British Museum blog

Magna Carta, Bloomsbury and the British Museum

Lloyd de Beer, Curator of Late Medieval Europe, British Museum

Last month we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. It is not often that people collectively stop to remember the creation and sealing of a document from the early 13th century, but this one (or four to be precise) is special, and its specialness has grown exponentially since its creation. It is a document which quickly became a symbol, enduring as a touchstone and inspiring many throughout its history. You can sometimes find it lurking in surprising places.

Each morning on my walk to work I pass through Bloomsbury Square, and most days I think about the people who have lived in and around the area. Usually, and with no specific focus, I let my eyes and mind drift across the buildings to the east and the west, but one morning on this walk I noticed properly for the first time a bronze sculpture at the north end of the square. I wondered why this figure faced away from the small park, staring down Bedford Street, so I moved in closer to inspect.

Reverse of the sculpture, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Reverse of the sculpture, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

Before looking at his face I could tell from behind that this individual was dressed in a very grand style, seated on an ornate double columned throne with a large cushion. As I moved around him it was clear that he was presented as a Roman, clad in imperial garb, a single foot outstretched and teetering on the end of the stone base. It was only when I looked closer at the large rolled up scroll, held at an angle towards the viewer on the ground, between his hand and knee, that I saw something familiar. Dangling in mid-air was the great seal of King John (r. 1199–1216). This man holds a copy of Magna Carta. But why?

Charles James Fox, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Bob Speel)

Charles James Fox, Bloomsbury Square. (Photo: Bob Speel)

The bronze figure was made in 1810 and shows Charles James Fox, post mortem, who was previously the leader of the Whig party. It was commissioned through subscription by his friends and sculpted by Sir Richard Westmacott, famous at the British Museum for making The Progress of Civilisation, the pediment sculptures situated above the main entrance under which several million people pass annually. In 1809, a year before beginning the Fox sculpture, Westmacott had finished and erected at the opposite end of Bedford Street, a sculpture of Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, long standing friend and political ally of Charles James Fox. Two politicians, two friends, cast in bronze and linked eye to eye for eternity.

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford, Russell Square. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

What I found interesting as I learnt more about this sculpture was how Magna Carta was invoked symbolically through the authentic use of the king’s seal. In some ways this sculpture is an early form of the Gothic Revival rolled up in the presentation of a classical ideal. A document can only tell us so much, but when connected to the enthroned image of the king, hey presto, the figure is transformed and holds in his hand a copy of Magna Carta. He is therefore by proxy invested with the authority of the people. This was not a paltry copy of the seal but an exacting replica of the object both in size and style, which the sculptor must surely have studied with his own eyes. In this instance the medieval image of the king, the classical style of the sculpture and the modern man all sit side by side, collectively telling us about the personality of the individual.

Wenceslas Hollar print of the seal of King John. British Museum 1856,0712.791

Wenceslas Hollar print of the seal of King John, c. 1677 AD, 307 x 194 mm. British Museum 1856,0712.791

Close up of the seal of King John from the Fox sculpture. (Photo: Lloyd DeBeer)

Close up of the seal of King John from the Fox sculpture. (Photo: Lloyd de Beer)

More recently when wandering through the Defining Beauty: the body in ancient Greek art exhibition I came across a small Greek bronze of Zeus which looked so similar to the statue of Charles James Fox that the likeness struck me immediately. The Zeus figure was acquired by the Museum in 1865, long after the completion of the Fox sculpture and I have since learned that Westmacott surely based his design for the body of Fox on classical sculptures of seated philosophers such as Epicurus. However Westmacott had a long standing relationship with the British Museum, going as far back as 1805 with debates on how to show the Townley collection.

Bronze figure of Zeus. British Museum 1865,0103.36

Bronze figure of Zeus, 1st–2nd century AD, height 236 mm. British Museum 1865,0103.36  

There is also an early record for one of his visits in the Museum archives, dated 18th February 1820. Given his involvement and taste for the classical it is impossible that he was not inspired by the collections of the British Museum, even if there was not an exact source of inspiration for the Fox sculpture. But where did Westmacott see the medieval seal?

