King and Collector

For the first time since the 17th century, a fraction of Charles I’s (1600-49) impressive collection of treasures is reunited in a phenomenal exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. It is thought that the Stuart king once amassed over 1500 paintings, which after his execution in 1649, were sold off and scattered across Europe. Thanks to his son and heir, Charles II, who incidentally has an exhibition of his own at the Queen’s Gallery, many of these were retrieved and reclaimed by the royal family. Charles I: King and Collector contain over 100 works including classical sculpture, Baroque paintings, miniatures and tapestries.

The fate of Charles I is largely known, however, his personal life and character often get overlooked. Charles was the second son and youngest surviving child of James VI of Scotland (later James I) and was not destined to become king. Unfortunately, his older brother Henry, the Prince of Wales died in 1612, making Charles heir apparent. Thirteen years later, Charles succeeded his father as king and his volatile reign began. As the king of Great Britain, Charles I angered many people by dissolving Parliament and taking complete control of the country. By 1642, the first of two civil wars had broken out between the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), and the Royalists. Seven years later, Charles was dead, having been beheaded in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

The Royal Academy puts Charles I’s execution to one side and concentrates on the man himself and his huge collection of artworks. At the time, Charles owned the best art collection in Europe and the pieces that remain in the Royal Collection are his greatest legacy. The exhibition begins by introducing a few of the painters that were working at the time of Charles’ reign. These include Anthony van Dyck ,(1599-1641), Peter Paul Rubens (1571-1640), and Daniel Mytens (1590 – 1647), whose self-portraits can be seen in the first gallery.

Two portraits by Van Dyck introduce visitors to the king and his queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), the daughter of Henri IV of France. The painting of King Charles is unusual in that it contains three portraits of the king, each facing a different direction: profile, face on, and half-profile. This painting was not made for display but rather to aid the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to produce a bust of the British king. Unfortunately, this sculpture was later lost in a fire. This painting, however, reveals a lot about the way Charles wished to be seen. It is clear from his clothing that he is a man of taste, yet his dreamy expression suggests an air of sensitivity.

Charles’ passion for art began before he became king and was greatly impacted by his travels to Madrid in 1623. The initial purpose of visiting Spain was to explore the possibility of marrying the Infanta Maria Anna, however, it quickly became apparent that this was never going to happen. Instead, Charles returned to England with a number of paintings and artworks. Many of these appear in this exhibition, including several he acquired from the continent later in life, in particular, the second century AD statue of the Greek goddess, Aphrodite.

Aphrodite or The Crouching Venus is one of several Roman marble copies of the lost Hellenistic sculpture. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty who is depicted as a nude in a crouching pose with her hair over her left shoulder.

This was one of the most beautiful antiquities sourced in Mantua for the king. After Charles’ execution, the painter Peter Lely (1618-80) acquired the statue, however, returned it after the restoration of the monarchy. The Crouching Venus can usually be found at the British Museum where it has been on loan since 1963.

Another important artwork with Spanish connections is a large-scale oil painting by Rubens that was gifted to the king by the artist. Peace and War (c1630) was Ruben’s subliminal method of illustrating his hopes for peace between England and Spain. In the background, the Roman goddess Minerva can be seen pushing Mars, the god of war, whilst in the foreground, Pax, the goddess of Peace sits amidst a horn of plenty.

“The King prefers old paintings.” Letter from England to Cardinal Francesco Barberini, 11th July 1635

Many paintings in Charles’ collection were painted long before he was born. A considerable amount of artwork on display comes from the Renaissance era, both Northern and Italian. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who had been in service to Henry VIII (1491-1547) was a particular favourite. It is recorded that Charles I owned 44 works by Holbein, who predominantly painted portraits. The example in this exhibition, however, is a biblical scene taken from John 20:17. Noli me tangere (c1528) shows the risen Christ outside his tomb forbidding Mary Magdalene to touch him.

Nearby, another Biblical painting from the same era depicts Adam and Eve standing naked in the Garden of Eden after taking their forbidden bites from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. This painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was sent by the Dutch states in an attempt to curry favour with the king. A number of paintings from Northern Europe were given to Charles as gifts, therefore, it cannot be certain whether he enjoyed these types of works. On the other hand, the sheer number of paintings from the Italian Renaissance, which fills two galleries of the exhibition, imply that the king had a passion for older works.

Biblical scenes were popular amongst Renaissance painters, therefore, it is unsurprising to find several more religious artworks in Charles’ collection. One of particular note is The Supper at Emmaus (c1534) by the Italian painter Titian (1488-1576). Charles acquired this painting in the 1620s shortly before becoming king. It illustrates part of the New Testament recorded in Luke 24:30-31 where Jesus is breaking bread with two disciples after his resurrection. This, however, is not the reason for its significance, it is the techniques of the artist rather than the subject that matters most in this exhibition.

As those who choose to pay for an audio guide will discover, works by Titian influenced many later artists, including Van Dyck who became the Principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties in 1632. In the background of Titian’s painting is a large column, which can be seen over Jesus’ shoulder. The positioning of this column is deliberate because it draws the eye to the principal character in the painting, thus denoting his importance. Van Dyck uses this artistic trick in a few of his portraits of Charles I and the royal family. Similarly, William Dobson (1611-46) does the same in a portrait of Charles II, indicating his importance, even at the young age of twelve.

