Monday, 5 October 2015

Ghosts of China Past and Present: The Compelling Vision of Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's current exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is his first major retrospective in the United Kingdom. His name has long been familiar to most of us, and many of us would recognise him if he passed us on the street. We know of his courageous advocacy of human rights in his native China, and of his suppression and imprisonment by the Chinese authorities, but of his work, that which actually defines his project as an artist, we have so far seen little.

The current exhibition changes all of that. The first thing that struck me, on entering the exhibition, is the enormous scale on which Ai works. This is not a lone dissident labouring away in a dingy basement, but rather the director of a vast atelier, the output of which includes the heaviest work of art ever to have sat on the floorboards of the Royal Academy. In fact, the word "dissident" tells only one part of the story. Ai has acquired shares in a quarry producing stone for his workshop; he has craftsmen from many specialisations working for him (in his promotion of traditional Chinese carpentry, stone-working and ceramic manufacture, he resembles a John Ruskin or a William Morris); perhaps most significantly of all, he has the facility to store and transport colossal pieces of sculpture. Surely none of this could have been achieved without friends, as well as foes, in the upper echelons of the Chinese establishment.

Those friends notwithstanding, it was a brave decision on Ai's part, after spending twelve years in exile in the United States, to return to China in 1993. A brave decision, but a fruitful one, for this body of work could certainly not have been produced anywhere else. The transformation of China, and especially its urban landscapes, over the past thirty years is on a scale not paralleled in Europe since the mid-nineteenth Century (Charles Dickens, on the pages of Dombey and Son, gives us a close approximation).

A traditional hutong in Guangzhou. Photo: Symane (licensed under CCA).

I first visited China on University business in 2001, and, for the next eight years, I made at least one, sometimes two, visits each year. Without fail, each time I arrived in Beijing, Guangzhou or Shanghai, I would get lost. Everything was changing, nothing remained still, and I never stepped twice onto the same streets. There were very good reasons for these changes: quaint and atmospheric as they may have been, the houses of the narrow, traditional hutong streets lacked all modern facilities, and posed an all-too-obvious fire risk. If much was gained, however, something was also being lost.

Guangzhou's Shang Kia Jiu Square. Photo: Sha Mian Ren (licensed under CCA).

At the heart of every community in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) China was a clan temple, part of an ancestor-cult that dates back to the age of Confucius (551-479 AD). Here weddings were solemnised, prayers were said for the recently departed and, in at least some cases, young men were prepared for the gruelling examinations for the Imperial civil service. Many of these were still standing (though fewer were in active use) in 1993; I peered into a few derelict examples in 2001 and 2002; only a handful are still standing today, protected as ancient monuments and open to tourists.

The Liang Clan Shrine, Jiangxi. Photo: Symane (licensed under CCA).

Ai Weiwei and his collaborators collected a great volume of wood from the demolished temples, and used it to make sculptural installations. They also collected abandoned furniture from the houses of the hutongs, and combined these into new and imaginative arrangements. Ai is not, I think, suggesting a return to the past, but he is, perhaps, making some space for its ghosts; insisting, rather as John Betjeman did for Victorian architecture, that there is value in engaging with the past, even as society moves on from it.

"Bed,"by Ai Weiwei, made from salvaged "ironwood" (hornbeam) from Qing Dynasty temples. Photo: Pittigrilli (licensed under CCA).

"Fragments," by Ai Weiwei, made from salvaged "ironwood" from Qing Dynasty temples. Photo: (licensed under CCA).

"Chairs," by Ai Weiwei, made from salvaged Qing Dynasty furniture. Photo: Pittigrilli (image is in the Public Domain).

Nor does he stop with the Qing Dynasty. More controversially, he has "destroyed" (he prefers to say "transformed") and over-painted vases from China's Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), and even pulverised "Neolithic" pottery. The boundaries between protest, satire and creativity, here, are blurred. I have walked through the antique markets where he acquired these vessels with Chinese archaeologists, who assured me that most of the pieces offered for sale were fakes. "All the same," said one of these colleagues, "you wouldn't want to be caught at the airport with one of these in your luggage!"

