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

The Colour of Memory

It has been twenty years since the last exhibition of paintings by the late-impressionist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was displayed at Tate Modern. Now, until 6th May, the artworks have returned to introduce a new generation to one of the greatest colourists of the early 20th century. Beginning around 1900, Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory focuses on his mature work, many of which allow a glimpse into Bonnard’s private, domestic life.

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Bonnard with his dog, 1941, André Ostier

Whilst the exhibition is in chronological order, very little of Bonnard’s life prior to 1900 is alluded to, therefore, the painter as a person remains rather elusive. Further research reveals that Pierre Bonnard was born on 3rd October 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, just south of Paris. He was the second of three children; the elder, Charles, became a chemist, whereas the younger sister, Andrée was a musician. Neither of Bonnard’s parents had any art connections and his father, a departmental head at the French Ministry of War, intended his son to study law.

Bonnard did begin studying law faculty in Paris during 1887 but found he had no interest in the subject. Instead, he enrolled in schools, such as the Académie Julian, where he befriended the painter Paul Sérusier (1864-1927), and the École des Beaux-Arts, where he met Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), with whom he would become life-long friends. Through these two friendships, Bonnard became associated with the Nabis (the Hebrew word for “Prophets”), a group of artists who saw themselves as prophets of modern art, often acting as a mystical brotherhood, wearing Oriental costumes to their monthly meetings.

Through his association with the Nabis, Bonnard developed a passion for Japanese art, earning himself the nickname “le Nabi très japonard”. He admired the decorative flatness of Japanese art, which lead him to experiment with painted screens, posters and book illustrations. As a result, Bonnard was well-known in the graphic design field, however, by 1900, he had left this aesthetic behind, in favour of the impressionist style shown in the exhibition.

There were two women in Bonnard’s life who were frequently used as his muse. The first was his long term partner Marthe de Méligny (1869-1942), who he met in 1893 and married thirty-two years later. As Bonnard discovered due to marriage, Marthe’s real name was Maria Boursin, however, she had changed it in an attempt to appear more than a working-class girl.

Despite not marrying until later in life, Bonnard and Marthe defied convention and lived together as a couple, therefore, Marthe was often on hand to act as Bonnard’s model. Many of the paintings Marthe inspired, as the first few rooms of the exhibition reveal, involved nudity, however, there was nothing corrupt or shameful about the way these figures were portrayed.

Bonnard prefered to paint from memory rather than on location, therefore, his paintings of female nudes were not posed or portrayed in contrived positions. Instead, Bonnard captured natural, casual moments, for example, a woman washing or dressing. Mirror above a Washstand (La Glace du cabinet toilette) shows the back of a naked woman reflected in a dressing table mirror. It is as though the model is unaware of the painter’s presence, however, she is not ashamed of her nakedness, emphasised by a female companion seen drinking a cup of tea in close proximity.

The other regularly occurring woman in Bonnard’s paintings is his lover Renée Monchaty. The true nature of their relationship is unclear, however, it does not appear to have been too private because she accompanied him to public places. Although this affair must have put a strain on Bonnard’s relationship with Marthe, he eventually broke it off with Renée and married his long term partner in 1925. Renée, perhaps heartbroken, took her own life the following month.

“I leave it … I come back … I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.”
– Pierre Bonnard

One of the first paintings in the exhibition, Young Women in the Garden (Jeunes femmes au Jardin) shows both of Bonnard’s women. The central figure seated at a table is Renée and the profile of a woman in the lower righthand corner has been identified as Marthe. The significance of this painting, however, is not the presence of both women, but the length of time it took Bonnard to complete the picture. After beginning in 1921, Bonnard put the canvas aside for many years, finally coming back to it in 1945 after both women in the scene were dead. This was a common occurrence for Bonnard, he would leave paintings and come back to them at a later date to add more detail. In fact, he never considered a painting to be completely finished.

Although it often took Bonnard years to complete a painting – if they can be called complete – his subject matter was inspired by the camera. Bonnard and Marthe were keen photographers and the notion of being able to capture a single moment helped Bonnard to move away from the typical poses of artists’ models. A camera can seize an image in a split second in a way that painting never could. It can capture a movement, freezing it forever. Bonnard, in his own unique way, attempted to replicate the unplanned, spontaneous abilities of the camera.

Unlike the camera, however, Bonnard explored the possibilities of colour, settling for bold, expressive combinations. Bonnard, along with artists such as Henri Matisse (1869-1954), earned the nickname “Fauves”, the French word for “wild beasts” on account of their use of raw colour.

“You see, when I and my friends adopted the Impressionsts’ colour programme in order to build on it we wanted to go beyond naturalistic colour impressions. Art is not nature – we wanted a more rigorous composition. There was also so much more to extract from colour as a means of expression. But developments ran ahead, society was ready to accept Cubism and Surrealism before we had reached what we viewed as our aim.”
– Pierre Bonnard

Around the time that Bonnard was distancing himself from the Nabis group, he purchased his first car in 1911, which allowed him to explore the countryside and the power that natural light had on the landscape – something he tried to express in his later paintings. A year later in 1912, Bonnard bought a house in Vernonnet, Normandy, which he called Ma Roulotte (My Caravan). It is from here and the surrounding areas that the majority of Bonnard’s work in the exhibition were produced.

Except for the paintings of his nude partner in the bedroom or bathroom, the room that features the most in Bonnard’s work is the dining room whose windows look out onto the luscious, green back garden. Although the scenes may change, the room is recognisable from painting to painting.

Bonnard’s exploration of colour can be seen in the Dining Room in the Country (Salle à manger à la campagne), which was one of the first paintings he produced at his home in Normandy. The crisper, fresher colours of the garden contrast with the warm glow of the interior. The woman’s presence, most likely Marthe, leaning on the window sill, looking into the house was not posed for the painting; Bonnard was painting from memory.

There are many examples where Bonnard has contrasted the colours of the exterior and interior. Another is Open Window Towards the Seine (Vernon) (Fenêtre ouverte sur la Seine (Vernon)), where the green and blue hues are total opposites to the darker orange tones of the room. Almost missable at the edge of the canvas is a small figure of a boy in the doorway looking out into the garden. It is uncertain who the boy is because, although not much is known about Bonnard’s private life, it is believed he and Marthe never had children.

The contrast of colour between outside and inside in the painting Coffee (Le Café) is much starker than the previous two paintings. The intensity of the tones on the table cloth, yellow jumper and dog are much more precise than the gloomy grass and pathway that can be seen through the window. This suggests that the painting was produced, or at least the vision or memory in Bonnard’s head was formed, in the early evening or during a winter afternoon, the lack of sunlight dulling the natural colours of the garden.

The majority of Bonnard’s paintings show peaceful, tranquil scenes, however, during the years surrounding the First World War, Bonnard experimented with busier images. In some ways, Bonnard’s View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House on the Outer Alster Lake with St. Johannis (Fête sur L’Eau), resembles the genre of scenes that the impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) produced in his heyday. Renoir is famous for his paintings of bustling Parisian society and leisure activities, such as boating on a lake. Bonnard’s painting, whilst resembling Renoir in terms of content, sticks to his loose, painterly style full of shimmering light and colour.

View from Uhlenhorst Ferry House… is a response to the new sights and activities Bonnard experienced when visiting Hamburg with Édouard Vuillard at the invitation of Alfred Lichtwark (1852-1914), the Director of the Kunsthalle, the city’s museum. The regatta in the harbour is a completely different reality to Bonnard’s day-to-day life.

When the war began in August 1914, Bonnard was 46 years old and eligible to serve in the French army. Nonetheless, he opted not to fight in the conflict and continued to focus on his art. Whilst he continued to paint his usual topics, he did not entirely ignore the death and destruction occurring around him. In 1917, Bonnard painted A Village in Ruins near Ham (Un Village en ruines près de Ham) to record the devastation the war caused. Ham was a commune in the Somme, which was the scene of a lengthy battle in 1916. The painting, which looks unfinished, uses a watery-technique to reflect the desolation.

Towards the end of the war, Bonnard painted yet another artwork that transcends the usual genre of his work. The Fourteenth of July (Quatorze Julliet) shows the hustle and bustle of a crowded street during the night of 14th July, France’s national day. Although the Armistice was yet to come, the celebrating crowd emphasises the patriotism of the French, which Bonnard captured with urgent brushwork.

