The origins of writing can be found 5,000 years ago; it began in different places around the world at different times and for different reasons. One of the main advantages of writing was the possibility of communication across time and space: we can, if we understand the alphabet and language used, read what somebody wrote several thousand years ago. Various writing systems and styles have developed, many of which have common ancestors. I found it fascinating to look at different systems and see how they developed from older ones.
Materials and technology have changed over the years, beginning with carved letters produced by a stylus in wax. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus before paper was developed. Handwriting, too, has undergone changes, created first with quill pens then fountain and ball point. Medieval manuscripts gave way to the printed word, which at first emulated the handwritten style. Calligraphy remains a valued, albeit niche, skill even since the development of typewriters and then computers.
Learning to write has always taken time and effort, even from the very beginning. Learning how to form letters is an important part of education for young children. The future of writing surely involves technology, with the increasing use of emojis, but people are still interested in notebooks and pens.
I managed to make it to the Science Museum‘s exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star before it closed. The exhibition looks at the history of humanity’s knowledge and beliefs surrounding the Sun and the part it plays in our actual and our imaginative lives.
Early humanity’s belief in sun gods searched for explanations as to why the Sun appeared to rise and set every day; we see statues of sun gods from various cultures, including one of the Sun being pulled across the sky by a chariot. In the early sixteenth century, Copernicus challenged the idea that the Sun went round the Earth, supported by Newton 200 years later. From the earliest times, sundials were used to tell the time: there are examples from the Anglo-Saxon era on display. Later, the development of clocks made the Sun less important for telling the time, and nowadays standard time is taken from a network of atomic clocks.
From the earliest times the Sun has been associated with good health. Apollo was the Greek God of the Sun, light, truth and healing, while apothecary shops often had the Sun as their symbol. In the 1880s, scientists learned that ultraviolet light can kill TB bacteria: sunbathing was encouraged, and sanatoriums were opened, often in places like the Swiss Alps, emphasising fresh air, sunlight and good food. Later, suntans became fashionable, as holidays in the UK and abroad were seen as a sign of wealth.
On the other hand, sun exposure has risks, many of which have always been known about. In recent times there have been campaigns to reduce sun exposure and lower levels of skin cancer. Inuit people have been using snow goggles to protect their eyes from the glare of the Sun for thousands of years; the first sunglasses as we know them were used by Venetian gondoliers in the 1700s. Sunglasses became fashionable in the 1950s but rarely offered ultraviolet protection; modern ones are usually UV-resistant.
The exhibition explored how we have taken power from the Sun, using it for heat and electricity. The Olympic torch from the 2012 Olympics was on display: each time the ceremony is held the torch is initially ignited by sunlight, with a curved mirror used to focus the flame. The Sun was responsible for one of our biggest energy sources, coal, which is made of plants and vegetation buried and transformed over millions of years. Interestingly, even in the nineteenth century some people were aware that resources such as coal were finite: a book from 1867 warns that coal will not last forever. More recently, solar power has been used as an energy source, and there have been attempts to recreate the Sun on earth with nuclear fusion: a project called ZETA aimed to do just that in the 1950s, though the claim of success in 1958 was later proved false.
The final section of the exhibition looked at how we have observed the Sun over the years and discovered more about it. The Sun is made of hydrogen and helium, discovered by splitting light into a rainbow structure through the use of a prism; this conclusion was first put forward by astronomy student Cecilia Payne in 1925. More recently, the European Space Agency Solar Orbiter is one of the most ambitious solar missions ever attempted, aiming to fly closer to the Sun than the planet Mercury. It is hoped that the mission will help us understand the origins of the solar wind.
Jewellery of the exhibition
To this exhibition I wore my Eclectic Eccentricity Helios Vintage Sun Necklace, along with a pair of brass star earrings from the same store and a sterling silver sunstone ring from now-defunct jewellery store Cheap Frills.
I almost completely forgot about the Russia exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, but luckily managed to make it there on the very last day. The exhibition was actually divided into two sections, together encompassing history, photography, war and revolution.
Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 was the first part of the exhibition. Fenton was the first photographer to document a war for public consumption. He spent four months in the Crimea, from March 1855. His pictures capture the reality of war and the lives of soldiers in the field. There are some incredible shots, including pictures of the infamous “Valley of Death” (from the Tennyson poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’) littered with cannonballs, as well as images of important figures from the war. One of my favourite pictures was of a soldier clearly suffering from shellshock, something which was not really known about or considered at the time.
The second part of the exhibition was Russia, Royalty & the Romanovs, concentrating on the reigns of the numerous monarchs who made up the Romanov dynasty. There were some fascinating paintings and artefacts, including the picture of Peter the Great, highlighting his seagoing achievements (which he partly developed during a visit to London). Some beautiful Faberge eggs were displayed, but probably the most poignant item was a small suit made for the young Tsarevich Alexei.
The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a free exhibition at the Science Museum, looking at the life and death of the Russian royal family during the Russian Revolution. It explores their family life in the years running up to Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication, the family’s murder in Ekaterinburg in 1917, and the eventual identification of their remains using DNA technology.
