Making Your Mark

There are many worries and concerns about the increasingly digital world. Already, fairly new inventions are becoming obsolete, for instance, tape recorders and VHS, and it will not be long before the latest technology is considered old-fashioned. Local shops are closing as they fail to live up to the successes of online retailers and some shops have gone cash-less, only allowing payments by debit or credit card. Before long, society may not be able to cope without digital intervention, which leads to questions such as “what would happen during a power cut?” or “what if there was a signal failure?”

The British Library has picked up on a question that many people will not have considered. What is the future for writing? Will we abandon pens and pencils in favour of keyboards or voice recording? Will we no longer learn how to write by hand? In their current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, the Library charts the evolution of writing through 5000 years of human discovery from hieroglyphs to emojis.

Writing can achieve what speech cannot: it communicates across space and time and has left evidence of the development of language and communication from all areas of the world. The exhibition begins by exploring the earliest evidence of writing, which is generally believed to date back 5,000 years. As archaeologists discover more ancient relics, the very earliest form of writing becomes more debatable, however, scholars generally believe the first writing-system developed in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Of course, this was nothing like the systems we are familiar with today; initially, people used pictorial signs to communicate but these eventually developed into complex characters, each representing a different sound in the Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) language.

These marks became known as cuneiform and have been preserved in clay tablets. With a reed stylus, writers scratched the characters into wet clay, as evidenced in a preserved 4000-year-old tablet that records an account of workers’ wages. This example of cuneiform had not yet lost the look of pictograms, however, over the next few centuries, the characters were simplified making it both easier to read and write.

Although cuneiform was originally used by Sumerians, their empire was invaded by the Akkadians in 2340 BCE, who began to adopt the form of writing in their own language. In total, an estimated fifteen languages used cuneiform inspired letters, many of which were still being used long into the Common Era.

Cuneiform was not used worldwide, however, and other areas developed their own method of writing. In Egypt, evidence of hieroglyphics date back to 3250 BCE and have been found on rocks, stone and ivory tablets. Later, people began using brush and ink to produce these characters, although it is believed this method had specific purposes. Hieroglyphs mean sacred carvings and are found in the remains of ancient temples and ceremonial places. The written version is known as hieratic or “priestly” script and is thought to have been used in the service of royal or temple administration.

The hieroglyphs or hieratics were made up of a range of different characters; some represented sounds and syllables, whereas others had particular meanings. An example of this form of writing can be seen on a limestone stela from around 1600 BCE that contains a hymn to Osiris, the king of the netherworld. This is on display at the exhibition and is the oldest artefact belonging to the British Library.

Another example of ancient writing came from the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BCE) in China. Shards of bone have been discovered with characters carved into the surface, many of which remain undeciphered. It is believed these bones came from the shoulder blades of oxen and the shells of turtles and have been identified as “oracle” bones containing questions about a variety of topics from crop rotation to childbirth. Thousands of these bones have been discovered, and from them over 4,500 different symbols have been recorded.

The British Library displays an Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection that has been dated between 1300 BCE and 1050 BCE. The inscription on the bone records that there would be no bad luck in the next ten days and carries a record of a lunar eclipse.

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Whilst Chinese characters today look similar to the ancient version, they have evolved considerably. Unlike cuneiform, which simplified over time, Chinese symbols gradually became more abstract and new compound forms developed. Today, many written Chinese words are a combination of two components: one reflects the meaning and the other the pronunciation. Take the word “mother” for example; the first symbol means “woman” and the other represents the sound “ma”. Combined together, the symbols create the word “mother”.

In Mesoamerica, there was a broad range of languages and recent discoveries have confirmed that many of these had systems of writing. These include Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Some of these languages focused on symbols to represent different words or ideas, whereas, others developed characters based on sound and grammar. An example of the latter is the Mayan glyphs as found on a Limestone stela at Pusilhá in Belize. These have been translated as information about the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan and praise of his father.

