Delphi but in order to do so, he must defeat a giant python. Turner shows Apollo moments after delivering the final blow to the monstrous creature.

Whilst some artists were embracing new ideas, others preferred the tried and tested methods of the 16th and 17th centuries. Henry Thomson (1773-1843), a member of the Royal Academy, was one of these artists whose work resembles the style seen during the Renaissance era. Not many British artists produced large-scale religious works, however, this was one of Thomson’s main focuses. His painting of The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, a story that can be found in three Gospels of the Bible, is an example of this.

Densely hung in two tiers are many works produced in Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901). This is to evoke the atmosphere of a Victorian gallery where paintings would have been crowded together in a similar manner. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to view all of the artworks, particularly those higher up that have to compete with the glare of the sunlight coming through the glass ceiling. Yet, the number of examples from this period emphasise the vast range of styles and genres that artists gradually adopted.

Scenes from everyday life began to address topical issues that also reflected the changes in industry, culture and politics, including the question of female emancipation. Many of these artists were influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who determined to ignore the teachings of the Royal Academy and revert to styles popular before the Renaissance, i.e. before the painter Raphael (1483-1520) came on the scene. A couple of paintings from the founder of the Pre-Raphaelites, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-82) are on display, as well as works by those who associated themselves with the Brotherhood, for example, Sir John Everett Millais (1829-96) and John William Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Other artists sought back to antiquity for inspiration, often focusing on ancient buildings such as the ones in the background of John William Waterhouse’s (1849-1917) Saint Eulalia. Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was also famous for paintings of antiquity, however, the painting on display is of a more recent 17th-century setting.

Hidden messages and meanings began to appear in paintings, such as the American-born John Singer Sargent’s (1856-1925) Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. The artist draws attention to the young girls whose innocence is emphasised by the lilies, which represent purity. The Japanese lanterns, however, represent ephemerality, suggesting that this innocence will never last. George Elgar Hicks (1824-1914), on the other hand, hid meanings related to a more topical issue: women’s rights. Whilst many later became involved in Suffrage movements, there were some people completely against the cause, such as Hicks who represents women as the ‘fairer sex’, i.e. pure and submissive to men, thus suggesting women need not have the right to vote.

Biblical scenes were not as popular during this era but Tate Britain has located a couple of examples of artists who did use the Bible for inspiration. Millais painted a scene loosely based on scripture showing Christ in the House of His Parents. Likewise, Edward Armitage imagined The Remorse of Judas (1817-96) after he sold Jesus to the Romans.

The works produced from the end of the 19th century onwards are younger than the Tate Gallery, which Sir Henry Tate (1819-99) began providing artworks and funding for in 1889. Some of the works Tate donated “for the encouragement and development of British art” are still on display at the gallery, including Arther Hacker’s (1858-1919) The Annunciation, a more contemporary version of Mary receiving the news from an angel that she will have a son based on descriptions in the Protoevangelium of James (145 AD).

Many art movements were competing with each other and new styles and processes were being developed. Impressionism, whilst rejected by critics, to begin with, began to appeal to many artists, particularly those who painted en plein air. Henry Scott Tuke’s (1858-1929) August Blue is an example of this impressionist style painted by an Englishman; most Impressionist painters emerged from France.

Aubrey Beardsley’s (1872-98) Masked Woman with a White Mouse is an example of another art style, which was influenced by Japanese woodcuts. During his very short career, Beardsley was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement, which including other artists, such as James A. McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and authors, for instance, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

The 20th century and the beginning of the Edwardian-era saw a return to more realistic approaches to art. Art schools still taught classical and traditional painting techniques, however, young artists had been exposed to Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists and other avant-garde approaches. Whilst Realism was becoming popular, artists were moving away from the “old” version of realistic, as seen in many Renaissance paintings, and producing more natural-looking outcomes, particularly of the human body. Take Sir Thomas Brock’s (1847-1922) marble model of Eve for example; there is nothing to suggest she is the sensual temptress in artworks of the previous centuries, instead, she looks natural with an anatomically correct body and a subtle expression of feeling.

Other artists chose to concentrate on realistic settings that depict the working class rather than the elite. Both Albert Rutherston (1881-1953) and Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) painted people at work in some of the least glamorous jobs, i.e. laundry and gleaning. Rutherston also painted in a realistic style, however, it was far from the smooth brushwork of the 15th and 16th centuries. Clausen, on the other hand, leans more towards an impressionist style.

The 20th century also saw a rise in female painters, including Lady Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979). Tenth child of the philanthropist Benjamin Waugh (1839-1908), who co-founded the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Clarke Hall was mostly known for her illustrations to Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1818-48). Tate Britain, however, displays one of her oil paintings, Still Life of a Basket on a Chair.

