Category Archives: history

On Robin Fleming’s ‘Britain After Rome’

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 should perhaps have been a different book altogether.

The product of ten years’ work on the part of Robin Fleming, a professor at Boston College (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), Britain After Rome was commissioned by David Cannadine within the Penguin History of Britain series. It covers the huge span of time — nearly seven centuries — that elapsed between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of William the Conqueror. As such, it follows in the footsteps of at least two other Penguin volumes: The Anglo-Saxons (James Campbell et al, 1991) and The Beginnings of English Society (Dorothy Whitelock, 1963).

Based on all this, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Britain After Rome was intended as a general introduction to this large, complex and in many ways intractable subject — a book for students, clearly, but perhaps also for the casual museum visitor who has been stunned by the splendour of the Staffordshire Hoard and wants to know more, the casual reader wondering to what degree The Lantern Bearers (1959) makes any sort of historical sense, the anxious observer of current affairs hoping acquire a longer view regarding the challenges, curiosities and catastrophes of our own time.

Yet Britain After Rome in fact strongest precisely at the point where it stops trying to pass itself off as a generalist introduction. Far and away the best thing about the book is the final chapter, “Living and Dying in Early Medieval Britain: The Fifth to Eleventh Century” [sic]. Here, with the end in sight, as it were, Professor Fleming is at last able to bypass aspects of human experience that don’t seem to engage her quite so fully — religion, politics, warfare, agriculture, craftsmanship, linguistics — and can concentrate fully on the part of her subject to which she brings the most obvious energy.

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Restorations: on the sadness of the Ashdown House sale

 

Ashdown House, near Lambourn, Berkshire

 

Rather a long time ago now, early in the 1990s, walking along the ridge of a hill in Berkshire, I more or less stumbled across Ashdown House, that famous collision of classicised architecture with historical melodrama, now owned by the National Trust, some of the contents of which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London in a couple of weeks’ time.

At this distance the context is hard to recapture. Looking at the online map today in the hope of reconstructing that journey, I suppose we must have been walking from Ashbury to Lambourn. Certainly, I remember climbing up to see the bell tower of Lambourn’s ancient parish church, assisted in this project by a similarly ancient sexton seemingly on leave from a Thomas Hardy novel. Reconstructing further, I suspect the reason we were in the area in the first place was to visit the White Horse of Uffington, Wayland’s Smithy and other prehistoric sites. The Berkshire Downs are, after all, a part of England at once casually beautiful and imaginatively liberating. One gets the sense that man and nature have operated there for so long together, working in such close proximity, that the boundaries which elsewhere separate their legacies start to blur a little. It’s an enchanted landscape.

In any event, I certainly shan’t forget the shock of rounding a bend onto the top of that chalk ridge and then seeing — with all the weird emphasis of an hallucination — the tall trim cupola, detached flanking pavilions and formal parterres of Ashdown House laid out in the valley below me. What could this apparition possibly mean?

The conventional thing to say about Ashdown House is that it looks like a dolls’ house — a comparison made by Pevsner, amongst others. Yet this hardly does justice to the force of its formidable strangeness.

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Heritage under the hammer: the Crosby Garrett Helmet (re)visited

Later this morning, the Crosby Garrett helmet, about which I have written here, will be put to auction at Christie’s South Kensington, London, where the estimate stands at £200,000-£300,000.

On Monday, I made my way up the Old Brompton Road to see this much-publicised item at first hand. What I encountered was not entirely what I had expected — or, rather, the experience of viewing the Crosby Garrett helmet seemed to fling two different worlds into jarring, distressing collision.

The context framed the problem. Although no stranger to Christie’s, virtually all my previous visits to South Ken have been consecrated to the pursuit of examining, and sometimes even acquiring (very much at the modest end of the spectrum — no £300,000 parade armour for me!) either furniture or pictures.