Archival register with Richard Westmacott record at the very bottom.

Archival register with Richard Westmacott record at the very bottom.

Seal matrices, impressions, casts and facsimiles were part of a long-standing antiquarian interest in the past. Seals were attached to documents and documents were interesting so therefore antiquarians became interested in seals. Testament to this is the fact that some of the earliest medieval acquisitions at the British Museum were seal matrices. Amongst them is the seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, one of the barons who rebelled against King John and was crucial to the formation of Magna Carta.

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter. British Museum 1841,0624.1

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter, 1213–1219 AD, diam. 73.5 mm. British Museum 1841,0624.1

Before the library officially separated from the Museum in 1973 to become the British Library, the Bloomsbury site which Westmacott visited held the many thousands of seal impressions now housed at St Pancras, including those of King John. It is tantalising to think that Westmacott, who spent a great deal of time thinking about the importance of classical sculpture, might also have spent just a little bit of time at the British Museum connecting it to a medieval past and a modern future.

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Designing beauty

Caroline Ingham, Senior Designer: Exhibitions, British Museum


Detail of a Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is the first major temporary exhibition of sculpture at the British Museum since Hadrian: Empire & Conflict in 2008. It is also the first sculpture show in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30). For the Museum’s Exhibitions team this is the culmination of over a year of intensive work with the exhibition’s designers, Caruso St John architects and Matt Bigg, Surface 3 graphics.

Doryphoros, Diskobolos, Ilissos2

Sculptures on display in the exhibition, from left to right: Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Marble statue of the Diskobolos or ‘discus-thrower’. Roman copy from 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. H 169 cm, W 105 cm. British Museum, London 1805,0703.43 Ilissos, marble statue of the river god, from the west pediment of the Parthenon in Athens. Greek, about 438–432 BC. H 81.28 cm, D 56 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.99

The exhibition presents some of the most beautiful and best-loved classical sculpture in the Museum’s collection. It includes some key pieces that have been temporarily removed from the permanent galleries to be juxtaposed for the very first and perhaps the only time, with loans of similar international significance. The movement of such important sculptures from the permanent day-lit galleries, into the controlled lighting environment of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery presented the Exhibitions team with a unique opportunity to experiment with their display.

Through the design brief we challenged the designers to explore how they could present the objects differently, using dramatic lighting and by experimenting with display heights. We encouraged them to exploit the scale of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, in particular the 6-metre height and the very flexible lighting system, to encourage visitors to engage with these very familiar objects in a new way and at a deeper level.

Testing fabric colours

Testing fabric colours
Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument, Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos (modern Günük), south-western Turkey. H 137 cm. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

It took many months to develop the design scheme. This included trying colours and fabrics against the objects, working up scale drawings of each object group, building a scale model and mocking up full-size elements of the design. We used our new purpose-built mock-up room, adjacent to the new gallery, which has the exact ceiling and floor specification of the gallery itself, to test the plinth heights and lighting.

The result is a scheme that transforms the way we see familiar objects in the collection. The designers have achieved this through the use of colour, lighting and displaying the sculpture at height. Many of the sculptures are lifted to 1.5 metres (approximately shoulder height) and our relationship to them is immediately transformed. The objects are lit from the ceiling track and not the space around them. This privileges them and makes them visible on key vistas – for instance, the Amazon can be seen at the west end of the gallery at a distance of 20 metres or more.


Sculptures on display in the exhibition Foreground: Marble statue of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Greek, about 438–432 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. L 174 cm, H 127 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.93 Background: Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The exhibition may not offer the definitive answer to the successful display of sculpture in all circumstances, but what it has done is given us a wonderful opportunity to display these sculptures for a short period, in a new and thought-provoking way.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , , , ,

The shock of the nude

Ian Jenkins, Exhibition Curator, British Museum

I’m currently working on the Museum’s major exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, which opens 26 March 2015. When you see the sculptures on display, you might be forgiven for thinking that the standard dress for men, in ancient Athens especially, was a state of undress. The Greeks, if their art is anything to go by, spent a lot of time starkers.

