British Museum blog

A wooden O



Alan Farlie, Exhibition designer,
RFK Architects Ltd

Explaining the job of an exhibition designer is not straightforward as it depends on the type of exhibition and the type of story being told. For a paintings and drawings show we may work with existing gallery walls and the job is about placement and selection of wall colours. Designing Shakespeare: staging the world was far more complicated than that.

We were finishing the installation of Treasures of Heaven in 2011 when I was asked if we would pitch for the Shakespeare exhibition. The British Museum was already working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the reasons for the pitch was to see how we would work with Tom Piper, Associate Designer at the RSC. At RFK we believe there should be an intellectual foundation to all of our design work and the first stage, before putting pencil to paper, is research. In the case of Shakespeare that involved research into the objects and the story, but also a look at Tom’s work for the RSC and thoughts on the differences between exhibition design and theatre design.

People often talk about ‘theatrical’ design, as shorthand for flamboyant, noisy and in many cases over-blown design. Tom’s designs for the RSC are consciously modern and often stripped back, which immediately struck a chord with us. And an interview with the Guardian reinforced the sense that Tom had a similar approach to his work: “Perhaps surprisingly, Piper starts with the text: reading the script, picking out words, themes, politics – any hook that might snag an idea”. For us it’s the objects rather than the text but the principle is the same. Unless you understand the objects and the curatorial story any exhibition will just be a repeat of some standard formula.

In our pitch to the BM we included sketches that illustrated the principle differences between exhibition and theatre design.

Sketches showing one of the fundamental differences between Theatre and Exhibition – the narrative in a play is defined by the passage of time; the narrative in an exhibition is defined by the visitor passing through space.

In the theatre, the audience remains in a fixed location as the spectacle changes everyone starts the play at the same time and finishes at the same time. The experience is a shared one that unfolds over time.

In an exhibition, the spectacle is fixed. It tends to be an individual experience that unfolds as the visitor moves through the space at his or her own pace, encountering new points of view with every step. Our challenge was to blend the visual language of performance-based stage design with that of object-based exhibition design and to come up with something new and unexpected.

The original section titles as briefed and a diagram showing visitor circulation with London at the heart and non-linear circulation.

The exhibition is structured around the idea of nine ‘Imagined Worlds’ each of which represents different aspects of Shakespeare’s plays. Our first sketches showed the first of these ‘London 1612′ at the heart of the exhibition with all the other sections linking to it. As the design developed it became apparent this would not work practically but we felt it was important to retain the sense of London being at the exhibition’s heart, if not its physical centre.

Early sketch illustrating the idea of seeing through to the books.

We were also struck by the resonances of an exhibition about ‘the text’ being staged within the Round Reading Room, which is still a working library and from the outset wanted to express that connection. In the final design this was achieved by cutting a series of slot windows that give views onto the bookstacks.

The first draft of the design model

To develop the design, we used a series of models at various scales. Models are perfect for collaborations of this kind and allow for immediate exchange of ideas. They are not precious and are there to be cut and carved as part of the process. The first draft, shown here, has just four elements (the large ring is the lighting ring originally installed for The First Emperor exhibition): at bottom left is London or the ‘Wooden O’ as it became known; at top right is a second curve that enclosed ‘The New World’ and in the centre of the room, two large walls that carried two of the largest objects (Fialletti’s view of Venice and the Sheldon Tapestry Map, which featured in previous blogs) and also began to define Venice, Arden and Great Britain. This basic structure of circles, arcs and straight walls was overlaid and developed to become the exhibition now on display.

Final version of the model

This photo of the (almost) final design shows how the circle of the ‘Wooden O’ breaks down and is repeated at different scales in combination with the flat painted walls to create the different worlds. In the first section the curved walls are finished in stained plywood fixed vertically to reference the architecture of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. In the next section the plywood breaks up to form the ‘trees’ of the Forest of Arden with a sandblasted and stained finish. In medieval England and the Classical world of Julius Caesar the plywood is laid on its side and whitewashed to reference monumental stonework. And to represent the world of Macbeth a charred and blackened finish combines with a deep red and a series of slots to create a sense of menace and uncertainty.