Whilst the oldest form of writing is commonly believed to have stemmed from Mesopotamia, there have been discoveries in other areas of symbols that might have once been a form of language. Societies dating back as far as 7000 BCE occupied areas in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. At least 5000 inscribed artefacts have been unearthed from the region, however, they are usually only three or four signs long. The longest “sentence” discovered is twenty-six characters long but it is not certain what it says if anything at all. In total, 400 different symbols have been identified, which suggests it may not be a form of writing style as we understand them today.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Polynesia, glyphs have been discovered on Rongorongo – wooden tablets inscribed with animal and plant motifs amongst other things. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read these tablets and, although 120 characters have been identified, the meanings of the lengthy texts remain hidden.

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One of the oldest examples of writing, found in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

So, how did writing develop from these form of writing styles to the alphabet we are familiar with today? As can be seen on the Serabit sphinx on display at the British Library, the Proto-Sinaitic inscription looks nothing like the words written today. However, it contains a symbol that eventually developed into the letter A.

It is possible to chart the evolution of writing systems from Ancient Egypt to today. Usually, the contemporary method of writing is known as the alphabet, however, other cultures use alternative systems. An alphabet contains letters that represent different sounds, both vowels and consonants; abjads, however, only stand for consonants, as in the Arabic and Hebrew languages. The third type of characters are abugidas, which represent combinations of a consonant attached to a vowel sound. This is most commonly associated with the Indian script Devanāgarī.

Non-native Egyptian speakers began to adopt hieroglyphs in their own language. A wavy line, which meant water, was used as the first letter of their word for water (pronounced Mayim). Over the centuries, this symbol developed into our letter M. The Phonecians adopted this method of writing, which was then passed on to other cultures, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. Via Aramaic, the Indian scripts developed, and via Syriac, the writing system spread to northern Asia.

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By travelling south, scripts including Arabian and Arabic were formed, and to the west Punic script developed, eventually leading to the Greek Alphabet. The Phoenician script only used consonants, however, the Greeks began to add signs for vowels. From Greek, the Etruscan alphabet was produced, and from that, the Romans created the alphabet that is still used today.

The Roman alphabet was introduced to other countries via the spread of the Roman Empire. As with all the writing styles of the past, the original alphabet has developed and altered over time. Letters began to take on slightly different shapes to help people write faster and capitals and lowercase letters helped make the script easier to read.

The history of writing encompasses far more than the development of the alphabet. Included in the exhibition are displays of ancient and modern writing materials and technologies. As already mentioned, the earliest material used to write on was clay, which was readily available in Mesopotamia. Damp clay could easily be moulded into a tablet then, with a stylus made from dried reeds, the cuneiform marks could be etched into the material. The clay tablet could also be wiped clean and used again if needed.

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2,000-year-old homework book

Evidence remains of writing carved into stone and bone, which would have been produced using chisels or other sharp objects, however, anything written using this method was permanent and could not be erased. Approximately 2000 years ago in Greek and Roman cultures, inscribing words into materials was still the main method of writing but they had developed new forms of tablets that could be used again and again. These were made from wooden frames filled with beeswax, which could easily be scratched with a stylus. The wax could be melted and used again when needed.

The British Library owns a wax tablet dating from the second century CE that contains the writing practice of a young Egyptian endeavouring to learn Greek. The top two lines were written by the tutor or schoolmaster and read: “Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours.” The child’s attempt to copy the phrase is on the lines toward the bottom of the tablet. It appears he has missed out the first letter of the sentence and, toward the end, run out of space, scratching the final letter into the frame.

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Writing with ink is almost as old as the incised hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt (approx. 3200 BC). Ink has been made from various dyes and pigments over the years but it is the method of applying it to materials that is the most interesting. The earliest writing implements were made from reeds, which were easily obtainable in Asia and Europe. The reed is prepared by cutting a nib shape with a sharp knife. The angle determined the thickness of the lines and they were trimmed in different directions depending on the script. The nib was cut to the right for Roman and Greek scripts but left for scripts such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian, which are written from right to left.

It was not until the middle ages that quill pens were introduced. Similar to the reed, the point of a feather quill was cut to form a nib, which could then be dipped into ink and applied to various parchment. A damaged quill belonging to the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is on display as part of the exhibition. The nib has been bent and is, therefore, not fit for use.

