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

Advertisements

Comments Off on On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

Filed under archaeology, culture, history, war & peace

Blasting & Blessing: a long overdue edition

Hadrian's Wall, between Milecastle and Housesteads, summer 2010

So, that’s summer 2010 done, then. And while, over the past three months, there are plenty of things I’ve done — travelled as far afield as Haltwhistle, Bedford and Bracknell; refinished precisely one third of the staircase leading down to the kitchen; bruised a toenail while walking along Hadrian’s Wall; eaten a mulberry; bought a copy of World of Interiors; read a small book by Roger Scruton; sewed name-tapes onto school uniforms while listening to William Walton’s music for Henry V; daydreamed ineffectually about planting apple trees and harbouring rescue hens; cat-napped — there are also plenty of things that I haven’t done.

This latter category is, alas, both large and highly relevant to Fugitive Ink, including as it does not only writing and large-scale reading, but also engaging in sustained mental exertion of any sort, productive or otherwise. I suspect I’ve totally forgotten how to write. How better to encourage what’s left of my blogging skills to creak back into something resembling working condition than with a brief bout of blasting & blessing?

First of all, most obviously and urgently, let’s blast this whole William Hague business. As implied in at least one previous post, our present fascination with the details of our elected representatives’ expense claims, hiring policies and overall extra-curricular deportment seems to me as radically tiresome as it is fundamentally misguided. For heaven’s sake — if we’re forced to trust these wretched men and women to make serious decisions affecting virtually every aspect of our lives, as the current version of democracy seems to suggest we must, then do we really need to micro-manage every nuance of their public and private behaviour as well? Might it not be a better idea just to give them each a set sum of money — possibly a bit less for backbench MPs, a bit more for ministers — and then just let them get on with it, judging them ultimately not on the process of governing itself, but rather on results? For whether they choose to spend the money on duck houses or moats, expertise or companionship, baseball caps or worse, it’s still the same money being spent — and still the same irrelevance to the basic question of whether or not they deserve our confidence or, as far as that goes, our electoral support.

Finally, sentimentally fond though I am of Guido Fawkes, surely he shouldn’t be wasting his malice on obscurely under-qualified special advisors when real trophy targets like Andy Coulson are there for the taking? You know, Guido, the sort of targets who commit actual crime, not mere silliness? Just a thought …

Continue reading

Comments Off on Blasting & Blessing: a long overdue edition

Filed under blasting & blessing, books, politics, Tory things

Firle Beacon, East Sussex

Yes, more holiday snaps. This is the photo taken part way up Firle Beacon yesterday. At the top of the Beacon is a long barrow, then a beautiful curving walk along a ridge all the way down to Alfriston.

Summer’s almost over, though. Normal service will resume shortly.

Comments Off on Firle Beacon, East Sussex

Filed under miscellaneous

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.

Comments Off on Aberlemno

Filed under archaeology, history

Announcement

Summer is upon us, bringing with it school holidays, visits to various places, miscellaneous distractions galore. For this reason — as well as for the reason that, during the summer, most people quite reasonably have better things to do than sitting inside looking at the internet — blogging here is going to be light in the extreme until some point in early September.

For the moment, though, here are a couple of cheerful snaps of gravestones from the churches of the Glaven Valley in north Norfolk. The one above is from the churchyard of St. Margaret, Cley-next-the-Sea, while the one below is from St. Mary, Wiveton. The first I liked because of its, ahem, casually syncretic Christianity, as well as the good carving, while the second serves as a reminder of a time in which a life spent learning to be a capable millwright was clearly a source of some pride.

Enjoy the summer.

Comments Off on Announcement

Filed under miscellaneous

Mark Alexander’s ‘Red Mannheim’ at St Paul’s Cathedral

Two new works by contemporary British artist Mark Alexander are currently hanging on either side of the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral this summer, selected as a part of the Dean and Chapter’s ongoing Cathedral Art Programme.

The Red Mannheim is composed of two sets of screenprints — nine panels in each, hung in a grid, about four metres tall once grouped — the palette sharply limited to black and a visceral, super-saturated red. Non-identical, the paired works are based on an altarpiece originally created for the choir of the Sebastiankirk in Mannheim, Baden-Württemberg, by that master of Rococco woodcarving, Paul Egell, c. 1739-41. (A photo of one of the sets of panels appears at the bottom of this post.)

The history of the Mannheim altarpiece turns out to be a story of loss, transposition of meaning and woundedness.

Continue reading

4 Comments

Filed under art, London, religion, reviews

Christen Købke at the National Gallery

When I set out to see Christen Købke: Danish Master of Light at the National Gallery recently — on the day before it closed, in fact, although it’s now moving to Edinburgh, where it remains until 3 October 2010 — the name ‘Kobke’ rang no loud bells, so I assumed that I’d never seen this early nineteenth century artist’s work before.

So much for the reliability of memory, eh? Although I didn’t post about it at the time — although I can’t quite reconstruct the crisis of confidence that prevented that 10,000 word draft getting as far as actual publication, unpublished it remains — in truth I could hardly tear myself away from the Royal Academy’s extravagant, eye-opening Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, the late Robert Rosenblum’s final major gift to art-historical revisionism. I know I must have visited that show half a dozen times, perhaps more. And while the the slightly disorienting array of treasures there included work by David, Reynolds, Houdon, Zoffany, Goya and Ingres, as well as dozens of less stellar figures, one of the pictures that really stood out was, of all things, a portrait by Christen Købke himself.

Painted when the artist was only 22 years old, Købke’s Portrait of the Landscape Painter Frederik Sodring (1832) is an extraordinary, lucid, arresting little work. Across its surface, the oil has been applied as thin as tempera. The details of that pot of trailing ivy, the enamel snuffbox, upturned brush, oh-so-practical improvised chair-cover and meticulous sketches of the Roman Forum are all so ‘real’ as to seem almost hallucinogenic. None of this, though, is achieved at the expense either of warmth — the coolness of those blue-grey tonalities notwithstanding, could anyone doubt that these two young men were friends? — or indeed of structure. Everything in the relationship between the panels of the door behind the figure, the round mirror over his head, the sheets of pinned-up paper and the slope of that resting body, all apparently so casual, even proleptically ‘photographic’, has surely been calculated with precision. For how else could it be the case that the viewer’s glance runs round and round, weighing up this and that, wondering at the balance of colour and tone — not really caught by the digital image to which I’ve linked above — incredulous that this initially rather informal-looking keepsake should, in fact, turn out to be a work of such slightly weird, distinctive brilliance?

Continue reading

11 Comments

Filed under art, reviews