As the king’s painter, Van Dyck was responsible for many of the portraits of members of the royal family. Born in the Flemish city Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck was a teen prodigy who found his feet as an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens. It was during a stay in Italy where Van Dyck encountered paintings by Titian and filled many sketchbooks with drawings based on these. One of these books is displayed in the final gallery of the exhibition.

Van Dyck quickly built up a reputation as a portraitist and was sought out by many aristocrats throughout Europe. King Charles I was one of his many admirers and enticed Van Dyck to come to England with promises of a knighthood, a bountiful salary and a studio in Blackfriars, London. Although he preferred to be in mainland Europe, Van Dyck impressed the British nobility with his impressive paintings.

For the first and possibly only time, the four largest and most important paintings Van Dyck produced of Charles I are on display at the centre of the exhibition. The curators at the Royal Academy have done an excellent job at positioning these tall canvases so that if visitors stand in the centre of the Central Hall, they can turn 360 degrees and take in all four paintings. Three of these focus on the king and his passion for the hunting field, however, the other is a family portrait, featuring his wife and two eldest children.

The first piece Van Dyck was commissioned to produce for the king was the family portrait, which became known as The Great Peece (1632). Charles and Henrietta Maria are both seated on throne-like chairs whilst their pet dogs play on the floor at their feet. The queen holds the baby Mary and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, clings to his father’s leg. This may appear a casual, informal portrait depicting the foursome as a family rather than rulers of the country, however, there are many subliminal signs that suggest the opposite.

To the king’s right-hand side sits the royal crown atop a red velvet cloth, which indicates Charles’ status. Behind him, in the distance, are the buildings of Westminster, communicating the king’s role in politics. Both of these elements point to Charles’ importance, however, Van Dyck’s use of a column inspired by Titian, is almost an arrow pointing to the most significant person in the painting.

The remaining three paintings show Charles I outside of his family circle. In two of these, Charles is mounted on a horse: Charles I on Horseback with M. de St Antoine (1633) and Charles I on Horseback (1637-8). Equestrian paintings were an emblem of power and Charles wished to appear to the public as a strong ruler. The horses are large and muscular with manes that are not dissimilar to their rider’s hair. Van Dyck uses the strength of these animals to stress the powerful position of the king.

The final large painting, Le Roi à la Chasse or Charles I in the Hunting Field (1636) reflects more of the king’s personality than his position of power. Rather than sitting aside his horse, Charles stands at its head striking a nonchalant pose with a traditional English landscape behind him. Although Charles may not be wearing the royal armour as in the previous two paintings, he is still dressed as befits his status, complete with broad-brimmed hat, an appearance that would become a memorable look for the king.

It is clear from this exhibition that Charles I had an eye for artwork, however, he was not the only one. Henrietta Maria sought out and commissioned a fair share of the collection, particularly the Italian Baroque paintings, which her husband appeared not to be as fascinated with. Like her husband, Henrietta Maria was drawn to religious scenes as well as the occasional Greek or Roman myth. Many of the paintings owned by the queen were commissioned for particular rooms in her apartments, including the Queen’s House in Greenwich.

The Queen’s House was originally going to be a gift for James I’s wife, however, she died before its completion. Henrietta Maria, who received the house as a present from Charles I, made the building’s decoration her personal project. One painter she particularly admired was Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639) who had once worked for her mother in Paris. Henrietta Maria persuaded the Italian painter to come to England where he decorated one of the ceilings at the house in Greenwich. He also completed canvases for the queen, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (1630-2), which only returned to the Queen’s House last year.

Gentileschi’s Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is based on a scene from the Book of Genesis (39:7-12) when the Pharaoh’s wife attempts to entice Joseph into bed, who at this time is the captain of Potiphar’s guard. Although Joseph refuses the woman, she uses his cloak, which in the painting she is holding on to whilst Joseph makes his escape, to claim that he had seduced her. The rich colours, smooth skin tone, an abundance of fabric, and the use of chiaroscuro (dramatic lighting, see Caravaggio) that Gentileschi includes in the painting are an indication of Henrietta Maria’s tastes.

Visitors who have also been to the Queen’s House may also recognise the final painting in the exhibition: Landscape with St George and the Dragon (1630-5) by Peter Paul Rubens. This was not one of Henrietta Maria’s acquisitions but a gift to the king from the artist. It is believed that Rubens produced this landscape in honour of England after his year as an English diplomat. It is a depiction of the famous English folktale where Saint George defeats the bloodthirsty dragon, however, in the background can be seen buildings alongside the River Thames. It is also suggested that Saint George has been deliberately painted to resemble King Charles I.

The paintings mentioned above are only a handful of the marvellous artworks that Charles I had in his reputable collection. Within this exhibition are the nine paintings that make up The Triumph of Caesar (1484-92) by the 15th-century artist Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and four tapestries showing the Acts of the Apostles. There is also a room devoted to miniatures and small items that were part of the Whitehall Cabinet. These would not have been on public view, therefore, give an insight into Charles’ life behind doors. One item worth noting is the tiny bronze statue of Charles I on horseback by Hubert Le Sueur (1580 – 1658); this is a model of the version erected in Trafalgar Square.

As reported in The Times, the RA exhibition Charles I: King and Collector is “a landmark exhibition. You will not see its likes again. Don’t miss your chance.” This is a very accurate opinion, it is indeed a landmark exhibition and these paintings will never be all in the same place again. Most importantly, the paintings on show are some of the best to have been produced prior to and during the early 1600s. It may be expensive to enter, but after two hours of walking through the galleries, you will agree that it is worth the price.