The downside about using quills or reeds was the constant need to replenish the ink on the nib. It was not until the industrial revolution that metal pens became widely available and revolutionised the process of writing. In 1819, the Manchester firm James Perry & Co began producing metal nibs and from this, the fountain pen was developed.

In the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was introduced, which, yet again, revolutionised writing. Baron Marcel Bich (1914-94) bought the patent for ballpoint pens from László Bíró (1899-1985) who had begun producing such pens in Argentina in 1943. Bich was the co-founder of BIC Cristal, which quickly became the world’s leading producer of ballpoint pens.

Without a doubt, the printing press was the most revolutionary invention in the history of writing. In the 8th century, the Chinese discovered the method of woodblock printing (xylography), which involved carving letters into a piece of wood, covering it with ink, and pressing the wood onto a thin sheet of paper. Whilst this was effective, it was also time-consuming. In the West, scribes continued to hand write important texts, a feat that also took an extremely long time. The printing press changed all this.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-68), a German goldsmith from Mainz, was the first person to print with moveable type. Letters from the Roman alphabet were produced on tiny, individual metal blocks that could be carefully positioned and inked in a printing press to transfer passages of text to paper. The first book to be printed in this manner was the Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-91), an English merchant and writer, introduced the printing press to England. It is believed the first significant book to be printed in Britain was The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400).

Unfortunately, the printing press was limited to the Roman type and was of no use to scripts that were made up of abjads or abugidas. An alternative printing method called Lithography was developed in the 1790s by the German actor Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834). This involved using a greasy or waxy substance to write on a smooth stone surface that was then dampened and covered with ink. The ink would not stick to the greasy areas, therefore, when the stone was applied to paper, the greasy areas remained blank.

Based on the printing press, the next significant development was the typewriter. In 1872, the Remington typewriter was released in the USA and quickly became the model for typewriters all over the world. In English speaking countries, the QWERTY keyboard was developed, which is still used today, to prevent keys jamming by spreading the most common letters across the keyboard. Pressing a key sent an individual hammer, carved with a letter, onto an inked ribbon, which would leave a mark on the paper that was being fed through line by line. The average typist could manage to write 150 words per minute in contrast to 30 words by hand.

Once again, the typewriter alienated languages that used different scripts, for instance, Chinese. During the 20th century, the Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in the East. Based on the western typewriter, it could accommodate almost 2,450 loose pieces of type, which are individually picked up using a selector tool and applied to the paper.

The 1960s and 70s saw another major leap forward in technology when computers were invented. Originally, computers were considered to be giant calculating machines but the potential to be used as a new writing tool was soon realised. The Apple Macintosh II was one of the first computers to be produced, however, they already look ancient in comparison to the computers used today. In the past few decades, technology has developed at an exceedingly rapid pace. Now, not only can I type this on my computer, I can share it with the world on my blog. I can post a link to it on Facebook or Whatsapp then chat with various people on Messenger and other apps.

It is these latest developments that have led the British Library to question the future of writing, particularly handwriting. How often do people write by hand per day? How many people write letters rather than emails? How often do people write a note on a piece of paper rather than on their phone? Questions like these are bound to make people worry that the chances of handwriting surviving are remote.

Nonetheless, schools are still keen for children to write more by hand than on a computer. Studies have proved than handwritten notes are easier to recall than digital ones. Learning to write also helps children learn to read as well as develop other cognitive behaviours across many disciplines.

The British Library reveals how writing by hand has benefitted people in the past. With examples from Florence Nightingale‘s (1820-1910) journals and notes by Alexander Flemming (1881-1955), it is clear that being able to jot down thoughts with a pen or pencil can be a good way of remembering things at a later date. (You should see the notes I wrote on the exhibition guide as I viewed the displays!) Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) not only found writing notes useful when working on books, such as Ulysses, he constantly went back to them and added more notes or colours to help him piece together his narrative. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote notes on his manuscripts about how to play certain notes and so forth. The latter in particular is much easier to do by hand than digitally.

Before concluding, the exhibition takes a look at modern developments in typography, including work by graphic artists, for instance, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and the graffiti artist eL Seed (b.1981). None of these things would be possible without the development of writing styles dating back to the Mesopotamian and other ancient eras and whatever the future holds, it will always be possible to trace the history of writing and communication back to them.