After the war, Bonnard’s painting returned to the calmer, more precise method he had previously honed. Whilst this may have symbolised the return to peace, it also coincided with the death of his mother Elizabeth, which, for Bonnard, signalled a larger break with the past. Whereas most people separated their lives into before war and after the war, Bonnard used the death of his mother to split his before and afters.

Just as Bonnard returned to painting the female nude, his interior scenes continued to have the same background features – a window and a door. The Bowl of Milk (Le Bol de lait), however, only contains one window and, instead of a garden, looks out over the sea. The room appears to be lit by the reflection on the water rather than the sunlight itself.

Vernonnet, where Bonnard lived, was a short distance from Giverny where the prolific artist Claude Monet (1840-1926) lived. Bonnard regularly visited the older artist, whose landscape paintings encouraged Bonnard to create his own, away from the house. Nonetheless, whilst Monet worked en plein air, Bonnard continued to memorise the scene in his head and paint at a later date.

Although Bonnard began producing landscape paintings, they continued to contrast man-made and natural environments. His use of colour, however, continued to go beyond the realms of natural colour. This may have been in order to distinguish himself from other artists at exhibitions in Paris that he sent artworks to every year.

At this time, Bonnard was having a love affair with Renée Monchaty with whom he visited Rome in 1921. Similar to his trip to Hamburg in 1913, Bonnard recorded the sights he saw in his artwork, for example, Piazza del Popolo, Rome where his nephew Charles Terrasse (1893-1982) was studying. This fact, along with letters sent to Marthe from both Bonnard and Renée suggests that the affair was not a secret.

The scenes in Rome are urban and feature many figures, both in the foreground and the background. Monet, however, had convinced Bonnard to experiment with countryside landscapes, such as that which can be seen in The Violet Fence (La Palissade violette). True to Bonnard’s style, the green landscape is made up of unnaturally bright green hues and is contrasted with the paler, man-made wooden fence.

As well as landscapes, Bonnard turned his hand to still life, devoid of human presence and the outside world. Basket of Bananas (Le Corbeile de bananes) uses a similar colour scheme to the interior of rooms he painted in the previous decade, thus suggesting these still lives may have been painted or seen in the same setting.

One room of the exhibition contains a number of paintings that Bonnard produced in 1925. What sets these particular paintings apart from the rest of the display is that a number have been removed from their frames in order to provide an insight into how the artist worked. Rather than using an easel, Bonnard pinned his canvases directly onto the wall, allowing him to paint the entire surface. Often, he pinned several on the same wall so that he could switch between paintings whenever he felt like working on something different.

In Bonnard’s work, there is a sense of cropping with some features only half in the picture. This, in a way, echoes the camera, which can only capture what can be seen through the lens. By removing the frames, viewers can see that the cropping was intentional and not an effect of the frame. On some paintings, Bonnard sketched in lines where the frame would fall in order to make sure everything he wanted in the scene would be on view.

In 1926, Bonnard and Marthe moved to the village of Le Cannet in the south of France. The name of their new house was Le Bosquet (The Grove) on account of its surrounding thicket of trees. His painting The Garden (Le Jardin) shows the mass of growth the Bonnard’s had in their back garden, emphasised by Bonnard’s rapid brushstrokes.

The walls of the final rooms in the exhibition are painted Naples yellow, which was the same shade that Bonnard painted his dining room at Le Bosquet. The common theme of contrast between exterior and interior continued in his new home, as can be seen in Large Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (Grande Salle à manger sur le jardin). This painting took over a year to complete, which goes to show how good Bonnard’s memory (or imagination) was since there was no way he could possibly set up his canvas in the same room for that length of time.

The colour yellow became more prominent in these later paintings, perhaps due to the colour of Bonnard’s dining room walls. Bonnard began experimenting with self-portraits, such as The Boxer (Le Boxeur), which also has a yellow background.

The final years of Bonnard’s life were marred by the Second World War and the death of his life-long companion Marthe in January 1942. The war and subsequent travel restrictions meant that Bonnard was mostly confined to his home and the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, he persevered with his paintings, finding solace in his encounters with nature, which he recorded on canvases, for instance, Steps in the Artist’s Garden (L’Escalier dans le jardin de l’artiste).

In a slightly different from usual manner, Bonnard depicted swimmers in the sea in Bathers at the End of the Day (Baigneurs à la fin du jour). Whilst the deep blue tones cover the majority of the canvas, the colours merge into greens and yellows at the top and bottom to form the shore and sky.

Despite subtle changes over the years, Bonnard continued to return to his typical interplay between interior and exterior. The Studio with Mimosa (L’Atelier au mimosa) was begun in 1939 and took until 1946, the year before his death, to complete. Unlike the contrasting colours used in previous examples, these tones appear to explode from the canvas, taking on a fiery atmosphere. Bonnard claimed his choice of colours were emotion driven, which in this instance could suggest feelings of anger and frustration over the losses he had suffered in life through war and death.

“I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint. A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practise his art.”
– Pierre Bonnard

For a painter who never thought his paintings were finished, Bonnard completed a large number of canvases. By omitting his work produced prior to 1900, Tate Modern create a picture of an artist who discovered a method he could work with and stuck with for most of his life. At a time when the art world was moving on to newer, abstract things, Bonnard stuck to the style that had worked for him and produced a unique collection of work.

It is a shame that so little is known about Pierre Bonnard’s life, however, Tate Modern provide visitors with photographs and correspondence that reveal a little of Bonnard’s personality and daily situation. He was a contemporary of Matisse and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), who had differing views about their friend’s style of art, the former believing that Bonnard was “one of the greatest painters”.

Whilst Bonnard’s work may not be to everyone’s taste, his paintings are pleasant to look at and, despite some nudism, are not repulsive in any way. In art history, the focus tends to be on the prevailing art movements of the time, so it is thanks to Tate Modern that this unconventional artist will not be forgotten.

Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory will be on display until 6th May 2019. Tickets cost £18 for adults, although members of Tate can visit for free.

Staging Magic

Magic, or the art of appearing to perform supernatural feats, has been popular throughout the world since the 16th century. People have been and continue to be fascinated by illusions, entertained by rabbits appearing out of hats and mystified by seemingly impossible acts. This year (2019), the Senate House Library in London has staged an exhibition containing over 60 magical stories that focus on legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) and stage illusions from the past four centuries. Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion, uses books, manuscripts and other items once belonging to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature to piece together the history of one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

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Studio Portrait of Harry Price

Although not all made it into the exhibition, the Harry Price Library contains over 13,000 items dating from the 15th century until the present related to magic, witchcraft, parapsychology, the occult and other similar subjects. This huge collection was bequeathed to the University of London after the death of its owner, Harry Price (1881-1948), which has been useful for research into “rare, old and curious works on magic, witchcraft, legerdemain, charlatanism, and the occult sciences.”

Harry Price, born in London, was only a young boy when he first became fascinated with magic. At a travelling magic show, Price came across the Great Sequah, a man who he later claimed was “entirely responsible for shaping much of my life’s work”. As a young boy with a toothache, Price was fascinated when the Great Sequah “extracted” his tooth and proceeded to perform a series of other magical wonders. Naturally, Price demanded to know how the tricks were accomplished, for instance, how could an empty hat suddenly contain two doves?

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Modern Magic

Due to his obsessive need to know how the Great Sequah performed such feats, Price was eventually given a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1874) in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, this book was the small spark that fueled his passion for magic, psychical phenomena and the occult, culminating in an enormous collection of books, some of which can be seen on display today.

Angelo John Lewis (1839-1919) was an English lawyer and professor who went on to become the leading writer about magic of his time under the moniker Professor Louis Hoffmann. Modern Magic, published in 1874, was the first ever encyclopedia of performance magic. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out in seven weeks due to its popularity. Eventually, 15 editions of the book were published by the end of the 19th century and, being the first in a tetralogy, was soon followed by the titles More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903) and Latest Magic (1918).

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As well as reporting on past and present magicians, Modern Magic became a favourite amongst aspiring conjurors, including Price who became an expert in sleight-of-hand and joined the Magic Circle in 1922. The British organisation was founded in 1905 after 23 amateur magicians met at Pinoli’s Restaurant in Soho, and was dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.