Charles I: King and Collector is organised in partnership with Royal Collection Trust and remains on show until 15th April 2018. Prices are £18 although concessions are available. 

 

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Charles II: Art & Power

The first half of the 1600s were a turbulent time for the English with civil war, the beheading of a king, over a decade of Cromwellian rule, and, finally, the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy. The Royal Collection Trust has foraged through their huge hoard of paintings to put together an exhibition to illustrate the restoration of the monarchy and the rule of Charles II (1630-85). Charles II: Art & Power, held at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, celebrates the resurgence of the arts in England, reinforced by Charles II’s position as king. The colourful court life was a stark comparison to the dreariness of the Republic with a rise in paintings and rich materials, and the reproduction of regalia.

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Charger 1680 – 1700 Faience

The exhibition starts off with a look at the final moments of Charles I’s life (1600-49) before he was committed for treason and beheaded in January 1649 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitechapel. The Commonwealth which followed lasted a little more than a decade with the puritan Parliamentarian general, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in charge. The remaining Stuarts were forced into exile, resulting in the story of the oak tree, which was where part of Charles II’s mythology, arose from. After the royalists lost the battle, the son of Charles I spent a day hiding in a great oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire. Commemorative wares, such as the dish on display, were sold in honour of his bravery after the restoration of the monarchy.

Charles II’s coronation took place on 23rd April 1661 and was the most extravagant since Elizabeth I’s the century before. During the Commonwealth, most of the ceremonial items needed for the inauguration had been sold or destroyed, therefore the Jewel House needed to be replenished and royal regalia remade. A number of these items are on display in the gallery and a few are still used today in royal ceremonies. A particularly noteworthy piece of regalia is the Collar and Badge of the Order of the Garter designed by Sir Robert Vyner (1631-88) specifically for Charles II’s coronation. It is made from gold and set with 20 large and 100 small diamonds.

 

 

Charles II’s reign was not the only change affecting England in the mid-1600s, the restoration of the monarchy occurred simultaneously with the development of print production. As a result, Charles II was the first king to include prints in his growing art collection. Artists also converted portraits of the monarch into printed versions, which, although he never owned himself, are featured in the gallery.

Two prints of portraits by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80) show the difference between two printmaking techniques. The first is an etching produced by Peter Vandrebanc (1649-97). The majority of early prints used this method in which a painting was carefully copied and etched onto a metal plate and covered with ink in order to transfer the drawing onto paper. The second, similar portrait was produced by Abraham Blooteling (1640-90) by a process called mezzotint (“half-tone”). Unlike its forerunning techniques, mezzotint avoided the line marks that cross-hatching caused and produced high-quality, tonal images instead.

 

As well as portraits of the king, his wife and mistresses, of whom he had many, were also the subjects of detailed prints. These were adapted from paintings by various artists, however, Charles II never owned them himself. The benefit of printmaking was that several copies of the same image could be made at once, thus lowering the cost, making them affordable to members of the public. Many prints found themselves pinned on the walls of taverns and coffee shops where they could be appreciated by the masses and demonstrated the shop owners’ loyalty to the royal family.

The prints that Charles II did collect had a more functional nature. A particular print worthy of note was a map of London that revealed the damages caused by the Great Fire of London. The fire broke out on Sunday 2nd September 1666, only a few years into the king’s reign. Instead of fleeing for safety, Charles found himself standing before the heat of the flames, helping and overseeing the extinguishing of the destructive inferno. Shortly after the three-day long blaze, Charles commissioned his scenographer Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77) to produce a detailed map revealing the buildings that had succumbed to the devastation. With the aid of the map, plans to rebuild a better, safer London was initiated and conducted quickly and efficiently.

 

Due to printmakers’ abilities to produce numerous copies of one item, illustrators and writers took full advantage in order to send their work out to a much wider audience. As a result, many satirical pieces began to arise, including the farcical The Horrid Hellish Popish-Plot (1682). With illustrations by an anonymous artist, the broadsheet attempted to mock the printed account A True Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party (Oates, 1679). The Popish Plot was indeed a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates (1649-1705) in an attempt to accuse Catholics of conspiring to assassinate Charles II. The broadsheet owned by the Royal Collection Trust likens Oates’ testimony to the false witnesses who testified against Jesus Christ and included illustrations that resemble Judas Iscariot’s betrayal.

It is not until midway through the exhibition that the artworks begin to describe and reveal the actual life and reign of Charles II. The restoration of the monarchy not only reverted England to its Kingdom status, it essentially rebooted the lives of the royals. Just as the royal regalia previously mentioned had been destroyed, so too had the former residences, palaces and castles belonging to the first Stuart king. As a result, only Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court, which Cromwell had commandeered for his personal use, remained in functioning order.

Unfortunately, funds were low, and with many things in need of replacing, only Windsor Castle was rebuilt during Charles II’s lifetime. Of course, Windsor Castle has been revamped since the Stuarts were on the throne, however, watercolour illustrations by Charles Wild (1781-1835) reveal what the interior of the castle looked like after Charles’ renovations. On the ceiling of the St George’s Hall was a fresco painting featuring Charles II at its centre. All that remains of this fresco is the head and shoulders of the king which somebody had the foresight to rescue and preserve.

