V&A Object of the Week … 18th Century Fusion Fashion: Britain, India and Japan

Many contemporary fashion designers incorporate a myriad of cultural influences into their designs. This 18th century robe, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, reveals that the fusion of different cultural elements in fashion is not a just a modern phenomenon.

Man's Robe (Banyan), Cotton, Dyed and Printed, South East India and Europe, 1750-1775.

Man’s Robe (Banyan), Cotton, Dyed and Printed, South East India and Europe, 1750-1775.

This banyan would have been worn as lounge wear by a stylish 18th century European man, yet the cut is not European in origin. The shape is derived from the loose cut of the Japanese kimono, a style which had been introduced to Europe by the Dutch East India Company in the 1650’s. The European taste for the exotic meant that the wearer of this robe was not content to simply have a Japanese cut; the fabric itself came from a very different part of the world, India.

The eclectic nature of this garment illustrates the enourmous effect international contact and trade had on the material culture of Europe at this time. It was this insatiable desire for Asian commodities that went on to shape the history of our modern age.

Photograph my own.

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World Cultures in Exeter: the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter, winner of Museum of the Year Award in 2012, is a thing of beauty.

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter

The red brick Victorian facade, with its Gothic Revivalist arches and tracery, is stunning. Inside, the museum combines the sleek with the sumptuous to deliver a visitor experience that more than rivals that of its big-city counterparts.

First impressions of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) place it a cut above other provincial museums. Recent redevelopments mean that not a single faded display or dusty reconstruction featuring life-size models of plague victims feature here.

Amoung the museum’s many excellent exhibits is the ‘Finders Keepers?’ and ‘World Cultures’ galleries. ‘Finders Keepers?’ examines the history of collecting and the rationale some local collectors whose treasures had gone on to form part of the RAMM’s collections.

A label profoundly states “when you find a new object for your collection it’s like adding a piece to a jigsaw … except that you can’t tell if the picture will ever be finished”. The gallery examines some of the ethics of collecting, pointing out that some collecting that went on in the past was detrimental to peoples and the environment in other parts of the world.

The ‘World Cultures’ gallery displays the museum’s ethnographic collections. One of the most facinating displays in this section is an array of spear heads made by aboriginal Australians. Instead of being carved from flint or stone, these weapons were made from European glass, salvaged from beer bottles and other items.

With regards to East Asia, there is amoung other things a section on Buddhism and a case of fairly unspectacular ceramics. The careful glossiness of the rest of the museum meant I was surprised to see the old-fashioned Wade-Giles system, a method of romanising Mandarin Chinese, still being used on the labels instead of the contemporary pinyin system. For example, China’s last imperial dynasty is rendered ‘Ch’ing’ rather than ‘Qing’ as it would be in pinyin. Since the 1950’s Wade-Giles has been wholly replaced in China by pinyin and is now rarely seen anywhere.

Despite my disappointments in the Asian section (perhaps I’ve just been spoilt!) the RAMM well worth a visit and proof that capital cities do not have the monopoly on great heritage. My next Westcountry search for Asian art will hopefully take me to the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.

Also currently on display at the RAMM are the BP Portrait Award and the Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which are both excellent and free!

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Pre-Roman Bronze Figurine at the Dorset County Museum

Pre-Roman Bronze Figurine, Dorset County Museum

Pre-Roman Bronze Figurine, Dorset County Museum

Sometimes the smallest finds can be the most beautiful. This tiny figurine, about the size of one of my fingers, was found in Dorset and is on display at the Dorset County Museum.

This little find is a further example of contact between the people of pre-Roman Britain and the outside world; it was made in the Iron-Age and the label states that the style shows Italian influence. We can only guess at its purpose, but it could have been a charm or perhaps made as a toy for a child.

Whatever its function, the detailing on the robe, the bowl hair-cut and the droopy-eyed face make this object utterly charming.

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Rise of the Gothic … the Cathedrals of Salisbury and Exeter

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral

I happened to visit both of these stunning cathedrals over the Easter weekend. Although very different, both are triumphs of Medieval Gothic architecture. Salisbury Cathedral is in the county of Wiltshire and Exeter Cathedral in the county of Devon, both south west England.

