Inspired by Flowers

Whilst the world was put in lockdown, the sun began to shine in England, lifting people’s spirits with signs of spring. Although people were told to stay at home, the warm weather could be enjoyed from back gardens, patios, and balconies. Unfortunately, not everyone had access to personal outside spaces, so Google Arts & Culture put together an online exhibition of artworks full of the blooming blossoms and flowers of spring.

Spring Has Sprung explored twelve different artists, some well known and others less so, who had been inspired by flowers. Some artists were drawn to flowers because of their beauty and colours, whereas, others were inspired by the symbolism and meanings portrayed by the plants.

Flowers are usually used to symbolise spring, however, certain folk cultures and traditions assign different meanings to specific plants. In the United Kingdom, for example, the red poppy is a symbol of remembrance of those fallen in war. Red roses traditionally represent love, however, be careful when purchasing other colours. Yellow roses can either mean friendship or jealousy and white, innocence and purity. White and red together symbolise unity, and red and yellow mean joy and happiness. Black, of course, represents death and pink is for grace and gratitude. A thornless rose is said to symbolise love at first sight.

Other flower symbolism includes:

  • Amaryllis – pride
  • Cypress – death, mourning or despair
  • Daffodil – uncertainty and new beginnings
  • Daisy – innocence
  • Gladiolus – strength of character
  • Heather – protection (white), solitude (purple)
  • Iris – good news
  • Lavender – devotion
  • Marigold – pain and grief
  • Orchid – refined beauty
  • Pansy – thoughtfulness
  • Primrose – eternal love
  • Rosemary – remembrance
  • Tulip – undying love (red), forgiveness (white), strength (black), hope (yellow)
  • Violet – faithfulness

Of course, not everyone believes in these meanings and artists do not always think of such things when painting, however, for some people, these symbols may add meaning to a particular artwork.

Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Throughout his career, French Impressionist Claude Monet produced approximately 250 oil paintings of water lilies, or nymphéas as they are known in French. The majority of these paintings were produced in Monet’s flower garden at his home in Giverny. Although he had travelled around France and London, his final thirty years were restricted due to suffering from cataracts. As a result, Monet worked mostly from home and the water lilies became his primary focus.

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Monet, right, in his garden at Giverny, 1922

Monet purchased his water meadow garden in 1893 and began a vast landscaping project. Several ponds were dug and filled with local white water lilies as well as blue, yellow and pink varieties from South America and Egypt. Across one pond, Monet erected a Japanese bridge, which became a central feature in later paintings. From 1899 onwards, Monet’s artwork focused almost exclusively on his garden, experimenting with the way sunlight and moonlight produced mirror-like reflections on the water. Gary Tinterow, the author of Modern Europe (1987) commented that Monet had developed “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.”

Monet’s Water Lilies differed from his previous works, which mostly consisted of landscapes. Whereas landscapes depict a whole vista, Monet was focusing on smaller sections of his garden, allowing the lilies to take centre stage.

Due to suffering from cataracts, Monet saw the world through a reddish tone, which is evident in some of his water lily paintings. Later in life, Monet had surgery, which may have removed some of the lens that prevents the eye from seeing ultraviolet wavelengths of light. As a result, this may have affected the range of colours he perceived, which would explain the bluer water lilies in later paintings. Monet may have even repainted some of the artworks he had produced before his operation.

After World War One, Monet also painted a series of weeping willow trees in tribute to the fallen French soldiers. Monet’s younger son Michel was a soldier during the war and it was Michel who inherited Monet’s estate after his death from lung cancer in 1926. Forty years later, Michel bequeathed the gardens to the French Academy of Fine Arts and they are now open to the public.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

When it comes to flowers, Van Gogh is most famous for his Sunflowers. Also known as Tournesols, this is the name of two series of paintings by the Dutch artist, the first made in Paris in 1887 and the second the following year in Arles. The first series depicts sunflowers lying on the ground, however, the second shows a bouquet in a vase.

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The sunflowers painted in Paris are less known, although it is possible to recognise Van Gogh’s distinctive style. During this time, Van Gogh was living with his brother Theo, which is one of the reasons why this series is less known than the second. Most of Van Gogh’s life has been pieced together from letters he wrote to his brother. The years 1886-88 are mostly missing from his biography since he did not need to write to Theo whilst they were living together.

The Arles Sunflowers are far more recognisable and can be found in collections all over the world. Van Gogh initially produced four paintings of sunflower bouquets, the first which is currently in a private collection and the second which was destroyed during the Second World War. The third version hangs in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich and the fourth in the National Gallery, London. In 1889, Van Gogh produced three repetitions of the third and fourth versions, which can be found in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

Whilst living in Arles, Van Gogh invited his friend and fellow painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) to stay. In preparation for the visit, Van Gogh decided to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom with his sunflower paintings. “It’s a type of painting that changes its aspect a little, which grows in richness the more you look at it. Besides, you know that Gauguin likes them extraordinarily. He said to me about them, among other things: ‘that — … that’s… the flower’.” (Vincent to Theo, 1889)

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The Painter of Sunflowers by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin painted Van Gogh at work on one of the sunflower paintings. Despite recognising himself, Van Gogh disliked the painting, claiming Gauguin had portrayed him as a madman.

The yellow quality of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was the result of the introduction of new pigments. These allowed Van Gogh to portray the flowers in vivid detail. Unfortunately, Van Gogh could only afford the cheaper paints and the paintings are gradually losing their bright colour.

Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)

Georgia O’Keefe was an American painter known for her paintings of enlarged flowers. She also produced landscapes of New York and New Mexico and is known as the “Mother of American modernism”. As well as being an artist, O’Keefe was a keen gardener and liked to make several paintings of specific flowers she came across. She was particularly drawn to the colours and petals of the canna lilies she found in New York.

From 1915 to 1927, O’Keefe produced nine paintings that are collectively known as the Red Canna series. Although she began by painting a bouquet of the flowers, her artwork progressed to almost abstract close-up images. O’Keefe tried to reflect the way she saw flowers, first at a distance, then in close quarters.

“Well – I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.”
– Georgia O’Keefe

Unfortunately, art critics, mostly male, have misinterpreted O’Keefe’s work as references of a sexual nature. The close-up depictions of flower petals and the insides of the canna lilies have been compared to female genitalia. This was not O’Keefe’s intention.

O’Keefe was fascinated by colour, particularly the varying shades of red, yellow and orange that magnified the texture of the canna lily. An article written by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts states, “In these extreme close-ups she established a new kind of modern still life with no references to atmospheric effects or realistic details, reflecting her statement, ‘I paint because color is significant.'” Unfortunately, O’Keefe’s works are still misconstrued as female sexuality today.

Andy Warhol (1928-87)

As a leader of the Pop Art movement, Andy Warhol was best known for his screen prints of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Gold Marilyn Monroe. Lesser known is his 1964 series Flowers which featured in that year’s June edition of Modern Photography magazine. They were later exhibited in the Leo Castello gallery in New York.

For this body of work, Warhol used a photograph of hibiscus blossom taken by Patricia Caulfield, something for which she later took him to court. Using the photograph as a template, Warhol used a silkscreen process to build up the layers, each one being a different, vibrant colour. The template could be used multiple times, allowing Warhol to produce a total of ten screenprints. He experimented with contrasting colours and occasionally added in extra elements, for example, shadows.

The final outcomes are far removed from the original photograph. Warhol flattened and cropped the flowers, removing any distinguishing features and textures. The simplified flowers no longer appear natural and they are difficult to identify. Various critics mistook them for anemones, nasturtium and pansies.

Flowers was a departure from the norm for Warhol, who usually focused on mass culture and brands. Flowers have been included in art for centuries, making them iconic, timeless and unaffiliated with a particular art movement. The flowers also feel impersonal and, despite being based on a photograph, unnatural. The silkscreen process was originally intended for commercial use, as a method of mass production, however, Warhol adopted it as his signature style.

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Twenty years after completing Flowers, Warhol returned to the subject with his Daisy series. It is not certain whether these prints were based upon a photograph but the single flower is easier to identify. Rather than using a single block colour for the daisy, Warhol created a sense of texture and tone, printing delicate shapes and a detailed outline. Whilst the print is still simple and bold, it is much more delicate than his previous series.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621)

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder was a painter from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) who specialised in painting still-lifes of flowers. During his career, he became the dean of the Guild of Saint Luke (the guild of painters), which helped to establish him as a leading figure in the fashionable floral painting genre. All three of Bosschaert’s sons, Ambrosius II, Johannes and Abraham, became flower painters.

Bosschaert was one of the first artists to focus on flower bouquets, typically of tulips and roses. The majority of his paintings were symmetrical and painted with scientific accuracy. This suggests he painstakingly set up the bouquets and may have studied books about flowers to ensure he got all the minute details correct.

At the time, the Netherlands was a highly religious country and it is said Bosschaert hid symbolic and religious meanings in his paintings. These hidden meanings are not so obvious today, however, the inclusion of butterflies and dragonflies are a reminder of the brevity of life. The short-lived flowers, such as carnations, tulips, violets, roses and hyacinths, symbolise the transience of beauty.