 

Charles II was a significant figure in the resurgence of arts and could often be found surrounded by beautiful women, actors, scientists and poets. His passion for the theatre re-established the playhouses which he and his court would regularly attend. This also marked a significant turning point in stage production; for the first time in history, women were allowed to act on stage. Previously, female parts had been performed by young male actors, but now women could take those positions themselves, including one of Charles’ long-time mistresses, Nell Gwyn (1650-87).

Being a great encourager of the arts, paintings became an expression of power for the monarch and his family. Not only did he own paintings of himself and his wife, he had all his mistresses painted as well. Amongst portraits of these ladies, including Nell Gwyn, Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1641-1709) and Mary Bagot, Duchess of Falmouth and Dorset (1645-79) sits the painting of Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) who Charles married in 1662. Less alluring than her husband’s lovers, Catherine is depicted as a shepherdess, complete with a little lamb which may have been a reference to the children court and society hoped for her to have.  Unfortunately, despite three miscarriages, Catherine produced no royal heirs.

The most significant portrait in the collection is without a doubt the king himself, painted by John Michael Wright (1617-94). Featuring heavily on advertisements for the exhibition, this recognisable portrait is of a formidable size and is an outstanding piece of artwork. Charles II sits on a throne wearing the royal crown and is dressed in parliamentary robes over his Order of the Garter costume. In one hand he carried the Orb and the other the sceptre, both of which were made by Sir Robert Vyner for the king’s coronation. The colours and pose of the sitter are similar to portraits of past monarchs, thus conveying the continuation of the royal line.

 

Walking around the gallery, looking at the members of the royal court, it is easy to think of these historical figures as a form of still life, to be studied at a distance like precious objects in a museum. However, these were real people living real lives, but what is even more important is that these paintings do not represent the majority of the English population. At midday and midafternoon, talks are held at the gallery in front of Charles II’s prestigious portrait. Although each discourse will differ depending on the speaker, it is likely that the gallery worker will enlighten visitors about the true living situations of the people of London.

Before the Fire of London, houses were a mess of materials held together more by luck than architectural skill. One could be as bold as to say the fire did the people a favour by destroying their inadequate abodes in order to rebuild nicer looking, safer structures. The streets, however, would have been full of disease-ridden waste, including human excrement, which would be thrown from the windows of houses due to the lack of a sewage system. The streets of London stank and the Thames was full of the debris and detritus that flowed into it. The capital was not a pleasant place to live and the Royals were the only people who could reside there in comfort.

Whilst Charles’ collection of paintings may have hidden the true situation in London, they did introduce people of lower status. Although painted a year after the king’s death, an example of this features a full-length portrait of a domestic servant. Before the seventeenth century, it was extremely rare for a servant to feature in a painting let alone be the main subject. Bridget Holmes (1591-1691) was painted by the artist John Riley (1646-91) when she was at the ripe old age of 96. She had already served both Charles I and II and was now the “Necessary Woman” of James II. She would later serve under William III until her death at the age of 100. It is likely that this painting was produced in honour of her dedication to the royal family.

Charles’ love of the theatre resulted in actors (and actresses) receiving more respect than they had done in the past. John Lacy (c1615-81) was a comic actor who was a particular favourite of the king. Lacy was honoured with a three-in-one portrait which depicted himself in three different theatrical roles: the lead from The Taming of the Shrew, Monsieur Device from the Duke of Newcastle’s The Country Chaplain, and Parson Scruple in John Wilson’s The Cheats.

 

Although these portraits were one way of rebuilding the royal art collection, Charles II was determined to recover the original artworks belonging to his father. The Parliamentarians had sold off nearly all paintings belonging to Charles I, and the new king was doubtful that he would retrieve many of them. However, after instructing his subjects to return them immediately (later making this law), a significant amount was returned. Charles II was also gifted paintings from many dignitaries across Europe, including 28 from the States of Holland and West Friesland. In all, Charles II owned over 1000 paintings, a handful of which are exhibited in the final room at the gallery.

Charles preferred the Old Masters but also collected contemporary classical-style paintings. Those that were not returned or gifted to the king were likely ones he had purchased himself. Not believing he would ever see his father’s collection again, Charles sought out an art dealer in Breda, the Netherlands and purchased 72 paintings. One of these is the famous Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-69). This popular image illustrates the slaughtering of babies under the orders of King Herod as written in Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament after he learnt about the birth of Jesus from the wise men.

The royal collection accumulated other religious scenes from the art dealer and artists themselves who chose to honour the king with gifts of their paintings. One painter, Carlo Dolci (1616-86), sent Charles two paintings of biblical women: The Penitent Magdalene and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist. The latter refers to the imprisonment of John (Matthew 14: 3-12 and Mark 6: 17-29) and his subsequent beheading at the request of Herodias’ daughter.

Charles II also commissioned artists to produce paintings for rooms at Windsor Castle. Two examples are the mythological scenes painted by Benedetto Gennari (1633-1715) which hung in the king’s dining room. Titled Venus and the Sleeping Adonis and The Triumph of Galatea, these oil paintings represent love stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

It is interesting to take note of the varying style of paintings collected by the third Stuart king. He owned a mix of religious and mythological narrative artworks, tapestries, portraits and so forth from a wide range of painters. This could potentially be a result of Charles’ desperation to rebuild his father’s grand collection, however, it is just as likely that he was an art aficionado and enjoyed an assortment of approaches and topics.

