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.
I’ve had dinosaurs on the brain since going to see a 25th anniversary screening of Jurassic Park at the Prince Charles Cinema a few weeks ago, so was very happy to have the opportunity to check out an even earlier example of dinosaurs in cinema. The Lost World, based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel and directed by Harry O. Hoyt, was made in 1925; once thought lost, it has now largely been recovered, and was shown at the BFI Southbank with an accompanying live piano score from Lucky Dog Picturehouse.
I absolutely loved this movie; the animation was incredibly impressive for the time and I particularly loved the section which saw the diplodocus rampaging through the streets of London. I believe it’s available on YouTube, and it’s well worth a watch.
As well as Canada House itself, I’ve always wanted to visit the Canada Gallery, the art gallery attached to the main building that showcases art with a Canadian theme or connection. Unlike the House itself, which is only open on occasion for guided tours, the Gallery is open much more regularly, and you don’t have to book. The Gallery is probably overshadowed by its bigger and more famous neighbour, the National Gallery, but it’s well worth a visit in its own right; it’s small, the perfect size for whiling away a few spare minutes.
Exhibitions change regularly, so repeat visits are worthwhile. On this, my first visit, the exhibition consisted of work by Scottish artist Barbara Rae. Inspired by her namesake and fellow Scot, Dr John Rae, who explored Canada’s Arctic in the 1830s, Barbara set out to traverse the Northwest Passage herself, encountering dramatic icebergs, polar bears, native Inuit and the northern lights. I loved the resulting artwork, which seems infused with the magic of the changing colours of ice. Alongside these works, a selection of Inuit sculpture both complements the main exhibition and carries its own unique authority. This exhibition runs until 16 February, and no doubt more good quality exhibitions will follow in future.
I’ve wanted to visit Canada House for a while, but the tours were always booked up, until I got lucky and ended up on the website just as the new dates were announced. When the day arrived I made my way to Trafalgar Square and queued up with the others to go inside. You have to show photo ID and put your bag through an airport-style scanner; security is important here, though once you get in the atmosphere is much more relaxed.
The building dates back to 1824, when construction first began. It’s the oldest building on Trafalgar Square, with the exception of the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Originally two buildings, used by the Union Club and the Royal College of Physicians, it became Canada House in 1923, officially opened in 1925 by King George V.
On display on the ground floor is the throne King George used, as well as a number of ceremonial keys. The various rooms of the house are named after either Canadian provinces or notable Canadian figures, and are often rented out to various groups for events. The rooms are full of Canadian art and it’s for this reason that the tours are really run; there are many impressive pieces to look at.
We started on the ground floor and made our way up floor by floor; I absolutely loved the dramatic chandelier that dominates the staircase.
Along the way we saw some incredible artworks, carpets and sculptures, all with a Canadian connection. Finally, we ended up right at the top of the building.
Beehives are kept on the roof and honey is collected from the bees who live here. We were able to go out onto the roof and experience a fantastic view of Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.
Canada House is an amazing place to visit and I’d recommend a tour to anyone, whether or not you have a specific interest in Canada.