Due to the prosperous 17th-century Dutch market, Bosschaert became highly successful and coincided with the national obsession with exotic flowers, also known as Tulip Mania. Despite being popular, the number of paintings by Bosschaert is relatively low. This was partly because he worked as an art dealer but also because his paintings, full of painstaking detail, took a long time to complete.

Jeff Koons (b.1955)

Jeff Koons is an American artist known for his sculptures depicting everyday objects and animals. His work usually tests the boundaries between popular and elite culture, merging modern techniques with references to older cultures. Usually of a significant scale, Koons’ artwork has received mixed reviews, some saying they are of major art-historical importance, and others dismissing them as a waste of space.

An example of Koons’ work sits on the terrace outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain. Puppy is a 43 ft tall topiary sculpture of a West Highland Terrier built from stainless steel and covered with a carpet of flowers. The various coloured flowers include marigolds, begonias, petunias and lobelias.

A similar style sculpture is Split-Rocker, which Koons designed in 2000. The design is composed of two halves each resembling a toy belonging to Koons’ son. When the halves are placed together, they form the head of a giant child’s rocker. Like Puppy, the 37 ft sculpture is covered with 27,000 live flowers of various genus and colour.

In the art world, Koons’ work is labelled as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop. He claims there is no hidden meaning in his work but his choice of subject matter has occasionally caused controversy. Like Andy Warhol, Koons has been sued several times for copyright infringement for basing his ideas on pre-existing images. Nonetheless, Koons has received enough praise and support to encourage him to keep designing his impressive sculptures. “From the beginning of his controversial career, Koons overturned the traditional notion of art inside and out. Focusing on banal objects as models, he questioned standards of normative values in art, and, instead, embraced the vulnerabilities of aesthetic hierarchies and taste systems.” (Samito Jalbuena, 2014)

Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)

Rachel Ruysch, like Bosschaert, was a Dutch still-life painter during the Dutch Golden Age. She also specialised in flowers and was the most successful female painter at the time with over six decades worth of work. Ruysch’s father was a professor of anatomy and botany who inspired his daughter to learn to depict nature with great accuracy.

Although Ruysch’s work looks similar to Bosschaert, she is more playful with her compositions and choice of colour. More often than not, Ruysch’s bouquets are asymmetrical and wild with drooping flowers. Nonetheless, her paintings were never rushed; she paid attention to all the details and every petal was painstakingly painted. She even included hints of pollen at the centre of the flowers.

It was during the Dutch Golden Age that people began to associate flowers with specific meanings, therefore, there may have been some thought into Ruysch’s choice of flowers. Typically, Ruysch painted peonies, roses, foxgloves, poppies, nasturtium and bindweed.

Despite being a woman, some art critics claim she was the best still-life artist during her lifetime. By her death, she had produced more than 250 paintings, each selling between 750 and 1200 guilders. To put this into perspective, the famous Rembrandt (1606-69) rarely received more than 500 guilders for a painting.

Clementine Hunter (1886-1988)

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught black artist from Louisiana, USA. She spent most of her life as a farm labourer and never learnt to read or write, however, at the age of 50 she picked up a paintbrush and began to paint. Initially, Hunter depicted plantation life in her artworks and sold them for as little as 25 cents. Fortunately, she gained the support of the locals who helped to supply her with paints so that she could produce more artwork, which eventually received wider attention.

Although she was mostly known for her depiction of plantation life, such as cotton picking and washing clothes, she eventually moved on to painting flowers, particularly zinnias. Zinnias were abundant in the South and her paintings usually capture a freshly cut bunch placed in a pot. Hunter’s style is flat and lacks perspective, however, the vibrancy of the paint has made them attractive to many.

By the end of her life, Hunter’s paintings were being exhibited in galleries and she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1986. In 2013, Robert Wilson (b.1941), an American playwright, produced an opera about Clementine Hunter entitled Zinnias: the Life of Clementine Hunter. According to the Museum of American Folk Art, Hunter is “the most celebrated of all Southern contemporary painters.”

William Morris (1834-96)

William Morris was talented in a multitude of occupations, including artist, designer, writer, poet and socialist. He is largely remembered for his textile designs and contribution to the British Arts and Crafts Movement. His textile designs, which extended to tapestries, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass windows, were often floral. Only a few do not feature flowers, leaves, trees or plants.

Morris observed the natural world as inspiration for his designs. Rather than producing a single image as a painter might, Morris turned his flowers into repetitive patterns that could be repeated without interruption. He also only included one or two types of flower in his designs so that people could easily purchase fabrics and so forth to complement their tastes.

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Strawberry Thief

The first flower Morris used in his textile designs was jasmine, which was followed by tulips. Occasionally, Morris included other elements in the pattern, such as the birds in the Strawberry Thief design.

By experimenting with different dyes and techniques, Morris was able to accurately represent flowers upon striking backgrounds – often indigo. His initial designs were rather bland in comparison to the later ones. With nearly 600 designs, Morris produced patterns containing all the popular flowers in Britain at the time. These include roses, hyacinths, tulips, marigolds, honeysuckle, anemone, acanthus and willow branches.

Édouard Manet (1832-83)

Édouard Manet is not usually an artist associated with flowers, however, throughout his career, he produced twenty floral still lifes. The majority of these were produced during the last year of his life. Manet is mostly remembered as a French modernist painter who transitioned from Realism to Impressionism. The majority of Manet’s paintings feature people, usually in social situations, so it is not surprising that his flower paintings have gone unnoticed.

Manet was only forty when his health began to deteriorate. He developed partial paralysis and severe pain in his legs, which was eventually diagnosed as locomotor ataxia, a side effect of syphilis. In his final month, Manet’s left foot was amputated because of gangrene and he passed away eleven days later.

Due to his health problems, Manet spent a lot of time in bed where he was visited by his closest friends. As per tradition, his friends brought fresh flowers when visiting the sick man. Placing these at his bedside, Manet passed the days producing small paintings of the bouquets.

The majority of Manet’s flower paintings consist of a glass vase on a marble top table. The flowers, predominantly lilacs and roses, are made up of thick paint and swift brushstrokes, as was usual of the Impressionist style.

Anna Atkins (1799-1871)

Anna Atkins née Children was an English botanist and photographer who was the first to publish a book illustrated with photographs. Some claim she was also the first woman to take a photograph. Born in Tunbridge, Kent (the so-called “Garden of England”) Atkins grew up helping her father, John George Children (1777-1852), a mineralogist and zoologist, produce detailed engravings of shells. As she got older, her interests turned to botany and she began collecting and preserving dried plants. By 1839, Atkins had been elected a member of the London Botanical Society.

Both Atkins’ father and husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friends with Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), an inventor and pioneer of photography. Through this connection, Atkins learnt about “photogenic drawing”, a technique that involved placing an object on light-sensitized paper, which is exposed to the sun to produce an image.

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Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions

Another friend of Atkins’ father and husband was Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the son of the man who discovered the planet Uranus. He introduced Atkins to cyanotype, a photographic printing process similar to Talbot’s invention but produced a blue-tinted print. Atkins began by producing prints of algae and seaweed, which she published in her book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.

In the 1850s, Atkins began to produce photographic prints of flowers. Published in Cyanotypes of British and Foreign Flowering Plants and Ferns (1854), the prints capture a translucent silhouette of the flowers, which appear a greenish-white on top of a blue background. Since photography, as we know it today, had not yet been invented, these were the most scientifically correct artworks of the 19th century.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Hokusai is one of the best known Japanese artists and printmakers of the Edo Period, famous for his internationally iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai’s most praised work is his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, however, he also produced several bird and flower prints (kachō-ga).

At the age of 18, Hokusai was apprenticed to Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93), who introduced him to ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art produced through woodblock printing. This technique involved engraving an image onto a wooden block, only chiselling away the sections the artist wished to remain white or empty. These were then inked and placed on top of paper or fabric and put through a woodcut press. More than one woodblock could be used to produce several colours in the same image.

Hokusai began producing detailed images of flowers and birds before his famous Great Wave, which was printed in the 1830s. The flowers are species that can typically be found in Japan, including peonies and poppies. By the age of 73, Hokusai said, “I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants.” He believed that each year of his life was an opportunity to develop and perfect his art and that by the age of 110 he would be a real painter. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 88.

Flowers have meant something different to each of the above artists and the same paintings will have unique meanings for anyone who looks at them. For some, painting flowers was a way of life, a way of earning money. For others, flowers were something in which they were personally interested. Whilst flowers and plants can be used symbolically, this is not always the artist’s intention, however, personal interpretation can add new meanings to the work.

Regardless of when they were painted or which medium was used, paintings of flowers are timeless. Nature has found its way into all art movements, therefore, whatever your preference of style, you will find a piece of art to brighten up your day.

The Enigma: Ejwsf Zyhcx

Earlier this year, the Science Museum held an exhibition called Top Secret: From Ciphers to Cyber Security. From World War One to the present day, the exhibition explored the many forms of communications intelligence that have been used throughout the century. Visitors were able to see examples of past and present gadgets, read declassified documents, learn about GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and discover previously unseen artefacts. An exhibition about cyphers, however, could not be complete without a section about Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park codebreakers of the Second World War.