In order to join the Circle, applicants had to qualify through either a performance exam or a written thesis about a branch of magic. Only then could they be designated a Member of the Magic Circle (M.M.C.). Further distinctions were later formed, for instance, Member of The Inner Magic Circle (M.I.M.C), which was limited to a select 300 members.

Although the Magic Circle aimed to promote magic, members had to give their word that they would not disclose any of their magic secrets to the public. The society’s motto indocilis privata loqui, meaning “not apt to disclose secrets” (lit. “incapable [of] speaking [of] private [things]”) emphasises this rule.

Being a magician, however, was not Harry Price’s aim in life. Instead, he would become famous for investigating mediums, hauntings and other supernatural phenomena, exposing numerous fakeries. His most famous investigation took place at Borley Rectory, which was purportedly haunted, its first paranormal event taking place in 1863. Price and a team of 48 “official observers” spent long periods of time at the rectory reporting on any paranormal activity. During this time, a planchette séance took place and two spirits, one who claimed to have been murdered on the site, were supposedly contacted. Six years later, Price discovered the bones of a woman buried in the cellar of the old house. Unfortunately, after his death, Price was accused of faking the phenomena.

As well as collecting books, Harry Price was a keen cinematographer and often filmed his experiments in phenomena. In 1935, the National Film Library compiled a few of these demonstrations and investigations to create a short film. The Senate House Library plays three examples on a loop as part of the exhibition. The first, known as the Indian Rope trick, was a cause célèbre at the time, involving a boy climbing a rigid rope that had once been limp. The performer Karachi, real name Arthur Claude Darby, was filmed proving the rope’s flexibility before making it stand upright, allowing his son to climb it several feet into the air.

Another experiment involved walking on fire, which Kuda Bux (born Khudah Bukhsh, 1905-81) was filmed doing twice without burning his feet. The twelve-foot long pit of burning hot coals measured a temperature of 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is hot enough to burn steel. Price thought the trick was performed by stepping on “safe spots”, however, a later suggestion claimed that because coal cools rapidly, it would be possible to walk over them quickly without being burnt. Regardless as to the veracity of this statement, when a spectator tried to walk across the coals shortly after Kuda Bux, he severely burnt his feet.

Also in the film, Price debunked a ritual found in a 15th century “High German Black Book.” The ritual claimed that by carefully following the instructions, a goat would be transformed into a man. In front of a crowd, Price performed this ritual but, of course, the goat remained a goat.

Despite the Magic Circle endeavouring to keep their secrets, magical revelations had already been shared with the world. The earliest book in Price’s collection is The Discoverie of Magic by Reginald Scot (1538-99), which was published in 1584. Scot, a member of the English Parliament, wrote the book in order to dismiss the myths about witchcraft. At the time, the majority of the population held beliefs about the supernatural, however, Scot wished to propose a more rational approach. In order to convince his readers, he included highly detailed sections on legerdemain and “the art of iuggling”, which he explained made things appear to be magic but were rather very clever illusions.

At the time, The Discoverie of Magic was a risky book to publish. England was still struggling with the effects of the Reformation, and there was a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants. Scot was a Reformed Protestant, also called Calvinism, and stated in his book that “it is neither a witch, nor devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder…God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds…”. Catholics held strong beliefs in the power of witches, and later, King James I (1566-1625) condemned the book out of fear that it would stop people from staging witch hunts – a purge that had once caused mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft went on to inspire many people and countless new books were published over the coming centuries. The Whole Art of Legerdemain or Hocus Pocus in Perfection published in 1727, borrowed a lot of its content from Scot. The author, Henry Dean, described a number of different tricks, including magic lanterns, producing eggs and hens from an empty bag and turning water into wine. These were accompanied by woodcut illustrations that helped to further explain the tricks.

Broadsheet newspapers, which could be produced much more cheaply than books, began to appear as forms of mass entertainment. Topics, such as legerdemain, were suddenly available to a much wider audience. One example shown in the exhibition promised to give concise instructions on how to perform acts involving cups and balls, fire-eating and walking on hot iron bars.

Although Harry Price’s books imply that the popularity of magic and illusion began in England, the craze quickly spread across the continent. Price owned copies of books in German (Hocus Pocus: Die Taschenspielerkunst Leicht zu Lernen, 1730), Spanish (Engaños a Ojos Vistas y Diversion de Trabajos Mundanos Fundala en Lícitos Juegos de Manos, 1733), and French (Aracana Mirabilia, ou, Magie Blanche et Tours de Physique & d’Excamotage, 1824).

In the 19th century, magicians and conjurors began adopting Chinese, Japanese and Indian styles of dress and sets in order to make their performances look more mystical. Later, towards the end of the century, Western performance magic spread to Asia, was adapted slightly, and published in books such as Mo Shu Ta Kuan (The Devils Art From Top to Bottom) in 1916.

The fascination with magic tricks was still strong in the 20th century. During the First World War, Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a children’s book illustrator who had a brief career as a professional magician, published a couple of pamphlets under the pseudonym Draklof. Tricks for the Trenches and Wards (1915) was one of the titles, which Draklof wrote with the intention of providing some entertainment to British soldiers. The tricks involved objects that could be found while sitting in trenches, such as matches and coins, and could be easily mastered by those convalescing in hospitals.

As with any increasingly prevalent topic in popular culture, magic was not immune to satire. In 1722, the Anglo-Irish author who went on to write Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the illusions and language of magic by writing about impossible feats in his pamphlet The Wonder of all the Wonders that Ever the World Wonder’d at (1722). He warned his subscribers to not be taken in by the claims from magicians that would most probably end in disappointment.

By the mid-19th century, magic acts had become successful forms of theatrical entertainment. The period was considered to be magic’s golden age and one performer stood out amongst them all. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71) was a French magician who combined sleight-of-hand with technical innovations and is now regarded as the father of the modern style of conjuring.

Robert-Houdin became a magician almost by accident. Intending on becoming a watchmaker, he had ordered a couple of books on the topic, however, they got mixed up during delivery and Robert-Houdin – then Jean-Eugène Robert – ended up with a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Rather than returning them, Robert-Houdin curiously began reading and was soon hooked, practising the rudiments of magic at all hours of the day.

Most of what is known about Robert-Houdin’s life comes from his memoirs published in 1859, of which Harry Price owned a copy. Originally published in French as Confidences d’un Prestigitateur (1858), Robert-Houdin describes the many events in his life that led him to become one of the greatest magicians to date. He writes about his introduction to magic and illusion and some of his greatest achievements, for instance, convincing people in Algeria that French magic was superior to their local mystics. There is some suspicion, however, that many of his stories have been embellished or, perhaps, made up in parts.

Another of Robert-Houdin’s books that Price owned was his posthumously published Magie et Physique Amusante (1877), a sequel to Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie. Both books explain and offer explanations to some of the most famous stage illusions of the time. Not only did he include his own Magic Portfolio, but Robert-Houdin also revealed the secrets of other magicians, illusionists and spiritualists.

One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was named The Ethereal Suspension in which he convinced his audience that the pungent liquid ether could cause a person to become as light as a balloon.

Robert-Houdin inspired many people, none more greatly than Erik Weisz (1874-1926), more commonly known as Harry Houdini. With a stage name inspired by his idol, the Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer quickly became known for his incredible escape acts. He first became noticed after challenging police officers to keep him locked up, yet no matter how hard they tried, he always managed to escape. Eventually, his repertoire included being tied up with heavy chains, hanging from skyscrapers, placed in a straitjacket underwater and being buried alive – from all of which he escaped.

Like Harry Price, Houdini was a keen collector of books about magic. Many titles feature and were discussed in their letters of correspondence. In 1921, Houdini sent a portrait of himself to Price signed “To my friend Harry Price, best wishes, Houdini”.

In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin after discovering that there was not enough evidence about the stories his idol had written about in his autobiography. Initially, Houdini was writing a book about the history of magic, however, it evolved into an exposé of his former hero’s potential dishonesty.

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini unexpectedly died from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. Despite being unwell, Houdini had continued performing, thus making his condition worse. As a result of his early death, many of his secrets about magic and escapology were taken to the grave. Nevertheless, the magician and author Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985) managed to, with the help of Houdini’s wife Wilhelmina “Bess” (1876-1943), decipher some of Houdini’s notebooks in order to put together a biography: Houdini’s Magic (1932).