Ai Weiwei "dropping a Han Dynasty vase" (image is in the Public Domain).

Over-painted "Han Dynasty vase," by Ai Weiwei. Photo: Victoriagrigas (licensed under CCA).

"Dust to Dust," by Ai Weiwei ("pulverised Neolithic pottery in glass urn"). Photo: Pittigrilli (licensed under CCA).

If Ai Weiwei's engagement with the Ghosts of China Past have been, for the most part, playful, his interaction with the Ghosts of China Present have been far more problematic in terms of his relationship with the regime. No artist or writer could respond playfully to the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, especially when it became clear that the death-toll was made much higher by the corrupt actions of local officials, cutting corners with even the lax building standards that apply in China. Ai Weiwei courageously published the names of the victims, thereby subverting an official attempt to cover up the scale of the tragedy. It was this, more than anything else, that prompted his arrest, detention and torture, highlighted in the exhibition by a series of menacing fibreglass dioramas.

"S.A.C.R.E.D," by Ai Weiwei. Photo: Abxbay (licensed under CCA).

There have been few exhibitions in London in recent years that have generated quite the sense of anticipation that I sensed around this one. Whilst he has been known to us as a "personality," Ai Weiwei's work has, for most of us, been a "known unknown." Now revealed to us, I can only encourage people to see it for themselves.

The Ai Weiwei Exhibition at London's Royal Academy runs until 13th December. Advance booking is strongly recommended.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Negotiating with the Unexplained - Megaliths in the Popular Imagination

All around Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from Greece to Portugal, are conspicuous stone monuments for which, until the mid-19th Century, there could be no informed explanation. These monuments date to a period before literacy emerged in Europe, hence there can be no record as to who built them, or why.

"Everything that has come down to us from heathendom," wrote the Danish antiquarian, Rasmus Nyerup, in 1802, "is wrapped in a thick fog; it belongs to a space of time we cannot measure. We know that it is older than Christendom, but whether by a couple of years, or a couple of centuries, or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess." His British contemporary, Sir Richard Colt-Hoare, writing a few years later, concurred: "Speculation may wander over its wide and spacious domain, but it will never bring home with it either truth or understanding."

The monuments themselves, however, were too obvious and too beguiling to ignore. Taking his lead from Roman writers, such as Julius Caesar and Tacitus, the 18th Century historian, Philip Falle, was certain that the megalithic site of Le Couperon, on the island of Jersey, had been a Druidic altar that had once been "besmeared and seen smoking with human blood," and offered thanks to God for "extinguishing so Hellish a superstition through the Gospel of his Son."

The dolmen of Le Couperon, Jersey. Phpto: Pawel "pbm" Szubert (licensed under CCA).

With the insights of modern archaeology, we now understand that most of these monuments were built several millennia before the birth of Christ (most date to the Neolithic era, between 4500 and 2500 BC), but such distant periods were not even imaginable to most of our Medieval or Early Modern ancestors. Long before Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th Century AD, the Iron Age people of Ireland had re-imagined the monuments built by their distant ancestors as the abodes of their own Pagan gods. The passage grave of Newgrange, for example, was the home of the god of love, Aengus Og.

The passage grave of Newgrange, Ireland. Photo: Jimmy Harris *licensed under CCA).

Oengus Og, the pre-Christian Love God of Ireland, his head encircled by white singing birds. From Heroes of the Dawn, by Violet Russell & Beatrice Elvery, 1914 (image is in the Public Domain).

In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great, determined to claim all of Europe for the Catholic Church, ordered that Pagan sites be "purified from the worship of the demons," a process that continued over centuries. In some cases, this was interpreted to mean physical destruction, but in other cases the monuments themselves were Christianised - a Medieval church built within the stone circle of Avebury, a menhir (standing stone) at Saint Uzec in Brittany carved with symbols of the Crucifixion.

The Menhhir de Saint-Uzec, Pleumeur-Bodou, Brittany. Photo: Ash_Crow (licensed under CCA).