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Turing c. 1928 at age 16

Alan Mathison Turing (1912-54) was an English mathematician, computer scientist, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, and theoretical biologist who is mostly remembered for his work with the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park where he helped to crack Nazi Germany’s Enigma Code. The Enigma Machine scrambled the 26 letters of the alphabet so that the Nazi Party could send messages that could not be intercepted and understood. This resulted in pages full of gibberish, a bit like Ejwsf Zyhcx, which is supposed to be “Alan Turing” when put through an online enigma decoder.

Turing was born on 23rd June 1912 in Maida Vale, London, to Julius Mathison Turing (1873-1947) and Ethel Sara Turing (1881-1976). Turing’s father worked with the Indian Civil Service in Chatrapur, India, however, wished his sons, John and Alan, to be brought up in England.

From a very young age, Turing’s potential genius was evident and his parents enrolled him at St Michael’s day school in St Leonards-on-Sea, near Hastings where the boys stayed with a retired Army couple when their parents were in India. At 9, Turing began attending Hazelhurst Preparatory School before being sent to Sherborne School at the age of 13, a boarding school in Dorset. Although Turing’s aptitude for numbers was appreciated by the teachers at his primary school, it did not earn him any respect at Sherborne, where more focus was given to classical studies.

Despite his school’s attitude to scientific subjects, Turing went on to achieve first-class honours in mathematics at King’s College, Cambridge in 1934. The following year, he was elected a fellow at King’s and, in 1936, published his first paper On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Computable numbers were problems that could be solved by human mathematical clerks, who at the time were known as “computers”.

The Entscheidungsproblem (decision method) was proposed by the German mathematicians David Hilbert (1862-1943) and Wilhelm Ackermann (1896-1962) in 1928. They believed a machine could be invented that would be able to determine whether a mathematical statement could be proven. To put it more simply, “Is it possible to prove this mathematical statement?” The machine would respond with either a yes or a no. Turing, on the other hand, believed such a machine to be impossible.

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A Turing machine realisation in Lego

Turing’s paper essentially pointed out that a manmade machine can only achieve what it has been programmed to do by a human. Since a human’s mind is limited, it would not be possible to produce a machine that could solve mathematical problems that a “human computer” could not. To illustrate this, Turing proposed a theoretical machine, now known as the Turing Machine, that could solve through the use of special symbols a mathematical statement that a “human computer” had the power to achieve too. The Turing Machine demonstrated the fundamental logical principles of the future digital computer.

After the publication of his paper, Turing continued to study, this time at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he obtained a PhD in 1938. As well as mathematics, Turing studied cryptology, which proved to be vital to his future career. Returning to England that summer, Turing joined the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), now known as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). A year later, Britain was at war in Germany and Turing moved to the organisation’s wartime headquarters at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Shortly before the Second World War officially began in Britain, the government had been given details from Poland about the Nazi Enigma Machine used to encrypt radio messages, which a small team of Polish mathematicians had succeeded in deducing. Led by Marian Rejewski (1905-80), the Polish cryptologists had developed a code-breaking machine called the Bomba, which helped them crack the Enigma code. Unfortunately, the German’s changed the code, rendering the Bomba useless.

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Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park, once a Victorian manor house situated on 58 acres of land, was acquired by the government in 1938 for the GC&CS. Renamed Station X, Alan Turing was one of 200 workers to begin working there after the outbreak of war. Crossword experts and chess players were sought and hired throughout the following years to assist the decyphering work. By 1944, 9000 people were employed at Bletchley Park, the majority being women.

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Bombe machine

One of the first things Turing and his colleagues achieved was the Bombe machine, based on the details they were given about the Bomba. The Bombe successfully decoded large amounts of German military intelligence that had been encrypted by the Enigma, which was passed on to British army officials. As the team became more adept at using the machine, they were able to increase the number of messages they intercepted. Eventually, they were decoding 84,000 per month, which equates to two messages every minute.

As the personnel at Bletchley Park grew, the manor house became too cramped for everyone to work in comfortably. In order to accommodate people, machines, storage and so forth, dozens of wooden outbuildings known as Huts were constructed within the grounds. Turing and his associates worked in Hut 8, where they successfully cracked the Enigma code.

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Enigma Cipher Machine

Since there was more than one Enigma machine, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park needed more than one Bombe machine. Unfortunately, there was a lack of sufficient resources to build the machines. In 1941, Turing wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) to explain the situation and the importance of the machines. Churchill reportedly went straight to his chief of staff and gave the order to “make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done.”

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Lorenz SZ42

Enigma was not the only type of machine the Germans used during the Second World War. The more sophisticated Lorenz cypher machine, nicknamed Tunny by the British, was used to transmit messages between the Axis countries. In 1942, Turing developed the first systematic method for breaking these messages.

The Tunny machine encrypted messages by converting individual letters into binary code, for example, A became 11000 and B 10011. To make the messages even harder to crack, the machine blended in other letters to mask the binary code.

William “Bill” Tutte (1917-2002) was the first at Bletchley Park to notice a systemic pattern in the code and began to identify the letters that did not belong to the encrypted message. Building upon this, Turing developed a method of breaking these codes by hand, however, the process was slow and it was impossible for people to keep up with the number of messages they were intercepting.

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Colossus Computer

In 1944, Turing had finally completed a machine that was able to help the team translate the Tunny machine. Known as Colossus, Turing’s machine was a form of early computer involving 1600 vacuum tubes. The machine’s job was to strip the surplus letters from the messages, after which they were passed onto hand-breakers to translate the remaining code.

By the end of the war, there were nine Colossus machines, or Colossi, which helped to speed up the decryption process. The messages sent out by the Tunny machine revealed the German army’s plans, positions, supplies and conditions. The intelligence gathered was crucial to the success of the Normandy D-Day landings on 6th June 1944.

All the operations that took place at Bletchley Park were kept secret, even after the war ended. It was not until 1974 that the world began to learn about their achievements. Nonetheless, Alan Turing was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his code-breaking work.

“It is a rare experience to meet an authentic genius … Alan Turing was such a genius, and those, like myself, who had the astonishing and unexpected opportunity, created by the strange exigencies of the Second World War, to be able to count Turing as colleague and friend will never forget that experience, nor can we ever lose its immense benefit to us.”
– Peter Hilton, British mathematician

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After the war, Turing moved to Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond where he stayed until 1947. He had been recruited by the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) to create a digital computer. Turing produced designs for the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE), the first concept for a stored-program computer, i.e. a computer with memory. Although the concept was entirely feasible, the NPL thought it too difficult to attempt and built a smaller machine instead. As a result, Turing missed out on the opportunity to be the first person to create a digital stored-program computer. This honour was achieved by the Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory in 1948.

Disappointed with the lack of ambition at the NPL, Turing moved to Manchester where he was appointed Reader in the Mathematics Department at the Victoria University of Manchester. The following year he became the director of the Computing Machine Laboratory where he helped work on another digital stored-program computer, the Machester Mark 1. He also designed the programming system for the first-ever marketable electronic digital computer, which was eventually built in 1951.

Turing is credited as a founding father of artificial intelligence and modern cognitive science. He proposed a test to determine whether a machine could exhibit intelligent behaviour, i.e. can machines think? The Turing Test, as it is now known, would distinguish original thought (human) from “sophisticated parroting” (programmed machine). Turing argued that a machine can only be called intelligent if it reacts and interacts like a sentient being.

The Turing test, nicknamed the “imitation game” involved a human and a computer to answer a set of questions. A human interrogator would then attempt to determine which answers belonged to which test subject. A computer’s intelligence was rated by its probability of being mistaken for a human.

Turing’s idea was inspired by a few philosophers, particularly René Descartes (1569-1650) and his famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Another philosopher, Denis Diderot (1713-84) stated, “If they find a parrot who could answer to everything, I would claim it to be an intelligent being without hesitation.” Turing believed by the year 2000 a computer “would be able to play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than a 70-per cent chance of making the right identification (machine or human) after five minutes of questioning.” So far, no computer has come close to this standard.

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Today, a reversed form of the Turing Test is regularly used on the internet. When logging into some websites, people are often asked to complete a CAPTCHA, which stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart”. This test usually requires someone to enter a sequence of slightly distorted letters and numbers. This is something a computer would be unable to achieve, therefore, humans are effectively being asked to prove they are not a robot. This prevents computer hackers from using computer software to break into people’s online accounts.

In 1948, Turing and his colleague David Gawen Champernowne (1912-2000) began writing a chess program for a computer that had not yet been produced. Named the Turochamp after its creators, the game was tested on existing computers, however, they lacked enough power.

In March 1951, Turing received his highest honour when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. Unfortunately, Turing’s personal life was soon under scrutiny and all his successes rendered meaningless.