Amongst Harry Price’s impressive collection are a number of books aimed at teaching the art of conjuring. The subject of magic was as popular for amateurs and hobbyists as it was professionals. Manuals for beginners were in great demand, hence the number of instruction books Price owned. These types of publications began as far back as 1722 with Henry Dean’s Hocus Pocus that offered to teach “any person that is desirous to learn any part of this art.” Ever since then, books of this genre have continued to flourish.

Aimed at children, The Art of Conjuring from the late 18th century, taught simple tricks involving eggs, cards and coins, whereas, Harlan Tarbell’s (1890-1960) System of Magic provided over 60 lessons for those who were more serious about learning the elements of magic. Lessons in Conjuring (1922) by David Devant (1868-1941) emphasised the importance of knowing how to perform a trick well. Although knowing how to do the trick was, of course, necessary, the success lay in how it was presented.

Ellis Stanyon’s (1870-1951) Conjuring for Amateurs (1897) and Alexander the Magician (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954)’s The Magic Show Book were written for true beginners, the latter being aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds. With books such as these, anyone could learn a trick or two to impress their friends and family. Stanyon maintained that practising magic as a hobby was “a wholesome and moral one”, but more importantly, these books aimed to amuse the public.

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With so many books on display, it is hard to take everything in at the Senate House Library’s exhibition. Fortunately, visitors are provided with a written guide that contains all the information about Harry Price’s collection, the history of magic and each individual item.

Seeing the books and items in display cabinets does not fully explain the story behind magic and illusions, however, there is so much history hidden within them.

The art of illusion has come on a long journey and, through one man’s book collecting hobby, its development is there for all to see.

Staging Magic is free and open to the public. Tickets are available on-site at the Library membership desk on the 4th floor of Senate House.

Previous exhibitions include Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 Salvador Dalí

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

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

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Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt

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

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

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

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

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Dalí photographed by Carl Van Vechten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937 by Salvador Dal? 1904-1989

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sigmund Freud by Dalí

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

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

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

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

Delivering the Unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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London Postal District Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Benugo cafe at the Postal Museum

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

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

A Walk Through British Art

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

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

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

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

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

A Man in a Black Cap – John Bettes, 1545

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jupiter and Ganymede 1811 by Richard Westmacott 1775-1856

Jupiter and Ganymede, Richard Westmacott, 1811

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am Ashurbanipal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teumman’s decapitated head hanging from a tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gainsborough’s Family Album

Since the beginning of the 20th century, family photo albums have documented the lives of families and individuals, often providing a visual narrative of the birth and ageing of different generations. Before the advent of photography, however, family albums did not exist and only an elite privileged few could afford to have their lives documented by portrait artists. In the 18th century, only royalty had the means to commission family portraits, with the exception of one man: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88).

Primarily a landscape painter, Gainsborough painted and drew portraits of his immediate and extended family throughout his lifetime. Amounting to at least 50 artworks, the National Portrait Gallery has chosen to chart the career of one of Britain’s greatest painters from youth to maturity in their winter exhibition Gainsborough’s Family Album. Set out in chronological order, the paintings show the people who meant a lot to Gainsborough, particularly his daughters who grow from young children to beautiful, independent women.

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Self-portrait with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary

The exhibition begins with The Artist with his Wife and Eldest Daughter Mary, which Gainsborough painted at the age of 22 shortly before his daughter died in her second year of life. Principally a landscape painter, preferring them over “damn’d faces”, Gainsborough combined the two genres in this painting, as he does with a handful of other portraits, to create a composition that portrays the couple as fashionable gentlefolk enjoying the countryside. Despite being middle-class, the outfits and posture of Gainsborough and his family suggest their aspirations to gentility.

Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury, Suffolk in 1727, the youngest son of a large family. Some of his brothers and sisters feature in portraits throughout the exhibition as well as their own children. As a child as young as ten, Thomas impressed his father with his drawing ability and was allowed to leave home in 1740 to seek an apprenticeship in London. Under the tutelage of the Frenchman Hubert-François Bourguignon (1699-1733), more commonly known as Gravelot, Gainsborough initially studied engraving. Nonetheless, his passion for painting thrived after he became associated with William Hogarth (1697-1764). Like Hogarth, some of Gainsborough’s work was produced for the Foundling Hospital set up by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram (1668-1751) in 1739.

Not all of Gainsborough’s siblings feature in the exhibition, but those that do show off his skill at capturing likenesses. Although a landscape artist at heart, Gainsborough often focused solely on the faces, leaving the clothing unfinished and the backgrounds bare. It is thought Gainsborough may have deliberately left these incomplete to distinguish between private and commissioned work. On the other hand, Gainsborough’s main focus would have been on commissioned works, resulting in private portraits being abandoned.

A self-portrait from 1759 shows the type of backgrounds Gainsborough combined with portraits should he have the time or inclination to finish them. His painting of his brother Humphrey, however, represents the unfinished look of many of Gainsborough’s works in this exhibition. Unlike the elaborate outfits popular at the time, Humphrey, a non-conformist minister, wears black and looks piously into the distance. Susan Gardiner, however, the daughter of his sister Susanna, has a tenser facial expression, perhaps caused by the boredom of posing for too long.

Later in his career, Gainsborough painted his sister Sarah, also known as Sally, in highly fashionable attire. Being twelve years older than her brother, Sally is getting on in years, evidenced by her greying hair, partially hidden under a lace cap. Positioned next to her on the wall at the National Portrait Gallery is her husband, Philip Dupont. Unlike Sally, Gainsborough painted his brother-in-law wearing drab, unfashionable clothing, suggesting unfavourable feelings between the two men.

Other paintings of members of Gainsborough’s large family include his father John, the postmaster of Sudbury; his cousin Henry Burrough, the vicar of Wisbech; his brother John, also known as Scheming Jack due to his money-making ways, his sister Susanna; and Susanna’s son Edward. Interestingly, the portrait of an unnamed youth referred to as The Pitminster Boy, is also included amongst the family portraits. The boy would have worked as a servant for the artist, responsible for carrying painting equipment whenever Gainsborough desired to paint en plein air. During the 18th century, the term “family” was much broader than today’s sense, encompassing non-blood relations, servants and other members of the household.

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Margaret Gainsborough, the Artist’s Wife 1777

In 1746, Gainsborough married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of Henry Somerset-Scudamore, 3rd Duke of Beaufort (1707-1745). Margaret and Gainsborough’s relationship was not at its best for the majority of their lives, however, it improved in later years. Most portraits of Margaret were produced in the latter period and Gainsborough began gifting Margaret a small painting of herself annually on their wedding anniversary.

In all her portraits, Margaret is fashionably dressed, such as the 1777 painting produced for her 50th birthday where she wears a black mantilla. In this particular artwork, Gainsborough sits his wife in the pose of a classic statue of Pudicity, the goddess of modesty and chastity, or wifely virtue.

Initially, the married couple lived in Sudbury, but in 1752, they moved to Ipswich along with their two daughters, Mary (1750-1826), named for her deceased older sister, and Margaret (1752-1820), named for her mother. During his time in the county town, Gainsborough began to receive more commissions for private portraits, however, the majority of these clients were local merchants and squires and, therefore, did not pay generously for the artworks.

Gainsborough’s situation gradually improved after moving to Bath, the largest city in Somerset, where he was inspired by the paintings of Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Gainsborough admired the Flemish baroque painter so much, viewing his paintings as examples of perfection. Reportedly, Gainsborough’s final words on his deathbed in 1788 were “van Dyck was right”.

Whilst in Bath, Gainsborough began to attract a more fashionable clientele, thus his financial situation began to recover. He began submitting paintings to the Society of Arts exhibition in London, now known as the Royal Academy of Arts, of which he was a founding member along with Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Whilst these exhibitions gave him national recognition, Gainsborough eventually broke away from the Royal Academy, unhappy with the ways in which his paintings were being displayed.

The Gainsborough family’s final move was to London in 1774, where they resided in Schomberg House, Pall Mall, in which he held his first private exhibition in 1784. Whilst continuing to enjoy landscape painting, Gainsborough’s portraits were now of some of the most elite people in the country. These included Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), the youngest son of the famous composer, George III (1738-1820) and Charlotte, the Queen Consort (1744-1818).