Long-held traditions and customs, however, did not surrender easily to the decrees of pontiffs or priests. It was widely believed, in the 17th Century, that witches gathered at certain of these monuments (Le Trepied, on the island of Guernsey, for example) to have intercourse with the Devil.

In the late 1980s, as I travelled around Normandy, Brittany and the Channel Islands researching for my PhD, I heard tales, told by elderly farming people, of the "little people" who emerged from the megaliths at night (they are called "faitiaux" in the Channel Islands, "korrigans" in Brittany). These fairy-folk might be helpful to humans - one old man told me that the faitiaux would mend a pair of shoes left in a certain dolmen (megalithic tomb), provided that one also left a cup of milk for them - but they could also be malicious if disturbed. What they gave, they might also take away - a barren cow, tethered overnight to a menhir, would be found within a few weeks to be in calf, but her milk would soon dry up if the farmer did anything to offend the korrigans.

The Dolmen of Grantez, Jersey, known locally as Le Trou des Faitiaux. When the site was discovered in the early years of the 20th Century, a local farmer tried to drive the archaeologists from the land, concerned that they would offend the faitiaux.

It is difficult to know whether these customs are still practised today, but most villages in Brittany have an annual Pardon, a church service in honour of its patron saint. The service is followed by a Fest-Noz, a party with traditional music and dancing, helped along by the consumption of large amounts of local cider, and the spirit distilled from it - Calvados. Sometimes in French, and sometimes in Breton (a language close to Welsh), stories are still told of Grandpere's and Grandmere's encounters with the korrigans.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

New Release!

Castles, Customs and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2, edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard.

An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from the prehistoric era to the Twentieth Century, with more than forty different authors sharing the stories, incidents and insights arising from their research for their own novels. It can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

To mark the publication, we are holding a blog-hop, with each author posting something on the broad topic of customs from history. To see the postings from other authors, click on the link below, or look out for the hash-tags #EHFA and #Customs on Twitter.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

In Search of the Picturesque - Georgian Views of Landscape

In an earlier blog-post, I explored the institution of the "Grand Tour," an extended trip through Europe to engage with the classical heritage of Italy, considered as an essential element of the education of an aristocratic young man through most of the 18th Century. Each grand tourist chose his own itinerary, in consultation with his father, friends and tutors: a few lingered in the Alps; many stopped to draw and paint the scenery; some continued south from Rome, to Naples and Sicily. Often, they were away for more than a year, and costs inevitably mounted.

There were a great many families who considered themselves "gentle-folk," but could not afford a Grand Tour in continental Europe. An idea arose, among these people of the "middling sort" (country parsons; men who had served as officers in the army or navy, who owned land, but not vast estates; men who ran businesses, but had not yet risen into the ranks of the industrial plutocracy), that similarly edifying and educational experiences might be obtained closer to home.

William Gilpin (1724-1804) was born in Cumberland, the son of an army captain. His brother became a professional painter, but William opted for a career in the Church, graduating from Oxford in 1748, and later becoming Headmaster of Cheam School. Certainly he could not afford a Grand Tour, and nor could he amass a significant art collection, but he nonetheless aspired to the connoisseurship that, in large part, defined a "gentleman." Owners of great country houses frequently allowed access to their art collections for well-connected people of lesser means (in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett visits Pemberley prior to her engagement to Mr Darcy). Prints were also widely available. A man like Gilpin could see great art, even if he could not own it. In an essay on prints, published in 1768, he coined the idea of "picturesque" beauty - "a term expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture."

Gilpin did not have just any "picture" in mind, but more specifically the landscape paintings of the 17th Century French artist, Claude Lorrain.

"Landscape with Shepherds," by Claude Lorrain (1644), Musee de Grenoble (image is in the Public Domain).

In 1782, Gilpin published one of the very first "picturesque itineraries," Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales etc., Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty. It was among the first guide-books for domestic tourism, and it gained many imitators, "picturesque itineraries" for travel through the Lake District and Scotland, Devon and Cornwall. Entrepreneurial manufacturers even marketed the "Claude Glass," a special darkened, convex mirror which, according to Gilpin, "gives the object of nature a soft, mellow tinge, like the colouring of that master [Claude]."