Back in 1941, Turing had proposed marriage to Joan Clarke (1917-96), a colleague at Bletchley Park. The engagement, however, was short-lived, ending soon after Turing admitted he was homosexual. Joan was unfazed by the revelation and thought they could make their relationship work, however, Turing was too ashamed to go through with the marriage.

Being gay was no longer a punishable crime, however, homosexual acts were still a criminal offence. In 1952, it came to light that Turing was in a relationship with 19-year-old Arnold Murray and they were both charged with “gross indecency”. Turing was given the choice between imprisonment or probation, of which he chose the latter, however, his criminal record meant he could never work for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) again.

By opting for probation, Turing had to agree to undergo hormonal treatment to reduce his libido. For a year, Turing was injected with synthetic oestrogen, which caused breast tissue to form and rendered him impotent. Although he had lost his security clearance, he was able to continue his academic work throughout this process.

Sadly, Alan Turing was found dead at the age of 41 on 8th June 1954. A post-mortem revealed he had died the day before as a result of cyanide poisoning. It is thought, although not proved, he had ingested a fatal dose of cyanide that had been injected into an apple. His death was recorded as suicide. Some biographers have suggested Turing was re-enacting a scene from his favourite film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Some people have questioned the coroner’s verdict, suggesting Turing’s death was not suicide but an experiment gone wrong. Turing had set up an experiment in a small room in his house, which involved the use of cyanide. Turing may have inhaled a considerable amount of the poison during the day, causing him to collapse later that evening. Although a half-eaten apple was found at Turing’s side, it was never tested for traces of cyanide.

Generally, it is assumed Turing’s death was suicide, which is attributed to the hormone “treatment” he received at the hands of the authorities for being gay. Nonetheless, the injections had ended a year before his death and his friends claimed he was in good spirits. This cleared the authorities from any blame.

Naturally, conspiracy theories have evolved suggesting Turing was murdered by the secret services for knowing too much about cryptanalysis. At the time, homosexuals were also regarded as threats to national security, which adds a certain weight to this theory.

Regardless of the cause of death, Turing’s prosecution for being gay has become infamous, causing Prime Minister Gordon Brown (b.1951) to apologise for Turing’s “unfair treatment” on behalf of the British Government in 2009. Queen Elizabeth (b.1926) followed suit in 2013 by granting Turing a royal pardon.

“Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him … So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.”
– Gordon Brown, 2009

Since the 1990s, Alan Turing has been honoured in various ways, particularly in Manchester where he was working at the end of his life. In 1994, the A6010 road was renamed Alan Turing Way, and the bridge the road goes over is now known as the Alan Turing Bridge.

In 1999, the American weekly magazine Time listed Turing as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century. The article pointed out that “The fact remains that everyone who taps at a keyboard, opening a spreadsheet or a word-processing program, is working on an incarnation of a Turing machine.”

On 23rd June 2001, the Alan Turing Memorial was unveiled in Sackville Park in Manchester. The sculpture, which depicts Turing sitting on a bench with an apple in one hand, was created by Glyn Hughes from cast bronze. On the bench, a series of letters reveal the phrases “Alan Mathison Turing 1912–1954” and “Founder of Computer Science” as though encoded by an Enigma Machine. “IEKYF RQMSI ADXUO KVKZC GUBJ” The plaque on the ground in front of the statue is written in English, saying, “Father of computer science, mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, victim of prejudice” This is followed by a quote from the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture.”

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To mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth in 2012, the Alan Turing Memorial was visited by the London 2012 Olympic Torch. It also came to light that Turing attempted to enter the previous London Olympics but lost out to other candidates. Yet, in 1948 he had finished a cross-country race ahead of the future silver medalist and his best Marathon time of 2 hours, 46 minutes, 3 seconds, was only 11 minutes slower than the winner in the 1948 Olympic Games.

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In 2019, the Bank of England revealed Alan Turing will feature on the new £50 notes when they switch from paper to polymer in 2021. Turing was selected from a long list of experts from the field of science, including Mary Anning, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, Stephen Hawking and Ernest Rutherford.

Thankfully, Alan Turing will be remembered for his achievements rather than the events that marred the end of his life. Turing has been immortalised in films, books and plays. He features in Ian McEwan’s 2019 novel Machines Like Me and inspired William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer. In 2000, he was the main focus of a Doctor Who novel, The Turing Test.

Alan Turing’s life was portrayed by Derek Jacobi in the stage show and film Breaking the Code, and in 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch starred as Turing in The Imitation Game with Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, which focused on Turing’s success at Bletchley Park.

Dozens of universities across the world have statues of or rooms named after Alan Turing. He will always be remembered and admired by students, particularly those involved with mathematics, computer science and cryptology.

“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
– Alan Turing

Unicorns: A True Story

Over the past five years or so, unicorns have gained sudden popularity in the Western world. It is almost impossible to go shopping without seeing one of the mythical creatures, whether it be on a t-shirt, a card, a toy, a cake or even chicken nuggets. In popular culture, unicorns are a pretty, make-believe character with which many children (and even adults) are fascinated. This commercial unicorn, however, has its roots in ancient mythology. For hundreds, if not thousands of years unicorns have been described in natural histories and folktales.

Unicorns are the stuff of legends and, as many people agree, probably never existed. Yet, who came up with the idea of the unicorn? How did a horse with a horn on its head become a thing? Ancient accounts of natural history include the unicorn, so perhaps they did exist, or at least something similar to our modern idea of the unicorn.

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The gentle and pensive maiden has the power to tame the unicorn, fresco by Domenichino, c. 1604–05

Whether real or not, unicorns are recognised from a single horn protruding from their forehead. The horn, known as an alicorn, is the source of their magical power, usually used for purification and healing. Typically, they resemble a white horse and have been used as a symbol of purity and grace. Despite their elegance, they are wild, woodland creatures and, according to some legends, only a virgin could tame them.

The earliest written description of a unicorn comes from a book written in the 5th century BC. Indica or Indika contains a mix of dubious stories and myths about the East, possibly India, compiled by the Greek physician and historian Ctesias the Cnidian. Ctesias was the physician to the king of the Achaemenid Empire, Artaxerxes II (c435-358 BC). As part of his role, Ctesias accompanied the king on various expeditions and battles and, therefore, became well acquainted with the neighbouring lands. This allowed the physician to pen treatises on rivers and lands, including Persia and India. Some of the information is based on first-hand experience, however, the rest was pieced together through various stories told by travellers.

Indica, which only remains in fragments, is generally considered to be pure fantasy. It contains many of the strange beliefs the Persians had about India, including that the country was full of riches and gold, artisans, philosophers, god-like people and, of course, unicorns.

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Unicorn IV (Ctesias)- Cecilia Caride

Ctesias’ unicorn is described as a white horse with a purple head and blue eyes. The horn projecting from the forehead was approximately 27 inches long and coloured white at the base, black in the middle and red at the point. As well as being the first person to describe a unicorn, Ctesias was the first to attribute magic to a unicorn’s horn.

“No creature, neither the horse or any other, could overtake it.”
– Ctesias

It is now thought Ctesias’ unicorn may have resulted from a mixture of animal descriptions, such as the Indian rhinoceros and an ass. Alternatively, there is the smallest of chances it may have been real, however, the other creatures described in Indica suggest otherwise, for example, people with one leg and feet so big they could be used as umbrellas, and manticores – red creatures with human faces, three rows of teeth, and scorpion tails. On the other hand, some of the information proved to be true, for instance, Indian elephants, monkeys, Indian customs, a large population and the Indus river.

Indica remained the main source of information about India for people in the Mediterranean until the 2nd century AD when the book was satirised by Lucian of Samosata (c125-c180). Lucian claimed Ctesias to be a liar and depicted him as being condemned to a special part of hell to pay for his sins.

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Although Ctesias may have provided the earliest written description of the unicorn, evidence that the creatures may have “existed” long before then has been discovered in South Asia. Several seals depicting what looks like a unicorn have been unearthed in the land once belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. They date back to the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3300 BC until 1200 BC.

These seals are thought to have belonged to people of high social rank, however, little else can be gleaned from them. There is also the argument the creature on the seal was not intended to be a unicorn but an auroch. Now extinct, aurochs were a species of large cattle that inhabited areas of Europe, Asia and Africa. Skeletons of the creatures reveal they had two horns, one on either side of their head. Always drawn in profile, the creatures on the seals could have been an auroch with one horn hidden from view by the other.

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Despite the theories that the seals were not unicorns and Ctesias was a fraud, many other ancient texts mention the unicorn. De natura animalium (On the Nature of Animals) was a collection of seventeen books about natural history compiled by Aelian (Claudius Aelianus, 175-235 AD). Aelian was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric (persuasion, grammar and logic) who was also fluent in the Greek language. The majority of the anecdotes in the collection were taken from other sources, including Ctesias. Aelian stated India produced one-horned horses known as the monoceros. Another name for the monoceros was cartazonos, however, this may be the Greek form of the Arabic word karkadann, which means “rhinoceros.”

Aelian also quotes Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who wrote the encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History). Pliny wrote about about “a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits [900 mm, 35 inches] in length.” He also claimed the oryx antelope and Indian ox were one-horned creatures, as did Aristotle (384-322 BC) centuries beforehand. The Greek philosopher Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) also mentioned one-horned horses with stag-like heads.

