:: home : bio : blog
A storm in the distance, hopefully receding.
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat




Recent Posts

Thu, 30 Jun 2016
# 20:00 in ./books

So, back to the "dark ages".

Because Travelling Heroes was quite slow, I decided to have a look at another recent purchase, Scotland's Merlin, and before I knew it, I'd finished it first.

Most people associate "Merlin" with the King Arthur stories, but this is a later addition with no historical basis at all. The evidence for a Merlin, though slight, is actually greater than that for an Arthur.

Simon Clarkson looks at the "Merlin" legend and traces it back to the life of a mysterious "wild man" living in the Scottish Lowlands in the 6th Century: Lailoken. Somehow, over the following centuries, this story was picked up but changed by Welsh Britons, perhaps merging memories of more than one historical person to create a separate figure called Myrddin. Myrddin, a 6th Century wild man, wood dweller and prophet, perhaps legendary founder of Carmarthen, became the source of the Merlin stories. Possibly.

I've read quite a few Tim Clarkson books now, including his Men of the North, about the Britons of (what is now) Southern Scotland. Clarkson writes well and does his best to untangle the always fragmentary and scattered sources of post-Roman Britain. So much language and landscape change, with all the years clouding and hiding the historical core of all the names and stories. I am sure it is as frustrating as it can sometimes be rewarding.

If you are interested in the "real" myth and the real history of these islands, rather than the fantasy often peddled today, then Simon Clarkson is a very good author to start with.

You can read about the book on Clarkson's web site Senchus. This BBC Scotland piece also has a good summary of the thesis.

Sun, 26 Jun 2016
Rain Rain Go Away ...
# 18:49 in ./general

There's been a tremendous amount of rain this summer in London, and the same in most places in Britain I think. It's also been warm, and a lot of thunder and lightning. The rain has been very heavy on occasion though and I've got soaked through a few times outside.

Peter Brown's painting (right) was on display at the recent New English Art Club exhibition (just finished). It's called Saint Martin's Lane, Rain (oil, 48x25cm) and he gets the wet, grey atmosphere just right.

Sat, 25 Jun 2016
The Deluge in Dulwich
# 07:31 in ./general

The Deluge is Winifred Knights' most famous painting: it usually hangs in The Tate and is a striking early 20th century "modernist" work. The British School in Rome awarded it the Scholarship in Decorative Painting in 1920, one of the prime movers in this award being the painter John Singer Sargent (one of the greatest ever artists).

Dulwich Picture Gallery has an exhibition of her work at the moment and, although fairly small, it is possible to see a real growth in the quality of her work over her (few) years.She died in 1947, at the age of 48. not leaving a large body of work but some of the work she did leave is very good.

She has a web site.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery has a Winifred Knights exhibition on until 18 September 2016.

Below: Edge of Abruzzi, 1924, 68x68cm, Oil

Below: Scenes from the Life of Saint Martin of Tours (Detail),
1928-1933, 73x159cm, Oil/Tempera

Tue, 21 Jun 2016
Travelling with Heroes
# 19:31 in ./books

In the fifteenth book of Homer's Illiad, the goddess Hera flies across to Mount Olympus and the poet compares her to a particular movement of the human mind. When a man has travelled far and wide, he tells us, his mind will sometimes leap and he will think, "I wish I was here, or I wish I was there", as he "longs for many things". Hera's sideways flight is as swift as these inconsistent thoughts as she moves from the peak of one mountain to another.

Robin Lane Fox's book Travelling Heroes has some poetic passages, including his opening paragraph above, but not enough to save it for me.

The book is a look at how myths travelled around the Mediterranean Sea with early Greek traders, pirates and mercenaries, primarily from the island of Euboea, off the Eastern coast of mainland Greece. The myths travelled with the people but the contact with the Near East, particularly the Phoenicians and Neo-Hittite people influenced and modified the tales. At some point in the 9th Century, some form of Greek/Phoenician meeting was the foundational cause of the Greeks regaining their lost literacy when the Phoenician alphabet crossed over. As you could say, the rest is history.

Although Homer is an anchor point in the text, much of the discussion is over what is missing in Homer's knowledge of people and places. The poet Hesiod, who is posited to have won a Euboean poetry competition in the 800's with his Theogony, is also much debated.

This book should have been something to treasure reading and exactly the sort of book I often love, but in the end there was too much plodding detail, particularly over the pottery, but even landscape and archaeology. Too much detail and not enough poetry.

I didn't know the BBC did a television program based on the book in 2013 but was pleasantly surprised. I decided to read the book first, then watched the program. Fox reminds me a little of Kenneth Clark in Civilisation as he potters around the Med, but the television was quite good, and a lot more succinct, as well as beautiful to look at in many parts. In this instance, I would recommend watching television over reading.