"Man holding a Claude Glass," by Thomas Gainsborough, Yale Centre for British Art (image is in the Public Domain).

Improvements to Britain's road systems brought about through Turnpike Trusts, together with the effective suppression of highwaymen, made such journeys easier and safer, and young women often accompanied their brothers on these "picturesque"  perambulations.

Penrith Castle, from Gilpin's (1786) guide to Cumberland and Westmoreland. Photo: Roger Griffith (image is in the Public Domain).

A "correctly picturesque" scene should, in Gilpin's influential view, be "rough," "intimate," "varied" or "broken," without obvious straight lines. Ruins were particular objects of interest (as they were for Grand Tourists), but they did not, for Gilpin, have to be classical ruins. He even went so far as to suggest that "a mallet, prudently used," might render Tintern Abbey more "picturesque" than it already was!

Tintern Abbey, North view, by Frederick Calvert (1815), National Library of Wales (image is in the Public Domain).

Such fads were bound to attract the attentions of satirists, and William Coombe published The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson, documenting the mishaps of a Quixotic clergyman following one of these itineraries.

"Doctor Syntax getting lost," by Thomas Rowlandson, British Library (image is in the Public Domain).

"Thus as he pondered what to do
A guide-post rose within his view,
And when the pleasing shape he spied,
He prick'd his steed, and thither hied;
But some unheeding, senseless wight
Who to fair learning owed a spite,
Had evr'y letter'd mark defaced,
Which once its several pointers grac'd.
The mangled post thus long had stood,
An uninforming piece of wood ...
... Syntax cried 'T'is all in vain
To find my way across the plain ...
...But as my time shall not be lost,
I'll make a drawing of the post;
And though a flimsy taste may flout it,
There's something picturesque about it!
T'is rude and rough, without a gloss,
And is well cover'd o'er with moss.'"

No doubt some people took the idea of the "picturesque" more seriously than others - for many, it may just have been an excuse for a pleasant excursion in good company - but a great many itineraries were published, establishing domestic tourism in the British Isles and creating real commercial opportunities. The 18th Century Prince's Tower at La Hougue Bie, Jersey, which features in my novel, Omphalos, took on a new lease of life in Victorian times as a picturesque ruin. A hotel opened on the site, and, when my archaeological team excavated La Hougue Bie the 1990s, the volume of china, bottle-glass, chicken bones and oyster shells that we recovered, together with graffiti from the plaster of the tower, gave us a vivid sense of its popularity.

The Prince's Tower, by Felix Benoist. The hotel can be seen in the background. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Friday, 18 September 2015

A View of Venice in 1494

On the 15th May, 1494, a Milanese cleric, Canon Pietro Casola, left his native city to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return, he published a book, describing the places he had visited. This book is very different from the Cavalier Santo Brasca's practical guide-book, which I discussed earlier this month - Casola had read Santo Brasca's book, and saw little point in repeating it.

Instead, Casola's book presents rich descriptions of the places he visited along the way, descriptions that might be savoured by people who would never make the journey themselves. This, in a very real sense, is the origin point of the tradition of travel-writing represented, in our own time, by authors such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson.

Leaving Milan, Casola took five days to reach Venice, presumably on horseback, and his description of the city is probably the most detailed to have survived from this epoch. He describes the Ducal Palace, the markets and warehouses, the monasteries, the arsenal, the shipping, the Festival of Corpus Domini and, perhaps most interestingly, the Venetians themselves.

Venice, by Bolognino Zaltieri, 1565. Photo: Xn4 (image is in the Public Demain).

Here I am quoting from Mary Margaret Newman's translation of 1907:

"Something might be said about the quantity of merchandise in the said city ... Indeed, it seems as if all the world flocks there, and that human beings have concentrated there all their force for trading. I was taken to see various warehouses, beginning with that of the Germans ... And who could count the many shops so well-furnished that they also seem warehouses, with so many cloths of every make, tapestry, brocades and hangings of every design, carpets of every sort ... camlets ... silks ... and so many warehouses full  of spices, groceries and drugs, and so much beautiful white wax."