Admittedly, there are not many paintings at the Charles II exhibition that have the “wow factor”, nor do they linger in the mind after leaving the gallery. Although this is first and foremost an art exhibit, what the Queen’s Gallery has effectively achieved is an articulate history of the restoration of the monarchy. The combination of art and written explanation, as well as an optional audio guide, reveal to visitors far more than they may have learnt at school or discovered in their own time. Those whose interests lie in both British history and 16th- and 17th-century art will greatly enjoy and benefit from this exhibition – that is not to say, of course, that others will not!

Charles II: Art & Power will remain at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace until Sunday 13th May 2018 leaving plenty of time for those who have not yet had the opportunity to view the exhibition to book their tickets. Entry prices for adults are £11 and this includes the option of a free audio guide which elaborates on certain paintings and objects.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“None who attacks them can escape … ” – Herodotus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churchill War Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transatlantic Telephone Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

The Other St Paul’s

 

 

 

We are unafraid to reason, laugh and explore.

Ask anyone in London the way to St Paul’s and they will inevitably point you towards the magnificent cathedral by the river. Yet, so many Christian churches have been dedicated to Paul the Apostle that it can be guaranteed that Sir Christopher Wren’s famous architecture is not the only building in London with that name. In fact, there are over a dozen “St Paul” churches in the capital alone, one of which is probably walked past by thousands of tourists every day.

Located on Bedford Street overlooking Covent Garden, is C of E’s St Paul’s Church. With a heritage designation Grade 1, the church, whose architecture reflects that of an early Roman temple, was built at the same time as the famous piazza during the 17th century. Still in use today, St Paul’s offers services throughout the week, its main one being at 11am every Sunday. However, visitors are welcome to visit during the week for a look around the historic building or to sit quietly and pray.

St Paul’s Church was designed by the famous architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) whose other notable buildings include the Queen’s House in Greenwich and Whitehall’s Banqueting House. Jones was employed by Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford, to build a square (Covent Garden) surrounded by mansions and a church. Purportedly, Lord Bedford requested a very basic church “not much better than a barn”, which Jones countered with: “Then you shall have the most handsome barn in England!”

Building began in 1631 and was quickly completed within two years, becoming the first church to be built in London since the Reformation – hence its Church of England denomination. Constructed from stone, the eastern end of the church looking over Covent Garden is fitted with a portico supported by four columns. It is this feature that most resembles the Etruscan-style temple that Inigo Jones so favoured. The main entrance, however, is at the rear of the church, through a less impressive facade.

Inigo Jones’ original plan was to have the main entrance at the east end so that the congregation could enter the small 50x100ft building from the main square. However, Christian tradition dictated that the altar must be at the east side and not the west where it had initially been placed. With the altar preventing anyone from entering through the portico, the entrance was bricked up, and a fake door erected in its place.

The church has undergone a few changes since its completion in 1633, however, it still largely corresponds to Inigo Jones’ original plan. A decade after it opened, St Paul’s Church was extended to add a gallery along the south wall, then, twelves years following that, another gallery was added on the north wall. Finally, in 1647, one more gallery was added, this time on the west wall.

In 1788, Thomas Hardwick (1752-1829), the English architect and founder of the Architects’ Club (1791), began restoration of the building which had already seen its first centenary. Unfortunately, a fire in the Bell Tower consumed the rest of the building, destroying the majority of the structure. Mercifully, the original pulpit was saved and the church was reerected to Inigo Jones’ archetype. The final major change was conducted by William Butterfield (1814-1900), a local Gothic Revival architect, in 1872, who raised the altar and was responsible for the positioning of the fake door on the east wall.

 

 

 

Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat) 1480-81

Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat) 1480-81

The interior of St Paul’s Church has been updated within the past century, including a restoration between the years 1981 and 1990. Changes such as the installment of electric lighting, sound systems, and heating were inevitable as technologies became readily available and affordable, however, other aspects of the church have been updated too. In 1945, the main altar was redecorated to include a copy of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1480-1).

During the Second World War, St Paul’s Church was fortunate to avoid a direct hit from falling bombs, nevertheless, nearby explosions shattered the original windows. In 1969, the Reverend Clarence May paid for, as a parting gift, brand new stained glass windows, which are still in place today.

To the side of the main altar is a much smaller altar for the purpose of prayer to St Genesius, the Patron Saint of actors, clowns, comedians, dancers, and musicians. This is due to the church’s long association with the theatre community for which it received the sobriquet “The Actor’s Church”.

Covent Garden in the West End is London’s main theatre and entertainment area. Therefore, St Paul’s Church was predestined to have some connection with the acting industry. The first relationship developed as early as 1662 when the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was created. The same year saw the first ever production of the puppet show Punch and Judy – something of great significance in the area, emphasised by the pub of the same name on the west side of Covent Garden. Another significant link was established in 1723 when the Covent Garden Theatre was built (now named the Royal Opera House).

Many famous names have passed through the doors of St Paul’s Church. As early as 1710, baptisms were taking place for soon-to-be-famous people, such as Thomas Arne (1710-78) and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Of course, at the time, these babies were unknown to the world and were only baptised at the church due to their parents living in the parish. No one knew that the boys would grow up to compose the patriotic song Rule Britannia or produce over 2000 paintings. Similarly, there have been a few well-known burials, but, most interestingly, the first victim of the Great Plague of London. On 12th April 1665, Margaret Ponteous was laid to rest in the churchyard.