Here, well-established conventions apply regarding provenance, condition and authentication. Continue reading

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Against the proposed demolition of the Cleveland Street workhouse

London's last surviving Georgian workhouse: 44 Cleveland Street, London W1

Tired out from pondering the rights and wrongs of George Osborne’s selective hacking away at child benefit, Iain Duncan Smith’s modest proposals for the wholesale reformulation of state welfare provision, the general conference-season ambience of broken electoral promises, simultaneous and self-contradictory accusations of ideological inflexibility and half-baked desperation, the whole unsatisfactory spectacle of a Conservative Party enjoying no shared coherent vision about where the line ought to fall between public provision and private responsibility and hence muddling through as best it can, encumbered all awhile with a coalition partner whose history, instincts and commitments with regards to state welfare provision could hardly be more different?

If so, well, then here’s an easy question for you, by way of light distraction. The question concerns an old building. Just to make it even easier, there’s a photo of it above.

The question? Here goes. Which is a better idea — demolishing an attractive, conveniently-sited, structurally sound Georgian building, replete with historical associations which we’ll discuss in a moment, in order to throw up in its place an unremarkable tower-block providing a mixture of residential accommodation and some office space — or in contrast, preserving the old building, which could easily be converted to suit present-day purposes, including, err, residential accommodation and perhaps even a bit of office space as well?

Not exactly difficult, is it?

The historical case for preserving 44 Cleveland Street is particularly strong, not least for the commentary it offers on the past few centuries of welfare provision in London — a story, as it turns out, with more than a degree of contemporary resonance. Continue reading

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On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October? Continue reading

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Aberlemno

Continuing with that ongoing churchyard-related theme — just the sort of cheery carefree image one associates with summer holidays — here is a Pictish stone carving erected in what is now the kirkyard of the small village of Aberlemno in Angus, Scotland.

The stone was probably carved in the 7th or 8th century AD. It may or may not commemorate the Battle of Dunnichen of 20 May 685, in which the Picts won a major victory over their Northumbrian Saxon neighbours.

On the other side of the stone (not shown) is a large cross decorated with extremely elaborate knotwork, flanked by fantastical beasts.

The churchyard site is beautiful, by the way — a peaceful little wooded enclave, including the old manse and some stone-built barns — all of this set just below a ridge overlooking the richly productive rolling fields of the Vale of Strathmore. No wonder, then, that people felt strongly enough about all this not only to fight for it, but to record that fighting in a form that has lasted for perhaps 1,200 years or more.

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On the Museum of London’s new galleries

What does it say about the new exhibition space at the Museum of London that all the Museum’s own publicity — even the branding on their own website, e.g. here — refers to these as ‘the new £20 million Galleries of Modern London’, the ‘£20 million’ price tag conjoined with the galleries’ name as firmly as the constituent parts of some Homeric trope?

Not much, perhaps. Yet it’s worth going on to read the other claims the brief online synopsis makes for the Museum’s redesigned lower floor rooms:

Three years in the making, five new galleries tell the story of London and its people from 1666 to the present day. 7,000 objects, show-stopping interactives, specially designed family areas, film and changing displays transport you through the capital’s tumultuous history, rich with drama, triumph and near disaster.

As is so often the case with history, it’s the rhetorical colour that lingers long after what detail there is has begun to fade away — in particular, that familiar emphasis on novelty, abundance and spectacle.

Combine this with the launch of the Museum’s own iPhone app, Streetmuseum — and for those interested in the relationship between the launch of Streetmuseum and the opening of the new galleries, there’s a fascinating interview with the Museum of London’s marketing manager here — and the nature of the ‘repositioning’ underway here could hardly be more obvious. Out with the merely didactic displays, the rows of carefully-labelled items, silent and thoughtful contemplation of history’s wreckage, the dark romance of extreme street-by-street specificity and hard-won local knowledge — in with diversion, distraction, sensory skimming over the surface of a past at once highly generalised yet also fragmented into incoherence, projections both metaphorical and literal, noise, restlessness half-attention always in search of something marginally more interesting — in a word, ‘entertainment’, which is what the new exhibition space seems to be all about.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Galleries of Modern London have already proved an enormous success.

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