A Week in London – at the National Gallery and the British Museum

I spent last week in London – a mix of seeing friends, seeing exhibitions and doing workshops – perfect !  I spent a very happy afternoon at the National Gallery – it’s lovely to wander around, seeing pictures that are familiar but always finding something new. I spent ages looking at ‘The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele‘ by Carlo Crivelli as I found a strange floating head in it that I hadn’t spotted before. crivelli detail-crivelliI can’t find anything that explains it….any thoughts ? The National Gallery has a wonderful website (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/) which allows you to zoom in and explore most of the pictures in its collection. One of my favourites is ‘Satyr Mourning over a Nymph’ by Piero di Cosimo – I’m afraid that I have a soft spot for dogs in art….


I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Life and Death at Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum for ages! I was a bit worried about getting in as the advance tickets are completely sold out. It’s a very expensive exhibition – £15 entry; and the Ice Age Art exhibition that I also wanted to see was £10. Becoming a friend is however only £50 and for that you get free entry to all exhibitions – without queuing – for a whole year. So that’s what I did. It was absolutely fascinating seeing so many objects – especially the everyday things like a loaf of bread and a bowl of figs, carbonised by the heat of the eruption. I liked the emphasis on how the people of Pompeii & Herculaneum lived – what their houses looked like, their shops and taverns. In particular, the painting is just wonderful – so fresh – vivid colours, and naturalistic representations of figures and the natural world. It’s a window into their world, and it looks quite familiar to me. Isn’t it amazing that these have survived ? And I was also struck by the resonances with the paintings I was looking at the day before in the National Gallery. frescoThe detail in this fishy mosaic is absolutely stunning:mosaic

Also on display are some of the plaster casts made when archaeologists realised that the voids they were excavating were actually the spaces left by bodies. There was a particularly poignant family group that I hadn’t seen before with two children, one of whom was still being held by its mother. A group of people was found down by the docks at Herculaneum, probably hoping to flee by boat; all that was left of them were the objects they carried – valuable jewellery, a bag of coins now all fused together by the heat – and a door key. Perhaps someone still hoped to return.

Most of all though it brought me closer – seeing the everyday items that are completely recognisable – gave me a sense that it wouldn’t feel so strange to be walking down the street in Pompeii 2000 years ago. The other major exhibition – ‘Ice Age Art’ however, was completely different. The objects on show are so very old – up to 40,000 years old – that they are completely unknowable. Tiny, detailed figures such as this lion-headed man – lionheadedman

It was suggested in the exhibition that some of the objects might have taken around 400 hours to carve; when you consider the lack of light and what must have been a constant struggle just to survive, it’s astonishing that so much time was spent on these. Or perhaps not – that urge to create is so firmly embedded in human beings. But we’ll never know what these objects are – religious ? art ? Were they merely decorative, or used in rituals ? Worn ? Most of the commentary is highly speculative. I think I prefer just knowing what they were made from, where they were found and how old they are. That’s enough for me.

There’s a really nice short film on the website here of the opening night – so if you can’t visit, this gives you a sense of the scale of the objects.

There was just time (after a restorative cup of tea) to have a little look around some of the quieter parts of the Museum and I leave you with a glimpse of some wonderful patterns from the Islamic section.