Exhibitions

Last year, the British Museum opened the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World and I went to see it. The press reviews, rightly, raved about the Mosque lamps in glowing colours, the beautifully-decorated jars, and so on. Not only were the objects displayed of top quality but the exhibition space itself had been meticulously designed and lit especially to enhance the visitor’s experience.

I decided I’d go back, photograph of my favourite objects, and write a blog about them. But something happened.

Pottery Jar with Lid

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John Ruskin (1819-1900), an art critic and a man who held strong views on what values a society should hold, was one of the most influential men of his generation. For example, when Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1908) visits the church of Santa Croce in Florence, she’s desperate to know which tombstone was praised by Ruskin. This is her first trip abroad and she’s unsure of her own taste; she needs the reassurance that she’s admiring the right one.

However, I think it’s fair to say that Ruskin is not always an easy person to appreciate in the 21st century. Nowadays, we like to view ourselves as liberal-minded and tolerant, particularly in sexual matters. An intellectually very gifted only child, Ruskin was brought up on strict Puritanical principles and cossetted by both parents. His mother had high moral standards and was a very controlling parent. It is not surprising that Ruskin turned out to be obsessive, sexually inhibited and highly-strung.

Watercolour sketch of a coastal scene with fortress by John Ruskin, 1841

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Roger Fenton (1819-1869) was one of the earliest British war photographers, and the Queen’s Gallery is currently showing a selection of his 1855 Crimean War photographs in the Royal Collection. After a tussle with his father, who didn’t approve of his son’s artistic leanings, Fenton was eventually able to follow his heart. He discovered photography when it first appeared in the late 1840s, immediately recognized its potential and set himself to master it. In 1852, he travelled to Russia, visiting Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg, and, on his return, he toured an exhibition of his photographs around Britain, which established his name. It also led to his involvement in the founding of the Photographic Society of London, where he promoted this new medium, and became its first honorary secretary.

Roger Fenton, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854

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The new exhibition Russia: Royalty & Romanovs at the Queen’s Gallery, has all the splendour one would expect with Fabergé eggs and other objets d’art but the initial contact between the two countries was in the late 17th century, and low key.

1914 Faberge Mosaic egg and the surprise inside it, showing the profiles of the Tsarina’s five children

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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 recently visited the excellently-presented exhibition: Roman Dead: death and burial in Roman London at the Museum of London Docklands. I knew that Romans were taught to face death unflinchingly and expected to be stoical, but, wandering round the exhibition I began to question this. I came to the conclusion that, in spite of their general bloodthirstiness as far as death in the arena or wholesale slaughter on the battlefield went, the Romans had a surprisingly uneasy attitude towards death on a personal level. Death was seen as polluting, and the house where a person had died became a polluted space. Until the proper burial and cleansing rites had taken place, the dead person’s soul could not rest in peace. And an unquiet soul who was vengeful or upset could seriously affect the living.

Teenage boy buried with a baby and a 4-year-old child, probably his siblings. Research shows that he was brought up in a Mediterranean country. Unusually, there are a few grave goods like the pottery jar.

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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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Henry Wellcome was born in Philadelphia in the U.S.A. in 1853 and came to London in 1880. He made his fortune as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and founded the Wellcome Trust in London which funds medical research. He was also an obsessive collector of things medical and his collection is wide-ranging, not to say eccentric, and includes a number of objects only tenuously connected with medicine.

Sir Henry Wellcome (1863-1936) by Hugh Goldwin Rivière. Born in America. Took British nationality in 1910. F.R.S. and knighted 1932.

Some early photographs of him in America show him with what looks like a travelling Cabinet of Curiosities and, certainly, this is impression one gets from the Wellcome Trust’s historical collection in London.

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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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