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In the 16th century, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner (1516-65) produced a Latin translation of Aelian’s work titled Historia Animalium. Although he attempted to sort fact from fiction, Gessner still included the unicorn, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. Gessner made it clear that he doubted some of the information, however, included it anyway since he believed it could teach moral lessons and divine truths. He went into as much detail into mythological creatures as he did about real animals. Mythological creatures that featured in the book included unicorns, mermaids, sea bishops and ichthyocentaur – creatures with the upper body of a human, the front legs of a horse and the tail of a fish.

As early as the 6th century, theories were expressed as to why unicorns were rarely seen. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th-century Greek merchant from Alexandria of Egypt reported, “it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound.” Cosmos also wrote a series of books about scientific geography known collectively as Christian Topography. Cosmas aimed to convince people of his theory that the earth was modelled on the tabernacle described to Moses by God in the Book of Exodus. His view was the earth was flat and the heavens formed the shape of a box with a curved lid.

Cosmas was not the only Christian writer to describe the legendary unicorn. Many authors of bestiaries (books about beasts), including the aforementioned Conrad Gessner, relied on the Christian text Physiologus, which was compiled in Greece during the 2nd Century AD. Although the unknown author introduces each creature by saying “the naturalist says” or something similar, each chapter is told more like a story than a statement of fact. Many of these stories relate in some way to the Bible, particularly the resurrection of Christ, for example, the phoenix, which burns itself to death but rises from the ashes three days later.

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Physiologus devotes entire chapters to individual creatures, some real and some mythological, beginning with the lion and ending with the eel. Other creatures include hedgehogs, ostriches, panthers, elephants, doves, serpents, pelicans, phoenixes and, rather strangely, Amos the Prophet. The unicorn is found in chapter 36 and is the source of the legend that only a maiden can tame the unicorn. This allegory refers to the Virgin Mary upon whose lap the unicorn laid its head and slept.

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Virgin Mary holding the unicorn (c. 1480), detail of the Annunciation with the Unicorn Polyptych

Many religious artworks concerning the Inception of the Virgin Mary are inspired by the story in Physiologus. In some interpretations, the unicorn represents Christ and his relationship with the Virgin, his mother. Secular writers have developed this story into myths about chaste love and faithful marriage. Even the polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) explored the tale of the unicorn, stating in one of his notebooks, “The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.”

The Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) also alluded to the myths about unicorns, however, he also called them ugly, brutes, and reported they “spend their time by preference wallowing in mud and slime.” It appears he may have mistaken a rhinoceros for a unicorn.

The secular take on the myth of the unicorn and the virgin, as noted by Da Vinci, led to the story The Hunt of the Unicorn. The tale involves a group of hunters who are struggling to capture a unicorn until a young maiden offers her assistance. Since virgins can tame unicorns, the creature came and rested its head upon her lap, allowing the hunters to capture it.

The Hunt of the Unicorn was first recorded on a series of tapestries in Paris at the turn of the 16th century. It is speculated they were commissioned by Anne of Brittany (1477-1541) to celebrate her marriage to Louis XII (1462-1515). Each tapestry, seven in total, tells a different part of the story:

  1. The Start of the Hunt
  2. The Unicorn at the Fountain
  3. The Unicorn Attacked
  4. The Unicorn Defending Himself
  5. The Unicorn Is Captured by the Virgin
  6. The Unicorn Killed and Brought to the Castle
  7. The Unicorn in Captivity

Despite being based on a pagan story, scholars have identified Christian symbolism in the tapestries. The unicorn is Christ and its death is the crucifixion. As you will notice from the order of the seven tapestries, the unicorn’s death is not the final stage. In scene seven, despite remaining in captivity, the unicorn has returned to life, similar to Christ’s resurrection.

Another tapestry involving a unicorn is La Dame à la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), which was produced in Flanders in the 16th century. Five of the six tapestries depict one of the five senses: taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch; with À mon seul désir being the title of the sixth. The latter translates as “my only desire” and has left many wondering its true meaning. A possible interpretation is the desire for love or understanding.

La Dame à la licorne does not tell a sequential story like The Hunt of the Unicorn, instead, it presents a meditation on earthly pleasures demonstrated through the five senses. Touch is demonstrated by the lady holding a banner in one hand and touching the unicorn’s horn with the other. Sweets represent taste, flowers for smell, a portative organ for hearing, and a mirror for sight.

The sixth tapestry shows the woman placing her pendant in a box. Some suggest this is an acknowledgement of the passions aroused by the other senses and free will. Others have put forward the idea that it represents a sixth sense: understanding. There is also the argument that there is no way of telling if the woman is putting the pendant in the box or retrieving it. It has been noticed, however, that this is the only tapestry in which the woman smiles.

La Dame à la licorne does not only feature a unicorn but also a lion. Both these creatures are used in heraldry to symbolise a country. The most famous use of these animals are for Scotland (unicorn) and England (lion). One legend claimed the unicorn was the natural enemy of the lion and would rather die than be captured. This represented Scotland’s desire to remain sovereign and unconquered. Of course, this all changed with the 1707 union of Scotland and England.

It is not certain where the idea that lions and unicorns were enemies originated, however, the legend is recorded in a nursery rhyme.

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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This rhyme featured in Lewis Carroll‘s (1832-98) 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A unicorn and a lion are seen fighting over the crown belonging to the White King. For comedic effect, Carroll alters the traditional characteristics of the animals, making the lion slow and stupid and the unicorn monstrous. When producing illustrations for the book, Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914) made caricatures of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-88) as the unicorn and William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98) as the lion in reference to their frequent parliamentary battles.

There are two common jokes about why unicorns may no longer exist. The first is the unicorns did not get on Noah’s ark in time (see video at the end of this article) and the second that they did get on the ark, but they were both males. Incidentally, unicorns are traditionally believed to be male and none of the myths, legends or bestiaries shed light on how they reproduce. The only claim about their nature is they are solitary creatures and can live for hundreds of years.

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Unicorn mosaic on a 1213 church floor in Ravenna, Italy

So, unicorns may not have been on Noah’s Ark, however, they are mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible mentions an animal called the re’em, an untamable animal of great strength and agility, with a horn. Unfortunately, it is generally believed the description was based upon the seals belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation, which are now thought to be aurochs. Nonetheless, the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611, translates the word re’em as “unicorn”.

There are eight references to unicorns in the Old Testament. They are as follows:

  • “God brought them out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 23:22
  • “God brought him forth out of Egypt; he hath as it were the strength of an unicorn.” – Numbers 24:8
  • “His glory is like the firstling of his bullock, and his horns are like the horns of unicorns: with them he shall push the people together to the ends of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 33:17
  • “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee, or abide by thy crib? Canst thou bind the unicorn with his band in the furrow? or will he harrow the valleys after thee? Wilt thou trust him, because his strength is great? or wilt thou leave thy labour to him? Wilt thou believe him, that he will bring home thy seed, and gather it into thy barn?” – Job 39:9–12
  • “Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of unicorns.” – Psalms 22:21
  • “He maketh them [the cedars of Lebanon] also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn.” – Psalms 29:6
  • “But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of the unicorn: I shall be anointed with fresh oil.” – Psalms 92:10
  • “And the unicorns shall come down with them, and the bullocks with their bulls; and their land shall be soaked with blood, and their dust made fat with fatness.” – Isaiah 34:7

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Real or not, what makes a unicorn so interesting is the horn protruding from its forehead. The existence of unicorns was supposedly disproved in 1825 by Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), a French naturalist and zoologist, the father of palaeontology. Cuvier declared it was impossible for any animal with a split hoof, such as a horse, to have a horn on top of its head. Before this claim, unicorn horns were a much sought but rare commodity.

Ancient writers such as Ctesias and Aelian recorded that a unicorn’s horn, made from a substance called alicorn, could be made into a vessel that when drunk from would protect against diseases and poisons. Other parts of the body of a unicorn were also considered to have medicinal properties. The 12th century Abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen wrote a recipe for an ointment to cure leprosy. The ingredients included egg yolk and foie de licorne, also known as unicorn liver.

In Physiologus, the unicorn is said to be able to purify water with its horn. The book tells the story of a lake poisoned by a snake. None of the animals dared to go near the water to drink, however, when the unicorn appeared, it went straight to the water. With its horn, it made the sign of the cross in the water (remember Physiologus was a Christian text) and the poison was rendered harmless.

Over time, the horn of the unicorn was assigned many medicinal properties. These included cures for rubella, measles, fever, pain and plague (perhaps it could cure COVID-19). Apothecaries across Europe boasted they could sell unicorn horns and elixirs made from ground alicorn. Also for sale were belts made from unicorn leather to protect the wearer from harm.