The artwork from the 1910s onwards is much harder to document. Modern art was at war with academic art; Britain was at war with Germany; suffragettes were at war with parliament. It was a difficult time for everyone and artists turned to their work for consolidation. Some joined Futurist movements, others experimented with Cubism and some artists wholly embraced Abstract Expressionism.

Whilst Tate Britain continues its Walk Through British Art to the present day, it is impossible to accurately describe the styles and outcomes of British artists. With so many influences, it is simpler to use the title “International Art” since no form of contemporary art is unique to Britain. The spectrum of art is so diverse that every artist becomes almost incomparable to another, whereas, prior to the 20th century, only a trained eye could recognise whose hand had painted certain canvases.

From 1540 to 1840, Tate Britain does a fantastic job at documenting the history of British art. After this period, the rooms become more crowded and the styles more assorted, making it difficult to follow a timeline of development. Nonetheless, Tate Britain has access to some wonderful artworks and a huge range of British artists. Whether the aim is to experience the changes in art throughout time or just look at a handful of paintings, Tate Britain is an excellent destination.

Entry to Tate Britain is free for everyone with a charge for special exhibitions. Visitors with a disability pay a concessionary rate, and a companions entrance is free. Tate Members and Patrons get free entry to special exhibitions. Under 12s go free (up to four per parent or guardian) and family tickets are available (two adults and two children 12 – 18 years) see individual exhibitions for more information. Tate.org.uk

I am Ashurbanipal

“I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.”

With over 200 extraordinary objects, the British Museum is exploring the life of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (r.668-627 BC). In his own words, Ashurbanipal was “king of the world”, but if he was so great, why is he not well-known today? Those familiar with the Assyrians have likely come across references in classical sources or the Bible. Assyria and its capital city, Nineveh, feature in Biblical stories such as Jonah when the Lord commands the prophet to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2 NIV) The eventual fall of Nineveh is written about in the book of Nahum but the supposedly most powerful individual on the planet never earned a mention.

The British Museum begins the exhibition I am Ashurbanipal with a brief history of the empire up to the reign of the great and mighty king. At the time of his reign (668 BC), the Iron Age Mesopotamian empire Neo-Assyria was the largest empire in the world. Assyria was originally an Akkadian kingdom which had begun to evolve as early as the 25th century BC, however, its most important period began in 911 BC with the ascension of Adad-Nirari II.

By the time Ashurbanipal became king, Assyria stretched from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, its capital city – the biggest city in the world – falling where Iraq is today. With an empire covering such a considerable amount of land, Ashurbanipal was not far off with his boast about being king of the world. Yet, being the youngest son of the previous king, he was never destined for the throne.

When King Esarhaddon’s (r.680-668 BC) eldest son died, he ignored his next eldest son, Shamash-shumu-ukin, making Ashurbanipal the crown prince instead. In order to attempt to keep the peace between the brothers, Esarhaddon gave Shamash-shumu-ukin the kingdom of Babylon, which he had rebuilt during his reign. This, however, as the exhibition proves, only stirred up more antagonism. Despite being a kingdom, Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire, thus the king of Babylon was subject to his baby brother.

Ashurbanipal reigned from the city of Nineveh in Upper Mesopotamia, on the outskirts of what is now the major city of Mosul in Iraq. During the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, there was a significant architectural expansion of the city, eventually making it the largest in the world. The man mostly responsible for this endeavour was Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, King Sennacherib (r.704-681 BC).

Sennacherib laid out new streets and squares to help the old provincial town grow into a magnificent city. Towards the south-west of the city, Sennacherib built a palace, which he boasted to be a “palace without a rival”. It is thought to have contained over 80 rooms and had the approximate dimensions of 503 by 242 metres.

“I enlarged the site of Nineveh, my capital city. I broadend its squares, making them as bright as day. I had an inner and an out wall built and I raised them as high as mountains.”
– King Sennacherib

The British Museum displays the remains of wall panels and carvings that have been recovered from the remains of the palace’s site as well as the North Palace that Ashurbanipal built in about 645 BC on the citadel mound of Nineveh. The outer walls were most likely constructed of mud brick and plaster, while cedar wood beams were used to hold up the roof. The grander rooms of the palaces contained narrative scenes and protective figures carved into gypsum panels.

The main doorways were probably flanked by colossal stone lamassu figures. These were protective deities, often depicted with a human head but the body of a lion or bull. Whilst these have not survived to the present day, the museum has a couple of examples of protective spirits on wall panels, which, along with the stone figures, were revered as magical guardians who would protect the palace from malevolent supernatural forces, particularly those that could harm the king.