The science used to identify the remains of the Romanov family is the main point of the exhibition, but there is plenty of filler leading up to that, much of which I already knew having read up on Russian history and visited the St Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg where the family are now buried. However, there was a very interesting display showing how Queen Victoria passed on hemophilia to many of her children and grandchildren. The DNA section was also fascinating, showing how DNA from living royals including Prince Philip was used as a comparison to enable scientists to identify the remains.
In any case, it’s a free exhibition and well worth a visit.
The exhibition Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite Visionary at Tate Britain looks at the career of Burne-Jones (1833-1898), taking a partly chronological and partly thematic approach to his life and work. There are sections on Burne-Jones as an apprentice and as a draughtsman, revealing another, humorous side to the artist. One room looks at the pictures Burne-Jones chose for exhibition, including some of his most famous works, such as King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid. Another explores the portraits he painted of family and friends, while one striking room displays his Briar Rose series of panels. Burne-Jones isn’t my favourite Pre-Raphaelite, but I enjoyed the exhibition.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is an exhibition at the British Library that I knew I definitely wanted to see. Though the Anglo-Saxon era is not my favourite, I did study history for my degree and to some extent all periods of history are interesting to me.
Anglo-Saxon settlers from northern Europe came to Britain in the 5th century, eventually forming several kingdoms that would one day become England. The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts that help to illuminate this exciting period of history.
The exhibition has some amazing treasures on display, including Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Domesday Book, and artefacts from the Sutton Hoo burial ground. It takes a broadly chronological approach, looking at how the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms developed from the first arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to the Norman Conquest.
The Anglo-Saxon era was not static; different kingdoms gained and lost power over the centuries. Early in the era, the kingdom of Northumbria was in the ascendant, while later on, Mercia became the most powerful. By the tenth century, King Aethelstan was exercising power over most of what is now England and south-east Scotland.
The exhibition emphasises the multicultural links of the Anglo-Saxon world, with connections to Ireland and mainland Europe, and its literary, artistic and scientific developments. It is a fascinating exhibition, showing that even a world over 1,000 years old can still be relevant to ours.
One of my first exhibitions of the year was the dramatically-titled I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria at the British Museum. Before visiting, I knew nothing about this Assyrian king, and my knowledge of Assyria was limited to that Byron poem. This exhibition was an eye-opener. Assyria was the dominant power of the Middle East from approximately 900 to 612 BC. The exhibition covers this period of time, focusing on the empire’s peak when Ashurbanipal ruled.
The most fascinating part of the exhibition was the art: the friezes carved on walls depicting Assyrian conquests and disturbing tortures. The exhibition cleverly uses technology to describe and explain these carvings, which are fascinating and shine a light on this particularly violent society. Another interesting aspect of the exhibition was its focus on the bureaucracy of Assyria: rules, regulations and plans helped its rulers to conquer.
Ashurbanipal himself was both a warrior and a master administrator. He and his family fought lions to prove their strength; the images of lions in the exhibition are particularly well-drawn. Assyrian society relied heavily on writing to organise and manage, using cuneiform, the world’s oldest form of writing.
Eventually, after Ashurbanipal’s death, his empire collapsed, culminating in the burning of Nineveh in 612 BC. His great library was destroyed, but, consisting of clay tablets which harden in the heat, its contents survived. These include the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the best-preserved copy of that masterpiece, and still a basis for modern translations.
Assyrian society, surprisingly modern in both its brutality and its bureaucracy, is a fascinating subject for an exhibition. Sadly, the remains of Nineveh, former capital of the empire, located on the outskirts of Mosul in Iraq, were attacked by Islamic State a few years ago. I was pleased to see Iraqi experts and staff of the British Museum working together to repair and restore the ruins.
On the very last day of the James Cook: The Voyages exhibition at the British Library, I popped down to pay it a visit. Luckily, like all exhibitions at the BL it opens late on Tuesdays, so I was able to pop down after work.
August 2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage sailed from Plymouth. This exhibition examines each of the three voyages in chronological order, using original artefacts created on board ship and collected from the places Cook and his crew explored. It examines the impact the voyages – which increased awareness of many of the coasts and islands of the Pacific, unknown to Europeans despite being inhabited for thousands of years – had on the modern world, both for the British and for the people who inhabited those places, both positive and negative.
I liked the way the exhibition was set out, with Cook’s travels clearly delineated – there were plenty of maps and globes on display to show where he went. Cook’s voyages took him to South Africa and South America, Australia and New Zealand, and many islands in the Pacific, as well as, of course, Antarctica. Cook’s ship was the first to ever venture into the Antarctic Circle, and I was excited to see the entry in the ship’s log marking this momentous occasion. For most people, though, Cook’s encounters with the original inhabitants of the places he visited are probably of greater interest. While not every interaction Cook and his crew had with these people was negative by any means, there was mistrust, misunderstanding and conflict, and his voyages helped pave the way for the colonialism of later centuries, and all the atrocities that went with it.