The Fondaco dei Tedeschi ("Warehouse of the Germans"). Photo: Didier Descouens (licensed under CCA).

"Their women appear to me to be small for the most part, because if they were not, they would not wear their shoes - otherwise called 'pianelle' - as high as they do ... They were so high, indeed, that when they wear them, some women appear giants; and certain also are not safe from falling as they walk, unless they are well supported by their slaves. As to the adornment of their heads, they wear their hair so much curled over their eyes that, at first sight, they appear rather men than women. The greater part is false hair; and this I know for certain because I saw quantities of it on poles, sold by peasants in the Piazza San Marco."

A Venetian "chopine" (the term most commonly used today) of the 16th Century, Shoe Museum, Lausanne. Photo: Rama (licensed under CCA).

"These Venetian women, especially the pretty ones, try as much as possible to show their chests ... so much so that several times when I saw them I marvelled that their clothes did not fall off their backs. Those who can afford it, and those who cannot, dress very splendidly, and have magnificent jewels and pearls in the trimming round their collars ... they paint their faces a great deal, and also the other parts they show, in order to appear more beautiful."

"Two Venetian Ladies," by Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1525), Museo Correr (image is in the Public Domain).

Every so often, it seems to me, Casola has to pause to remind himself (and his readers) that he is a priest and a pilgrim, not a tourist. Commenting, for a second time, about the ladies' failure to cover their shoulders, he remarks, grumpily:

"Perhaps this custom pleases others; it does not please me. I am a priest in the way of the saints, and I had no wish to inquire further into their lives."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A New Vocation - Travel-Writing of the 15th Century

It is difficult to overstate the impact that the invention of the printing press had on the development of European culture. Johannes Gutenberg was born in Mainz in 1398, a child of the Medieval world, yet by the time of his death, in the same city, in 1468, that world had been transformed by the new technology that he had developed. In a very real sense, the printed word defines the transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern age.

A replica of Gutenberg's printing press, Mitchell House, St George's, Bermuda. Photo: Aodhdubh (licensed under GNU).

The printed book revolutionised the relationship between individuals and the world around them. It literally broadened people's horizons. Before TripAdvisor there were Baedecker's Guides (beginning in the 1850s), but the earliest travel guides were produced in the 15th Century, in the very early days of the printed book. Medieval people travelled a good deal more than is sometimes supposed, and some of them wrote accounts of their journeys. There is even a Medieval "Pilgrim's Guide" to the road to Santiago de Compostela, but this was a bulky and expensive package, hand-copied on vellum, to be consulted in a monastic library, not carried in a rucksack.

Printing on paper made it possible for many more people to own books. It also created commercial opportunities for people who wrote and published them. Among these were the first travel writers. At Venice, in the year 1480, three men boarded the same galley, bound for Jerusalem. They were the Milanese Cavalier Santo Brasca; the Swiss/German theologian, Felix Fabri; and the anonymous French author of the Voyage de la Saincte Cyte de Hierusalem. We don't know whether these men spoke to one another (if they had a common language it would have been Latin), but each would go on to write a book.

Manuscript of Felix Fabri's Evagatorium, Stadtsbiliothek Ulm (image is in the Public Domain).

These books  are self-consciously produced with future travellers in mind, since they are practical guides. Here, for example, is Santo Brasca (as translated by Mary Margaret Newett in 1907) advising on the preparations necessary for the journey:

" ... he should carry with him two bags - one right full of patience, the other containing two hundred Venetian ducats, or at least one hundred and fifty - namely, one hundred, which each person needs for the voyage ... the other fifty for illness or any other circumstances that may arise ... let him take with him a warm, long upper garment to wear on the return journey, when it is cold; a good many shirts, so as to avoid lice and other unclean things as much as possible ... He should make an agreement with the captain, who usually requires from fifty to sixty ducats. For this price he is obliged to provide the passage there and back, supply all food (except on land); pay for the riding animals in the Holy Land, and also pay all duties and tribute. Next he should cause to be made an overcoat reaching down to the ground, to wear when sleeping in the open air, and buy a thin mattress instead of a bed ... let him take a supply of good Lombard cheese, and sausages, and other salt meat of every sort ... Above all he should have with him a great deal of fruit syrup, because that is what keeps a man alive in the great heat."