Of all his family members, none feature so much in this exhibition than his daughters Mary and Margaret. From young children to independent ladies, Gainsborough documents the changes in their appearance as they grow up, the same way a parent would record their child’s progress with a camera today. Mostly, the girls are shown together, suggesting they got on amicably.

The earliest painting of the two girls together is the lifesize The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly. Set in the light of the summer evening, it is a representation of childhood spontaneity. The landscape in the background almost looks otherworldly, suggesting that in their young minds they are in a fairytale world rather than their back garden. The youngest daughter Margaret, who would have been three or four years old at the time, reaches out to touch a butterfly. Mary, on the other hand, tries to pull her sister away, noticing that the butterfly is perched on a prickly thistle. Perhaps, being older, Mary is more aware of the world around her than Margaret.

Other paintings of the young girls remain unfinished, such as the one their father began in 1759. Also known as The Artist’s Daughters playing with a Cat, the cat in question is hard to see, the outline is only faintly drawn in. Another unfinished portrait of Mary and Margaret shows the older of the two adjusting the other’s hair. Although Gainsborough is remarkably observant in his oil painting, the picture was damaged after being cut in half, trimmed and wrongly reassembled by a Victorian collector. Rather than being eye to eye, Mary would originally have been taller than her younger sister.

Gainsborough was lucky to have two such willing child models to paint during his early career. As well as portraits in general, Gainsborough experimented with a genre known as fancy painting. This was a type of 18th-century art that portrayed scenes of everyday life but with components of imagination or storytelling. Gainsborough’s fancy paintings usually involved peasant or beggar children, for example, the portrait of Margaret dressed up as a gleaner picking grain in the fields. Similarly to the previous painting, this one was cut in half and the section containing Mary, who presumably was also dressed as a farm worker, has been lost.

As the girls got older, Gainsborough worried about their economic security and tried to get them interested in landscape painting so that they could make a living. Although neither girl became a painter, one portrait of them shows that they were encouraged to practice drawing. In The Artist’s Daughters at their Drawing, the adolescent sisters retain some of the child-like facial features but their fashionable clothing suggests they are getting ever closer to maturity. This painting was also a compositional experiment for Gainsborough who originally painted Margaret facing her sister. A ghostly figure of this first attempt is beginning to show through the top layer of paint.

By the end of the exhibition, Mary and Margaret Gainsborough have grown into beautiful women and, although they did not fulfil their father’s dream of becoming painters, lived independently from their parents. A full-length painting shows them as fashionable women of society. Mary, perhaps being older, wears the grander dress, however, Margaret’s clothing is also of good quality. Dogs in paintings are often used to represent fidelity and no doubt this was Gainsborough’s aim in this image. The sisters remained loyal to each other throughout their whole lives. Margaret never married and Mary’s marriage to the oboeist Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), an associate of her father, only lasted a disastrous few months. As a result, Mary developed severe mental health problems and was looked after by Margaret for the rest of their lives.

Throughout Gainsborough’s career, he only took on one apprentice, Gainsborough Dupont (1754-97), the eldest son of his sister Sarah. Beginning in 1772, Dupont began working for Gainsborough and continued to do so until the latter’s death in 1788. Dupont was a student of the Royal Academy schools and his artwork is similar in style to his uncle. It is thought that Dupont finished a few of Gainsborough’s paintings.

Inspired by van Dyck’s paintings and the style of dress worn during the 17th century, Gainsborough painted his teenaged apprentice in a silk blue outfit similar to those painted by his hero. Critics looked on this painting favourably claiming it to be an example of modern painting at its finest. Philip Thicknesse (1719-92), a British author and friend of Gainsborough, announced the painting was “more like the work of God than man.”

Gainsborough painted another portrait of his apprentice after he had been accepted by the Royal Academy schools in which he looks like a fashionably dressed young man. Although it is not a finished work of art, it is one that Gainsborough was particularly pleased with. Before he died, he placed the portrait on his easel as if to say that was what he wished to be remembered for.

As well as portraits of his family, Gainsborough produced a few of himself, including an early attempt of himself wearing a tricorn hat. It is interesting to see how he ages, or at least how Gainsborough sees himself at different ages. Without photographs, it is impossible to determine how he truly looked, however, the exhibition includes a portrait of the artist by Johann Zoffany (1733-1810), which suggests Gainsborough captured a good likeness.

Similarly to present day family albums, Gainsborough also produced paintings of his pets. Titled Tristram and Fox, although whether this is the correct title is debatable, Gainsborough produced remarkably realistic depictions of two of the family pets. Fox, a spitz, sits on the left and is the more dominant of the two dogs, which may say something about his character. Tristram, on the other hand, a spaniel, is slightly hidden due to his dark colouring.

Art historian Michael Rosenthal (b1950) describes Gainsborough as “one of the most technically proficient and, at the same time, most experimental artists of his time.” Unfortunately, Gainsborough believed he had not reached his true potential, as he explained to Sir Joshua Reynolds on his deathbed shortly before he died from terminal cancer. Gainsborough wished his paintings to be judged in comparison to the standard of van Dyck, which blinded him to his own talent.

The National Portrait Gallery shows the British painter from a new and unique perspective. Rather than concentrating on skill, style or life achievements as many other exhibitions do, the NPG has created a much more personal display. As well as being able to appreciate his artwork, visitors are introduced to the artist himself and his family. It tells the story of Thomas Gainsborough’s life, both his career and life at home.

With a five star rating from more than one major newspaper, Gainsborough’s Family Album is a must-see for 18th-century art lovers. Focusing on portraits, the artist’s landscape talents also shine through. Although the exhibition lacks Gainsborough’s most famous works, there are enough paintings of extraordinary beauty to make up for this.

Gainsborough’s Family Album will be showing at the National Portrait Gallery until 3rd February 2019 in the Wolfson Gallery. Tickets cost £14 but members of the gallery may visit for free.

Russia in London

This winter, Russia has come to the UK capital with a double exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The two exhibitions explore Britain’s relationship with Russia through works of art belonging to Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. The contrasting displays show two sides of a relationship between two countries: war and peace, positive and negative, dynasty and military. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of the Russian monarchy, the Royal Collection Trust reflects on the past and examines our ties with the world’s largest nation.

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The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 – Laurits Regner Tuxen

The earliest links between Britain and Russia date back to the mid-sixteenth century through trade relations. In later years, political and military alliances formed, particularly during the Napoleonic War (1803-15), however, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that strong connections began to form. The Queen was the matriarch of a remarkably large family, as can be seen in Laurits Regner Tuxen’s (1853-1927) painting The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, in which 54 members of her family surround Victoria in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61) were the parents of nine children who went on to provide them with 42 grandchildren. Subsequently, this generation went on to provide the Queen with 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom belonged to foreign royal houses through intermarriage. Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), for example, Victoria’s great-granddaughter, the small child on the far right of the painting, went on to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark (1882-1944) in 1903. Of their five children, their youngest went on the become the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (b.1921).

At the back of the painting on the far left are two cousins who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would grow up to become monarchs of two warring countries. These are the future George V (1865-1936) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany. The year 2018 also marks the end of their battle, World War One.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Royalty and the Romanovs begins with a bust of William III (1650-1702) who was on the throne at the time Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) visited England in 1698, the first Russian ruler to do so. Peter later went on to proclaim the establishment of the Russian empire in 1721, thus becoming its first emperor.

The portrait of Peter the Great was painted during his stay in England by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the leading portrait painter in the country at the time. It was gifted to William III who hung it in the Drawing Room at Kensington Palace. Peter’s visit was part of his ‘Grand Embassy’ of 1697-8 in which he aimed to discover more advanced information about countries of Western Europe. He was particularly interested in the ship-building of the English and the Dutch, having set up the Russian Navy a few years previously.

This initial contact was the start of a new, dynastic relationship between Britain and Russia and the portrait of Peter I was not the only painting of a Russian ruler to be gifted to a British monarch. Other gifts also found their way into Britain, for example, a box featuring the profile of Peter the Great on a Renaissance style medallion, which Queen Mary (1867-1953) gave to George V on his birthday in 1932.

