Shakespeare. Staging the World. British Museum. 06-09-12

Shakespeare writes with great perception about human relationships and explores ideas which are still relevant and universal, and this makes it very easy to forget what a different world he lived in. The exhibition, Shakespeare, Staging the World, at the British Museum sets out to put him in context and reminds us of a genius that is all the more remarkable, given the society which nurtured it. It shows us objects and ephemera from the time and relates them to the plays, bringing to life things that we only hear about, alongside beautifully produced extracts from the plays by some of our leading actors. Harriet Walter storms her way through Cleopatra’s death speech and I watched person after person who was idly looking into a display cabinet being gripped instead by Anthony Sher’s rendition of “hath not a jew eyes?” It was mesmerising.

I was in there for two and a half hours and the time flashed by.

When you stand in front of a piece of paper which is browned with age and covered with tiny, elegant, flowing script, perfectly placed on the page, and read that it is the only (the only!) surviving example of a working manuscript in Shakespeare’s own hand it really does take your breath away.

It was a violent world, where cruelty was part of the fabric of life, an everyday occurrence, whether you were a brown bear whose teeth had been filed down and made to face a pack of violent dogs in full cry over and over again to provide “plasant sport”- these bears were well known and even had names- or an alleged gunpowder plotter who was hung, drawn quartered and boiled in public. Well, mostly boiled. There is one of Edward Oldcorn’s eyes still there to amaze us which was “illegally gathered” at the scene and placed in a silver case with a glass window by a catholic sympathiser so that it could continue to look out at the world. It makes you wonder how they managed to get it………….

There were beautiful objects available to buy for those with money. Venice is celebrated by a wonderful glass ewer, pale and cloudy with swirling spinning patterns running through it. No wonder Venice- and in particular its glass making, was one of the wonders of Europe. A woman’s jacket covered with fruit, vegetables and flowers embroidered with professional skill gives you a glimpse of just how colourful and flamboyant dress could be in a world full of dull brown, green earthy colours. The gold thread and new silk must have been astonishingly bright when it was first made. There is the chance to see the Dunstable swan Jewel, Henry IV’s emblem, a tiny white swan with a gold beak and a gold crown round its neck on a delicate chain.

Sometimes things were kept as curiosities, many objects were being brought back from the far corners of the world and seen for the first time. It was a time of new beginnings and new experiences. A massive narwhal tusk, twisting upwards inside a specially made painted wooden display case, makes you understand why it didn’t seem at all strange to believe in unicorns. Four studies of a marmoset by an unknown German artist are as much little men as monkeys, expressive and human. There are three crystal charm stones which were used for “scarning” (making holy water) which are both beautifully set in precious metal and worth looking at for themselves but also a reminder of how ubiquitous and strange the religious beliefs of the time were.

It is hard to believe that you are actually looking at the very saddle which was described in 1682 as the one Henry V sat on during the wars in France. It was certainly part of his funeral achievements and has been displayed in Westminster abbey ever since that day. Seeing that and hearing one of the great speeches given to Henry by Shakespeare being spoken at the same time is quite something.

There are some wonderful portraits to be admired. Probably the highlight for me was the chance to see Quentin Metsys sieve portrait of Elizabeth I for the first time outside of a book. It is an allegory of virginity, Elizabeth is holding a sieve to recall the roman goddess Tuccia who proclaimed her virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It is the expression on Elizabeth’s face, solemn and still and just a little world weary, which lifts it beyond allegory. She is wearing a rich but restrained black dress and I have a feeling that she is sitting there thinking of time, hard earned wisdom and mortality rather than roman goddesses carrying magic sieves. Metsys has given us far more than was intended. He has reached the woman behind the image in a way that few others were able to do.

One of my favourite paintings has been borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery. Sir Henry Unton’s biographical portrait celebrates his life and shows his birth, work, study, pleasures and travels in a single image. It is touching and almost childlike. There is a fine portrait too of James 1, clearly an intelligent but troubled man who had a lot on his plate and doesn’t look quite happy in his own skin. I was also glad to see the haunting portrait of Richard II from Westminster Abbey again, otherworldly, strange and fey.