Printing allowed illustrations, as well as words, to be reproduced, and the more expensive editions included maps and drawings, giving an indication of the route to be followed, and the animals and people that might be encountered along the way.

Illustration of Mount Sinai, from en edition of Fabri's Evagatorium, Stadtsbibliothek Ulm (image is in the Public Domain).

Illustration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, from Bernhard Von Breydenbach's account of the pilgrimage in 1486 (image is in the Public Domain).

These early travel guides were clearly taken by travellers with them on their journeys, and sometimes annotated by them, adding detail or updating the prices, as the volumes were passed between friends, or from one generation to the next. It is likely that the existence of these texts emboldened many people who might not otherwise have done so, the clear advice on prices, and on safety (Santo Brasca warns against taking cheaper passages on ships other than the official galleys, because of the risks from shipwreck and pirates), providing reassurance.

Annotated copy of Fabri's Evagatorium, Stadtsbiblithek Ulm (image is in the Public Domain).

Gutenberg's innovation, however, did not just bring about a revolution in travel-writing, it also contributed to the spread of revolutionary ideas in politics and religion. Pilgrimage was viewed with disfavour by most of the emerging Protestant sects, and the focus of travel-writing shifted from religious to secular forms of travel. The age of the tourist had arrived.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

A History of the World in 50 Novels - 31 - "The Siege of Krishnapur," by J.G. Farrell

In 1851, the Great Exhibition opened in London's Hyde Park. The glass and cast iron building itself was like nothing that anyone had seen before, and the exhibits contained within it combined to present an exciting and optimistic vision of Britain's past, present and future. It was a story based on the inevitability of progress - technological, social, moral - based on free trade and economic growth, the benefits of which could hardly fail to trickle down even to those who had grown up in the most wretched property. The high priest of the new religion of progress was Albert, the Prince Consort, who was determined to shape the narrative of his age.

The "Crystal Palace" in Hyde Park (image is in the Public Domain).

Only two years previously, British society had been polarised by a radical protest movement, Chartism, which many had hoped, and many more feared, would presage a social revolution, turning the country into a true democracy. In one sense, fear triumphed over hope (fear, in particular, of a French-style revolutionary terror), but, in another sense, hope itself emerged triumphant, a hope based on the new realities of the machine age. Millions of Britons set aside their hopes of political reform in favour of the more immediately material benefits of mass-consumerism.

The Great Exhibition of 1852, Victoria & Albert Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

The Great Exhibition, however, told only part of the story. The power-looms that were the basis of the Lancashire textiles boom were proudly displayed as technological achievements, without dwelling on the role played by African slaves in the American south, in producing the raw materials on which this trade depended. Indian gentlemen, dressed in the exotic costumes of the Mughal courts, showed off the wares of the sub-continent, with no reference to the working or living conditions of the masses who had produced those wares on the streets of Delhi or Calcutta.

The British East India Company, founded in 1600, and now responsible for almost half of global trade (cotton, silk, indigo dye, salt, saltpetre, tea, opium), generated much of the economic growth on which Britain's new prosperity was based. In the 18th Century, the company had operated on the basis of diplomacy between its highly educated residents and agents and the Indian (predominately Muslim) elites. Many of these Englishmen (William Dalrymple's White Mughals), had learned Indian languages and adopted local customs. Some, including James Kirkpatrick, the British Resident at Hyderabad, of whom Dalrymple writes, even converted to Islam and took local brides.

East India House, Leadenhall Street, in 1817, by Thomas Shepherd (image is in the Public Domain).