Burials were stopped in the 1850s resulting in headstones in the graveyard being removed and a garden laid in its place. However, this did not stop the people of St Paul’s Church commemorating the lives of well-known people associated with the church.

 

 

 

Adorning the plainly decorated walls inside the church are simple plaques stating the name, birth, and death of many actors, playwrights, singers and so forth who became part of The Actor’s Church during their lifetime. Theatrical personalities such as Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Terrence Rattigan, Vivien Leigh and Ivor Novello are just a handful of names located around the building. Although burials had stopped, the ashes of Ellen Terry and Dame Edith Evans can also be found.

21616375_10212172990511422_1047123178265667066_nThe theatre memorials began after the Second World War, however, plaques have been raised for people who lived many years before then. This includes Thomas Arne, who was buried as well as baptised in the church and Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), a Dutch-British woodcarver who worshipped at St Paul’s. Gibbons is responsible for the limewood wreath near the entrance to the church and may have been the producer of the original pulpit saved from the fire in 1795.

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Macklin’s memorial plaque in St Paul’s in Covent Garden

Most of the memorials are very basic with no embellishments, however, there are a few that have a more decorative appearance. One of these belongs to the memory of Charles Macklin (1690-1797), an Irish actor and dramatist who spent most of his career at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His memorial features a carving of a theatrical mask with a dagger positioned through the eye socket. This may seem a peculiar choice of imagery, however, it is significant to the actor’s downfall. In 1735, Macklin was sentenced for manslaughter after an argument over a wig with fellow actor, Thomas Hallam, spiralled out of control. In a fit of temper, Macklin thrust his cane into Hallam’s eye. Although he did not intend to kill him, the cane pierced through the eyeball and into the brain. Considering the circumstances, Macklin got off fairly lightly and was still honoured with a plaque inside St Paul’s Church.

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21616287_10212172991951458_8208480877705092628_nSince the graveyard was removed and garden laid in its place, St Paul’s Church owns one of the quietest grounds in the busiest city in England. Whilst the portico faces the bustling shopping piazza, the reverse opens up onto a small, peaceful area with two lawns and plenty of benches. Visitors are encouraged to spend time in quiet reflection away from the hustle and bustle of the city around them. Just as the church often gets overlooked by tourists, the gardens almost feel like a secret with only a lucky few stumbling over its existence. St Paul’s Churchyard is a lovely place for a picnic, place to sit and enjoy the atmosphere, read a book or recuperate after braving the hoards of tourists in Covent Garden. St Paul’s welcomes everyone, although, in order to keep the idyllic enclosure the much-loved peaceful environment, visitors are asked to respect the wildlife, avoid playing music, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not to feed the pesky pigeons!

St Paul’s Church has been extremely supportive of the theatrical world and, after almost 400 years, continues to be a pillar of support in the community. In 2007, the Iris Theatre was established in order to aid and encourage the next generation of professional theatre practitioners. The charity puts on regular shows at St Paul’s Church, relying on audiences and supporters for funding. St Paul’s hosts over 300 events a year, many as a result of the Iris Theatre. The company has a stimulating repertoire with different shows tailored to a variety of tastes. From opera and classical theatre to circus-style performances, there is something to entertain everyone. The next performance is a musical titled Fidel which explores the life of the longest standing political leader, Fidel Castro, and the Cuban revolution. With tickets at £15, the show will be performed twice on 16th November 2017. The final show of the year will be Xmas Factor on 1st December.

Another charity that began at St Paul’s Church is the Theatre Chaplaincy UK (established 1899). The charity offers pastoral and practical support to anyone engaged in the performing arts regardless of their faith and background. Although a Christian charity, the chaplains are not there to convert non-believers; their only goal is to provide support and guidance for those aspiring to develop their acting career.

Of course, St Paul’s Church is first and foremost a religious establishment with regular Christian services and festivals throughout the year. It is important to keep this in mind whilst exploring the historical structure, relaxing in the garden, or enjoying a theatre production. It may not be as impressive as the famous St Paul’s Cathedral, however, it does play a significant role in the community and has an interesting background. The theatre memorials are an invaluable feature, attracting tourists of all faiths and none.

We welcome people of faith, all who seek faith and friendship, and all who doubt.

Services are held every Sunday (at 11am) and most weekdays. The Eucharist is celebrated at 11am each Sunday. Weekday Eucharists: Tuesday & Wednesday 1:10pm. All are welcome.  

St Katharine Docks & the Tower

“I’ve been walking about London for the last thirty years, and I find something fresh in it every day.”

–          Walter Besant, on his deathbed, 1901

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Tower Hill Underground

Built on the former Tower of London station and originally named Marks Gate, Tower Hill Underground Station is one of London’s popular destinations for tourists. With over 20 million people going through the ticket gates every year, Tower Hill sits opposite the Tower of London and is a short walk from the famous Tower Bridge. Within a few metres of the largest remaining segment of the Roman London Wall, since 1967 Tower Hill has been the stop to go to in order to begin exploring the historic City of London.

Taking into account the number of cameras and selfie-sticks seen in the vicinity, most tourists are satisfied by seeing and photographing themselves in from of the legendary buildings. Regardless as to whether visitors are willing to pay the price to enter the castle or Tower Bridge Exhibition, they are undoubtedly the objects of most people’s trips to the area. Yet, there is so much more to discover, it is just a case of knowing what to look out for and what is worth exploring.