There is no answer to the question “What is the future of writing?” No one knows, no one can predict the way technology will develop and the impact this will have on the way we write. The exhibition ends by asking visitors what they think writing will be like in the future. Some people said they think voice recognition devices that type what you say will be the way forward. Others think that handwriting will continue to be a skill taught and used in schools.

Whatever happens, I know that I will continue writing both by hand and digitally (how else would you read my blog?).

Writing: Making Your Mark can be viewed in the PACCAR 1 gallery at The British Library until Tuesday 27th August 2019. Tickets are £14 for adults, £12 for over 60s and £7 for children and students over 11 years old. Members of the British Library can visit free of charge.

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The Renaissance Nude

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Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.

London Mithraeum

Seven feet below Bloomberg’s European headquarters lies a piece of ancient history. Discovered by chance in the early 1950s whilst examining a London bomb site, archaeologists stumbled upon the remains of a temple to the god Mithras dating from the 3rd century. Lead archaeologist William Francis Grimes (1905-88) claimed the discovery “was in the nature of a fluke” since no one was expecting to find anything more than the remains of buildings destroyed during the Second World War. Now, over half a century later, the carefully preserved London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE is open to the public along with displays of remarkable Roman artefacts found on the site of one of the UK’s most significant archaeological revelations.

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The Mithraeum in 2004 when reassembled at Temple Court

It is with thanks to the software company Bloomberg that the Temple of Mithras is in such a publicly accessible space. On discovery, the temple was originally dismantled and repositioned nearby, losing architectural detail through the inaccurate reconstruction. In 2010, when Bloomberg took over the site, they were determined to take responsibility for the Roman monument and return it to its original position. Liaising with conservation specialists, the temple was once again dismantled and recreated in the form of the original ruin as it appeared at the end of the excavation in October 1954.

Built in approximately CE 240, the Temple of Mithras would have stood on the east bank of the River Walbrook, which now flows underground. Landing in Kent in CE 43, the Romans, under the leadership of the emperor Claudius (10BCE – 54CE), succeeded in their conquest of Britain. Shortly afterwards, they chose the banks of the River Walbrook as their main settlement due to its proximity and easy access to the River Thames. This area they named Londinium.

According to geoarchaeologists, the topography of the land was very different from its present state. The City of London was once a wooded area and the River Thames was much broader than it is today. Nonetheless, the Roman settlers were quick to build up their city with stone structures, including a forum or marketplace, an amphitheatre, public baths and temples. Whilst these earlier structures would have been constructed predominantly from timber and mud bricks, the later buildings of the 3rd century were much grander and made of stone, for instance, the Temple of Mithras.

As those who visit the London Mithraeum discover, the temple was not particularly big, measuring 18 by 8 metres. Although only the foundations of the building remain, archaeologists have determined to a degree of certainty the appearance of the original temple. Stretching almost the length of the Mithraeum is the nave, where it is believed temple rituals were conducted. Either side of the nave are two aisles (north and south) where presumably a congregation of around 30 sat. Separating the congregation from the central nave was a low sleeper wall, the majority of which still remains. Seven-disc shapes along these walls indicate where stone columns would once have been.

The Temple of Mithras faces in a vague eastward direction with an entrance at the west end. Opposite the entry steps is a rounded apse that would most likely have featured a statue of the god Mithras. A stone head was uncovered in 1954 that may have been part of this statue.

Throughout the Roman world, there are 100 known remnants of mithrea, the majority of which are a similar rectangle shape, however, there appears to be no evidence that the temples contained windows. As a result, lamps or torches would have been the only available light sources. Four small holes behind the statue plinth in the rounded apse may once have held lit torches.

Little else can be gathered from the temple remains other than it was one of many buildings in the area. A stone relief found close to the temple’s site was inscribed “Ulpius Silvanus”, which could potentially be the name of the original founder or, at least, someone who lived nearby.

Today, the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE provides visitors with a multisensory experience, which uses light and haze to construct the shadows of the seven missing columns whilst the sound of footsteps, chanting and whispers echo the rituals of centuries ago. After the mysterious display, the lights go up so that the ruins can be seen more clearly.