The exhibition features a large number of portraits of Russian royals that now belong in the Royal Collection. One of the most significant of these is the coronation portrait of Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia painted by the Danish artist Vigilis Eriksen (1722-82). Twice a day, a short talk is given by the gallery staff about the clothes Catherine the Great is wearing, her crown and the objects she is holding. The orb and sceptre are symbols of rulership, just as they are in Britain, thus emphasising her power. Her silver brocade robe also emphasises her leadership with numerous hand-stitched embellishments of the imperial double-headed eagle.

Unlike many other monarchies who pass their royal crowns down from one ruler to the next, the Russian monarchs each had their own personal crown. In the portrait, Catherine II is wearing her imperial crown, which had been made especially for her by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716-79). It was an extremely valuable item, decorated with over 5000 diamonds.

It is uncertain how this portrait found its way into the Royal Collection, however, the most likely explanation is that it was a gift for either George III (1738-1820) or the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830). Records state that it was eventually relocated to Carlton House in 1813 where it furnished the royal apartments in preparation of Alexander I’s (1777-1825) visit the following year.

Portraits of the Russian monarchs’ families are also in abundance at the exhibition. Positioned opposite Catherine II is Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), previously known as Princess Louise of Baden until her marriage to Tsar Alexander I. The demeanour and dress of the Russian empress starkly contrasts the opulent outfit of Catherine the Great. This painting was produced by George Dawes during the interim period between Alexander’s death on 1st December 1825 and Elizabeth’s on 16th May 1826. She is dressed in typical black mourning clothes and clutches her heart as if in grief. Standing next to a bust of her late husband, it is not certain whether her facial expression is one of mourning or perhaps something of the opposite since it is believed the couple’s relationship was rather unhappy. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria was inspired to purchase the painting a mere six months after her own husband’s death.

Hanging next to Elizabeth is the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander I, also painted by Dawes. Dawes spent ten years in the service of the Tsar and this is one of his highest quality paintings. It shows Alexander in the uniform of a Russian field marshal decorated with the star of St Andrew of Russia with the Order of the Garter, badges of St George of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria, the Iron Cross of Prussia and the 1812 medal. He also has the Sword of Sweden on his hip, adding to his majestic pose and emphasising his height. Queen Victoria was offered this portrait in 1861 and it was eventually hung in the Household Corridor of Buckingham Palace.

Also by George Dawes is a portrait of Charlotte (1798-1860), the wife of Nicholas I (1796-1855), with her two eldest children. The daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was betrothed to the future Tsar for political reasons, however, the marriage was a happy one and the couple produced seven children. Rather than painting her alone, Dawes had Charlotte pose with her two eldest children, Alexander and Maria. The restless young boy would one day be Emperor Alexander II (1855-81), also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.

The clothing of the Russian royals, particularly the women, were particularly elegant and adorned. In a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only daughter of George IV and wife of the future king of Belgium, a particular style of Russian dress can be seen. The gallery not only has this painting on display but also has the very same dress in a display cabinet nearby. Manufactured in England around 1817, this dress, a Sarafan-style ensemble, is made of French silk and comprises of a blue bodice and skirt with gold and red highlights, a gold fringe, and high, drawstring waist.

The royal men, however, were always painted in military clothing, for example, Nicholas I in the red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard. He is also shown wearing the badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir. The purpose of this was to emphasise the sitter or poser’s status. Whereas women were respected for their grace and beauty, men were exalted for their military achievements.

The outfit of Nicholas II (1868-1918) is far more familiar to the British public than the uniforms of the previous Tsars. Here, Nicholas wears the uniform of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment of the British Army) to which he had been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1894 by Queen Victoria. This particular painting, however, was not completed until 1908 and, therefore, it was King Edward VII (1841-1910) who received it as a gift from the Tsar.

Of the numerous portraits, many of them help to identify the connections between the families of the Russian and British monarchies. Many of these occurred through marriages, both before and after the reign of Queen Victoria. One example is Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1781-1860) whose portrait the Queen had copied in 1844. Juliane was Victoria’s aunt who married into the Romanov family in 1796. By marrying Grand Duke Konstantin (1779-1831), she became the sister-in-law of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The captivating portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra (1830-1911) has connections to today’s royal family. Alexandra, or Sanny as she was often known, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In 1848, she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-92), the second son of Nicholas I, with whom she had six children. One of these, Olga Constantinovna (1855-1926) became the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, thus completing the connection to the British royal family.

In stark contrast to the bold, vibrant paintings of the 19th century, two watercolour paintings by the Russian painter Savely Abramovich Sorine (1878-1953) show two important members of the British royal family. These are HRH The Duchess of York (1900-2002) and HRH the Duchess of Edinburgh (b.1926), or as they are known today, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Her Majesty the Queen. It is believed that the soon-to-be Queen Mother commissioned these portraits, although over 20 years apart.

It is without a doubt the extensive family of Queen Victoria marrying into foreign families that strengthened the ties between other countries, particularly Russia. Two famous wedding paintings are on display, the most significant, perhaps, being the marriage of the Queen’s second son Alfred to Maria (1853-1920), the only surviving daughter of Alexander II. Initially, Queen Victoria had misgivings about the match, stating in her diary that she:

“Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart ‘God bless them’, & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie’s happiness.”

Queen Victoria’s Journal, 11th July 1873

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1874, directly uniting the British and Russian royal families for the first time. Unable to attend the wedding, Queen Victoria was provided with a series of watercolours of the marriage ceremony that Prince Alfred had commissioned the Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) to produce. From these illustrations, the Queen commissioned an oil painting, which hung in Buckingham Palace from 1901.

Another wedding painting, also commissioned by Queen Victoria, was of her grandaughter’s, Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918), marriage to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace on 26th November 1894. The artist, Tuxen, beautifully highlights the faces of the bride and bridegroom with the soft glow of the candles they are holding. Known as Alexandra Feodorovna throughout Nicholas’ reign, she was assassinated in 1918 along with her husband and immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity. Thus ended the Russian monarchy. Princess Alix has since been canonized as Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer.

Not all the items in the exhibition are paintings. Within the Royal Collection are a number of objects that have been collected, bought, or gifted over time by the British royal family. Displayed amongst the paintings are a range of things that originated in Russia, for example, a number of malachite vases, candelabra, and columns.

Russian jewellery is also presented within display cases, the most famous being the Vladimir tiara. Made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir (1847-1909), it consists of converging circles studded with diamonds and adorned with green pearls. It eventually made its way into the Royal Collection after being given as a gift to Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of George V, in 1921.

Other jewellery included brooches, such as the Diamond Jubilee Brooch given to Queen Victoria by Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and her other grandchildren to celebrate the 60th year of her reign. Made of diamonds and sapphires, it features the Slavonic symbol for the number 60 within a heart-shape.

Finally, there were many items made by the most notable Russian jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Famous for the Fabergé egg, he and his company also produced other pieces, including chalcedony figurines, ladies’ fans, and cigarette cases.

Russia: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea

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Self-portrait dressed as an Algerian Zouave

The second exhibition is far less glamorous than Royalty and the Romanovs, focusing on the aftermath of the Crimean War. Commissioned by the Manchester-based publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons, Roger Fenton (1819-69) went out to the areas affected by the conflicts and captured the scenes and people involved for consumption by the public. Until then, the true effects of war had been concealed from society, often being glamourised in paintings of war heroes.

The Crimean war began in 1853, pitching the allied nations of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Russian Empire. Despite the previous exhibition suggesting a positive relationship between British and Russian families, Britain and her allies were determined to prevent Russia from gaining territorial control of various regions in eastern Europe, including on the coast of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Many people when talking about the Crimean War, think of people like Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81), who played a vital role in caring for the injured troops. Fenton, however, concentrated on the soldiers and the major battles of 1854, including Alma (20th September), Balaklava (25th October), and Inkerman (5th November).

Photos include landscapes of the war-torn land, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which Fenton titled after the passage in Psalm 23, suggesting that the barren scene full of spent cannon balls shows that humanity is walking a fine line between the realms of life and sudden death. With no sign of civilisation, this photograph evokes a feeling of the loss and destruction experienced in that area.

Fenton also captured shots of soldiers within their camps, revealing a role women played in the Crimean War. In the photo of the Camp of the 4th Dragoons, a woman can be seen serving refreshments to the troops.

A significant photograph Fenton managed to take is a portrait of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville (1831–57), also known as Lord Balgonie. The Scotsman stands staring away from the camera, his clothes unkempt and his expression rather shaken, as if he had only momentarily stepped away from the battlefield. Today, this image is regarded as the first photographic portrait of shell-shock.

