Last night was the launch party of Blue Guides’ Smoothly from Harrow: A Compendium for the London Commuter. About 70 people squeezed themselves into the book-lined basement at Stanfords to raise a glass to our latest publication—the hot crush seemed oddly appropriate for the subject matter, as was the fact that one of the planned readers missed her moment because of leaves on the line outside Pinner (or some other London Transport meltdown).
The author, Chris Moss, had promised us no speeches, but in a few words he still managed to name-check Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Betjeman, Ray Davies and Waterloo Station. The book is rather like that, although special mention should also go to the superb photography and London Transport Museum‘s wondrous posters.
Brian Daughton and Bob Greig then read their ‘Commuter Confessions’ (extracted from the book) to a clearly sympathetic audience of fellow-travellers, and we all briefly contemplated following Bob back to Devon where he now lives—or maybe strangling him.
But, no, as Chris writes in the book, the commuter is the ‘low-key hero of our times’ and ‘the key witness of all that passes in the capital and its environs’. And so we left Stanfords with the book well launched—and headed heroically for the Northern Line.
Charlotte Higgins, Under Another Sky: Travels in Roman Britain. Jonathan Cape, London, 2013. Reviewed by Charles Freeman.
If I am heading westwards from my home in central Suffolk I go along a stretch of Roman road and eventually reach the village of Stonham Aspal. To the far side there is a ridge overlooking open countryside and it is here that a Roman bathhouse was discovered in 1962, when building work was being done for some bungalows. It was my first dig, with a tolerant Ipswich Museum team interpreting laws against child labour generously enough to allow a fourteen-year-old to shovel out ashes from a Roman hypocaust. The main part of the villa is assumed to have been on the other side of the road and remains unexcavated, but I still tell the story to anyone I am driving that way.
The pottery from the site is of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the greatest period of the British Roman villa. This was the time of prosperity before the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century brought a devastating fall in living standards (apparently as a dramatic as anywhere else in the western empire). Looking back, I wonder what the ashes I scraped out could have told of the final fires lit to heat the baths. There was no one on hand to record the last days of the empire in Britain but gradually the cities, already faltering in the 4th century, were abandoned and the great buildings fell in or were buried. One of the most evocative finds has been a luxurious Roman villa on the London waterfront that enjoyed a heyday in the 3rd century but then began to crumble, although 200 coins dated as late as ad 388 talk of a late burst of occupation.
Charlotte Higgins’s delightful book is an account of her searches for Roman Britain in the company of her boyfriend Matthew and a venerable and resilient camper van. Higgins read Classics at Oxford so she knows her sources—predominantly those of the finest Roman historian—Tacitus, and she weaves them gently into her itineraries. She has also absorbed those who have been before her: William Camden, the author of Britannia (1586), the first quasi- scientific study of British antiquities, and the polymath William Stukeley (1687–1765), who recorded what stood of Silchester, Hadrian’s Wall and other sites. Stukeley, a fan of the Druids, was sadly taken in by a fake history of Roman Britain purporting to have been written by one Richard of Westminster in the 14th century. Stukeley’s enthusiastic support for it meant that it was treated as authentic and Roman history distorted until well into the 19th century. The Pennine chain of hills take their name from the pseudo-Richard’s description of them.
Gradually out of these forays into a misty past, archaeologists took over. So here is Mortimer Wheeler and his much put-upon wife Tessa, bringing military precision to excavations of St. Albans and later, and most famously, of the Iron Age fort of Maiden Castle. Wheeler revelled in describing the last stand of the British against Roman onslaughts and the mass grave into which the defeated British were thrown. Unfortunately, more recent work queries whether the cemetery was ever a mass grave at all; but the story gripped me as a teenager. By the 1970s, we arrive at more delicate work, especially with the writing ‘tablets’, actually slivers of wood, from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, miraculously preserved in waterlogged ground. Excavated by Robin Birley and deciphered by Alan Bowman, they provide an astonishingly graphic account of everyday life on the frontiers at the end of the 1st century ad, as invites go out for birthday parties and details of which men are available for outside work are painstakingly extracted from the intricate lettering.
Higgins also ventures further north to discover reminders of the short-lived invasion of Scotland by Agricola in ad 79 or 80 (we know of it because the historian Tacitus was Agricola’s son-in-law and left a vivid account) and the little-known Antonine Wall, held only briefly before the frontier was pulled back again to the better-known barrier built by Hadrian. She takes in Bath and York, the latter achieving an empire-wide status when the emperor Septimius Severus established his court here between 208 and 211 and when, a century later Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was proclaimed emperor by his father’s troops. In Bath the Romans adopted the local Celtic god Sulis, associated her with their own Minerva, and the temple dedicated to both presided over the hot springs that were to set Bath up as a watering place in later centuries. In Colchester and London, dark layers record the burning of the nascent Roman settlements by the furious Boudica, in a devastating but ultimately crushed campaign (ad 60 or 61) that also survives in Tacitus’ account.
I am sorry that the camper van, with ‘its many and varied complaints’, did not merit an entry in the index. I would have liked to have retraced its valiant hill climbs even if it did collapse in York and thus not quite make it to Hardknott Castle (a 2nd-century fort guarding Hardknott Pass), perhaps the most spectacular of all the Roman sites in Britain. It added character to what is an engaging survey of our Roman past. While Higgins records exhaustive studies of Roman Britain (Roger Wilson’s A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain and the mammoth four-volume compilation of every known Roman mosaic by David Neal and Stephen Cosh), she provides a more light-hearted account, a valuable reminder of how the Roman past lies not too far beneath our feet. Indeed a metal detector unearthed a worn Roman coin from our own fields just a year ago, and, this being Suffolk, perhaps another Mildenhall treasure, the hoard of astonishing silver plate unearthed in 1942, is just waiting to be discovered close by.