Although we must separate art from life, nevertheless, they enjoyed many more occasions for nudity than any other European civilisation before or since. The reason why they performed athletics in the nude was said to be because, in the early Olympic Games, a runner lost his knickers and as a result also lost the race. That story may be true or not but either way, it doesn’t explain the true nature of Greek athletic nudity as an expression of social, moral and political values.

The Westmacott Athlete

The Westmacott Athlete. Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original, 1st century AD. 1857,0807.1

The circumstances in which men and boys appeared naked were dictated by an exclusive attachment to certain values held by an elite ‘club’ of male citizens. To be naked was not the same as to be nude. The first befits manual workers or those engaged in lewd behaviour. Nudity by contrast was the uniform of the righteous. When a young man in ancient Athens exposed his athletic body to his peers, he was not asserting his sexuality, rather, he was demonstrating his qualification to compete in athletics and at the same time to be worthy of putting on a second skin of bronze and defending his city on the battlefield. Such young men were called Kaloi and Agathoi, that is to say, the beautiful and the good. Death in battle was the Kalos Thanatos or the beautiful death.

There is an interesting anecdote recorded in the life of the 5th-century BC philosopher Socrates, when he meets a fellow citizen Epigenes by chance. Socrates remarked tactlessly that his friend was looking rather chubby, which was rich coming from Socrates who, although he was a brave soldier, was notoriously pug-faced and pot-bellied. Epigenes told Socrates it wasn’t his business. He was now not in the army and, as a private citizen, he didn’t have to go to the gymn. Socrates replies that Epigenes owed it to his city and himself to be as fit and beautiful as possible. It was, said Socrates, the moral duty of every citizen to maintain himself in readiness in case called upon to defend his city. And besides, Epigenes was obliged to keep himself as pretty as he could be, while he was still young. The Greek body beautiful was a moral condition and one to which only the Greeks among the peoples of the ancient world were attached. Neither the Egyptians, nor the Assyrians, Persians or the Cypriots cultivated in art and in life ideal nudity.

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer

Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer. Hellenistic, 3rd–2nd century BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 1972.118.95

The ideal Greek male body, then, is at the very heart of the Greek experience. Female nudity was much rarer than male nudity and the wives of well-to-do citizens were expected to stay indoors preserving their reputations with their pale complexions. Sculptors become increasingly skilled at showing the body beneath thin tissues of drapery and to judge from such objects as terracotta figurines and white marble sculpture, women were adept at flaunting their figures using drapery as a means of exaggerating their shape and so drawing attention to the body beneath. Aphrodite, goddess of love, is alone among the female Olympian gods in being represented naked. Hers is an ambiguous presence, however, for crouching or standing at her bath she appears to lure us in to erotic pleasure, only then to punish us for having the presumption to gaze upon her divine beauty.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust/Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015. 1963.1029.1

To conclude, the Greek body is a pictorial sign through which the Greek experience is communicated. Nudity in ancient Greece was all part of an obligation to promote moral values that were amplified and endorsed through the culture of athletics and military training.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art opens 26 March 2015.
Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , ,

London, a world city in 20 objects: Shiva Nataraja, the god Shiva dancing in a ring of flames

Shiva NatarajaRichard Blurton, British Museum

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja

Fine bronze sculptures of the gods of Hinduism were produced in the Chola period in southern India for use as processional images. These portable representations of the gods could be taken from the temple, dressed and decked with garlands, and then paraded through the streets, enabling all to have a beneficial view of them. Within the temple itself, images of the Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, were venerated in images of stone and these never left the sanctuary. However, bronze images, such as this one of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, could easily be carried on platforms and paraded through the streets by devotees. Processions carrying such images and with many thousands of participants, are still a feature of south Indian temple festivals in towns such as Madurai and Chidambaram.