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The Queen inspecting wounded Coldstream Guardsmen in the Hall of Buckingham Palace – John Gilbert

As part of this exhibition, some focus is given to the British royal family’s involvement in the years after the war. This painting by John Gilbert (1817-97) shows a crowd of injured Guardsmen in the presence of Queen Victoria. This meeting took place at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1855. Shortly after, the Queen awarded the first Victoria Cross, which is currently the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

With an audio guide, which is provided free of charge for both exhibitions, visitors can listen to Prince Harry’s (b.1984) thoughts and opinions on the photographs, artwork and items featured in Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. Having been a Cornet in the Blues and Royals and an Apache co-pilot/gunner in the Army Air Corps during the Afghan War, he is sympathetic towards the soldiers, understanding what they had gone through and the way it would have affected the remainder of their lives.

Critics accused Fenton of staging many of the photographs he took in the Crimea, however, regardless as to the truth of this, they provide information about the war that no written account could ever hope to achieve. Through his photographs, the gallery has created a timeline of the war and helps visualise the scenes that are only ever heard about or even forgotten about, overshadowed by the two World Wars.

Whilst it is a pleasure to view the photographs of Roger Fenton and look at items in the Royal Collection as part of the Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition, both lack a sense of narrative. One feels as though they are going from one image to another thinking, “here’s a painting of a dead Tsar, and here’s another … and that’s so-and-so’s wife.”

The Crimean War almost has a narrative in that there is a clear timeline of events, however, the other exhibition has no sense of continuity. Being the centenary of the assassination of Nicholas II, the opportunity to focus on the lives of the Romanovs, their successes and their inevitable demise, would have been an obvious route to go down, however, the curators failed to rise to this occasion. Whilst this is a great shame, it is fascinating to see how far Queen Victoria’s immediate family stretched across Europe and Russia.

The Royal Collection Trust arguably has some of the finest works of art in the world and it is always a pleasure to view them at the Queen’s Gallery. Despite not quite living up to expectations, these two exhibitions are great for art lovers and historians with an interest in royalty and the Crimean War.

At £12 per adult, one ticket gives you access to both Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. These exhibitions are open to the public in London until Sunday 28th April 2019. By asking the Gallery to treat your ticket purchase as a donation, you receive free access for the following twelve months.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

It is not often that people of the past are able to tell their story in their own words, however, thanks to over 180 surviving treasures, predominantly of a written nature, the people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms narrate their history in an exhibition at the British Library. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War explores over 600 years through surviving books and remarkable finds from excavations around the country. Although many items have not survived the passing of time, beautifully illuminated manuscripts illustrate the ways of life, wars, religions and the beginnings of the English language.

The Anglo-Saxons were migrants from Northern Europe who arrived in England during the 5th and 6th centuries. These Germanic-speaking people arrived in stages and are now combined into three groups: the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. The term “Anglo-Saxon” did not actually appear until the late 8th century when the bishop of Ostia, travelled to England to attend a church meeting, reporting back to the Pope that he had been to ‘Angul Saxnia’.

 

 

The exhibition begins with two of the earliest remnants of the early settlers of the 5th century. Rather than exposing the way they lived, it explains how they dealt with their dead. Referred to as a Spong Man, an anthropomorphic urn lid reveals that cremation was their predominant custom for disposing of bodies, as does the cremation urn displayed beside it. Found during excavations at Spong Hill, North Elmham, Norfolk, Spong Man is one of many pieces of pottery from the largest known Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery. The urn, however, was one of over 1800 found in an early medieval cemetery at Loveden Hill, Lincolnshire. It is believed that some of the runes carved into the surface spell out a female name, however, it is unknown as to whether this was a woman of high status. Also, it cannot be sure that the Spong Man indicates the wealth or importance of the owner.

It is likely that these cremation objects would have been a part of a pagan ceremony. Although the Romans had introduced Christianity to England prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the new settlers brought their pagan gods with them, for example, Woden, who may be synonymous with the chief Norse god Odin. Christianity returned to Britain in the 7th century with missionaries from Rome visiting with the intention of converting kings. England was made up of several smaller kingdoms and it is believed that King Æthelberht of Kent was the first to be converted.

 

 

The British Library displays some of the oldest, handwritten documents in existence, including the earliest letter sent from England and the earliest English charter. In the beginning rooms of the exhibition, however, the majority of the documents and manuscripts are religious. Along with Christianity came religious books, which were copied numerous times, each area having its own version. To begin with, only the Gospels were copied, which, although there are only four, would have taken a long time to write out by hand. On display are the St Augustine Gospels, the earliest Durham Gospel Book, the Echternach Gospels, the St Chad Gospels, the Bury Gospels, the Trinity Gospels and the Grimbald Gospels, to name a few.

All of these Gospels are rare and it is lucky that they have survived as far as the 21st century. Many have been lost during wars and invasions or during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Others have been destroyed by fire, for example, during the Cotton Library fire in 1731 once owned by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571–1631), to whom the British Library collection is indebted. In some instances, parts of books were salvaged, as can be seen in the exhibition, although rather singed at the edges.

Sir Robert Bruce Cotton’s library was the richest private collection of manuscripts ever accumulated, surpassing even the Royal Library. One of the most well-known treasures in his collection, at least by name, was the Lindisfarne Gospels, now owned by the British Library. It is believed that these were the first English translation of the Gospels and remain to be the most spectacular manuscript to survive. It is believed that they were written and illustrated by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, off the northeast coast of England between 698-721 AD. It contains all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; as well as other traditional sections included in medieval texts, such as letters of St Jerome. As well as being an example of Anglo-Saxon religious texts, it is a phenomenal work of art with numerous illuminations, illustrations and coloured patterns on every page.

Another notable manuscript that may hail from Lindisfarne is the St Cuthbert Gospel. This was found in the coffin of St Cuthbert (d. 687) the bishop of Lindisfarne when it was opened at Durham Cathedral in 1104. It is the oldest European book with its original binding intact and is thought to have been produced during the 8th century. Containing only the Gospel of St John, the small book has a wooden cover wrapped in red goats skin, decorated with a geometric pattern. In the centre of the front cover, a motif of a stylised vine sprouting from a chalice, which mirrors Mediterranean Christian imagery, represents the well-known verse “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

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Codex Amiatinus

Of all the religious texts in the exhibition, there is none as impressive as the Codex Amiatinus. This is the first complete Bible to be written in Latin, containing both the Old and New Testaments. Originally, three were produced in the early 8th century but only one survives in full.

Those who see the Codex Amiatinus on display at the British Library will be impressed by its remarkable size. Made from 1030 pages, 515 of which have been identified as animal skin, it is over 1 and a half feet (49cm) high with a weight of over 75 pounds (34 kg). Historians initially believed it was an Italian book, however, it has since been proven to have been produced in England during the 8th century. In 716, Abbot Ceolfrith took this volume to Rome, intending it as a gift to the shrine of Peter the Apostle. Since then, until this exhibition, it has been looked after at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

 

 

For knowledge about the first half of the Anglo-Saxon period in England, historians rely strongly upon one particular manuscript. This is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed by the Venerable Bede in 731. Bede (673-735), also known as St Bede, was the greatest scholar of the time, who produced a number of works on a variety of subjects. Due to this particular publication, of which the British Library has a few examples, Bede is often regarded as the father of English history.

Modelled on the Ecclesiastical History by the Greek Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340 CE), Bede tells the story of the development of Christianity in England beginning with the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597. He also explains the attempts to convert the kings of other areas, including Mercia, Sussex and Northumbria, thus painting a picture of the landscape and kingdoms of Britain.

Bede acknowledges that he referred to other sources (now lost) to write about the years long before he was born, however, no one can be certain of the accuracy of his account. Whilst Bede was ahead of his time in stating that the world was not flat but rather a globe, he also assumed the Earth was the centre of the universe. Nonetheless, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is one of the only written evidence of life during the Anglo-Saxon period, and it is thanks to the survival of his work that knowledge of that era can be ascertained.