I took this photograph of Salisbury Cathedral at dusk from the top of a multi-storey carpark! The shot shows how the spire dominates the city sky-line. The sunlight picks out the Norman towers of Exeter Cathedral. Flying buttresses, a key feature of Gothic architecture, are visible alongside the windows.

Modern perceptions of Medieval Europe tend to envisage a drab world gripped by ignorance and Gothic buildings are often imagined to be dark and foreboding. However, anyone who has been inside a Gothic cathedral, seen a rich Medieval tapestry or a bright drinking vessel adorned with a cheeky face will recognise Medieval Europe as a time of colour, vibrancy and innovation.

Gothic architecture originated in France in the 12th century and was popular into the 16th century. The term ‘Gothic’ came about in the Renaissance, when it may have been believed that the architectural style originated in Germany. At the time of its popularity, Gothic style was known as ‘French Work’.

The defining feature of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch. Romanesque rounded arches had been commonly used in ecclesiastical architecture before the arrival of the Gothic. The weight-bearing properties of the pointed arch are much greater than the rounded Romanesque arches; pointed arches allowed vaults to be raised much higher than had previously been possible, allowing for the staggeringly high ceilings seen in Gothic structures. It has been suggested that the pointed arch was adopted from the Islamic world.

Pointed arches with their supporting tracery also allowed buildings to have larger and more numerous windows. In the days before electric lights, the effect of so much light in an inside space must have been astounding.

Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom and the oldest working clock in the world. Unlike Exeter which incorporated an earlier structure, Salisbury was built entirely in the Gothic style and was completed in 1320.

The first Exeter Cathedral was Norman and much of the original structure was later incorporated into a new Gothic building. With the design taking inspiration from Salisbury Cathedral, a Gothic cathedral was completed in the 15th century. The two square towers shown in the photograph are remnants of the original Norman building.

It is fascinating the consider the effect a building such as Salisbury Cathedral must have had on a Medieval person. Even today when cities around the world are strewn with teetering skyscrapers, the enormity of Salisbury’s spires are still a jaw-dropping sight. That such architectural magnificence could be achieved without the use of cranes or power tools is truly humbling. For pilgrims visiting Salisbury in its Medieval hey-day, there could have been no doubt that this was a palace of God.

Photographs my own

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Song Ceramics: Still taking the world by storm

When first exhibited in the UK in the early 20th century, Song dynasty ceramics caused a sensation in artistic circles and sparked a revolution in studio ceramics. With their delicate glazes and pure forms, Song wares lay in stark contrast to the bright, fussy designs of Ming and Qing wares that had previously been coveted by collectors.

In the latest Asia House lecture ‘Bring Me a Glaze Like the Sky After Rain: Imperial Ceramics of the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties’, Professor Stacey Pierson talked us through the National Palace Museum in Taipei’s sumptuous collection of Song ceramics. “I’m a big fan of the National Palace Museum” proclaimed Pierson “there are several pieces in the collection I would gladly steal!”

The title of the talk refers to the beautiful coloured glazes of the rarest imperial Song ceramic type. Legend has it that a Song emperor commissioned a ceramic with a glaze “the colour of sky after rain” and the result was the soft, blue-grey glaze of Ru ware.

The Song dynasty ruled China for some three hundred years, from the 10th to the 13th centuries AD. A period of innovation, many of the great Chinese inventions emerged in the Song, including the first paper money, gunpowder, the compass and some of the most accomplished ceramics the world has ever seen.

The Northern Song controlled most of inner China and its capital, as the name suggests, was based in the north. In her lecture, Pierson identified three types of imperial ware from the Northern Song; Ding, Ru and Yazhou. Categorising imperial ceramics, says Pierson, is “so complicated”, but can be loosely defined as wares made on commission for courtly use.

Ding stoneware has a characteristically a “lovely off-white” colour; the high magnesium content makes the surface very smooth and oxidation in the kiln produces an ivory tone to the glaze. Pierson explained that the clay used is ideal for sculpting as it holds its shape and doesn’t distort when fired, qualities which make it ideal for creating pieces such as this child-shaped pillow.

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Another famous ceramic of the Northern Song is the enduringly desirable Ru ware. Popular with 18th century Chinese connoisseurs, initial production was very restricted and consequently Ru wares are now incredibly rare. Ru wares are “beautifully potted” says Pierson, the design is fairly conservative with little decoration. The focus is on simplicity and delicacy, as can be seen from this lotus-shaped bowl.