Tower Hill falls under the London Borough of Tower Hamlets which in turn covers the majority of the East End. Although named due to its association with the Tower of London, the borough includes Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, a section of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and the West India Docks. From Tower Hill station, it is only a short walk to a part of the old commercial docklands, now mostly privatised, St Katharine Docks.

St Katharine Docks took its name from the former hospital and cemetery, St Katharine’s of the Tower, which was built on this site during the 12th century by Matilda of Boulogne, the wife of King Stephen. The medieval hospital was demolished in the early 19th century to make way for a £2 million dockyard development designed by the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford (1757-1834). Unlike some of the other docks, Telford insisted that the warehouses be built as close to the water as possible in order to limit the amount of activity on the quayside. This explains the narrow passageways between buildings and the riverside.

Unfortunately, the new docks were not able to accommodate the typically large ships that brought goods to London, therefore St Katharine Docks mainly handled luxury commodities, for instance, tea. Although tea may not seem much of a luxury product today, the limited methods of transport meant it was a lot more difficult to ship the leaves from Asia to Europe than it is today.

The docks were targetted by the Germans during the Second World War, leaving most of the warehouses in ruins and any hope of continuing to trade there impossible. Until the 1960s, St Katharine Docks was mostly left in a derelict state, but gradually it was developed into a leisure region and residential estate. Now referred to as a marina, the docks are used to moor privately owned boats and yachts. The quayside also contains cafes, restaurants, shops and a hotel, making it an upmarket division within the Docklands.

Despite the destruction caused by the war, one warehouse remained standing. Originally built in 1858, Ivory House, so named for the vast loads of ivory that were stored there, now accommodates a parade of shops, restaurants and luxury apartments. Although the original warehouse also received rare commodities such as perfume and wine, ivory was its primary product.

London of the nineteenth century was the main importer of ivory – more than anywhere else in the world. Approximately, 500 tonnes of ivory was imported to the capital each year, 200 of which was stored in Ivory House at one time. It is estimated that this would have been the equivalent of 4000 elephants. The ivory was either shipped off to workshops in other countries or sent to craftsmen in London to be transformed into piano keys and billiard balls.

Despite Ivory House being the only remaining warehouse of the original docks, it is not the oldest building. Located on the opposite side of Marble Quay – a small section of St Katharine Docks – stands a beautiful building containing the most popular pub on the River Thames: The Dickens’ Inn. Formerly functioning as the King’s Brewery back in the 1740s, the building was originally situated further down the docks.

When works began on St Katharine Docks in the 1960s, a gradual process of repairing the war damage, the original building of The Dickens’ Inn was airlifted from one site to its new location. It was hoped that its prominent position on Marble Quay would help to attract tourism to the area.

The inn was opened in May 1976 and has, hence its name, great connections with the illustrious London author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). The pub, which also functions as a grill and pizzeria, was formally opened to the public by none other than Cedric Charles Dickens, the great grandson of the famous writer. The young Dickens believed that his great grandfather would have loved the inn, especially as many of his characters and books were set around similar areas of London.

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Davies BR. London 1843, Publisher: Chapman & Hall, 186 Strand, London, Nov. 1, 1843.

St Katharine Docks is divided into sections that retain their original names. There are three subdivisions of the docks that are separated by quays and bridges. They are aptly titled East Dock, West Dock and Central Basin.

The names of each quay hint at the usage of the docks, providing a ghost of London’s memory and the action it must have seen in this area. Commodity Quay, Marble Quay and The City Quay give some indication of the shipments received there and the potential bustling of each location.

There are also references to people and events that date further back than the existence of the docks. As mentioned, St Katharine was the name of the hospital that originally stood on this site, therefore passages such as St Katharine’s Way make complete sense. However, on the north east side of the docks, lies Thomas More Street, which without any historical context, is a rather curious choice of name.

This area of London has many references to a man named Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). He was a speaker of the House of Commons and Chancellor to the Duchy of Lancaster, later becoming Lord Chancellor. The reign of Henry VIII produced great changes to the Christian faith with the development of the Church of England. Unfortunately, More’s strong religious beliefs prevented him from accepting Henry as the head of the church and, therefore, was imprisoned in the Tower and eventually beheaded. Sir Thomas More put God before the king and became a Catholic Martyr. In 1935, Pope Pius XI canonised More, and, in more recent years, Pope John Paul II proclaimed him the “heavenly Patron of Statesmen and Politicians.”

Dotted around St Katharine Docks are historical items and modern sculptures that turn the area into a miniature outdoor museum. Although so easy to walk past without paying the slightest bit of attention, the docks have so much to offer if only one is willing to take the time to appreciate them. For posterity, many of the original bollards used for mooring ships have been retained sporting the words “St Katharine by the Tower” around the edge of the circular top. In the centre, a human figure sporting a halo and sword is depicted next to a ship’s wheel. This is a portrayal of Saint Katharine, a daughter of an Alexandrian King. After converting to Christianity, Katharine refused to sacrifice to the gods of the empire, even after being ordered to do so by Emperor Maximinus. As punishment, Katharine was sentenced to death by being broken on a wheel.

Another historical item located in St Katharine Docks is a large anchor that sits at the mouth of one of the footbridges around the Central Basin. Not much information is offered about the anchor, however, a plaque nearby states “Anchor salvaged from Dutch merchantman ‘AMSTERDAM’ which foundered off Hastings 200 years ago.” Two hundred years before the date that the anchor was put on display would place the sinking of the ship during the period that St Katharine Docks was being put to good use. Presumably, the Amsterdam was a ship that frequented the docks, hence the relevance of its recovered anchor.

