As I said in my last blog I was down in London for the Science for Fiction course and T and I stayed over an extra day to visit the British Museum. It’s mightily impressive both for its collections and for the building itself, a classical frontage, entirely in keeping with the gravitas of the institution, and then, once inside, the modern central court with a breathtaking glass ceiling designed by architect Norman Foster.
The museum is a vast complex of rooms and spaces, so anyone visiting for the first time should buy a map. We didn’t bother with a guide book, but instead went for the map option, heading first for the Enlightenment Exhibition in the room which originally housed George III’s library. We followed that by visiting the European/Medieval section (via a few Egyptian mummies) and finally the Parthenon Marbles which I’ve always wanted to see.
This was punctuated by stops in the coffee shops to rehydrate and rest our feet. To be honest, though we had a plan, half the fun is finding things you didn’t know you wanted to see until… there they were. I was particularly struck by ‘Lely’s Venus’, the statue of Venus (Aphrodite) dating from the 1st or 2nd Century AD, itself a copy of a Greek statue from the 2nd C BC (now lost). Whichever way you look at it, it’s pretty near perfect.
Here’s the Sutton Hoo Helm and it’s replica.
I guess the Sutton Hoo Helmet is one of the pieces that most people know about and it is, indeed, marvellous, especially when shown next to a replica showing how it would have originally looked. But I was even more fascinated by the Roman face mask from the Ribchester Hoard, probably dating from the late first, or early second century AD.
Here it is.
And now to the Parthenon Marbles. (No longer called the Elgin Marbles, I understand.) I don’t know what I’d expected… a load of friezes, I thought. I didn’t expect such three dimensionality (is that a term?)
I was particularly entranced by the naturalistic sculptures. These riders look as if they could spring to life at any moment. Their hands are in the correct positions for the reins, they look very comfortable, even riding bareback, and by the placement of their feet their mounts are smaller than we would expect a man to ride these days, almost pony-sized, though quite clearly from their conformation NOT ponies. I wonder what these marbles looked like when first completed. Several of the horses’ heads have holes at the corners of their mouths and up behind the ears, so I guess there would have been bridles of some kind, though whether leather or metal I don’t know. Perhaps I should have bought that guide book after all. On the other hand, finding these small puzzles brings out my writerly sensawunder.
Here’s the head of a horse from Selene’s chariot. You can quite clearly see where the bridle was originally attached.
There’s a recurring theme of Centaurs battling Lapiths, again beautifully realistic.
On the way out of the Parthenon Marbles exhibition I came across these guys – Huge human headed bulls from Assyria. The first one is a winged human-headed bull dates about 865 – 860 BC from Nimrud. This protective spirit guarded the entrance into what might have been the king’s apartments. The other one of the pair is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York
And this is one of a complete pair, from the Palace of Sargon II, Khorsabad. They stood at the gates of the citadel as magic guardians against misfortune. They date from 721 to 705 BC.
Now I’ve seen it once, I want to go back to the British Museum at my leisure, stay longer… and maybe buy a guidebook.
There’s a lot of fodder for writers’ brains here.
On the way home I was struck by the elegance of the new Western Concourse at King’s Cross Station. I’ve seen it before, of course, but just having seen the central court at the BM, I wondered if it was also a Norman Foster design, so I looked it up. It was designed by John McAslan and Partners. And very nice it is, too.