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In 1127 the dynasty lost its northern territory and retreated south of the Yangtze, establishing a new capital in modern-day Hangzhou. The loss of northern kiln sites meant the Song court had to look elsewhere for their ceramics. A typical Southern Song ceramic is Guan ware; made in Hangzhou itself, Guan was an imitation of Ru ware. The glaze was deliberately crackled allowing the “chocolate brown” body to show through.

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Complex, rare and almost impossible to replicate, the imperial wares of the Northern and Southern Song are the stuff connoisseur’s dreams are made of. The seemingly omnipresent Qianlong Emperor zealously collected Song wares and later, British collector Sir Percival David selected the choicest pieces for his impressive collection – now on display at the British Museum.

Despite their age, the pared down aesthetic of Song ceramics makes them seem astoundingly modern. They are just as popular now as in the days of the great Qianlong Emperor or the roaring twenties, with pieces selling in the tens of millions. When questioned about the problems of forgery, Pierson stated that she’s “yet to see a convincing Ru ware”. The clays used by Song kilns have long since run out and the lustrous glaze that defines this ware has “so far eluded the forgers”.

Anyone confronted with these pieces in a museum can only agree with Pierson that there is something very special about imperial Song ceramics – “ceramic has no value, it is what you do with it that counts”.

Images courtesy of Asia House.

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Experimental Archaeology

Smelting Bronze at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fair

Smelting Bronze at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fayre

Demonstration of Traditional Thatching Techniques at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fair

Demonstration of Traditional Thatching Techniques at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fayre

Traditional Farming and Thatching Tools at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fayre

Traditional Farming and Thatching Tools at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fayre

Blacksmith at the Sutton Poyntz Village Fair

Blacksmith at the Sutton Poyntz Street Fayre

The village fayre or fete has long been a staple of rural life in Britain. The biannuale Sutton Poyntz Street Fayre takes place in the picturesque village of Sutton Poyntz in Dorset, south west England.

Along with stalls selling homemade cakes, plants, soaps and antiques, there are demonstrations by crafts-people using traditional technologies such as thatching, smithing and smelting, some of which date back to the bronze age. It is a fantastic place to see experimental archaeology in action, as many of these traditional techniques have remained unchanged for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Follow this link to find out more. The next fayre will be in 2014.

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Dorset Archaeological Masterpieces … Iron Age Sculpture

Iron Age Carved Stone Heads at the Dorset County Museum

Iron Age Carved Stone Heads at the Dorset County Museum

These mysterious stone faces, larger than a human head, were carved some time before 43 CE by members of the Durotriges tribe. The Durotriges were an Iron Age tribal confederation; their territory spanned across the southern English counties of Dorset, Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon.

It is not known why or for what purpose these heads were made. They could have been ritual objects or just decorative. They are simply carved from local limestone and have peacefully expressionless faces.

It is a commonly held belief that pre-Roman British society was primitive and isolated. At school we were told that the Romans revolutionised Iron Age Britain, bringing indoor heating, straight roads and civilisation to her wind-swept shores. However, the archaeological evidence suggests the people of pre-Roman Britain were not as unsophisticated as has been purported.

Before Commander Vespasian swept through this rainy island in 43 CE, bringing hillforts crashing down and dispensing knowledge and enlightenment to the defeated tribes, the Durotriges had coinage, industry and international trade. The immense earthworks at sites such as Maiden Castle suggest an organised society that was able to command a huge labour force.

Being illiterate, little is known about the Durotriges other than what can be gleaned from what the Romans wrote about them or what they left behind in the archaeological record. What is known is that the Durotriges had a booming pottery industry, with production centred around modern day Poole harbour. The close proximity of France, situated just across the English Channel, provided opportunities for trade with the Roman world. They had their own religious beliefs, buried their dead in a ritual way and created art objects, such as these head sculptures.

The Roman invasion brought a great deal to Britain, but they did not bring everything. It is important to remember that the people of pre-Roman Britain were not ignorant savages; they had a functioning rural society, contacts with the outside world and a distinct culture. Although they left no written record, the beautiful objects they left behind tell us something about their forgotten past.

Iron Age carved stone heads on display at the Dorset County Museum

(Photograph my own)

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