Whilst it is impressive to view the architecture of ancient buildings, the London Mithraeum leaves as many questions open than it answers. Why was the temple built? Who was Mithras and why did people worship him?

Almost everything that is known about Mithras is the result of historians’ interpretations. Mithras was a Roman deity but his exact origins are unknown. Mithraism as an ancient religion appeared in the first century BCE and continued to flourish into the first few centuries CE. It is believed, perhaps due to the size of the mithrea, that the religion was worshipped in small groups rather than as a mainstream belief.

Statues and carved imagery discovered during excavations represent Mithras as a young man wearing a Phrygian cap. In a scene known as a tauroctony, Mithras is typically shown killing a bull while surrounded by other figures and animals. The meaning behind these figures are widely debated amongst scholars and, as there are no written documents about the religion, no one will ever be able to determine the exact truth. There was, however, evidence of ancient graffiti on the walls of the excavated temple. These inscriptions have helped to paint a hazy picture of the ceremonies conducted in the Temple of Mithras. Latin words taken from graffiti scratched into the wall of a Mithraeum beneath the church of Santa Prisca in Rome make up the script of the chanting heard at the London Mithraeum.

Mithraism is often referred to as a “mystery cult” since the majority of their practices were kept secret from the rest of the world, hence no books. Apart from archaeological evidence and graffiti that suggests the members of the cult consumed chicken, wine and honey, and that their ceremonies involved incense and smoke, little else is known.

Some scholars believe that Mithraism merged with Judaism to create Christianity, whereas others suggest it was eradicated by the latter. Saint Paul, who is often referred to as the first Christian, was born in Tarsus, a major centre of Mithraism. It is, therefore, possible that Paul moulded the laws and rituals of Mithraism into Christianity. This, however, is merely speculation.

“It was in Tarsus that the Mysteries of Mithras had originated, so it would have been unthinkable that Paul would have been unaware of the remarkable similarities … between Christian doctrines and the teachings of Mithraism.”
“The Jesus Mysteries” by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (1999)

The Temple of Mithras in London, or Londinium as it was then called, was abandoned by the early 5th century due to the collapse of the Roman government across the empire. For a century or so, the land along the River Walbrook remained uninhabited, resulting in the collapse of buildings, a build-up of debris and soil, and a gradually rising ground level. This is why the remains of the temple are so far underground. By the time the area was reinhabited, the temple was hidden from site and Mithraism was forgotten with Christianity becoming the more predominant religion in the country.

Since the return of the population to Londinium, the city has expanded and been built upon, ultimately altering the landscape forever. St Paul’s Cathedral became one of the major places of worship after it was founded in 604 CE. With new buildings on the rise, including the Tower of London, which William the Conqueror (1028-87) was responsible for, no one questioned what may have been around beforehand.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 added more debris to the land, hiding the Roman remains further underground. By the time the World War II bombings destroyed most of the buildings on the site in 1941, the street level was at least 9 metres above the earliest Roman deposits.

It is in part due to the build-up of debris that the remains of the Temple of Mithras survived. The waterlogged nature of the soil along the Walbrook valley, which contained very little oxygen, was excellent for preserving archaeological architecture and artefacts. When the initial excavations began in the 1950s, many items made from organic materials, such as wood and leather, were unearthed – items that rarely survive. In preparation for the construction of Bloomberg’s headquarters, further excavations took place, recovering more Roman finds than any other site in the City. In total, over 14,000 artefacts were recovered as well as 63,000 pieces of pottery and three tonnes of animal bone.

As well as the Temple of Mithras, the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE displays a variety of the artefacts discovered beneath the feet of Londoners that once belonged to Britain’s Roman ancestors. Each object provides an insight into the lives of people in Londinium from the things they treasured to the things they wore and consumed. Digital tablets allow visitors to choose objects to explore in more detail.

Whilst the excavated animal bones are not on display, they suggest the types of creatures the Romans may have eaten, for instance, chicken. Nearby, the remains of workshops and a bakery were discovered, revealing further insight into the daily lives of inhabitants. Within the displayed artefacts are hooks and weights, which are the remains of ancient weighing methods. These may have been used in the bakery or similar shops.

