British Museum blog

Farewell to Curious Beasts

Alison Wright, exhibition curator, British Museum

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

The British Museum touring exhibition Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum is in its closing weeks at its final UK venue, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull (7 June – 26 August 2014). Since October 2013, 86 prints made between the 15th to the early 19th centuries and containing sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre animal imagery have been exhibited at three venues across the UK, opening at Compton Verney in Warwickshire before travelling to the Ulster Museum (National Museums Northern Ireland) in Belfast, and Hull. The exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which is committed to sharing collections and expertise with museums and organisations outside London. In 2013–2014 over 2,792 objects were on loan at 187 venues throughout the country.

Curious Beasts explores humankind’s curiosity about the natural world, as it was expressed in the vibrant print culture of the early modern period. Printmaking emerged as a major art form and communication tool in the 15th century, coinciding with an increasing interest in and investigation of flora and fauna. The exhibition looks at how printmakers contributed to knowledge of animals, but also at the wildly different ways in which the animal subject inspired graphic artists. Our enduring fascination with animals also proved to be a good way to bond with like-minded colleagues in other museums, and to make the most of their own collections – leading to some novel encounters between the British Museum’s prints and objects such as stuffed rabbits and rhinoceroses.

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

The idea for Curious Beasts was sparked many years ago when, working as a Museum Assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings, I opened a box of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish prints – while looking for something else entirely – and was startled to discover Jan Saenredam’s magnificent engraving of a beached sperm whale, from 1602.

The remarkably accurate representation of this mysterious giant is bordered by an equally remarkable frame that gives us broader insight into the ways people thought about whales: images of eclipses, earthquake and plague tie into the idea that the monstrous sea creature dying on land was a bad omen. The whale is surrounded by a crowd of sightseers, testifying to the intense curiosity about strange and rare creatures in this period – some of these people would no doubt have been among the intended audience for the engraving, too.

Saenredam’s whale is now at the heart of Curious Beasts, and I have greatly enjoyed showing it, in all its peculiarity, to new audiences. The exhibition takes inspiration from the complexity of Saenredam’s print, drawing on the diversity of the British Museum’s collection to put natural history studies in the context of people’s wider relationships with the animal world. The range of material covers everything from religious subjects (e.g. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) to political satire and practical objects – one etching of a rabbit was designed as a target for archery practice. Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros is probably the best-known object in the exhibition, and a 1620 impression is shown alongside prints by Rembrandt, Goya and Stubbs, and an array of fascinating and striking works by lesser known artists, the majority of which have never been loaned before.

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Working with our three partners has been educational and inspiring – there have been so many great responses to the beauty and quirkiness of the British Museum beasts. Our lead partner Compton Verney brought taxidermy into their galleries for the first time, including a baby Indian rhinoceros borrowed from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: an intriguing comparison with Dürer’s woodcut of the same species (he famously never saw the rhinoceros in real life).

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Compton Verney also wanted to put on a complementary display that would feature their edition of the designer Enid Marx’s linocut series, Marco’s Animal Alphabet. A collaboration with Leicester Print Workshop brought printmaking up to the present day with an exhibition of new works titled A Fantastical Animal Alphabet, and a pop-up print studio run by their very appropriate Artist in Residence, Kate Da’Casto: I have fond memories of conversations about our mutual love of old master prints and the more gruesome relics of natural history.

The exhibition has changed at each venue. In Belfast the Ulster Museum decided to include Lorenzo Lippi’s lovely painting, Allegory of Fortune with a monkey, and also to display taxidermy from its extensive natural history collection, much of it prepared by the respected Belfast firm Sheals, established in 1856. The museum’s famous exhibit Peter the polar bear, prepared in 1972 after he died at Belfast zoo, was in a nearby gallery.

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

The exhibition’s present incarnation at Ferens Art Gallery is in the largest gallery space yet, and the curators at Hull Museums were keen to use Curious Beasts as an opportunity to bring some of their objects out of storage and into conversation with the British Museum’s prints. Over 30 objects were eventually selected, including a delightful rhinoceros-shaped ceremonial wheelbarrow made in 1862, a sperm whale tooth with scrimshaw carvings, and artworks including the truly bizarre and difficult-to-display 1960s wooden sculpture Criletic Delay Adjust (‘Zebra Legs’) by Mark Ingram, which triggered much reminiscence among the curators and technicians.

Sadly it’s the end of the road for this particular UK travelling exhibition, but the beasts have life in them yet. Halfway through the tour, we received word that San Diego University Galleries were interested in taking the show for October 2014. I can’t wait to see what they decide to do with it.

Curious Beasts is at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until 26 August 2014, and then at the San Diego University Galleries from 2 October – 14 December 2014

Filed under: Collection, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art

silver-gilt brooch detailRosie Weetch, curator and Craig Williams, illustrator, British Museum

One of the most enjoyable things about working with the British Museum’s Anglo-Saxon collection is having the opportunity to study the intricate designs of the many brooches, buckles, and other pieces of decorative metalwork. This is because in Anglo-Saxon art there is always more than meets the eye.

