For me one of the stand-out exhibitions of last year was Troy: Myth and Reality, which I saw at the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. There are some stunning objects – the vases in particular – and it was wonderful to revisit the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I had a grammar school education which meant doing five years of Latin, but looking back I feel it would have been more useful and interesting to have studied Classics more broadly and to have read texts in translation. Through my degree in English Literature and History of Art I did become familiar with the Greek myths and legends, but it wasn’t many years later on holiday in Greece that I decided to read the Iliad from beginning to end and just experience it as the fantastic story that it is. A couple of years later on holiday in Crete I did the same thing with the Odyssey.
There is something very special about reading a story in the place where it originated. In my journal I transcribed this passage from the Odyssey: ‘Alcinous ordered Helias and Laodomas to dance by themselves since no one could compete with them. Polybus, a skilled craftsman, had made them a beautiful purple ball, which they took in their hands, and one of them, bending right back, would throw it towards the shadowy clouds, and the other, leaping up from the ground, would catch it skilfully, before his feet touched earth again.’ I noted that the next day on the beach I saw two bronzed young men in tiny swimming trunks doing the exact same thing as Homer had described it somewhere around three thousands years ago. My copy of the Penguin Classics edition with its creased spine and water-stained pages is a momento of a great holiday.
The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 8 March. It retells the stories through objects and paintings, examines the historical basis for the existence of Troy, and draws parallels with the present day realities of brutal warfare and its victims. I thought it was wonderful.
These are dark days. I was in London when the results of the referendum came out. I was still reeling with shock and dismay that afternoon when I went to the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the British Museum. For an hour and a half I lost myself in this wonderful exhibition.
The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile and were buried under the sea for over a thousand years. Underwater excavation has been taking place over the last twenty years. Objects in the exhibition range from colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. I was moved by the serenity and beauty of some of the figures which, like the one in foreground of this photo, fused Greek and Egyptian styles. I was fascinated by the sacred offerings and ritual objects related to the cult of Osiris – the god of the underworld. I came out feeling that I had escaped for a while and visited one of the great civilisations of the past. And I remembered that all things pass after all.
On the way home I stopped off at Hatchard’s and treated myself to another form of escapism. I bought Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin and spent the journey back to Chesterfield in the company of an old friend, John Rebus. There’s not much that can’t be made better by a good book or the consolation of art.
Last week I visited this exhibition at the British Museum. It covers a period of twelve centuries from 30 BC, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, to AD 1171 and tells the story of the shift from the traditional worship of many gods to the monotheism. When Constantine was converted to Christianity, Christianity gradually became the dominant religion, only to be displaced by the Islamic invasion of the seventh century. There was also a Jewish community.
There is a lot to take on board from the informative panels and I found this fascinating, but of course the objects are the stars of the show: textiles, coins, manuscripts, jewellery, pottery. It wasn’t always the most precious or the showiest objects that have stuck in my mind. Egypt’s hot, dry climate allowed things to be preserved that in other cultures have vanished. It was touching to see a stripy child’s sock, a toy horse, and a mummy portrait of a little girl, who had died aged seven.
Although there was occasional tension and violence between the different communities, there were long periods when the communities lived peacefully side by side and were influenced by each other in their arts and crafts.
I came out of the exhibition thinking of the words of the Quaker, William Penn, written in 1693, ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion: and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.’ At the week-end after the events in Paris, it was good to hold on to this thought. The exhibition is a timely one and I recommend it. It runs until the 7 February.