The remains of buildings, including the Temple, help to explain the architecture of ancient constructions. Floors appear to have been tiled or in some cases decorated with mosaics, and roofs were composed of clay tiles (tegula). Overlapping tiles made the roof more durable and waterproof, an architectural feature that was often used in ancient Greece and Rome.

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Hypocaust Diagram

The Romans were a long way off the central heating Londoners have today, nonetheless, they had their own methods of heating their homes. Roman architects used a system called hypocaust in which the floor was raised above ground level to create a space for hot air produced by a furnace to flow underneath.

Buildings were entered through thick, wooden doors, a fragment of which miraculously survives. This fragment is made from panelled oak and it is believed that one of the large iron keys discovered on the site may have been used to lock this particular door.

As mentioned, objects made from organic material, such as the wooden door, do not often survive. Other organic items that withstood the test of time are leather shoes, wooden combs and wooden writing tablets. The latter would have been coated in wax and etched into with iron styli, many of which have also been recovered.

Metal items are more durable, therefore, it is unsurprising that iron styli, iron knives – one with an ivory handle, copper bells and copper alloy brooches have survived in abundance. Brooches would have been used to hold garments together by both men and women and were probably nothing much to look at in comparison to the elaborate brooches that are made today. An amber carving of a gladiator’s helmet that is thought to have been worn as a pendant for decorative purposes, since amber was a precious and treasured material.

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Domitian, AD 81 to 96. Silver denarius

The most prevalent artefacts from the Bloomberg site were Roman coins of which over 700 were discovered. Similar to present-day money, coins featured the profile of the reigning emperor. The majority of these coins were manufactured during the reign of Emperor Claudius, however, the rest have been identified as other rulers, for instance, Emperor Domitian (51-96 CE), the last member of the Flavian dynasty.

Interestingly, many of the recovered items were produced elsewhere rather than locally, suggesting that the Romans brought their possessions with them or traded with other countries. The quernstone used in the bakery or mill to grind grain was produced from stone sourced in Germany. Glass objects have been identified as Egyptian and some of the brooches came from central Europe. Mediterranean lamps were popular and it is thought the Roman Empire bought their olive oil from Spain.

Samian pottery was popular throughout the empire and many examples have been excavated in London. Also known as terra sigillata ware, the bright-red, polished pottery was made of clay and impressed with designs. Animals were a common feature in Roman art and some fragments of pottery and stoneware feature images of British hunting dogs, wild lions, deer, eagles and bulls, possibly representing Taurus. The bull also had a strong connection to Mithraism.

Londinium only had a population of 10,000 during the first couple of centuries, which is a mere handful compared with the 8.8 million that have made London their home today. Thanks to the discovery of the Temple of Mithras and the enormous range of artefacts, it is possible to imagine what the life of these first inhabitants may have been like. Many items were discovered at the bottom of an ancient well, implying that the Romans threw a lot of their things away rather than adopting the make-do-and-mend attitude that was popular many centuries later.

Unfortunately, no matter how much is discovered, historians will never know for sure the accuracies of their speculation, however, the findings remain an interest to the public. The London Mithraeum provides the opportunity to imagine life in London 2000 years ago as well as discover an ancient religion. Although visitors may leave with more questions than they arrived with, it is worth taking the time to appreciate and explore the remains of our ancient ancestors.

We may never know who Mithras was nor why he was worshipped, then again, who knows what may be discovered in the future? If the Temple of Mithras was hidden under the City of London for almost two millennia, what else could be hiding beneath our feet?

The London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE is free to visit, but to guarantee entry you are advised to book in advance. Opening hours are Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 – 18.00 and Sundays 12.00 – 17.00.

At Home in Antiquity

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Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage, 1895 (detail). Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Earlier this year (7th July – 29th October 2017), Leighton House Museum in Kensington put on the largest exhibition of an illustrious Victorian artist to be shown in London since 1913. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity displays over 100 paintings that reveal the artist’s interest in both the domestic life of antiquity and his own home life.

