Celebrating the Arts

Gold has always been a key to power: it doesn’t corrode, so it holds its value, and, as every ruler knows, access to gold is essential for paying armies and controlling the state. Furthermore, in skilled hands, this precious metal can be transformed into beautiful and desirable objects which, in turn, help to cement alliances, reward allies and demonstrate the power of the ruler.

The Goldsmiths’ Company’s leopard’s head symbol entwined with vine leaves on the mantelpiece in the Court Room (Photo by Elizabeth Hawksley)

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Illuminating the Dark Ages is no easy task, as I discovered when I went to the British Library’s new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition. There are a lot of illuminated manuscripts, most of them beautiful, but what, exactly can they tells us about that troubled period? A surprising amount, as it happens.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the glories of Anglo-Saxon craftsmenship. This illuminated manuscript was produced in the monastery on Lindisfarne in 715-720 AD. Its sophisticated designs owe much to Celtic art.

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I have long been fascinated by the Victorian age. It was a time of huge contrasts, as well as social mobility- certainly for men. But what about women? At the beginning of the Victorian age, they had no legal existence, they couldn’t vote, nor have a bank account, and what work opportunities they had, in factories or shops, say, were were less well-paid than men. As for any more professional position – forget it. The choice of jobs for most middle-class women was being a governess or lady’s companion for, at most, about £35 a year, or, for a few talented writers, actresses, artists or musicians, you might be able to make a decent living, if your father or family were also in the same profession.

The Awakening Conscience 1853 William Holman Hunt, Tate Gallery

However, there was an alternative – a shocking one; become a mistress.

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I came across this little garden next to Embankment tube station one icy day in March and I was struck by the number and variety of statues and fountains. Why was a languorous bronze female draped up the side of an obelisk in an attitude of extreme grief? And what was the statue of a soldier riding a camel commemorating? Not to mention Sir Wilfrid Lawson, Bt, whose friends erected his statue ‘in loving and grateful remembrance of his splendid leadership and of his pure and unworldly life’? I vowed to return with my camera when it was warmer.

The Antique Bronze van; John and William complete the statues and monuments’ annual clean

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This year’s summer exhibition at Buckingham Palace, which celebrates the Prince of Wales’s 70th birthday, features his personal selection of over a hundred objects from the Royal Collection together with works by young artists who have trained with his three arts charities: The Royal Drawing School (2000), The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts (2004) and Turquoise Mountain (2006). These provide top quality training for young people in a number of traditional arts across the world.

 

The Prince of Wales visits the Royal Drawing School, Shoreditch. c. Arthur Edwards

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The Queen’s Gallery’s new exhibition, Splendours of the Subcontinent: A Prince’s Tour of India, 1875-6, examines a largely forgotten episode in the thirty-four-year-old Prince of Wales’s life, and one which is full of surprises.

1. Perfume holder in the form of a lotus flower presented by the Maharaja of Jaipur. A hidden mechanism allows the petals of the flower to open, revealing a red and yellow enamelled cup. It is made of gold, enamel, diamonds and pearls.

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I’ve just collected a box containing nine books from the library of a ninety-three-year-old cultured and elegant lady I’d known for many years who died last year. She left a number of her books and runs of architectural magazines to various museums and institutions, and the rest were to be shared out among her many friends. A few months after the funeral, I got a book list of well over 1500 books – I could choose as many I liked and it was, more or less, first come, first served.

The experience of looking through the huge list, printed in minute 8pt, was a bit like exploring Aladdin’s cave, with dash of delving into a bran tub. All I had were the titles and author; I had no idea whether the book was large or small, paperback or hardback. They were divided into sections covering the Contessa’s areas of interest: Architecture, Italy, History (social and cultural), the Arts, European Royalty, etc. and a small selection of fiction.

THE ETRUSCANS: History and Treasures of an Ancient Civilization

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Korea is very much in the news just now, so I thought I’d visit the British Museum’s Korean Gallery to find out more about the two countries; after all North and South Korea share a long history, a language and, until the Second World War, a common culture. It is important that we know more about them.

Reconstrusted sarangbang in a gentleman’s house of about 1800

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I always look forward to the annual exhibition at Two Temple Place, next to Somerset House, and this year is no exception. Rhythm & Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain examines the influence of jazz on British art, design, music and society over the last 100 years. It’s a lively and thought-provoking exhibition, full of amazing objects. 1920s and 30s jazz plays in the background. At one point, I was talking to two other visitors about an old gramophone on display and, within minutes, we were singing snatches of Ambrose’s Tiger Rag to each other – it’s that sort of exhibition.

New music, new instruments: left: saxophone 1938, silver-plated brass; and right: soprano saxophone, silver-plated brass, 1929

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Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-1751), eldest son and heir of King George II, true to Hanoverian form, couldn’t stand his father. Unlike George II, who was something of a Philistine, Frederick loved music and the arts. So, naturally, when he commissioned a royal barge from the architect and painter, William Kent, not only was it designed in the newly-fashionable Rococo style, ornately carved and gilded with 24-carat gold leaf, it was faster and more eye-catchingly splendid than any barge his father owned. It was launched in 1732 and, as you can see, it certainly makes a statement. Note the huge Royal Standard.

Prince Frederick’s barge – expressly designed to annoy his father

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