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Royalty was often given alicorns as gifts. Elizabeth I was said to own a unicorn horn and the Throne Chair of Denmark was said to be made from many horns. Commissioned by King Frederick III (1609-70) in 1662, the throne was made by Bendix Grodtschilling (1620-90) to resemble the Biblical Throne of King Solomon described in 1 Kings 10. The throne was used at coronations until 1849 when the Danish monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy. The unicorn horns, however, have since been proved to be narwhal tusks.

As early as 1638, alleged alicorns were being identified as narwhal tusks. Danish physician Ole Worm (1588-1654) was the first to start making this connection with the medium-sized toothed whales that live in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.

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Ole Worm’s beliefs were studied at length by Sir Thomas Brown (1605-1682) in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, more commonly known as Vulgar Truths. Brown was a polymath and author of a variety of subjects, including science, religion, medicine and the natural world. Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenets and commonly presumed truths, to give its full name, challenges the common errors and superstitions of the 17th century. Although Brown tried to be scientifically accurate, he included subtle elements of humour. Of the alleged alicorns, Brown said:

“False alicorn powder, made from the tusks of narwhals or horns of various animals, has been sold in Europe for medicinal purposes as late as 1741. The alicorn was thought to cure many diseases and have the ability to detect poisons, and many physicians would make “cures” and sell them. Cups were made from alicorn for kings and given as a gift; these were usually made of ivory or walrus ivory. Entire horns were very precious in the Middle Ages and were often really the tusks of narwhals.”

Despite, arguments against the existence of unicorns, they have “existed” throughout many cultures and periods. The European unicorn is traditionally believed to have the body of a horse with a pearly white coat and a long, white spiralled horn. In Asia, on the other hand, unicorns are depicted as a scaly, colourful deer-like creature with a flesh coloured horn.

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An Asian legend claims the Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan (AD 1162- 1227) was prevented from invading India by a unicorn. The creature is said to have gazed into the leader’s eyes, which Genghis Khan took to be a sign from heaven and ordered his army to retreat.

The Chinese unicorn, also known as the qilin looks less like traditional descriptions of the magical creatures and more like a chimaera. Although it had a single horn, some sources say it had the body of a deer, the head of a lion, and green scales. Other sources claim it had the head of a dragon. According to legend, the qilin first appeared in 2697 BC during the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor. The Chinese unicorn’s rare appearances were believed to foretell the birth or death of a wise ruler. Rumour says the qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (551- 479 BC) in the 6th century BC and once more shortly before his death. Confucius is also said to be the last person to have seen the unicorn.

“A wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn.”
– Tibetan proverb

Most of the original myths about unicorns have been forgotten and yet, unicorns have never been more popular than they are today. Social media has spread the unicorn fad across the world, with tips about throwing unicorn parties, making unicorn art and so much more.

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Every July, the Festa dell’Unicorno (Unicorn Festival) is held in the Italian town of Vinci (where Leonardo was born). Dressed as fairies, elves or characters from fantasy films, visitors can attend three days of magical shows, concerts, competitions and a medieval market.

The unicorn has been rising in popularity since 2015, helped along with companies, such as Starbucks with their unicorn frappuccino, Kellogg’s Unicorn Fruitloops and Unicorn Snot glitter gel. They also feature in recent films, TV shows and books. It has become a symbol of benevolence and happiness, shunning the harsh realities of today.

Although the unicorn craze belongs to the 21st century, unicorns have featured in famous literature of the past. Shakespeare (1564-1616) mentioned unicorns in his plays Julius Caesar, The Tempest and Timon of Athens. The most famous work of fiction involving the magical creatures is, of course, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (b.1939). First published in 1968, the book has sold millions of copies worldwide and has been translated into 20 languages. The story follows a unicorn, who believes she is the last of her kind, on a quest to discover what happened to the rest of her species.

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Detail from James Thurber’s original illustration

Another story is The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber (1894-1961). The short, humorous tale is about a man who sees a unicorn in the garden but when he tells his wife, she does not believe him. The more the man insists, the more adamant his wife becomes that unicorns do not exist. In the end, the wife has become so obsessed with proving her husband wrong that she is mistaken for the “loony” one.

This, of course, was only a humorous story but would anyone believe you today if you saw a unicorn in your garden? Are unicorns real? Whilst science puts forward evidence to suggest they are not, mystery still abounds, making the answer inconclusive. The stories and legends told throughout time suggest that it is highly unlikely to spot or capture a unicorn, therefore, if they do exist, we may never know.

Whether or not you believe in unicorns, they are fascinating creatures to research. There are so many different beliefs, myths and legends that it is impossible to fully comprehend the legendary creature. Nonetheless, their presence in popular culture is adding a bit of sparkle to the world. So, to paraphrase the Festa dell’Unicorno, enjoy your life, have fun, anything goes, so long as you do not betray the “spirit of the unicorn.”

“The unicorn is noble,
He knows his gentle birth,
He knows that God has chosen him
Above all beasts of earth.”
– German Folk Song

Super Troupers

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Those lucky enough to visit the O2 in London before the outbreak of COVID-19 had the opportunity to visit ABBA: Super Troupers The Exhibition about the chart-topping Swedish pop sensation ABBA. A 14,000 square foot immersive experience charted their music, lyrics, creative process and influence from their small beginnings to their meteoric rise to fame. Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid (“Frida”) Lyngstad’s lives were also brought to the fore, revealing their personal journeys leading to the success of ABBA.

ABBA soared to fame after they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 and continued to top the charts until 1982. To date, the supergroup has sold an estimated 380 million records, making them one of the best-selling artists of all time. Made up of the first letters of their first names, ABBA is one of the most commercially successful acts in the history of popular music.

Benny Andersson

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Göran Bror Benny Andersson was born in Stockholm on 16th December 1946. His love of music came from his father Gösta (1912-73) and his grandfather Efraim, who taught Benny how to play the accordion at the age of six. He grew up surrounded by Swedish folk music and schlager – a happy-go-lucky style of music in Europe.

At the age of 10, Benny taught himself how to play the piano and by 15, he was performing in youth clubs. Benny’s first girlfriend Christina Grönvall was also musical and they joined Elverkets Spelmanslag (The Electricity Board Folk Music Group) in 1964. Christina and Benny had two children, Peter (1963) and Heléne (1965), however, they never married and went their separate ways in 1966.

Towards the end of 1964, Benny joined the Swedish rock group Hep Stars as a keyboardist. The band mostly played covers of popular international songs, however, he also began writing his own material. Hep Stars became the most celebrated Swedish pop band of the 1960s and Benny gained many fans as a teen idol.

In 1966, Benny met Björn Ulvaeus and they began collaborating on songwriting. Their first was titled Isn’t It Easy To Say, which was recorded by the Hep Stars. Benny also worked with the Swedish songwriter Lasse Berghagen (b.1945), including Hej, Clown, which he submitted to the 1969 Melodifestivalen – the competition to determine the Swedish Eurovision Song – and finished in second place. At the Melodifestivalen, Benny met vocalist Anni-Frid Lyngstad with whom he became a couple.

Björn Ulvaeus

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Björn Kristian Ulvaeus was born in Gothenburg on 25th April 1945, although he moved to Västervik when he was six. Björn originally contemplated a career in business and law, studying at Lund University after undertaking his compulsory military service.

From 1961, Björn was a member of the Hootenanny Singers, a Swedish folk-schlager band, which gained enormous popularity in Sweden. While touring with the band, Björn met the Hep Stars and struck up a friendship with the keyboardist, Benny Andersson. The two shared a passion for music and began helping out in the recording studios of each band. This led to many songwriting collaborations.

In 1969, Björn took part in a special schlager show for television, which is where he met eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter Agnetha Fältskog, who soon became his wife. Meanwhile, Björn continued to record and tour with the Hootenanny Singers as well as working for the Polar Record Company with Benny. They wrote several records, including the single She’s My Kind of Girl, which they released as a duo in 1970.

Björn and Benny also produced a cover of Omkring Tiggarn Från Luossa, which put the Hootenanny Singers in the Swedish radio charts for 52 consecutive weeks.

Agneta Fältskog

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Agneta Åse Fältskog was born in Jönköping on 5th April 1950. Although her father Knut Ingvar (1922-95) was a department store manager, he held great interest in music and show business. This influenced Agneta, who wrote her first song at the age of six: Två små troll (Two Little Trolls). At 8, Agneta began piano lessons and joined her local church choir.

Having left school at 15, Agneta went on to develop her musical career. She joined a local dance band for a couple of years, however, it was the song Jag var så kär (I Was So in Love) that Agneta wrote after breaking up with a boyfriend that got her noticed. Retired rock and roll musician Karl Gerhard Lundkvist offered Agneta a recording contract at Cupol Records, which she readily accepted. Jag var så kär went on to sell more than 80,000 copies.

Throughout the 1960s, Agneta wrote and released many songs, becoming one of Sweden’s most popular artists. Her fiancé Dieter Zimmerman, a German producer, encouraged her to move to Germany where he promised she would achieve success. Unfortunately, Agneta did not get on with the demands of the German producers and returned to Sweden after breaking off her relationship with Zimmerman.