Leighton House was the perfect location for an exhibition of an artist who portrays many ancient foreign scenes in his work. Originally the house of Frederic, Lord Leighton, 1st Baron Stretton (1830-96), a famous British artist of a similar era to Alma-Tadema, the house is full of decorative art and furnishings from all over the world.

The exhibition prevented visitors from appreciating the full extent of the house’s decor, however, the ‘Arab Hall’, fitted with an indoor fountain, remained untouched by the display. Here are a collection of ceramics, textiles, woodwork, windows and tiles from Leighton’s travels to the Middle East, particularly Damascus in Syria, and date as far back as the 17th-century.

The rest of the house is decorated in a similar fashion, however, Alma-Tadema far outshone the setting. His paintings are so exquisitely detailed, it was impossible to focus on anything else in the room. Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity has certainly been a star attraction for the museum this year.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema OM RA (1836-1912) was born Laurens Alma Tadema in a small village in the Netherlands. His father died when he was only four years old, leaving his mother to singlehandedly raise six children, three of whom were from her husband’s previous marriage. His mother encouraged the learning of artistic skills, however, intended her son to train to become a lawyer.

In 1851, however, at the age of fifteen, Laurens suffered a physical and mental breakdown that was misdiagnosed as a fatal case of consumption. Assuming he did not have long to live, Laurens was left to spend his days at leisure, often drawing and painting. Fortunately, the young man regained his health and decided to pursue a career in art.

A year later, at sixteen, Tadema moved to Belgium in order to study at the Royal Academy of Antwerp. Although he did not complete the course, he found himself a position as a studio assistant to Lodewijk Jan de Taeye, later working for the Baron Jan August Hendrik Leys (1815-69) who introduced him to the history of Belgium and France. Settings of these areas between the 5th and 8th centuries became a key topic of his early work. A few of these were displayed in the drawing room at Leighton House.

 

 

Although painted with exceptional skill, Tadema’s themes were not very popular amongst the clientele of the 1860s. As a result, Tadema decided to change tact, something that was sparked by his marriage to Marie-Pauline Gressin Dumoulin on 24th September 1863.

The happy couple’s lengthy honeymoon took place around Italy in cities such as Florence, Rome and Naples. The ancient facades inspired Tadema to produce Roman genre scenes. As well as Rome, Tadema became equally interested in ancient Greece and Egypt, researching them thoroughly in order to produce accurately detailed oil paintings. Although he was predominantly interested in the ways of life and the architecture of the periods, he also painted a few biblical scenes.

 

 

Tadema and Pauline had two children (their firstborn, a son, died in infancy). Their daughters, Laurence (1864-1940) and Anna (1867-1943) often became the subjects of their father’s paintings. Although his painting style did not alter, these scenes show a remarkable contrast with his imagined scenes. They reveal the differences in the household and fashions of the eras of focus.

Sadly, Pauline died of smallpox in 1869 at the young age of thirty-two. Spiralling into depression, Tadema’s work suffered and he eventually took the advice of his doctor to go to London to seek medical treatment. During his visit, he met the seventeen-year-old daughter of a physician, Laura Theresa Epps, and fell instantly in love. They were married in July 1871.

 

 

Tadema began his life in England with his new wife and daughters who were also artistically inclined. Some of Laura and Anna’s paintings were on show at Leighton House but were greatly outshone by the work of their husband and father.

It was at this time that Tadema adopted the English version of his name, Lawrence, and hyphenated his middle and surname to create a name that would appear at the beginning of exhibition catalogues.

Alma-Tadema became one of the most famous and highly paid artists of his time, receiving many awards including being made a Royal Academician on 19th June 1879. He was eventually knighted in England by Queen Victoria in 1899, the eighth artist from the continent to receive this honour.

As the years progressed, Alma-Tadema’s output dwindled. This was less to do with his age and more to do with a new passion – decorating his home. Various pieces of furniture and photographs of the place in which he lived featured in the exhibition, however, the most interesting was the collection of thin paintings that made up the ‘Hall of Panels’. In a room of his house, forty-five individual door panels were displayed along the walls containing paintings produced by friends and acquaintances of the artist. Seventeen of these were assembled for the exhibition at Leighton House including one by Frederic Leighton himself, The Bath of Psyche (1887). Other artists include John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Frank Dicksee (1853-1928) and, of course, his daughter Anna.