There are three spirits on the wall panels in the exhibition, each with different physical characteristics. One is called Lahmu or “the hairy one”, recognised by his elaborate ringlets, which also denote his divine status. Another is considered to be a “House God”, whose divinity can be determined by his headdress. These deities both have human heads, however, the one positioned between them has the head of a lion. Known as Ugallu, “Great Lion”, or “Big Weather-Beast”, this monstrous-looking deity or demon was believed to ward off evil and disease using threatening gestures with his dagger and mace.

Other carvings and statues of magical creatures were also found in the ruins of the ancient palaces, for example, the stone face of a sphinx that may once have formed part of a column base. A sphinx was believed to have similar powers to the human-headed lamassu figures, however, the sphinx usually looked more animalistic. With the haunches of a lion, a human head and often bird-like wings, the Sphinx was usually carved from one piece of limestone, however, Sennacherib also used other materials.

“Sphinxes of alabaster, as well as sphinxes of cast copper overlaid with silver … I erected over them columns of ebony, cypress, cedar, juniper and Indian wood, with gold and silver inlays.”
– King Sennacherib

The British Museum has examples of Assyrian wall reliefs in abundance and it is easy to be overwhelmed with the number of scenes they depict. These are some of the finest examples of Assyrian art, however, after continuously seeing one after another, they begin to all look the same. Nonetheless, these reliefs show some of the most important parts of Ashurbanipal’s reign and emphasise his importance and power throughout Assyria.

After being appointed crown prince by his father, Ashurbanipal began training to be king. Whilst living in a palace known as the “House of Succession”, the prince was taught royal etiquette, important military and leadership skills and was instructed in Mesopotamian scholarship. He also shadowed his father in court and was given the position of spymaster general, tasked with gathering information about Assyria’s allies and enemies throughout the empire.

“I cantered on thoroughbeds, rode stallions that were rearing to go; I held a bow and made arrows fly as befits a warrior …”
– King Ashurbanipal

As many of the wall reliefs show, Assyrian kings and warriors were famed for hunting lions, the most dangerous creature in the empire. This was considered a royal sport and represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against the dangers of the world. Assyrian kings were also believed to be the human representative of the gods, so these lion hunts were also a way of proving that they had divine protection from harm.

Ashurbanipal recorded his experience of lion slaying, describing how he seized a wild lion by the tail and “through the command of the gods” killed it by shattering its skull with his mace. Whilst this seems cruel and inhumane, these triumphs were celebrated at the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, hence the number of reliefs depicting the feat.

When Ashurbanipal was not killing lions, he enjoyed reading and writing, which was rather an unusual hobby for a king. As well as being a good commander, Ashurbanipal believed that to have control over an empire, he needed to have knowledge too. He loved to boast about the extent of his scholarship and was proud of his education, especially after having studied with one of the top scribes of the time. As a result, many surviving images of the king depict him with a stylus for writing tucked into his belt.

“I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.”
– King Ashurbanipal

When he became king, Ashurbanipal inherited an enormous collection of specialist writings, which eventually became the foundation of the largest and most extensive library the world has seen. In total, it is believed Ashurbanipal owned at least 10,000 works.

The works in Ashurbanipal’s library were written on freshly made clay tablets and the British Museum has assembled a huge sample of the remaining fragments. Assyrian books were written in a script called cuneiform, which had first been developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. The system of writing was read left to right and looked like a series of wedge-shaped marks. In fact, cuneiform simply translates as “wedge-shaped”.

Ashurbanipal’s library provided him access to texts and references of all types of knowledge, including rituals, calendars, prayers, magic and medicine. Mostly, Ashurbanipal used the books to help him communicate with the gods and determine what the future held.

“I, Ashurbanipal, learned the wisdom of Nabu [the god of writing], laid hold of scribal practices of all the experts, as many as there are, I examined their instructions.”

Fortunately for scholars all over the world, when Ashurbanipal’s palace was eventually destroyed, the library was buried underneath the rubble where it stayed hidden for 2000 years. As a result, excavators were able to find examples of many of the significant works in Ashurbanipal’s collection. One of these works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is the most famous of Mesopotamian literature.

As well as being the most famous Mesopotamian work, The Epic of Gilgamesh is also considered to be the earliest surviving piece of literature. Written in the form of an epic poem, it tells the adventures of Sumerian Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, which include killing the monster Humbaba and searching for immortality.

A large part of the exhibition concentrates on the areas that were owned by the Assyrian empire. By the time Ashurbanipal came to power, Assyria controlled a huge territory, which was divided into several provinces. Each province was supervised by a governor who had been appointed by the king, for example, his brother who ruled Babylon. Other provinces included the Levantine kingdoms, Cyprus, Urartu, Western Iran, and Aramaean kingdoms, such as Syria and Turkey. The British Museum documents each place with examples of ancient relics, many of which may have been spoils of war.