In 1972, Agneta was chosen to portray Mary Magdalene in the Swedish production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (b.1948) Jesus Christ Superstar. By this point, she had met and married Björn Ulvaeus and in 1973, had her first child Linda Elin Ulvaeus. Their son, Peter Christian Ulvaeus, was born in 1977.

Anni-Frid “Frida” Lyngstad

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Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss, Countess of Plauen (née Lyngstad) was born on 15th November 1945 in Bjørkåsen, Norway, the only member of ABBA born outside of Sweden. Her German father, Alfred Haase (1919-2009) had been a sergeant in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War, and fearing repercussions, Frida’s grandmother took her to Sweden in 1947. Although Frida remained close with her family, she was led to believe her father had died during the war.

Frida showed musical talent from a young age, encouraged by her grandmother who frequently sang old Norwegian songs to her as a young child. At school, Frida was asked to sing in front of her class and soon became known in the neighbourhood for her beautiful voice. At the age of 13, Frida became a schlager singer with the Evald Ek’s Orchestra.

“It was hard to believe, such a young person could sing that well. She was so easy to rehearse with and she was never shy onstage. The only thing I taught her was to sing out. In those days, she had a tendency of holding back her voice a little.”
– Evald Ek

In 1964 at the age of 18, Frida married Ragnar Fredriksson with whom she had two children: Hans Ragnar (b.1963) and Ann Lise-Lotte (1967-98). Frida sang with her husband in the Gunnar Sandevarn Trio and her own band, the Anni-Frid Four, however, the couple separated in 1968.

In 1967, Frida won the Swedish national talent competition, “New Faces”, which exposed her to a much wider audience. The following year, she met Agnetha Fältskog when she performed on Studio 8 and in 1969, met Benny Andersson at the Melodifestivalen, where she performed the song Härlig är vår jord (Our Earth Is Wonderful).

Frida’s first solo album Frida was produced by Benny, who was her fiancé at the time. The album met with considerable praise for her versatile voice. Through her relationship to Benny, who she eventually married in 1976, Frida became good friends with Agnetha and Björn Ulvaeus, which led to the formation of ABBA in 1972.

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Before ABBA was officially formed, the two couples first combined their musical talents when they went on a joint holiday to Cyprus in 1970. Having been spotted singing on the beach together, the four ended up performing an improvised concert in front of the United Nations soldiers on the island. At this time, Benny and Björn were already in the process of recording their first album and invited Agneta and Frida to provide backing vocals on a few of the tracks. Their first “hit” as a quartet was Hej, gamle man about an elderly Salvation Army soldier, which reached number five in the charts.

As time went on, Frida and Agneta went from being backing singers to more prominent vocals. By 1971, they were regularly performing together as a quartet in Swedish folkparks. Meanwhile, the Swedish music manager Stig Anderson (1931-97) told Björn and Benny, “One day the pair of you will write a song that becomes a worldwide hit.” Anderson was determined to establish his record company Polar Music in the mainstream international market and believed working with Björn and Benny would be his breakthrough.

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Stig Anderson met Björn when he began managing Hootenanny Singers in 1961. When Björn and Benny decided to pair up, Anderson was keen to manage them as well. Soon, he began managing Agnetha and Frida before eventually becoming the manager of ABBA. Anderson helped write some of ABBA’s earliest music and was often referred to as the fifth member of the band.

Although Agneta and Frida were becoming more prominent in Björn and Benny’s songs, it was not until June 1972 when they were officially considered to be a quartet. Their first single People Need Love was released under the name Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid. Despite only reaching 17 in the charts, Stig Anderson was convinced they would grow to be a big success.

In 1973, Anderson persuaded the band to enter Melodifestivalen with the song Ring Ring. The lyrics were originally Swedish, however, Anderson had them translated to English in the hopes it would become popular in the UK and USA. Ring Ring came third in the competition, therefore, they were not chosen to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest. Agneta would not have been able to perform anyway, since she was heavily pregnant with her daughter Linda. For performances, she was temporarily replaced by Inger Brundin, a friend of Frida.

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Björn & Benny, Agnetha & Anni-Frid was a bit of a mouthful to say when referring to the band, so Stig Anderson began referring to them as ABBA, an acronym for Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. The group decided to officially rename themselves ABBA in 1973, however, they had to get permission from the Swedish company Abba Seafood AB. The company responded, “O.K., as long as you don’t make us feel ashamed for what you’re doing.”

The ABBA logo was designed by Rune Söderqvist (1935-2014), who went on to create most of the band’s album sleeves. The logo first appeared in 1976 and was henceforth used for all future albums. The ambigram, as it is called because it can be read in more than one direction, contains a reversed letter B to make it a “mirror-image”. This was also a representation of the two couples in the band: Agneta and Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid.

Although Ring Ring failed to get ABBA to the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest, Stig Anderson was determined to enter the band the following year. On 9th February 1974, ABBA performed the song Waterloo in Swedish at the Melodifestivalen and won the hearts of the nation and a position in Eurovision. On 6th April 1974, ABBA performed Waterloo, this time in English, at the 19th Eurovision Song Contest, held in Brighton on the south coast of the United Kingdom. With 24 points, ABBA became Sweden’s first-ever winners of the competition, seven points above Italy in second place.

Waterloo became popular throughout Europe, topping the charts in both the United Kingdom and West Germany – ironically, the UK did not give Sweden any points during the competition, nor did Greece, Monaco, Belgium and Italy. Even the United States was enthralled by ABBA, with Waterloo reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. ABBA’s next single Honey, Honey, however, did not do so well and people began to speculate that the group would be a one-hit-wonder.

From November 1974, ABBA embarked on a tour of Europe, starting with Denmark, West Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, many of their concerts were cancelled due to lack of demand. Things improved when the band travelled through Scandinavia. Most of their concerts in Sweden and Finland were sold out with audiences reaching over 19,000.

In 1975, a new single SOS put ABBA back in the UK charts and their album of the same name saw success in Germany and Australia. The single even received attention in the USA where it peaked at number 10. The song that solidified their success in Europe was Mamma Mia, a number one record in Australia, Germany and the United Kingdom. In 1976, their new single Fernando went to number-one in at least thirteen countries and stayed in the charts for a record 40 weeks. This record was not beaten until 2017 when it was overtaken by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You.

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ABBA eventually reached number-one in the USA with Europop song Dancing Queen, released in August 1976. The song was written by Björn, Benny and Stig Anderson during the summer of 1975 and when Frida first heard it she allegedly cried. “I found the song so beautiful. It’s one of those songs that goes straight to your heart.”

Speaking about the single, Agnetha said, “It’s often difficult to know what will be a hit. The exception was ‘Dancing Queen.’ We all knew it was going to be massive.” Years later, Dancing Queen is still an internationally popular song. In 2000, it came fourth in Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Number One Singles and in 2015, Dancing Queen was inducted into the Recording Academy’s Grammy Hall of Fame.

“Dancing Queen is beautifully produced: catchy and euphoric, the perfect backdrop for a song that encapsulates the carefree bliss of youth.”
– Tim Jonze, The Guardian, 2016

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ABBA self wrote an operetta titled The Girl with the Golden Hair, which they performed during what they considered to be their first major tour. The tour began in Oslo, Norway in January 1977 followed by Gothenburg, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Essen, Hanover and Hamburg. The European leg of the tour ended in the United Kingdom with concerts in Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and London.

Following the success in Europe, the tour continued in Australia with eleven concerts. This leg of the tour was captured on film by Swedish director Lesse Hallström (b.1946), who directed the majority of ABBA’s music videos. The clips from the tour were pieced together to create a drama-documentary called ABBA: The Movie. Half fiction and half reality, the film follows a Radio DJ across Australia in an attempt to get an in-depth interview with the group. With many missed chances and several run-ins with the band’s protective bodyguard, the DJ eventually gets his interview after a chance encounter in a hotel lift.

By 1978, ABBA was one of the biggest bands in the world and began to plan their first tour of North America. Unfortunately, the pressure that came with fame had an adverse effect on Björn and Agnetha’s relationship and they announced they were getting divorced at the beginning of 1979. Nonetheless, the band were determined not to let it affect their band’s future, however, Björn and Benny had to secretly travel to the Bahamas to concentrate on their songwriting and escape the press.

ABBA travelled to the USA where they released their sixth studio album, Voulez-Vous, in April 1979. Popular songs from the album include Chiquitita, Does Your Mother Know and I Have a Dream. The tour of North America officially began on 13th September 1979 with a full house at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton, Canada.

“The voices of the band, Agnetha’s high sauciness combined with round, rich lower tones of Anni-Frid, were excellent…Technically perfect, melodically correct and always in perfect pitch…The soft lower voice of Anni-Frid and the high, edgy vocals of Agnetha were stunning”
Edmonton Journal.

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ABBA at Edmonton, Canada, 1979

After four sold-out concerts in Canada, the band performed a further 17 in the United States. The final show, due to be held in Washington DC, was unfortunately cancelled after a flight from Boston in severe weather conditions left Agnetha emotionally distressed. Agnetha had a fear of flying, which is why the band only managed a couple of tours outside of Europe.