The objects invite careful contemplation, and you can find yourself spending hours puzzling over their designs, finding new beasts and images. The dense animal patterns that cover many Anglo-Saxon objects are not just pretty decoration; they have multi-layered symbolic meanings and tell stories. Anglo-Saxons, who had a love of riddles and puzzles of all kinds, would have been able to ‘read’ the stories embedded in the decoration. But for us it is trickier as we are not fluent in the language of Anglo-Saxon art.

Anglo-Saxon art went through many changes between the 5th and 11th centuries, but puzzles and story-telling remained central. The early art style of the Anglo-Saxon period is known as Style I and was popular in the late 5th and 6th centuries. It is characterised by what seems to be a dizzying jumble of animal limbs and face masks, which has led some scholars to describe the style as an ‘animal salad’. Close scrutiny shows that Style I is not as abstract as first appears, and through carefully following the decoration in stages we can unpick the details and begin to get a sense for what the design might mean.

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Silver-gilt square-headed brooch from Grave 22, Chessell Down, Isle of Wight. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 6th century AD

Decoding the great square-headed brooch from Chessel Down

Decoding the square-headed brooch. Click on the image for larger version.

One of the most exquisite examples of Style I animal art is a silver-gilt square-headed brooch from a female grave on the Isle of Wight. Its surface is covered with at least 24 different beasts: a mix of birds’ heads, human masks, animals and hybrids. Some of them are quite clear, like the faces in the circular lobes projecting from the bottom of the brooch. Others are harder to spot, such as the faces in profile that only emerge when the brooch is turned upside-down. Some of the images can be read in multiple ways, and this ambiguity is central to Style I art.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple.

Turning the brooch upside-down reveals four heads in profile on the rectangular head of the brooch, highlighted in purple. Click on the image for larger version.

Once we have identified the creatures on the brooch, we can begin to decode its meaning. In the lozenge-shaped field at the foot of the brooch is a bearded face with a helmet underneath two birds that may represent the Germanic god Woden/Odin with his two companion ravens. The image of a god alongside other powerful animals may have offered symbolic protection to the wearer like a talisman or amulet.

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk

Decoding the great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo. Click on the image for larger version.

Style I was superseded by Style II in the late 6th century. This later style has more fluid and graceful animals, but these still writhe and interlace together and require patient untangling. The great gold buckle from Sutton Hoo is decorated in this style. From the thicket of interlace that fills the buckle’s surface 13 different animals emerge. These animals are easier to spot: the ring-and-dot eyes, the birds’ hooked beaks, and the four-toed feet of the animals are good starting points. At the tip of the buckle, two animals grip a small dog-like creature in their jaws and on the circular plate, two snakes intertwine and bite their own bodies. Such designs reveal the importance of the natural world, and it is likely that different animals were thought to hold different properties and characteristics that could be transferred to the objects they decorated. The fearsome snakes, with their shape-shifting qualities, demand respect and confer authority, and were suitable symbols for a buckle that adorned a high-status man, or even an Anglo-Saxon king.

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

The five senses on the Fuller Brooch. Click on the image for a larger version

Animal art continued to be popular on Anglo-Saxon metalwork throughout the later period, when it went through further transformations into the Mercian Style (defined by sinuous animal interlace) in the 8th century and then into the lively Trewhiddle Style in the 9th century. Trewhiddle-style animals feature in the roundels of the Fuller Brooch, but all other aspects of its decoration are unique within Anglo-Saxon art. Again, through a careful unpicking of its complex imagery we can understand its visual messages. At the centre is a man with staring eyes holding two plants. Around him are four other men striking poses: one, with his hands behind his back, sniffs a leaf; another rubs his two hands together; the third holds his hand up to his ear; and the final one has his whole hand inserted into his mouth. Together these strange poses form the earliest personification of the five senses: Sight, Smell, Touch, Hearing, and Taste. Surrounding these central motifs are roundels depicting animals, humans, and plants that perhaps represent God’s Creation.

This iconography can best be understood in the context of the scholarly writings of King Alfred the Great (died AD 899), which emphasised sight and the ‘mind’s eye’ as the principal way in which wisdom was acquired along with the other senses. Given this connection, perhaps it was made at Alfred the Great’s court workshop and designed to be worn by one of his courtiers?

Throughout the period, the Anglo-Saxons expressed a love of riddles and puzzles in their metalwork. Behind the non-reflective glass in the newly opened Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300-1100, you can do like the Anglo-Saxons and get up close to these and many other objects to decode the messages yourself.

Click on the thumbnails below to view in a full-screen slideshow

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major redisplay in Room 41. Admission is free.

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