Sun, 19 Jun 2016
NEAC 2016
# 16:44 in ./general

At the Mall Galleries for the 2016 New English Art Club exhibition. As usual, very good show and lots of great art. As I've got around, I know some of the artists better and recognise their work. Some styles grow on you. All for sale, if not sold, and some tempting work.

Here are a few I like (from many more).

Judith Gardner :

Winter Landscape Setting Sun, Judith Gardner, Oil 74 x 74 cm :

William Selby :

Dandelion & Burdock, William Selby Mixed media 71 x 61 cm :

Haidee-Jo Summers :

The Glow, Allotments, Haidee-Jo Summers, Oil 39 x 46 cm :

Mon, 13 Jun 2016
At the Beach
# 19:28 in ./art

Above: A Dull Day, Sheringham Beach, Oil, 20x25cm

I am trying to keep the painting simple, but they all have their challenges.

Last September, I visited the little seaside town of Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast. It's almost my namesake, except I seem to have gained an "r" somewhere along the line. It's a lovely little place, though a little bit delapidated in places.

The painting ia based on a photograph I took, and it was a bit of a dull day so the picture reflects that somewhat. There was actually a rainbow over the sea but I was not going to include it because rainbows can make a picture look artificial (or worse). However, maybe it needs a bit of focus. So, rainbow or no rainbow? There's always the risk I ruin everything.

Sheringham Town

There's quite a bit of charm to the place, even though it has faded from its prime (a long time ago). A market on Saturday is supposed to be busy, and there seem to be a lot of places to eat and browse on the main street. Apparently a long fought battle to keep Tesco out was lost a while ago, but hopefully that doesn't mean the game's up and it's over for the town. Even without great weather, I like the seaside and the North Norfolk seaside at Sheringham is worth a visit, rainbows or not.

Mon, 06 Jun 2016
# 20:12 in ./books

Below is a very idealised picture of The Roman Senate in 63 BC, as depicted by Cesare Maccari in 1889 (painted for the new Italian senate itself) :

It's a famous picture and Mary Beard's new book SPQR (a link to The Economist review) begins with a description of one of the big crises of the later Roman Republic, the Catiline Conspiracy. In the painting, Marcus Tullius Cicero holds the floor denouncing fellow senator Lucius Sergius Catilina, the isolated figure in the bottom right. Catiline would soon realise that he was finished in Rome and his uprising (if that was what he planned) was stillborn; he would slip out of the city to die in battle at the head of his supporters. This episode was very famous in its day, and endlessly discussed (not least by Cicero himself) and Mary Beard uses it right at the start of her book to introduce some of the main elements of her history of Rome. The first century BC was tumultuous for the city.

The recent BBC TV series Ultimate Rome is a companion to the book, and whereas the television is good, the book is excellent. Both tell the same story of the rise of the city and the background of its people, politics and culture. As one would expect, the book has a lot more detail and much greater depth. A greater depth but remaining very readable with lots of interesting and sometimes amusing anecdotes. One of those books that absorb and fly by so quickly because of their quality.

One of Beard's strengths, apart from having a very deep knowledge of her history, is the fact she can find and include so many small, often more personal, artifacts from the lives of roman citizens. These are sometimes grave inscriptions, perhaps a small message about a beloved son or daughter, or sometimes business signs. Even "pub" paintings.

Above : A marble relief showing a poultry seller's stall from Ostia, perhaps from a tomb or perhaps a shop sign. The man second from the left seems to be drumming up trade, and behind the counter a woman is serving customers. The stall is constructed from cages (containing a couple of rabbits), on which a pair of monkeys sit.

Solitudinem Faciunt, Pacem Appellant

The famous phrase from Tacitus : They create desolation and call it peace.

In fact, the people the Romans conquered were often quite happy to collaborate in their subjection to Rome, many in the ruling or upper echelons being long used to the privileges and luxuries that came with civilisation. The "barbarians" wanted the "good life" as much as anyone. For most people (the vast majority were rural) life went on as usual. Beard has some more to say about native resistance in her blog A Don's Life.

Tacitus puts some fine words into the speeches of the far-flung "barbarian" rulers who all lost out, and usually lost their lives, to Roman arms. Fine words, but there was no way Tacitus knew what was said. As Beard points out though :

While we must regret not reading the authentic views of the provincial dissidents of the empire, the idea that Roman writers could imagine what it was like to be in opposition to their own imperial power is perhaps even more important, and it is a distinguishing feature of Roman culture and power.

Professor Beard closes with the year 212 AD and the Emperor Caracalla giving all freeborn inhabitants of the Roman Empire citizenship. People have argued about the reasons he did this for a long time, one common suggestion being that it massively expanded the tax base. At the end of the book, she tells us that she is not the person to finish the history, and write the story of the end of the Empire in the West, or its continuation in the East. A shame because it's a wonderful book and a second volume would be very welcome.

© Alastair Sherringham 2023
Powered by Blosxom.
Still going after all these years.