The final section focuses on the strange and foreign New World of The Tempest. As the new lands were so full of surprises for the Elizabethan and Jacobean explorers, so this final space in the exhibition speaks of a blank canvas, a liminal space, full of potential and wonder. This is invoked using the vocabulary of contemporary art galleries and cinema. The walls, floor and ceiling are white and the lighting is diffuse so that this space evokes the starkness of the White Cube and the other-worldliness of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

This is just a taster of the work that went into the design and there are many other collaborations that are an essential part of putting together an exhibition of this scale. In particular we worked closely with the lighting designer (Zerlina Hughes of Studio ZNA) and digital media consultant (David Bickerstaff at Newangle) as well as the in house graphic designer at the British Museum. So finally – a couple of images of the completed exhibition – I hope you get a chance to see it.

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?” (Henry V prologue). Above the First Folio the ceiling beams radiate to reach out, beyond the wooden O, to Shakespeare’s imagined worlds. © Nick Rochowski Photography

The final section takes its cue from the white walls of modern gallery spaces to invoke ‘the shock of the new’. Strange objects and creatures from the new world are displayed in a soft diffuse light. © Nick Rochowski Photography

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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Back to Kabul

St John Simpson, Curator, Middle East

This weekend sees the official hand-over in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul of a large consignment of antiquities which was recently sent there by the British Museum with the logistic support of the British Armed Forces.

These objects included the 20 ivory and bone furniture inlays excavated at Begram which were stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the civil war (1992–1994). They were generously acquired and donated by a private individual, and conserved at the British Museum with the support of a grant from Bank of America Merrill Lynch through its Art Conservation Project. These decorative inlays were exhibited last year at the conclusion of our exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, also supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

One of the returned objects: a double-tube cosmetic flask in the form of a camel with each hump acting as a hollow container. This type of object was frequently placed as a grave-good in Bronze Age cemeteries in northern Afghanistan (ancient Bactria) during the late third to early second millennium BC.

These were not all though. The consignment also included the large carved schist statue of Buddha which was identified in a private collection in Japan, privately bought and donated and again temporarily exhibited at the British Museum last year. Another much smaller private donation was a medieval coin belonging to the twelfth century Ghorid dynasty. The coin had been found on the surface at Bamiyan in 1970 by an English lady who kindly offered it as a donation to the Kabul museum after seeing the exhibition at the British Museum and meeting some of its staff at a Guardian debate hosted here. Last but not least there were as many as 821 additional objects which had been seized by the UK Border Force and the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police, which we had identified as originating in Afghanistan (of which more anon in another post).

Dr Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, collecting the consignment at Camp Souter, Kabul, 15 July 2012 (Crown Copyright/MOD 2012)

The logistics of this return had to be co-ordinated carefully as these were not the only items to travel to Kabul. As part of our exhibition loan agreement, we had undertaken to produce 400 additional copies of our exhibition catalogue, plus another 600 copies specially translated into Dari and Pashto, and we finally received these from the printers in China in April this year. This represents quite a large and heavy stack of parcels!

The timing was finally triggered by a request from Dr Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, who wished to display the Buddha as part of a larger exhibition celebrating Buddhist art in Afghanistan. Many different parties became involved as it was agreed that the transport would be undertaken by the Ministry of Defence but we had to avoid the Olympic build-up. The details and final stages were kept confidential until after the pieces had been safely collected by Dr Massoudi and his colleagues from the British Armed Forces headquarters at Camp Souter in Kabul on 15 July. We are extremely grateful to all who helped.

A British Armed Forces News video about the return of the objects to Afghanistan

A high profile announcement of their return was made during a joint press conference in Kabul on 19 July by President Hamid Karzai and Prime Minister David Cameron. This was particularly fitting as President Karzai had opened the Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum on 3 March last year and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office had facilitated the earlier negotiations. Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum, said: “I am delighted that these important artefacts have been safely returned to the National Museum in Kabul. This is the outcome of the ongoing dialogue between our cultural institutions as well as the support of the authorities to identify and preserve items from the national collection of Afghanistan that had been illegally removed during years of conflict”.

Unsurprisingly, our colleagues in Kabul are very pleased and the last word goes to Dr Massoudi: “I am very happy to receive this very fine collection of artefacts … for me all the pieces are very important. All of them tell and show our rich culture and history, but I especially like the Bronze Age collection and the axe we have from this period and the Fire Buddha with flames above his shoulders from the Buddhist period”.