Lord Shiva is depicted in this famous dance form as the deity at the extremes of time, the lord who crushes ignorance underfoot and who ushers out one cycle of existence and dances in a new one. In Indian lore, time is cyclical and made up of endless iterations and this image shows the god at the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

The dance of Shiva at this moment of dissolution and of creation, is conceived of as full of wild movement. The dreadlocks of the god (usually discreetly tied up on top of his head) fly out unchecked around him, providing some indication of the fury of his circular dance – though one foot is, nevertheless held up for his devotees to shelter beneath. The flame he holds in his upper left hand represents the destruction at the end of one cycle, while the sound of the drum in his upper right brings in the new cycle. Not for nothing has this image of the god, full of cosmic symbolism, become the one that people internationally associate with Hinduism.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 22 November 2012.

The Shiva Nataraja is on display in Room 33: China, South Asia and Southeast Asia

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Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684.
The drawing was intended for figures in one of Watteau's many scenes where men and women feast in the countryside, talking, flirting and making music. The costume is the main focus of Watteau's studies. The woman is seated on the ground so that her elaborate dress spreads out around her. This provides the artist with an excuse to study the movement of the drapery according to the different positions of her body. The play of light and shade, especially the strong shadows which the model casts, sets off the figure very clearly. Watteau, with red chalk alone, has studied the fall of light from the upper left on the complex drapery patterns. The drawing is remarkably detailed and controlled.
Antoine Watteau, Five studies of a seated woman seen from behind. Drawing, France, about AD 1712-15.
#drawing #art These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684.
This is a rare type of drawing by Watteau, who used black chalk to strengthen the shadows and the darker lines of the stronger contours. The hands themselves are cast into relief by their shadows on the paper. The red chalks, of course, suggests the real flesh of the model in front of him, and was a favoured technique, in combination with black and white chalks, of French eighteenth-century artists. The drawing's expression lies in the position of the hand and not so much in its details. Although the hands are fully modelled there is still a stark, bare quality to them. They are economical, almost abstracted.
Antoine Watteau, Three studies of open hands. Drawing, France, about AD 1717-1718.
#art #drawing These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684. Watteau has used his favourite combination of black, red and white chalks. This technique 'à trois crayons' became widely used by French artists of the eighteenth century. With all of the chalks Watteau made stronger lines alongside thinner ones to provide texture. He then shaded in between these lines or rubbed the chalk with his fingers. Like most of Watteau's drawings from a live model, this sheet possesses a great sense of fluency, immediacy and freshness.
Antoine Watteau, Four studies of a young woman's head. Drawing, France, about AD 1716-1717.
#drawing #art Room 95 includes some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries, from the collection of Sir Percival David. Some of the ceramics are unique creations, while others were mass-produced in batches of several hundred at a time. Technological innovations and the use of regional raw materials mean that Chinese ceramics are visually diverse.
Porcelain was first produced in China around AD 600. The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe. Chinese ceramics, by far the most advanced in the world, were made for the imperial court, the domestic market, or for export.
#China #ceramics These white wares date from the late Ming to Republic period (1600–1949). Potters in the late Ming, Qing and Republican periods made copies of Ding wares at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, Zhangzhou in Fujian province and in other southern kilns. Potters at Zhangzhou under-fired the clay, which resulted in a ‘rice-coloured’ body. They then covered the ceramics either with a white slip and thin clear glaze or with an opaque white glaze.
See these amazing ceramics alongside nearly 1,700 objects from the collection of Sir Percival David in Room 95.
#ceramics #China Collector of Chinese ceramics Sir Percival David died #onthisday in 1964. He built the finest private collection of Chinese ceramics in the world. His passion for China inspired him to learn Chinese well enough to translate 14th-century art texts and to give money towards establishing the first public display of Chinese ceramics at the Palace Museum in Beijing. He was determined to use his own collection to inform and inspire people and to keep it on public view in its entirety. His collection is on long-term loan to the British Museum and has been on display in Room 95 since 2009.
Explore nearly 1,700 objects from Sir Percival David’s incredible collection in Room 95, including some of the finest Chinese ceramics in the world, dating from the 3rd to the 20th centuries.
#China #ceramics

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