In 1798, however, the arrival of a new Governor-General of India, Lord Richard Wellesley (the brother of the Duke of Wellington) had effected a permanent change in the mood of British India. He discouraged liaisons between Englishmen and Indian women, and he pursued a much more aggressive militaristic approach towards the Indian elites. The diplomatic mask dropped, revealing the naked imperialism that had been hidden behind it.

Sepoys of the British East India Company, by Frederic Shoberl, 1820s (image is in the Public Domain).

The protagonist of J.G. Farrell's novel, The Siege of Krishnapur, is Thomas Hopkins ("The Collector"), the British Resident of a fictional town, but the novel is closely based on the real events of the rebellion of sepoys (the locally recruited Hindu and Muslim troops who made up the private army of the East India Company) that raged across the north of India in 1857.

Hopkins is a man so profoundly inspired by the ideals of the Great Exhibition that he has bought up, and surrounds himself with as many of the exhibits that he has been able to track down. As his own troops turn against him, however, and as he does his best to endure a protracted siege, keeping alive as many people as possible, he is forced to question many of the assumptions on which he has based his life.

"'Humani generis progressus ... I quote the official catalogue of the Exhibition,' came the Collector's voice, eerily. 'But I fear I must translate, Doctor, for this son of yours who has paid more attention to guns and horses than to his books ... The progress of the human race, resulting from the labour of all men, ought to be the final object of the exertion of each individual.'"

"A week of indecision passed. News came of a massacre at Delhi but still the Collector hesitated to give the order for men and women to be brought into the Residency;he said he could see that there was some truth in what the General had said about showing fear; on the other hand, he continued surreptitiously to collect powder and provisions to store in the Residency ... What he most needed were cannons and muskets or, even better, rifles ... but he could not ask Captainganj to supply them without risking a fatal breach with the old General."

"The rain had also altered his appearance. His once magnificent ruff of side-whiskers had been slicked down against his cheeks like wet fur and his ears had flattened apprehensively against his head ... No longer did he lecture people on the splendours of the Exhibition, or on the advance of civilisation. Civilisation might be standing rock-still, or even going backwards, for all the Collector seemed to care these days. It was clearly all up with the Collector. But still he stayed out there shovelling, confounding the pessimists ... even though his task was clearly hopeless. You dug up a spadeful of earth, but by the time you threw it on the rampart it was nothing but muddy water."

The Residency of Lucknow, in the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion. The English news media of the time emphasised the massacres of the besieged English by rebellious sepoys, which unquestionably happened, but the human remains visible in the foreground here are almost certainly those of the sepoys themselves. Photo: Felice Beato, 1858 (image is in the Public Domain).

There are some fine period details in the novel - glimpses of the religious, scientific and medical disputes of the time - but there is also biting satire of the pretensions that lay behind the notions of "Raj" and "Empire." We still, in a very real sense, live with the legacy of the Great Exhibition: the steel and glass buildings that dominate London's skyline today, from Lord Foster's "Gherkin" to Renzo Piano's "Shard," are descended from Joseph Paxton's radical design for the Crystal Palace.

The skyline of London, as viewed from a hot-air balloon. Image: David Chapma (licensed under CCA).

The Millennium Dome at Greenwich sought (albeit unsuccessfully) to recreate the sense of excitement generated by the Exhibition of 1851. Sometimes, perhaps, we need to be reminded of why it is that we no longer believe in all the certainties that the Exhibition expressed, and Farrell's novel achieves this magnificently.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The Portland Vase: the Biography of a Roman Masterpiece

In Chapter Seven of my novel, An Accidental King, my protagonist, the young British King, Cogidubnus, is staying in Rome as a guest of the Emperor Claudius. Retiring to his bed-chamber for the evening, after participating in the Emperor's Triumph, he is somewhat awed by the luxury surrounding him.

"On the floor was a bronze stand in which sat a miniature amphora, no larger than a jug, but made of dark blue glass rather than the normal pottery, and with figures around it picked out in white. It seemed to tell a story of love and marriage: a young man admiring a reclining woman beneath the shade of a tree; a flying cupid; a woman with a snake. I picked up the amphora. Filled with wine, it was heavy for its size."