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

The tale of a tapestry



Maggie Wood, Keeper of Social History,
Warwickshire Museum Service

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire was woven in the 1590s, and was one of a set of four tapestry maps made to hang in Ralph Sheldon’s house in south Warwickshire.

It’s a rare and wonderful pictorial representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire – a bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s landscape.

Before arrival at the British Museum for the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, the tapestry has spent over a year undergoing conservation. This work has enabled us to get close to the tapestry, and make exciting discoveries!

Removing the old lining revealed the vibrant original colour – it was very green! Light has faded the yellow colour from the green wool, so that the tapestry front now looks blue instead of green.

Original green and yellow on reverse of tapestry, contrasted with faded colour on the front

The tapestry’s border was replaced in the 17th century. Removing the lining revealed fragments of the original Elizabethan border – much more lively and colourful than the later replacement.

Original tapestry border

In April 2011, the tapestry went to Belgium to be wet-cleaned. De Wit is a famous tapestry workshop which has developed a safe and fast method of wet-cleaning large textiles. The Sheldon Tapestry was washed, rinsed and dried in one day!

Water samples taken during the wet-cleaning, with dirtiest on left!

Gently sponging the tapestry during wet-cleaning

Wet-cleaning didn’t restore the original bright colour, lost through light damage, but it did make tiny details easier to see.

The Rollright Stones, a Neolithic monument built at a similar time to Stonehenge, appear on the tapestry in the lower right corner. They are very hard to spot!
This is probably the first known visual depiction of this ancient site.

Rollright Stones – just below the windmill

We’ve now noticed that this bear’s claws are blue and that there are many tiny cottages hidden in the Forest of Arden.

Left: Bear with blue claws Right: Cottage in the Forest of Arden

We have made many new and fascinating discoveries during the last year, which has helped to build our knowledge of this wonderful object and its history.

Raising the tapestry into place with pulleys

See related article published 30 August 2012 in The Art Newspaper: Ancient Stones revealed on tapestry (This information was added on 13 September 2012)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Shakespeare: staging the world, , ,

Installing Shakespeare: staging the world


Becky Allen, Project Curator: Shakespeare

The three-week installation of the British Museum’s major new exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world has just finished, and the Reading Room has been transformed.

With over 190 objects, and 38 lenders, there has been a lot of work to do. One of the most impressive aspects of the experience has been witnessing how many colleagues, both within and outside the Museum, have come together to bring the exhibition to life. It is a real team effort to create an exhibition on this scale, and it calls on skills and experience of all kinds, from conservation specialists to lighting technicians, heavy object handlers to designers.

The exhibition features a huge range of objects, including coins, armour, textiles, sculpture and much more. One of the most exciting, and perhaps surprising, aspects of the show is how many paintings it includes – 21 in total from many different lenders. For me, watching the paintings being hung has been a highlight of the installation. One of my favourites is the enormous 1611 bird’s-eye view of Venice from Eton College. The painting has only travelled twice: first from Venice to Eton, where it was hung in 1636, and then from Eton to the British Museum.

As you can see from the photograph, hanging the painting safely required careful coordination and teamwork. Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most important imagined places, and is often the setting for his brilliant examinations of outsiders in society – Shylock the Jew and Othello, the ‘moor of Venice’, being powerful examples. The painting is populated with figures and really brings the Venice section to life – it’s a great pleasure seeing it each morning.

Museum assistants and specialist art handlers hanging the ‘Bird’s-eye view of Venice’ by Odoardo Fialetti, 1611. (Eton College, Windsor)

Another remarkable painting comes from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena. It is a beautiful portrait of Queen Elizabeth I known as ‘The Sieve Portrait’, by Quentin Metsys the Younger, dated 1583. In the portrait Elizabeth holds a sieve, symbolic of chastity. This association comes originally from the story of the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia who proved her own virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It’s a beautiful and striking painting which makes a real statement about the presence and theatricality of Elizabeth, queen at the time Shakespeare moved to London and began to write and act.