Ordinary folk, whose faces are forgotten now, are remembered by an oversized wooden spade and a ceramic watering can which must have been heavy to use.

The exhibition opens with a copy of the first folio, the beginning of Shakespeare’s fame after his death, and ends by reminding us that his genius is for all time by showing Sonny Venkastrathnam’s “Robben Island Bible” open at the page where Nelson Mandela has marked a speech from Act 2 Scene 2 of Julius Caesar as his favourite quote.

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”

Shakespeare was writing for his own time, describing his own world, but he is also for all time. He didn’t just stage his own world, he is still staging ours.

PHARAOH King of Egypt. A British Museum tour. Leeds City Museum. 05-04-12

The British Museum houses one of the world’s greatest collections of artefacts from ancient Egypt and it really shows when you look at the carefully chosen collection of objects which makes up the small touring exhibition Pharaoh. King of Egypt, which is at Leeds City Museum until 17th June 2012. I would not be surprised if some of these objects are not even on regular display at the British Museum, but they still provide a moving glimpse of a fascinating society and a beautiful display of Ancient Egyptian talent and craftsmanship. It is aimed at children and families with small bite sized pieces of information to accompany the exhibits and there were plenty of them there to enjoy it when I visited. It is very well laid out and nicely lit and the curators have packed a lot into a small space without making it seem too crowded. I have picked out a few of my favourite objects to show you.

This decorative tile from a royal palace made between 1184 and 1153 BC and found in Tell el-Yahudiyah shows a Libyan captive. His hands are bound and he has the beard and side lock typical of a Libyan of his day. The exhibition verbiage says that he is meant to represent an “entire foreign nation” rather than an individual, but that is not what I see when I look at him. There is a wealth of sculpture from Ancient Egypt which delights in showing enemies being killed or ground underfoot but the sculptor who made this tile has given the captive Libyan he was portraying considerable dignity and presence. He is suffering nobly and his head is held high. He may be a prisoner but in his head he is still free.

This limestone relief fragment was once part of a large composition showing a siege of a near eastern city. These captives are falling to their death, pierced by arrows, but again the artist has given them dignity in death- look at the man’s face on the right. The composition of the figures is also both graceful and dramatic.

This little golden furniture fitting is a cobra, one of the most potent symbols of the pharaoh’s status and power. When worn or attached to an object it represented the dangerous power of the deadly snake, and this power was harnessed for the protection of the wearer, in particular the pharaoh who had been bequeathed it’s power by the God Ra. It may also  represent the cobra goddess Wadget, who was seen as a special protector of the pharaoh, or one of the goddessses Hathor or Sekhmet, who were sent out by Ra to destry the enemies of the gods. The craftsmanship is wonderful and the graceful curves of the snake and the striped markings of the hood as it puffs out ready to strike are used to great effect within the design.

This is the face of the pharaoh Mentuhotep II. It is a sandstone statue which dates from between 2055 and 2004 BC and it was found in his temple. It shows the pharaoh as the god Osiris. He was able to reunite ancient Egypt for the first time since the sixth dynasty and I think you can see the considerable toll which the military campaigns to achieve this took on him, and some quiet pride, in this portrait. He is credited with a reign of fifty one years and that is a long time to continue to rule as an all powerful god king. It is an idealised image of the pharaoh as god, but there is also a real human being there.