Under Another Sky was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award.
Reviewers of this exhibition (Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, running at Tate Britain until 5th January) have fretted about whether what it presents is or isn’t true ‘iconoclasm’. I don’t think it matters. The curators make it clear from the outset, on the wall caption that greets you before you even enter the first room: they know full well what true iconoclasm is: it was the fuss that began in 8th-century Constantinople when Leo III ordered the destruction of the icon of Christ which hung over the Bronze Gate. That is one thing. But today we use the word much more loosely, to mean simply ‘breaking the mould’. Of course this can be approached with a responsible intellectual purpose, to question and to elicit answers. Or it can be approached frivolously, for the sheer mischievous hell-raising fun of it, to give the poor old bourgeoisie a fit of the vapours. Iconoclasm can equally be used to mean just ‘not doing things the way they’ve always been done’. Refusing to serve Yorkshire pudding with roast beef might be enough to qualify a chef as an ‘iconoclast’. All these things form part of the exhibition’s trail through the history of how works of art in Britain have been attacked, mutilated or otherwise tampered with, and the variety of motives behind it.‘The Risen Christ’ panel from Binham Priory. Figure of Christ painted c.1500; overlaid text c.1539.
The first rooms deal with iconoclasm in the original sense of the word: the destruction of religious images deemed idolatrous. The scope of the exhibition does not reach beyond Britain, so we begin with Henry VIII. Whatever one thinks about it—is it sacrilege? Is it unpardonable destruction of lovely works of human hand?—it is tempting to conclude from this display that the reformers carried out a principled operation. They wanted to make it impossible to adore the painted or graven visage, so they scratched out the faces and chopped off the heads. They wanted to replace the visual pictogram of God-as-icon with the appeal to the intellect of God-as-the-Word, newly available in English translation for all to understand. A panel from the famous rood screen from Binham Priory, Norfolk, illustrates this superbly: an image of the Risen Christ was whitewashed over and replaced with text from Cranmer’s Bible. Now the whitewash is flaking away and we can see the coloured icon underneath. But the reformers didn’t indulge in wanton destruction. By the time Cromwell comes on the scene, though, a thuggish element has emerged. We read stories of stained-glass windows being taken down for zealous prelates to trample to smithereens in public acts of toeing the new line. Politics have surged on stage and personal agendas are coming to the fore: the prelates want preferment; they want to curry favour with the new ruling elite. Not only is there a kind of glee behind the smashing and hacking, but a feeling of calculation.
This is one face of political iconoclasm. But in the next room we see another: iconoclasm as a form of mass protest. An equestrian statue of the monarch is daubed in spots to make it ridiculous and impossible to respect; a pillar with Nelson on top of it is blown to smithereens in Ireland. We’ve not seen this before. Up until now, icon-smashing has taken place by official diktat (as the iconoclasm of Communism was later to do); it has been iconoclasm as political repression, the smashing of other people’s totems as a form of intimidation and a symbol of who calls the shots. Now we see icon-smashing as a vehicle for the people’s voice.
What comes next is what the curators have termed ‘aesthetic iconoclasm’: tampering with works of art (or craftsmanship) in order to make a ‘statement’. Artists traditionally have striven to make coherence out of chaos: the avant garde practitioners whose (often paltry) efforts we are shown here seem to be doing their best to make chaos out of what had once been order: the burst-apart chair; the disembowelled piano. What does this say about the psyche of the 20th century? One thing it says is that these are personal affirmations. This kind of icon-breaking is carried out neither by governments nor by the masses but by individuals, who in some cases are simply mutilating things that they don’t happen to like. The display throws up plenty of questions for our pluralistic age. How are we to tolerate each other with no central control of what we believe in or approve of? Do we even have universally recognised icons any more? Is it OK to throw a can of paint over the result of someone else’s freedom of expression because personally we find it ‘offensive’? Do artists have a responsibility to society? And if so, what is it?
The exhibition doesn’t answer these questions. But they are valid questions to have asked. The best thing in the last part of the show is Douglas Gordon’s burned poster of Warhol’s screen prints of Queen Elizabeth II. For this is destruction of a twofold icon: a Warhol work of art and Her Majesty the Queen, a beautiful young monarch. And here the exhibition comes full circle. We are back to the Virgin Mary, to an image of a reverend figure insulted and abused. Gordon himself described his work as ‘homage to Warhol and an act of desecration’.
The exhibition itself, in a way, leads us from order into chaos. It functions as a microcosm of what iconoclasm does when it takes a hammer to a work of art. The clarity of the narrative begins to waver after the first rooms, with their impeccable presentation of historical iconoclasm, through the turmoil of the political rooms to the utter muddle of the aesthetic rooms—but we live in a muddled age, so the progression works. It mirrors humanity’s own progression from a world of centrally-imposed certainties to one of democratically enhanced confusion. In the room that deals with the suffragettes’ attacks on works of art, we learn all about Mary Richardson and her butchery of the Rokeby Venus: she swung her knife at a beautiful painted woman in protest at the way Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘a beautiful living woman’, was being treated in prison. There is a lovely irony in this. Because of course the Rokeby Venus presents us with the ultimate iconodule or worshipper of icons: Venus gazes at herself in a looking glass: this is a goddess adoring her own image. Mary Richardson may not have thought of that. Wyndham Lewis’s response in Blast, which the exhibition is careful to remind us of, was patronising, perhaps, but apt: ‘Leave art alone, brave Comrades! In destruction, as in other things, stick to what you understand.’