He pours himself a cup, and is as struck by the quality of the wine as by that of the vessel containing it.

The amphora is a real object. We know it as the "Portland Vase," and it can be seen in the British Museum. It has a fascinating biography, insofar as we can reconstruct it.

The Portland Vase. Photo: Sailko (licensed under GNU).

The Portland Vase. Photo: Sailko (licensed under GNU).

As an object, it is completely unique. Amphorae - vessels for the storage and transport of wine, are almost invariably made of pottery. There are a handful of glass examples, and none quite like this. Its manufacture involved the blue glass vessel first being blown, then, after cooling, immersed in white glass. Finally, most of the white glass was chipped away, leaving only the figures remaining. This is a technique more commonly used for making cameos from stone, and was rarely attempted on glass. This final stage is most probably the work of a Greek cameo master, Dioskourides, who was active in the late 1st Century BC.

Although no record exists of the vessel having been commissioned, there is really only one person at the time who could have caused such an object to be made: the Emperor Augustus. The flying cupid with a torch clearly suggests a wedding, perhaps that of Augustus's daughter, Julia Major, with Marcellus in 25 BC. Scholars have debated the significance of the other figures for centuries. In the first picture above, does the woman beneath the Cupid represent Ariadne, Cleopatra or Thetis? Is the snake an asp, or does it represent Apollo? Some think the male figure to her left is Bacchus, others that it is Mark Antony. Is the reclining woman on the second photograph Ariadne, or Augustus's sister, Octavia Minor (abandoned by her husband, Mark Antony, just as Ariadne had been abandoned by Theseus)? Perhaps these ambiguities are intentional?

Having been used, in all likelihood, to serve wine at an imperial wedding, the vessel is likely to have remained in the palace on Rome's Palatine Hill (my justification for placing it in Cogidubnus's bed-chamber in 43/44 AD). At some stage, it was either deliberately modified, or perhaps repaired, following an accidental breakage, giving it the flat base that we see today.

The circular disc that formed the base of the vase, depicting Priam or Paris. It is unclear whether this was added in antiquity, or subsequent to its discovery. Photo: Carole Raddato (licensed under CCA).

In 235 AD it was buried in the tomb of the Emperor, Alexander Severus, where it remained, intact, until its discovery during excavations in 1582. In 1601 it was in the collection of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. It later passed into the hands of the Barberini family: a French scholar, Nicholas Claude Fabri de Peiresc saw it there, and wrote to his friend, Peter-Paul Rubens, suggesting that he should paint it (he never did).

In 1778, the vase was acquired by Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador at Naples. Hamilton frequently sold pieces on to young men travelling through Italy on the Grand Tour, but few Grand Tourists had pockets deep enough to allow them to acquire such a work as this. Hamilton eventually sold it to Margaret Cavendish-Bentinck, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who passed it to her son, the Third Duke.

It was the Third Duke of Devonshire who lent the vase to the pottery magnate, Josiah Wedgwood, who kept in in his studio for four years, trying to perfect a ceramic reproduction. Wedgwood's limited edition of ceramic Portland vases appeared in 1790, and was the inspiration for the blue and white "Jasperware" range of Wedgwood ceramics which continues to be produced today.

Ceramic copy of the Portland Vase produced by Josiah Wedgwood in 1790. Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Photo: Daderot (image is in the Public Domain).

The Duke was ultimately prevailed upon to place the vase on indefinite loan to the British Museum "for safekeeping," but this proved to be a big mistake. In 1845, a drunken student knocked it off its pedestal, shattering it. The staff of the British Museum repaired it as best they could, but an embarrassing tray remained of pieces that they were unable to fit back in.

In 1945, the British Museum purchased the vase from the 7th Duke of Portland. It was taken apart by the museum's conservators, who managed to fit some of the "spare" pieces back in, but still the tray remained. Not until 1989 was the modern reconstruction completed, but I am assured that there are no "spare" pieces remaining.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.