This is the face of another pharaoh, Ramses I. He reigned for only a short time, probably for about fifteen months around 1291 BC, after being chosen by the childless pharaoh Horemheb to be his sucessor, as an able son of a noble family. A short reign perhaps,  but he founded a great dynasty.  Originally the statue would have been covered in black bitumen and the details would have been picked out with golden gilding and precious stones. It was placed in his tomb as a guardian figure, standing beside the doorway of one of the chambers, along with its pair, to protect the chambers and sarcophagus beyond. It is a rare survivor and it has found a new and different life and meaning as it stares blindly back at us reminding us that the people who made it are ultimately unknowable, remote and enigmatic. The original ferocity of the figure has been replaced by a poignant wistful quality that would have surprised its original makers. Even so, that blank gaze still has considerable power and it must have been quite terrifying in it’s original state. Fear and superstition was the best defence against tomb robbers and it would have played its part well, even though it obviously failed in the final instance.

This is a detail of a pottery wine jar which held delta wine for the Osiris of  the lady Nedjmet to drink in her tomb. It was made between 1340BC and 1300BC. It is large and stylish and delicately decorated in pale blue, dark red and pink slip with bands of leaves and lotus flowers. It has a tapering shape of great elegance topped off by a curving lid.  It is a very feminine, tasteful object made for a rich lady who appreciated fine things, a functional object which has still been made with great care, skill and attention to detail.

This is a lovely little exhibition and well worth a visit, especially if you can’t get down to London to see the glories of the British Museum’s Egyptian galleries. We could do with more carefully chosen shows like it in the north of England.

The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Grayson Perry. British Museum. 13-01-12

Grayson Perry, The Rosetta Vase, 2011. Image courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery and via http://www.britishmuseum.org.

Hold your beliefs lightly.

Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman at the British museum is one of the most fascinating shows I have ever seen. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen anything quite like it before. It is a chance to walk into his world and see not only some stunningly beautiful new work of his own but also his own selection of artefacts from one of the world’s great museums alongside it. All of them have been personally chosen to reflect his own interests, passions, sources, and obsessions. He has called it “a journey into my own mind” and this is exactly what it is. You can get to know him from the choices that he has made and what you find is very likeable, deeply interesting and moving but also funny and charming. There is nothing pompous or self serving here, nothing didactic. All we are asked to do is look and enjoy. Putting the show together has clearly been a labour of love for Grayson and his respect and admiration for the artists and craftsmen and women who have gone before him shines out from every room. The people who made these objects are mostly forgotten but their work is their memorial and in this exhibition he has allowed them to live again. All of the objects are interesting and often beautiful in their own right but when you see them in the context of what they tell us about the work and influences of the single living artist who has chosen them they gain an extra layer of meaning, providing an insight into the mind of one of the most talented and original artists working in Britain today. Yes, he is that good.

Grayson Perry, The Frivolous Now © Grayson Perry

The new work which is on show is only going to become more fascinating as it ages and comes to take its place in history alongside the items from the collection. The contemporary references woven into the pots alongside the wonderful glazes and seductive decoration will form a snapshot of contemporary life which will slowly recede into the distance while the pots remain, a glittering record of a frozen moment in time. The most beautiful of them, for me at least, is The Near Death and Enlightenment of Alan Measles, which is a celebration of the fact that we can find a new beginning, even after the horror of the past has almost destroyed us. Alan Measles is Grayson’s god and alter ego, his childhood teddy, a guru who is there to allow him to transcend his own past with a combination of beauty and humour. It also allows all of us, whether we have faith or not, to look at the ideas and icons of religious belief and consider them in the abstract. Alan Measles himself is not present, of course, but his image recurs throughout the show and his personality remains its guiding light via that of Grayson Perry himself.

A Map of Truths and Beliefs. copyright Grayson Perry.

As well as the pots there are textiles and sculpture. A Map of Truths and Beliefs is a huge tapestry celebrating  the world’s pilgrim places in vivid colour. A smaller tapestry bearing Alan Measle’s mantra “hold your beliefs lightly” is set alongside an equally joyous Asafo banner from Ghana where heads are being cut off with great abandon and seeming delight. Juxtapositions like this are constantly pulling you up short as you walk round, making you think, smile or wonder.

Grayson Perry, Our Mother, 2009. Image courtesy of the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery and via http://www.britishmuseum.org.