Museum assistants from the British Museum hanging ‘The Sieve Portrait’ by Quentyn Metsys the Younger, 1583. (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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When the world came to London


Dora Thornton, Exhibition Curator

Four centuries ago, the world began to come to London, which was reaching for the status of a world city. It was a time in which so many aspects of the modern world have their origins. In the forthcoming exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world we explore these developments though the lens of Shakespeare’s plays. It was above all in the London playhouse that Shakespeare’s generation explored the strangeness and variety of humankind. Shakespeare gave his people, and London’s visitors, a vocabulary and a vision with which they could explore who they were and what it meant to be English, British, or a citizen of the world.

Looking at the Moor’s Head Cup, made by
Christoph Jamnitzer in Munich around 1600,
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

As curator of the exhibition, I have had an exciting time over the last four years thinking my way into Shakespeare’s world with objects. It is a new kind of undertaking, and I have had to feel my way between objects and texts, to the extent that it would be impossible to say which came first in articulating the imagined places of Shakespeare’s plays for our visitors.

The exhibition is structured around Shakespeare’s real and imaginary locations — a brilliant concept put forward by the Shakespearean consultant to the exhibition, Professor Jonathan Bate. Through the innovative design of the display, visitors will travel through different settings as they were imagined in the London playhouse. Each place will have its own distinctive feel and atmosphere so that the visitor journeys with Shakespeare’s original audiences.

Following on from the approach of A History of the World in 100 objects, we have chosen objects which take the visitor directly to issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his original audiences. The objects express things that were new; things that had been lost or destroyed; things that were changing or challenging; new cultural encounters and human traffic in a period of expanding global contacts; contested or even explosive political ambitions.

The aim is to create a dialogue between Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds, and the real world as his generation experienced it.

Our collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company allows us to introduce an element of performance into the display in evoking “this wooden O” of the London playhouse. It also enables us to bring Shakespeare’s words into the exhibition through digital interventions which our visitors can experience both independently and in juxtaposition with the objects.

The first object is The First Folio of 1623, which preserved Shakespeare’s output as a dramatic artist for all time and assured his classic status. It is not just a text, but an iconic object in its own right, entirely appropriate to a British Museum exhibition in that we work with objects which are also texts; texts which are also objects (think of the Rosetta Stone, the Franks casket, or the Cyrus cylinder.)

We end with another iconic object which is also a text: ‘the Robben Island Bible’: a cheap edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare which was secretly kept in the Robben Island jail by Sonny Venkatrathnam, hidden beneath Diwali cards and circulated among the political prisoners there. They found a common bond in Shakespeare as they did in their fight against apartheid, and many of them autographed their favourite passages; Shakespeare texts which meant something to them. The book will be open at Nelson Mandela’s favourite passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.” Unpacking that book on its arrival from South Africa has been the single most moving part of installing the exhibition for me. The arc from the First Folio to the Robben Island Bible is surely a journey worth taking.

Dora Thornton (right) and Becky Allen reading the Robben Island Bible

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Shakespeare: staging the world, ,

Horse power day on Saturday 30 June


Laura Service, Education manager and
Rosie Jones, Events manager: Adult Programmes

On Saturday 30 June the Museum will be saddling up (yes, really) for Horse power day, an exciting day of free activities for all ages. Come and pat a real pony, dress up as a jockey for the photo booth, play pin the tail on the craft-y donkey and much more. Here’s a full list of everything happening on the day. Whilst here, take the opportunity to see the free exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot.

As event organisers, we want Horse power day to celebrate the links between the horse and popular culture, and the creative impetus that this amazing animal has given to artists across thousands of years. All of our meetings about the event have had a sense of fun, and we are hoping this will come through on the day!

A source of inspiration for the day was the wonderful painting, The Derby Day (1856-58), by William Powell Frith, on display in the exhibition. This painting captures the crowds at a nineteenth-century race day. It demonstrates the vibrant culture that sprang out of race days (not that many of the crowd in the painting are watching the race) and that’s something we’ve considered with the activities on Horse power day. Visitors will be able to make fascinators, a tribute to the popular focus on fashions on display at Ladies’ days at the races, and listen to popular music from the eighteenth and nineteenth century recreating the atmosphere of the first great Thoroughbred races at courses like Ascot and Epsom – including a song specially recreated for the event, not heard in its original version for 250 years, but which survives as a folk song even now!