Ashurbanipal was involved in many wars during his reign, particularly ones that helped to expand the empire’s borders or stamp out usurpers. The Assyrians were not deterred by violence, believing it was a just punishment against those who had slighted the king or the gods.

During the first half of his reign, Ashurbanipal sent his armies to the west to conquer Egypt and its neighbouring regions. His success came about by defeating his enemies and capturing the city of Thebes, however, in the East, other problems were brewing.

Whilst Ashurbanipal was busy dealing with Egypt, the kingdom of Elam tried to rise up against Assyria. The king’s armies quickly quashed the revolt and the threat abated until the Elamite king died later in the year. Rather than the rightful heir, Ummanigash, take the throne, his uncle Teumman seized the position. Fearing for his life, Ummanigash fled with his family to the safety of Assyria. Naturally, Teumman was displeased with this turn of event and demanded that Ashurbanipal force his nephew to return. Instead, the Assyrian’s retaliated by attacking the Elamite usurper. After Teumman’s defeat, his head was paraded through the streets of Nineveh.

“I cut off the head of Teumman, their presumptuous king who had plotted evil. I slew his warriors without number. I captured the fighting men alive.”
– King Ashurbanipal

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Teumman’s decapitated head hanging from a tree

Ashurbanipal took the credit for the defeat of Teumman claiming that he personally killed the Elamite king and his son with his own sword. In reality, Ashurbanipal never entered the battle in Elam, remaining in safety back at his palace in Nineveh. Nonetheless, the death of the usurper was permanently recorded on wall friezes depicting the king of Assyria relaxing in his garden. On a tree nearby, hangs the head of the ex-Elamite king.

For Ashurbanipal, the empire was the most important thing in his life, more important than family, including his brother. Shamash-shumu-ukin never got over his father’s choice to make his younger brother the crown prince of Assyria. Whilst he was given the kingdom of Babylon to rule over, Shamash-shumu-ukin was extremely displeased to be under the thumb of Ashurbanipal. In secret, he began to conspire against his younger brother, creating a coalition with other areas of the empire. Unfortunately for Shamash-shumu-ukin, Ashurbanipal caught wind of his vicious plot.

Initially, Ashurbanipal attempted to maintain peace with Babylon but his brother’s persistent rebellion sparked a war in 652 BC, lasting for four years. Although Shamash-shumu-ukin had the support of foreign rulers, the king soon had the upper hand. The Assyrians eventually laid siege to the city of Babylon for two years during which time the Babylonian’s suffered from lack of food and disease. The siege ended after Shamash-shumu-ukin perished after setting his palace on fire to avoid capture.

By the end of Ashurbanipal’s reign, he had ruthlessly crushed Assyria’s enemies, thus fulfilling his kingly duty to restore order in the world. Despite having a well-documented life, the final years of Ashurbanipal’s long reign have not been recorded or, at least, not been discovered. As a result, it is impossible to determine how or when he died; some scholars believe his reign ended as early as 631 BC, whereas others report that it was as late as 627 BC. What can be proved, however, is that after his death, all Ashurbanispal’s hard work began to unravel.

Just as Nahum prophesied in the Bible, the city of Nineveh was destined to fall: “he [God] will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.” (Nahum 1:8 NIV)

Ashurbanipal was shortly succeeded by his son Ashur-etil-ilani until 624 BC and possibly another son, Sin-shar-ishkun until 612 BC. It was during this time that things began to fall apart, beginning with a general called Nabopolassar seizing the throne of Babylon in 626 BC. This caused a civil war that left the Assyrian empire fighting for survival.

The Iranian Medes joined the war, sacking cities and desecrating the tombs of past Assyrian kings. By 612 BC, Assyria’s enemies had fought their way to the capital city Nineveh which they razed to the ground, causing the death of King Sin-shar-ishkun, the last ever King of Assyria.

The British Museum ends the exhibition with an insight into the work taking place in Iraq, including the ancient site of Nineveh. Archaeological discoveries relating to the Assyrians were first made in the 1840s, however, recent events have destroyed a lot of remaining cultural heritage. The Gulf War (1990-91) and invasions between 2003 and 2011 resulted in the loss and vandalism of many ancient relics. Further irreparable damage was made during Daesh from 2014 to 2017. The British Museum is currently one of a number of organisations working with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to salvage what they can plus rebuild and preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

I am Ashurbanipal is on view in Room 30 of the British Museum until 24th February 2019. Ticket prices are £17, however, under-16s may visit for free when accompanied by a paying adult.