The two most moving new pieces in the show, for me at least, are Our Mother and Our Father, two figures who seem to stand for all those human beings who have gone before us and borne so much suffering so stoically. The mother is weighed down with her load of packages and belongings as she carries everything she has with her while looking tenderly at her baby. It is as moving a portrait of a mother and child as I have seen, and there are many as it is a universal subject that has been looked at many times over the generations.

The central piece of the show, a fitting climax, is the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman itself. A huge brown iron ship, heavy with symbolism and decoration, carries a prehistoric flint axe at its heart. This ship is a culmination of everything that has gone before, a monument to all those unnamed craftsmen who have worked and lived for thousands of years since that flint was carved and used, and it has real presence and authority. As you look at it you feel that you have come home. The theme of pilgrimage runs throughout the exhibition, from the stunning motor bike outside the entrance on which Grayson and Alan made their own pilgrimage to the tiny pilgrim badges, sacred objects, maps and art works inside which you have been looking at, and when you see the ship it feels like journeys end.

This exhibition says a lot for Grayson Perry both as an artist and as a human being. It has been put together with great love and honesty and shows that his own work has lasting power and beauty when set against objects and art from the past. You simply couldn’t produce a show like this unless both your own work and you yourself were worthy of it, you would be found out. He is certainly worthy of it.

Copyright: Patricia Rogers.

The Book of the Dead. British Museum. 14-01-11

This is a wonderful treat of an exhibition. It was sure to please me as I have always been fascinated by ancient Egypt and went out there to see most of the major sites in my twenties but this was special. It was a chance to see some of the papyri which are not usually on show, Ani’s book of the dead, the most beautiful one which has been found so far, and the complete length of  Huneffer’s book of the dead. The British museum has a wonderful Egyptian section and this was a chance to show it off. Everything was beautifully laid out and well lit and by the time you had been all the way round someone who was learning about Ancient Egypt for the first time would have a clear idea of what they believed about life after death and the practices which they carried out in view of their beliefs, and someone who already had some knowledge would have had the chance to get a very close look at some astonishing images and artefacts.

The Book of the Dead was a book of spells which every wealthy Egyptian would have with them in their tomb, either written on an illustrated papyrus, carved in stone, or painted on their sarcophagus, probably all three. If it was on papyrus it would be personally written for the individual by scribes and often beautifully and intricately illustrated with scenes from the afterlife. The basic journey which the dead person was going to undertake was one of enormous challenges. Firstly they had to be ritually brought back to life by spells and rituals so that their mouth was open and they could move and speak. When this was finished they would start their ordeal, facing a series of knife carrying monsters (all of whom needed to be appeased by the spells in the book) until they reached the moment where they had to go through the weighing of the heart ceremony. Anubis would weigh their heart to see if it balanced against Maat, the feather of truth. If it did (and in the illustrated books of the dead there is always a jubilant dead person raising their arms to celebrate the fact that it did) they were allowed to pass on and enter the blessed fields, an idealised version of Egypt. If it didn’t the devourer was waiting to gobble down the heart and their journey would end. Dead would really mean dead. He was a rapacious creature with the head of a crocodile, the body of a leopard and the back legs of a hippopotamus- a composite of all that they most feared. Those who passed the test could look forward to an eternity in the blessed fields where they could rest and relax while the shabti figures which had been buried with them came to life and did the work.

This is the most cursory description of a tiny part of the most complex and detailed belief system that you could possibly imagine. It is astonishing. They thought of everything. For example there was a spell to keep the heart from telling tales on the dead person while it was being weighed. They believed that their whole being was located in the heart and that it could give away all their wrongdoings and let them down at the crucial moment unless it was prevented from speaking. There is something quite charming and accessible in the way that their beliefs sprang out of their very human hopes and fears. It’s easy to sympathise with them and understand their need for reassurance and hope.

We are very lucky to have some of their great manuscripts in this country and I was very excited to have seen them. Now I need to go back down the Nile………………….