An Arabian horse on the East Lawn of the British Museum

A particular challenge we’ve faced is bringing live horses onsite. We plan to host, weather permitting, a horse parade on the forecourt of the Museum. Mark Griffin (from Griffin Historical) will compere the parade, giving visitors an opportunity to learn about the attributes of different horses, and the roles they undertake according to their physical traits.

Colleagues across the Museum have contributed ideas for the day, and many will be taking part. Nigel Tallis, co-curator of the exhibition will be answering your questions about curating the exhibition, and about the horses he has been discovering whilst putting together the show as part of ‘ask the expert’.

Working on this event has shown us the huge respect and compassion that humans have for horses. Everyone involved has been excited about the opportunity to celebrate the horse, and that has really sparked our imaginations.

We hope you’ll be able to join us, and share our excitement, as we gallop around the Museum on the day!

Remember to share your day
Tweet using #horsepower and @britishmuseum
Tag your photos on Instagram and Flickr with #horsepower
‘Blinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Tweet us your best #horsefilm

 

Horse power day is on Saturday 30 June, 11.00–16.00. It is free, just drop in, some events may be ticketed on the day. Full programme for Horse power day.

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot, , , ,

Tracing racing history


Steve Slack, writer, British Museum

If you’re a fan of horses and horse-racing you may well have been following the action at Royal Ascot last week. The highlight of this year’s meet was the Diamond Jubilee Stakes – named after HM The Queen’s milestone which was marked earlier this month.

Her Majesty is also the royal patron of the British Museum’s current temporary exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. As part of the 5,000 year story of the domesticated horse, the exhibition explains the origins of what we now know as the modern Thoroughbred racehorse and the role of the Arabian horse.

It’s a little known fact that all modern Thoroughbreds can trace their lineage back to just three prodigious stallions which were imported into Britain from the Middle East around 300 years ago: the Byerley Turk (1680s), the Darley Arabian (1704), and the Godolphin Arabian (1729).

The winning horse in Saturday’s race was Black Caviar, who can trace her ancestry back to the Darley Arabian. And if you’re interested in tracing the history of other Thoroughbreds, there’s a panel in the exhibition with some of the most famous race horses descended from the Darley Arabian.

Grand Stand Ascot (Gold Cup Day 1839). This shows the first grandstand built at Ascot, with a capacity of 3000, which opened in 1839. The etching also shows Queen Victoria in attendance. The horse Caravan, a descendent of the Darley Arabian via Eclipse, won the Gold Cup that year.

 

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

Horses: by royal appointment


Nigel Tallis, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

Royal Jubilee weekend is here. You may well be tuning in to watch the royal regatta work its way down the River Thames, or even going to watch the festivities in person.

We’re thinking royally right now at the British Museum, as we celebrate the opening of our new exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. Her Majesty the Queen is the royal patron of the exhibition, whose great knowledge of horses is well known, but horses have been important to royalty for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Think of the royal family and horses and you’ll think of carriages on the way to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, of champion race-winners and the Queen’s own racing colours of purple, scarlet and gold. Aspects of these are all included in the exhibition and we also feature stories of royalty and their fascination with horses through the millennia.

Here’s a wonderful portrait medal by Pisanello, one of the first of its kind, showing the Byzantine or East Roman, emperor John VIII Palaeologus (1392–1448) riding a horse befitting a medieval monarch – interestingly, it was given to the Museum by another royal, the British King George IV (1738–1820).

Medal showing the emperor John VIII Palaeologus on horseback

The Amarna letters from New Kingdom Egypt – a group of clay tablets written in Babylonian cuneiform – form a diplomatic archive of letters sent to the kings of Egypt from fellow rulers in the Middle East. They vividly reflect how the possession of chariots and horses was a key indicator of prestige and status at the time.

Crop from the Amarna Letters, letter from Burnaburiash II to Amenhotep II

But kings haven’t always used horses for peaceful means. This 15th century manuscript painting shows a fierce cavalry battle between two much earlier Sasanian kings, Khusrow II and Bahram VI.

Battle between Khusrow II and Bahram VI

And here’s a charming drawing by Rembrandt, probably inspired by a set of Mughal miniatures. It’s thought to show another royal, Shah Jahan (reigned 1627-1658) riding on horseback.