 

 

 

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History also notes the changes in fortunes of the English kingdoms. By the mid-600s, Northumbria, which encompassed a large part of northern England, was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This period of time is referred to by the British Library as Northumbria’s “Golden Age”, however, by the early 8th century, things were beginning to change. With an aspirational king, Æthelbald, the kingdom of Mercia displaced Northumbria from its position as most powerful. Æthelbald went as far as to name himself “king of Britain”, although he did not have control of the whole of the British isle.

Mercia continued to sustain its supremacy throughout the 8th century, particularly during the reign of King Offa from 757 until 796. Offa was responsible for the building of a dyke fortification along the border of Wales, to keep the Welsh tribes out of England plus conquered other parts of the country, including Kent, Sussex and East Anglia. He also reintroduced the coinage system to Britain, such as the gold dinar and silver penny the Library has on display.

Unfortunately, the great efforts of King Offa were threatened by rival kingdoms and the hostile Vikings from Scandinavia who had begun raiding England in the 790s. As a result, much of East Anglia, Mercia and Northumberland became under the rule of Guthrum, the leader of the Danes. Nevertheless, the West and South Saxons consolidated their power under the leadership of King Alfred, perhaps one of the most recognised of the Anglo-Saxon kings – mostly due to the legend that he burnt some cakes! A jewel belonging to the king is on display in the exhibition. It is inscribed “ÆFLRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” which translates as “Alfred ordered me to be made.”

During Alfred the Great’s reign (871-899), a peace treaty was agreed with the Vikings that England would be divided into two parts: the north and east would belong to them and the south and west to the Anglo-Saxons. At this time, Guthrum was persuaded to convert to Christianity and took the name Æthelstan at his baptism.

Æthelstan was also the name of Alfred’s grandson who reigned from 924-939. Initially, he was the king of the Anglo-Saxon section of the country, however, after the death of the Viking ruler in 927, he took back Northumbria and claimed land in south Scotland, making him the first “king of the English”. In Bede’s manuscript Life of Saint Cuthbert, Æthelstan is illustrated presenting a book to the saint. This is the earliest surviving representation of a king, thus the first royal portrait.

 

 

Whilst the Codex Amiatinus mentioned earlier is the most impressive manuscript in the exhibition, it is without a doubt that the Ruthwell Cross is the most remarkable non-book object. Although some may be disappointed that it is a digitally cut replica rather than the real thing, it is one of the best examples of Hiberno-Saxon art – a style that thrived after the departure of the Romans.

The original, found in the village of Ruthwell, Scotland, is a stone cross that reaches over five metres in height and is elaborately carved with scenes from the life of Christ. Although there are some debates about what these scenes are, most agree that they show characters such as Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself. One carving may represent one of Jesus’ miracles, the healing of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52).

Believed to have been made in the 8th century, the cross features an unusual mix of Latin and Old English runes. Whilst it is odd to find both languages on the stone, the use of runes on a Christian monument was extremely rare. The runes spell out of a version of The Dream of the Rood, one of the oldest surviving Old English poems, which tells the story of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of the tree cut down to make the cross to which Christ was nailed. A written copy of this can be found in the late-10th-century Vercelli Book displayed nearby.

 

 

“At the present moment, there are the languages of five peoples in Britain … English, British, Irish and Pictish, as well as Latin.”
– Bede

Religious books were not the only genre written during the Anglo-Saxon period. As the English language developed, more people were learning to read and write. Poetry was inspired by the multicultural and multilingual societies and made easier to write with the introduction of the Roman alphabet. Although parchment was expensive, people were able to practice writing on whale-bone tablets. These were covered in wax and scratched into with a bone stylus.

In one display cabinet is an example of an Anglo-Saxon glossary, a precursor of the modern dictionary. Unlike the older books in the collection, the Old English language is written in the new alphabet and is, therefore, legible. The first word on the opened page is “anser”, which is the Old English for “goose”. This is followed by “anguila” meaning “eel”.

Surviving in full, although undated, Beowulf is the longest epic poem written in Old English. Judging by the handwriting, it is thought to have been written in the late-10th or early-11th century, however, its author remains unknown. Consisting of more than 3000 lines, Beowulf tells the story of its eponymous hero as he battles with a monster named Grendel and a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure. The manuscript in the British Library is extremely fragile as a result of being exposed to the flames of the fire at Cottons Library and poor handling during the following years. A brief audio clip of Beowulf is available to listen to during the exhibition.

As well as literature, there was a growing interest in the natural sciences, although no Old English word exists for this topic. It was a branch of scholarship that combined religion with the order of the universe. As early as the 7th century, people were looking up at the stars and contemplating what was out there. In De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things),  Isidore of Seville (d. 636) sought to combat superstition by offering explanations for natural phenomena, for instance, the planets of the solar system, as shown in one manuscript. This shows the ‘position of the seven wandering stars … called planets by the Greeks’ – the moon, Mercury, Lucifer, ‘which is also called Venus’, Vesper (or Mars), Foeton, ‘which they call Jupiter’, and Saturn – which all rotate around the Earth.

Most scientific texts were not written in England but imported from the continent and translated into Old English. These included books of remedies, particularly herbal remedies, which was the basis of medieval medicine. An example shown in the exhibition is lavishly illustrated with paintings of plants and animals, although these are not accurate enough to identify specific species.

“Books are glorious … they gladden every man’s soul.”
Solomon and Saturn, 10th Century

Naturally, books are the prominent feature of exhibitions at the British Library and it is through these that the major changes of Anglo-Saxon Britain can be determined. Religion remained a key theme throughout the exhibition, starting with the various versions of the Gospels as previously mentioned. After the conversion of the kings in the 7th century, the country became a deeply religious area, which helped to influence and strengthen the power of future kings.

King Edgar (959-75), the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, used the rising religious standards to his benefit. In control of the entire kingdom of the English, Edgar took the opportunity to reform and improve religious standards. Adopting the Rule of Saint Benedict written in the 6th century by Benedict of Nursia (480–550), Edgar reformed the way abbeys and monasteries functioned, for instance, separating monks and nuns into different establishments. As a result, the monasteries and nunneries began to prosper and become quite powerful.

“Nothing has gone well for a long time now … there has been harrying and hunger, burning and bloodshed.”
– Archbishop Wulfton

Whilst England was a wealthy and organised kingdom during the reign of King Edgar, its time of prosperity was not to last. The 980s brought more Viking raiders to the country and warfare was once again underway. As Archbishop Wulfton noted in The Sermon of the Wulf (1009), of which an audio excerpt is available, things were not going well for the Anglo-Saxons. By 1016, England had been conquered by Cnut (990-1035), the King of Denmark, who expanded his empire to include Norway and parts of Sweden. Cnut was a ruthless ruler and disposed of many of the aristocrats and governors of England, however, he allowed previous English laws to continue and supported the Church. He is most famous for the disputed tale that he set his throne on the seashore and commanded the tide to turn, which, of course, it did not.

After Cnut’s death in 1035, two of his sons, Harold and Harthacnut, had short reigns, eventually leading to the return of the royal English bloodline in the form of Edward the Confessor (1003-1066), the son of Aethelred II. Most people will know about the reign of King Edward, Harold Godwinson, the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror (1028-1087), and the Library mentions very little about the period.

 

The Coronation of William the Conqueror brought the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxons to an end, however, the exhibition could not close without the inclusion of one of the most famous books in history. At the end of 1085, William ordered a detailed survey of his kingdom, which, completed seven months later, revealed the names of landholders, settlements and assets of England. Titled the Domesday Book, a total of 31 counties were accounted for and 13,418 settlements recorded. A brief video provided by the British Library explains the importance of this book and how it offers a snapshot of the wealth and landscape of the late Anglo-Saxons.

The British Library has made excellent use of all the surviving books to paint a mental picture of English life between the 6th and 12th century. Amongst the books are remains of ancient artefacts discovered during excavations, for instance, the Burnham and the Staffordshire hoards.

Dubbed “by some distance, the most significant exhibition in London,” by the Evening Standard, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms surpasses expectations. Rather than being a display of books that most people can’t read due to the Old English language, it is a concise history of the Anglo-Saxons and an insight into how the world we experience today stems from the events of so many centuries ago.  The exhibition will appeal to a wide range of people from academics to those with a little interest in English history, although, it may not be overly exciting for young children.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will remain open until Tuesday 19th February 2019. Full price tickets cost £16, however, concessions are available. Members of the British Library can view the exhibition for free.