 

 

Laura Alma-Tadema died age fifty-seven in 1909 and her husband was not far behind her. After arriving in Wiesbaden, Germany in the summer of 1912 to be treated for a stomach ulcer, the Victorian artist passed away on 28th June 1912 at the age of seventy-six. He received a state burial in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, with the rapid developments of art movements during the first half of the 20th-century, Alma-Tadema’s classical paintings were rejected in favour of the modern experiments of new artists. For a while, his works were forgotten about, however, his depiction of antiquities was discovered by filmmakers, such as Ridley Scott, who used his historically accurate paintings to construct scenery and develop characters.

As part of the exhibition, the curators at the Leighton House Museum set up two adjacent television screens, one to show the painting and the other to play scenes they inspired. Clips were shown from eight films including Gladiator (2000), Cajus Julius Caesar (1914) and The Ten Commandments (1956).

The final room of the exhibition contained two of Alma-Tadema’s most impressive works. The majority of his paintings are exceptional for the way in which flowers, textures, metals and pottery are depicted. Alma-Tadema would source items to use as references and be very perfectionistic about his work. He was also particularly adept at painting stone and marble, earning him the title ‘the marbellous painter’. Evidence of these skills can be seen in The Finding of Moses (1904) and The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888).

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The Finding of Moses, 1904

The Finding of Moses was one of the last major works before Alma-Tadema’s death and was based on the biblical scene in Exodus 2:6. The Pharaoh’s daughter, who had come to bathe in the River Nile, has discovered the baby Moses hidden in a basket amongst the reeds. The scene shows a procession back to Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Alma-Tadema expertly painted realistic, full-length portraits of shaven-headed male attendants carrying Pharoah’s daughter on an intricately decorated chair. Beside her, two female attendants hold Moses aloft in his basket.

It is evident that Alma-Tadema undertook a significant amount of research to complete this painting. Amongst the decoration on the clothing and the daughter’s chair are symbols indicating her status and hieroglyphics identifying her as the daughter of Ramesses II.

The colours are fairly typical for a dusty Egyptian landscape, however, Alma-Tadema offsets the composition with the inclusion of delphiniums in the foreground, boasting another skill of his. The rich blues and purples turn the painting into something resembling a frieze and are a perfect contrast with the yellows and oranges of the pyramids in the background.

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The Roses of Heliogabalus, 1888

The Roses of Heliogabalus is set in an entirely different era. The painting depicts a (probably fictitious) event during the life of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus (204-222). The teenage ruler sits at a banquet table leering down at his guests as a swarm of pink rose petals descend from a false ceiling. Whilst roses and their beautiful colouring generally have positive connotations, this scene is an imagining of something far more sinister, as written in the biography Augustan History (4th century):

“In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his guests in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

As in all Alma-Tadema’s paintings, the Roman citizens are painted in a perfect likeness – almost photographic. However, the most phenomenal aspect is the sheer amount of rose petals depicted, drowning the emperor’s victims. Thousands of petals have been painted on top of the canvas, each one painstakingly detailed. This goes to show Alma-Tadema’s dedication to his work (and his perfectionism).

Lawrence Alma-Tadema was amongst the most financially successful painters of the Victorian-era and it is hard to believe that his work was rejected and ridiculed in the years after his death. Leighton House Museum curated a fantastic exhibition that not only shows off the impressive artworks, teaches the current generation about an artist who deserves to be remembered.

So much can be learnt by looking at Alma-Tadema’s work from artistic technique to historical context. A single painting can be studied for hours, each square inch containing so much detail.

Why this artist is not more widely known is baffling, but now there is hope as a result of the incredible exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity that Lawrence Alma-Tadema could become everyone’s favourite artist. It will be interesting to discover which artists the museum will reveal to the wider public next.

Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity was organised by the Museum of Friesland, Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (the artist’ hometown) and came to London following an exhibition at the Belvedere, Vienna bringing over 130 works to Leighton House Museum as the only UK venue for the show.