Artefacts such as logbooks, diaries and published works are displayed, as well as paintings and drawings by crew members and those employed as artists. There are also a good number of objects and works of art made by Aboriginal, Maori, Polynesian and other peoples to attempt a more balanced perspective.
I thought the exhibition did a good job of examining Cook’s voyages, their impact, significance and consequences. I’m very glad I made the effort to go before it closed.
I only really became aware of Frida Kahlo when I bought a brooch from the brand Baccurelli a few years ago. Since then I’ve read a few articles, largely prompted by the new exhibition at the V&A, which I was lucky (and quick) enough to get tickets to.
Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up was made possible by the collection of the artist’s work that was found in her home in 2004, locked since her death fifty years previously. The exhibition focuses on her life and her self-expression, featuring her clothes, makeup, jewellery, accessories and self-portraits. While I would like to explore more of her art, I feel that her life is so fascinating and was so central to her work that I don’t think the exhibition’s focus is misplaced.
Frida was born in 1907 to a Spanish-Indian mother and a German immigrant father. Her mother, Matilde Calderón y González, and her father, Guillermo Kahlo (he changed his name from Wilhelm when he immigrated) was a photographer. Frida often accompanied her father on his assignments and developed a fascination with photography and the way it could be used to explore the self. Many of the photographs in the exhibition, both those taken by Frida and those made by others, show how she played with and shaped her identity, in one picture donning a male suit, in another photographing her and her mirrored reflection (reminiscent of her painting The Two Fridas), with others showing off her love for traditional Mexican dress.
Aged twenty-three, she went to Mexico’s most famous painter, Diego Rivera, to ask him his opinion on her art. The two fell in love and married, beginning a lifelong relationship, despite several affairs on both sides. Though they divorced once, they remarried again the next year. They set up home in La Casa Azul, Frida’s former family home, filling it with Mexican folk art and inviting many distinguished visitors to stay. Among these visitors was Trotsky (with whom Frida had a brief affair). As Communists, much of the couple’s work was related to workers’ rights, but while Diego tended to create large dramatic murals, Frida’s work was usually smaller and more intimate in tone. The pair made many trips to the USA, which Frida loved despite disagreeing profoundly with the US on many issues.
Frida experienced health problems throughout her life. Aged six, she suffered from polio, leaving her with a damaged right leg which many years later had to be amputated. At eighteen, an accident left her with further life-changing injuries, putting a stop to her studies and dreams of being a doctor. Disability and illness shaped her life, and Frida was often in great pain, but she worked to overcome it and not to be defined by it. Bedridden for many months after her accident, she painted lying down, using a special contraption created by her mother. Frida spent large portions of her life in bed, recovering from illness or operations, and transformed these experiences into art: in one picture, she has painted herself lying curled up on a hospital bed, while next to her another version of herself stands triumphant, bearing a Mexican flag.
One room particularly demonstrates the various ways in which Frida moulded her image in both compliance with and defiance of her circumstances. She frequently wore stiff fabric or plaster corsets to help support her spine, and often decorated these with symbols and drawings. She also wore flowers in her hair, weaving ribbons into her plaits in a traditional Mexican style, and used cosmetics, particularly pink and red lipstick and nail varnish from the US brand Revlon. The brightly-coloured shawls, tunics and long skirts she wore served the double purpose of allowing her to embrace her Mexican heritage and hide her corsets and damaged limbs. Many of these are displayed in the final room, some dotted with paint splashes reflecting how they were an integral part of Frida’s identity, not worn as a costume. Even when she was bed-bound, and not expecting any visitors, Frida still wore her bright clothes and put on her makeup. Her jewellery, too, was important to her: she wore large, striking necklaces, earrings and rings made of precious metals in traditional Mexican designs, as well as jade beads taken from Mayan tombs.
The video clips in this exhibition show Frida’s beauty and charisma. She is smiling and laughing, showing no signs of pain or suffering, although as she makes clear in her art and her personal journal, what is on the surface is not necessarily a reflection of what is inside. Her art is important, but after seeing this exhibition I feel like her life was also a kind of art, which she shaped with integrity and courage.
The exhibition looks at the history and significance of the Summer Exhibition, displaying a mix of artwork which made an impact at the time, and pictures showing visitors actually at the exhibition. Satirical cartoons suggest the crush created by this popular venue, while William Powell Frith’s work shows the great and the good attending the Summer Exhibition during its Victorian heyday.
The show displays significant works by Reynolds and Gainsborough, as well as Turner. There is a small room dedicated to architecture, while sculpture is interwoven with painting and other more traditional forms of art. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of artworks by women on display, although the number of women elected to the Academy was in the past embarrassingly small. The exhibition does not shy away from controversy, covering the former perceptions of the RA as stuffy and old-fashioned, while Sargent’s painting of Henry James, attacked by suffragette Mary Wood, is displayed.
After the overwhelming busyness of the Summer Exhibition, The Great Spectacle is much calmer, displaying fewer works of art that, nevertheless, are of great significance. I found it to be well worth a visit.