Modern sculptures interspersed amongst the old help to bring the docks into the late twentieth and twenty-first century. Some of these depict different animals from elephants to different types of birds. The most impressive, however, is situated just outside the entrance to St Katharine Docks, on the opposite side of the Tower Thistle Hotel, which separates the docks from the main body of the Thames. This statue is titled Girl With a Dolphin.

Sculpted in 1973 by David Wynne (1929-2014), Girl With a Dolphin also functions as a fountain, the water emitting in an upwards stream between the two characters. Wynne was mostly interested in sculpting animals and was excellent at portraying movement in his work. In this instance, it appears the figure of a girl is flying above the jumping dolphin unsupported by anything beneath her. It is a snapshot of a very brief moment in time.

The riverside area contains a few other attractions including another anchor and an eighteenth-century cannon. Between these two relics is another modern sculpture reminiscent of the dock’s past. Produced by Wendy Taylor (b.1945) in 1973, Timepiece is a huge sundial made up of a larger-than-life washer and needle. The chains that support the slanted sculpture are comparable with the chains attached to anchors used on the merchant ships that visited the area.

One more relic of the past can be found on the Central Basin side of the Tower Thistle Hotel. Here, a crane, known as a jigger, is attached to a wall in a similar fashion to the way it would have been fastened to the wall of a warehouse. Using Hydraulic Power, these jiggers, developed by William Armstrong (1810-1900) in the mid-nineteenth century, would hoist cargo in and out of boats and barges.

The most obscure feature exhibited within St Katharine Docks is a giant crown sculpted in the area by Arthur Fleischmann (1896-1990). The almost 11′ long block of Perspex, weighing two tons, is the largest block of Acrylic in the world. It was produced for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 – A Space Odyssey (1968) but was rejected by the director. Fleischmann, who was known for working with plastics, acquired the unwanted block and used it to sculpt a crystal crown that he was commissioned to produce for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977. Originally, the crown was displayed in an open-aired rotunda titled Coronarium Chapel until it moved to the wall of the building opposite in 2000. The rotunda is now a Starbucks.

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Tower Bridge letting the Dixie Queen pass through

Along the quayside past the Girl with a Dolphin is one of the best spots to view Tower Bridge. The bridge is the most iconic structure in London and has stood proudly in place since 1894. Originally powered by hydraulics before switching to electricity and oil in the 1970s, the lower section of the bridge can be raised to let passing boats through. If you are lucky, you may see it in action.

Continuing along the quayside in the direction of Tower Hill provides a whole host of things to look at. There are more sculptures and interesting architecture, benches made of mosaics, bright blue lamp posts and so forth. As the path goes past the Tower of London, information boards appear with information about the various sections that can be seen from the river. The most famous, and therefore most popular, part of the castle is Traitor’s Gate, which can be seen equally as well from the outside as it can by the people who have paid to go inside. Without paying a penny, enough information is provided to be able to learn a few fascinating historical facts.

Nearby the souvenir shop outside the Tower of London entrance is a small cylindrical structure that at first glance appears to serve no purpose. This was once an entrance to the former Tower Subway constructed in 1869 which took passengers through a tunnel under the River Thames – the first of its kind in London.

It is amazing how much history can be found in one location and there is still far more than those already mentioned. Nearby the Tower Hill station entrance is Trinity Square Gardens, which contains a number of memorials to those who fought and died for Britain and Commonwealth countries. A vaulted corridor contains the names of Navy members who went missing at sea during the First World War. A sunken garden contains the names of those who suffered the same fate in the Second World War.

It is not only the wars that Trinity Square Gardens pays homage to; indicated by a small plaque is the location of the scaffold where more than 125 people were executed, including the above mentioned Sir Thomas More.

“To commemorate the tragic history and in many cases the martyrdom of those who for the sake of their faith, country or ideals staked their lives and lost.

On this site more than 125 were put to death. The names of some of whom are recorded here.”

Who knew that a visit to Tower Hill could provide such an extensive and detailed look at the history of London? It is not possible to take everything in during one day and future visits will unearth even more wonders. Climbing up to the observation platform above the underground station entrance provides a fantastic view of the castle. Centred in the middle is a large sundial that (on sunny days) tells the time whilst simultaneously explaining the history of London with a decorative timeline around the edge of the dial. Going as far back as the first century AD, it chronologically reveals the most significant events of the past leading up to the present era.

More details about the history of London can be found in the underpasses and subways that lead towards St Katharine Docks. Artist, Stephen B. Whatley, was commissioned by the Historic Royal Palaces and The Pool of London Partnership in 1999 to produce thirty paintings that explain the history of the Tower of London. These can be viewed in the Tower Hill Underpass. The Tower Bridge Approach Subway contains different information including particulars about St Katherine’s Hospice.

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Tower Hill Underpass – looking north

With so much more to find, Tower Hill deserves another trip. This goes to show how wonderfully interesting London is and underlines the idea that some of the best things in life are free. Wherever you are in London, keep your eyes wide open; you never know what you may discover.

Special thanks to Treasure Trails for providing such an in-depth self-guided tour of St Katharine Docks with an exciting Treasure Hunt game. Take a look at their website for more information about the trail. (Other areas are available.)