A Mughal nobleman on horseback by Rembrandt

Don’t forget: if the exhibition is too busy to get into, you can see the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, riding on horseback and in a chariot, hunting lions in the famous reliefs which are the pinnacle of Assyrian art. They are on display in Room 17, throughout the exhibition’s run.

 

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

Horses and human history


Nigel Tallis, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

For 5000 years the horse has been an ever-present ally in war and peace. Civilisations have risen and fallen on their backs and evidence of the horse’s use is everywhere to be seen. Yet somehow, following the increasing pace of mechanisation in the 1930s, we have so quickly forgotten how indebted we are to the domestication of this animal.

Before the development of the steam locomotive in the early 1800s, the only way to travel on land faster than human pace was by horse. Since travel is one of the defining features of human development, so the history of the horse is the history of civilisation itself.

The upcoming exhibition The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot (opening 24 May) explores how horses have helped to shape our history for thousands of years.

Oxus chariot model, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC

Oxus chariot model, Achaemenid Persian, 5th-4th century BC

Horses were first domesticated in around 3500 BC, probably on the steppes of southern Russia and Kazakhstan, and introduced to the Ancient Near East in about 2300 BC. Before this time, people used donkeys as draught animals and beasts of burden. The adoption of the horse was one of the single most important discoveries for early human societies. Horses and other animals were used to pull wheeled vehicles, chariots, carts and wagons and horses were increasingly used for riding in the Near East from at least c. 2000 BC onwards.

Horses were used in war, in hunting and as a means of transport. They were animals of high prestige and importance and are widely represented in ancient art, often with great insight and empathy.

The exhibition looks at how and why Middle Eastern horses, especially Arabians, were especially sought after and introduced into Britain for selective breeding between the 17th and 18th centuries, and shows how the vast majority of modern Thoroughbred racehorses are descended from just three celebrity stallions.

Paintings, including famous works by George Stubbs and William Powell Frith, prints, silverware and memorabilia explore horses in British society, especially in recreation and competition, from race meetings through to modern Olympic equestrian events.

So, how indebted are we to the horse?

We hope that this exhibition will help remind us of the long and fruitful alliance between humans and horses.

 

The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot is free and open from 24 May to 30 September 2012.

The exhibition is supported by the Board of Trustees of the Saudi Equestrian Fund, the Layan Cultural Foundation and Juddmonte Farms. In association with the Saudi
Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.

Filed under: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot

‘Eerie’ innovation from the seventeenth century


An Van Camp, curator, British Museum

If you visit Room 90 on the fourth floor here at the British Museum, you will find a display of some of the stranger prints in our collection. Hercules Segers and his printed paintings, is on show just outside the study room of the Prints and Drawings department and is a rare outing of the unusual and weird-looking etchings created by this visionary printmaker. Honestly, they attract the amazement of everyone who lays eyes on them.

Distant view with a mossy tree branch

Distant view with a mossy tree branch

Hercules Segers lived and worked at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He created prints that looked completely different from anything that came before. While other printmakers tried to make identical impressions of their engraved works in order to distribute them to a large market, Segers wanted to create unique works of art.

Every single one of his prints looks entirely different from any other one and the eeriness and desolation they emit makes them stand out from other artists’ work from the same period. This is because, after the printing process, Seger’s hand-coloured most of his works in a wide range of colours, from aubergine purple to olive green (see Distant view with a mossy tree branch: S.5528), while the etched lines are often printed in blues, greens or even bright turquoise (see River valley with a waterfall: S.5519). While most prints of the time were made by applying black to white background, he went against the grain and printed one of his etchings in white on a black background (see Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg: 1854,0628.73).

Segers also invented a completely new printmaking technique called sugar-lift etching, creating darker areas within the landscapes which look grainy upon closer inspection and evoke a sense of the supernatural (see Rocky mountains with a plateau: S.5521).

It is no surprise that when I became curator of Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints in 2010 I was itching to share my passion for this eccentric artist with the Museum’s visitors who I am sure will grow to love his colourful works.

Hercules Segers and his printed paintings is in Room 90 until 16 May, and An Van Camp will be giving a gallery talk on 3 May.
Read more about Segers’ printmaking techniques.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, Exhibitions, What's on, ,

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