Friday, 9 November 2018

An Anglo-Saxon education

I took myself off to a very rainy London the other week to meet a friend at the British Library, where we wandered around an eerily lit gallery to view some beautiful art, literature and treasures from 1300 years ago. 

There in the semi-darkness I half expected to bump into Lance and Andy from ‘Detectorists’, for there was indeed Anglo-Saxon gold on display...


Exquisitely shiny, tiny coins, brooches and intricate heavy-looking belt buckles almost glowed from behind their glass cases.  The exhibition was well-attended – with white hair and glasses the look of the day - but no-one spoke, or if they did it seemed only in hushed, reverential tones.   It felt terribly straight and subdued in there, but I was excited by what I saw to a degree I hadn’t expected, and found myself having to stifle little gasps of inappropriate enthusiasm.

What always gets me about the sort of artifacts on show here is when I can make that human connection.  When I think about the real person who wore that buckle and the fingers that looped the belt through its clasp – that kind of thing.  And, as an illustrator, I wanted to see the marks of the artist’s hand on the manuscripts, the strokes of ink and the characterful features, and imagine the creator’s mind at work,  just like mine.  I was more than rewarded by what I saw – astounded at the brightness of the inks in particular – I had no idea that the vivid oranges and greens so frequently used in the illuminations would shout out so much, not unlike the shades and strength of the felt tip pens I used as a kid.  Almost garish.  I’m convinced too that people had better eyesight 1000 years ago than we do now, and nimbler fingers too, for the minute scale of the details in the decorations was quite mind-blowing. 

In the dumbed-down world we live in I’d come to hate the way labels on products often refer to them in the first person.  I’m usually irked by a pack of carrots and its patronizing instruction to “keep me in the fridge!”, etc.  But after this exhibition I realised this is nothing new and it’s softened my attitude. The anthropomorphism of inanimate objects was very evident in Anglo-Saxon times – the books that introduced themselves:  (Name) wrote me”, and the brooch which threatens any thief with an inscription: “May the Lord curse him who takes me from (owner)”, etc.  Books of riddles too, a huge literary genre 1000 years ago - more proof that really we’re still the same people at our core, and that’s what I want to believe.

Even an early version of a word search, with a palindrome...  


I love the figure at the base.  (British Library postcard)

Plus, I love books.  I love the physicality of books, the feel and look of them as objects, their construction and their role.  Huge books of manuscripts with metalwork bindings reflected their importance and I was amazed by the sheer outrageous size of a giant bible (the ‘Codex Amiatinus’), measuring 2ft long by 1ft wide and an incredible 1ft thick, weighing in at 75lb (over 5 stone for those like me who still think in Imperial). 

With my desire to relate to the illustrators involved in particular, I was really gratified to see a lovely 11th Century book called ‘Marvels of The East’.  Written in Old English, it’s like a mythological travel guide, describing the weird and wonderful creatures that can be found in some faraway Eastern place, such as the “men who are born fifteen feet tall and ten feet broad.  They have big heads and ears like fans”.  I'm thinking Martin Clunes.  Nooo!


Or how about this:


"Lertices, a small creature with donkey’s ears, sheep’s wool and the feet of a bird."
 (British Library postcard)

Or this:



"The Blemmya, a man 8 feet tall and 8 feet wide with his head in his chest." 
(British Library postcard)

I lingered long over this image, studying those fingers wrapped around the frame in an imaginative graphic touch, the benign expression on that face and that lovely inky outline and, never mind those hundreds of years that have passed, at that moment I’m inside the artist’s head.  What a great commission that must have been!

The thing is, I was absolutely shit at History in school. Bored out of my mind I would concentrate on trying different handwriting styles and experiment with coloured inks as Miss Jones drearily dictated facts about Acts and... well, stuff I simply can't remember for that very reason.  It's the human relatability that makes it come alive for me and when that comes via two of my favourite subjects, art and language, as it did in this exhibition - I'm in.  And seeing that Anglo-Saxon gold, well, to paraphrase Lance, it's surely "... the closest you'll get to time travel".  Definitely worth a trip to a very rainy London.

'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War' at the British Library, until 19 February 2019

10 comments:

  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip! There is something very special about museums on a dark and rainy afternoon, really ramps up the atmosphere... the write up of the Lertices brought Father Dougal's enthusiastic description of The Beast of Craggy Island to min.... poor Martin Clunes! Hee heeee :o)

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    1. Yes I agree about those rainy afternoon museum trips, and then you finish off with a cup of coffee and a chocolate muffin in the café, it's all good!
      Haha, yes the Beast of Craggy Island, and we're not talking about Pat Mustard!

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  2. The Blemmya is amazing and brilliantly realised by the artist. I love the idea that we are in touch with people from 1000 years through their art.

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    1. I thought so too about the Blemmya. Seeing all the pictures for real and up close, and taking in all the decorations and details, the little faces and fingers etc. on the characters, the inky lines and carefully planned borders, etc. just diminished those 1000 years completely.

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  3. Perhaps you were in London the same weekend that we were? We got absolutely saturated as we raced around catching the last day of the Joe Strummer exhibit in Covent Garden, Dylan's Mondo Scripto at the Halcyon Gallery, before finishing at the Anni Albers show at Tate Modern.
    It's unlikely we'll be able to get down to the smoke again before the Spring, otherwise 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms' would certainly be on my to do list. It sounds absolutely fascinating.

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    1. I was there on a Thursday and only for a few hours unfortunately (catching up with friend was also part of it so didn't get to actually visit anywhere else) but the short walk from Kings Cross station to the Brit Library proved to be quite treacherous with the rain pouring down and the street like a river. Sounds like you took a lot in which must have been so interesting and worthwhile. Would be great to see a write-up if you get time/chance?!

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  4. Terrific post - sounds fascinating. Particularly like Lertices and Blemmya. Popped in the British Library museum this time last year when I was down in the neck of the woods for a course - love its contrasts.

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    1. Ah thanks, I can imagine you would have enjoyed it too (perhaps you still can?)
      I must make time to get there more often and see a bit more of the place as well.

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  5. Glad you managed to pay it a visit. I wrote about our visit at the start of last year and like you was mightily impressed. We went ostensibly to see the Alice In Wonderland manuscript (which tied in with Mr WIAA's sculpture) but it wasn't on show back then - Did you see it I wonder.

    Anyway it sounds as if you got an awful lot out of the visit wearing your artist's hat. Such an uninspiring building from the outside but magnificent on the inside.

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    1. Thanks for reminding me of your visit to the BL, I'll come over and have another look as it will mean more now since this recent visit - I do remember your mention of the Alice manuscript at the time.

      I read all the information on show but kept wondering about the actual processes behind the art and couldn't find any answers until I finally came to a video on the subject. A woman came up to me as I was watching and said exactly the same, "do they say how they made the inks?" she asked (they did) - a fellow artist.

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