After a long flight home, ABBA continued their tour with twenty-three sold-out gigs in Europe, six of which were held at the Wembley Arena in London. The following year, Agnetha braved the flight to Japan where they performed eleven concerts. This trip marked the end of their foreign adventures.

In July 1980, ABBA released the single The Winner Takes it All and found themselves back at the top of the UK charts. Although the lyrics are about a divorce, the band claimed it was fiction and not connected to Björn and Agnetha’s divorce. “One thing I can say is that there wasn’t a winner or a loser in our case. A lot of people think it’s straight out of reality, but it’s not.” (Björn) In 1999, The Winner Takes it All was voted Britain’s favourite ABBA song and, in 2006, Britain’s favourite breakup song.

Super Trouper, another UK number-one, was released towards the end of 1980. Originally, it was going to be called Blinka Lilla Stjärna (Twinkle Little Star, in Swedish), however, the name was changed to reference a brand of spotlights used in stadiums called Super Trouper. The song became ABBA’s ninth number one in the UK, putting them in fourth place for the most UK chart-toppers in history. At the top were The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. ABBA remained in fourth until Madonna released her tenth number-one single in 2000.

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ABBA during the TV special Dick Cavett Meets ABBA in April 1981

The year 1981 was a mix of good and bad for the members of ABBA. In January, Björn married Lena Källersjö and their manager, Stig Anderson, celebrated his 50th birthday. In February, however, Benny and Frida announced their divorce. They admitted their relationship had been crumbling for years and Benny had met another woman, Mona Nörklit, whom he married later that year.

In April, ABBA returned to the United States for a special interview with the US talk show host Dick Cavett (b.1936). This coincided with the release of their final studio album The Visitors. According to Björn, the tracks on the album referred to current and personal affairs, including the threat of war, failed relationships and ageing. One track, When All is Said and Done, fittingly became ABBA’s final Top 40 hit.

ABBA did not know at the time that The Visitors would be their final studio album. At the beginning of 1982, they were busy writing songs and planning a tour, however, by the summer, they had only recorded three songs. Realising they were struggling, ABBA decided to take a break from songwriting and produce a special album of their existing singles in time for Christmas. The album was titled The Singles: The First Ten Years and went to number one in the UK and Belgium.

In November 1982, ABBA travelled to West Germany and the UK to promote The Singles. On 11th December, they appeared through a live link on Noel Edmonds’ The Late, Late Breakfast Show, for what ended up being their last performance together. ABBA never officially announced the end of their group but decided amongst themselves to have a break. Fans have hoped ever since that ABBA would reunite but Björn crushed those dreams in 2008 saying, “We will never appear on stage again … There is simply no motivation to re-group. Money is not a factor and we would like people to remember us as we were. Young, exuberant, full of energy and ambition.”

Despite ABBA dissolving, Björn, Benny, Frida and Agnetha’s careers were far from over.

Benny Andersson

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Benny and Björn continued writing music despite no longer performing themselves. Together, they collaborated with the lyricist Tim Rice (b.1944) on their first stage musical Chess. The concept album was released in October 1984 and the track I Know Him So Well, sung by Elaine Paige (b.1948) and Barbara Dickson (b.1947), shot to number one in the UK. The show eventually opened in May 1986 at the Prince Edward Theatre in London.

In 1985, Benny began working as the producer of Genesis, a brother-sister pop duo from Sweden. Many of their songs were written by Benny and Björn, including the track Mio My Mio, which was used in the film Mio in the Land of Faraway based on a book by Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002).

Benny began writing and performing music alone, releasing his first solo album in 1987. The majority of the music was performed by Benny on his accordion. Two years later, he released a second solo album. At the same time, Benny continued to write music for other artists and composed the introduction melody for the 1992 European football championship.

Björn and Benny collaborated on another stage musical during the 1990s, resulting in the award-winning Mamma Mia! Based around twenty-four of ABBA’s songs. Success continued with the film version in 2008. Mamma Mia! The Movie is currently the best selling film musical of all time and the biggest-selling DVD ever in the UK.

Today, Benny performs with his own band, Benny Anderssons Orkester (Benny Andersson’s orchestra). The band is made up of sixteen musicians and has released five albums so far. Benny’s son Ludvig (b.1982) has followed in his father’s footsteps by forming his own band, Atlas.

Björn Ulvaeus

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Björn married music journalist Lena Källersjö in January 1981, towards the end of his career with ABBA. The couple have two children, Emma Eleonora (b.1982) and Anna Linnea (1986). Emma was born around the time Björn and Benny were working on the musical Chess, however, Anna was born after the family had moved to the United Kingdom, where they remained until 1990. Björn and his wife currently live in Stockholm.

Whilst Björn was in the UK, he set up an IT business with his brother. Later, he became an owner of NoteHeads, a Swedish online music composition company. Back in Sweden, Björn began working with Benny on the production of Mamma Mia!

Björn is a member of Humanisterna, a nonprofit organisation working for a secular society and human rights. He is a “cash-free campaigner” and has reportedly lived without using any physical money for over half a decade.

Today, Björn continues to write music and has been awarded The Special International Ivor Novello Award alongside Benny.

Agnetha Fältskog

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Only a year after ABBA disbanded, Agnetha released her first post-ABBA solo album. Wrap Your Arms Around Me immediately went to number one in the charts in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Belgium, and Denmark. Her second album was less successful, however, in 1987, Agnetha released the album Kom följ med i vår karusell (Come Join Us On Our Carousel) with her son Christian and was nominated for the Swedish music prize Grammis.

In 1987, Agnetha travelled to California to record her fourth studio album, however, decided to have a hiatus from recording after its release. For the next few years, she devoted much of her time to astrology, yoga and horse riding. In 1990, she married a Swedish surgeon, Tomas Sonnenfeld, but they divorced three years later.

The mid-1990s were a difficult period for Agnetha. In 1994 her mother committed suicide by jumping from a balcony and, the following year, her father died. A brief relationship with a Dutch forklift worker, Gert van der Graaf, ended in a court restraining order after he continued to stalk her long after the relationship ended.

Agnetha returned to music in 2004 with a new album called My Colouring Book. The majority of the tracks were covers of songs from the 1960s, however, she managed to top the charts in Sweden. Reviews in British newspapers suggested that “time hasn’t diminished her perfect voice,” (The Observer) and “Agnetha Fältskog has a vulnerability that gets under the skin of a song.” (The Guardian)

Agnetha’s latest album, A, was released in 2013 and includes a duet with Gary Barlow (b.1971). Over 600,000 copies were sold in the first two months after the release and reached number six in the UK charts. The same year, Agnetha was awarded the SKAP 2013 Kai Gullmar Memorial Award and performed live for the first time in 25 years at the BBC Children in Need Rocks 2013 concert in London.

The successes Agnetha has achieved are remarkable not just for her talent but because of her fight against hidden mental health issues. Her aviophobia made it difficult to tour with ABBA and she would always travel by bus when she could. Unfortunately, experiencing a bus accident on a Swedish motorway in 1983 put her off that mode of transport, too.

Other things Agnetha struggled with was stage fright, fear of crowds, fear of open space and fear of heights – all things that made being a pop superstar very difficult. Agnetha needed therapy following her split from Björn and the deaths of her parents worsened her depression.

Today, Agnetha lives with her son, near Stockholm and her daughter lives nearby.

Princess Anni-Frid Synni of Reuss

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Before ABBA had split up, Frida was already working on her first post-ABBA solo album. Produced by Phil Collins (b.1951), the music had a rockier tone and was a success across Europe and the United States.

Frida continued releasing successful albums until 2005 when she decided to have a hiatus from music. By 2010, however, she was producing music again.

In 2013, Frida helped organise the opening of ABBA: The Museum in Stockholm, however, she reportedly stated she wanted to “let ABBA rest”, crushing any hopes of a reunion.

After ABBA split up, Frida moved to London before relocating to Switzerland with her new boyfriend, Prince Heinrich Ruzzo of Reuss, Count of Plauen (1950–1999), who she eventually married in 1992. In 1988, Frida became a grandmother for the first time when her daughter Ann Lise-Lotte gave birth to Jonathan Casper. Sadly, Ann died in 1998 from fatal injuries after a car crash. Frida’s husband died the following year.

Today, Frida lives in Sweden with her current boyfriend Henry Smith, 5th Viscount Hambleden (b.1955), a descendant of the founder of WHSmith. Frida is involved with many charities and environmental issues.

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Posing together with the actors from the motion picture Mamma Mia! The Movie on 4 July 2008

Despite having split nearly forty years ago, ABBA is still reeling in the success of their many albums and Mamma Mia! In 2017, a blue plaque was erected outside Brighton Dome to commemorate their 1974 Eurovision win.

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The last public appearance of all four members of ABBA took place on 20th January 2016 at Mamma Mia! The Party in Stockholm. A few months later, it was revealed the band had reunited to work on a digital entertainment experience. The idea involves life-like avatars or Abbatars that will “perform” their songs. In 2019, Björn revealed they had written five new songs that will feature the Abbatars, due to be released in 2020.

Now, all we can do is wait and see what ABBA do next.