Another excursion from the provinces to London this weekend. A beautiful sunny day in which to crowd into the dark underbelly of the British Museum and stand in a stifling queue to see ‘Vikings: Life and Legend’. I’m fully aware that we brought this on ourselves by choosing to go on a Saturday, but I do feel the actual design of the exhibition is partly to blame.
You enter a darkened space in which a stationary snake of people waits to get close enough to the first display case to see what is in it. Out of the dark come the voices of a man and woman speaking Old Norse. Part of what they say is from ‘Gudrun’s Inciting’, according to a label. Er, duh? Is this the Gudrun = Gutrune of Wagnerian (as opposed to Norse or Teutonic) myth, and who or what is she inciting? Later resort to the internet solves this, but the labelling does not.
So my first beef is the filtering-in process by which you have to decide whether to flit from side to side and annoy people by breaking in and out of the queue or to miss bits altogether: why not have a bigger open space at the entrance, with things round the walls so that people can disperse rather than feeling obliged to follow the procession?
My second beef is the labelling, which falls into two smaller fillets. (1) The labels doesn’t contain enough information (and the individual items in each case are not labelled, so that saying ‘This brooch…’ at a case containing five brooches is less than helpful). (2) The labels are mostly at knee height, so that those of us who are not long-sighted have to bend down to read them. (I discovered half-way round that there are large-print booklets you can borrow, but it’s not the size of the print that’s at issue, it’s its position vis-à-vis the exhibits.) I imagine it’s done partly to be child-friendly, but this Grumpy Old Woman’s experience was not enhanced by a Mummy (let’s call her Persephone) who was encouraging (let’s say) Inigo and Tobias to lean their sketchbooks on the labels while they slowly drew their detailed images of the intricate gold torques to show to Granny later.
A third beef (though possibly unjustifiable and based on my own ignorance – but we go to these things to learn, don’t we?) is the tendentiousness of some of the inadequate labelling. Objects very similar in both design and execution were labelled Frankish, Slav, Germanic, Celtic or Balt, apparently on the basis of where they had been found – is such designation either accurate or meaningful for the period? I wish we’d been told.
Individual objects were breathtaking; others extremely moving. The ingenious skeletal reproduction of the Roskilde 6 ship (and isn’t the idea of finding several more ships when you’re digging around to extend the space of your ship museum appealing?) was brilliant. But I came out feeling that I knew no more about the Vikings than when I went in, except – fascinatingly – that they were almost aceramic, which had never occurred to me before. But I then wanted to know why: because they could manage with wood and (soft) soapstone containers, and horns for cups, before they started metal-working; because you first get the idea of firing clay in hot countries, where it bakes fairly hard naturally? Again, the labels could have told us, but didn’t. So, 9/10 for content, 5/10 for display, in my humble opinion.
After a brief pause for refreshment, Him Indoors went off about his own inscrutable Baltic purposes, and I decided to go to Greenwich to see the Turners. I have been to the National Maritime Museum a few times recently, but on CLC business, and usually without time for a wander. On this occasion, the gallery was full (the exhibition ends soon), but the oils, watercolours and etchings were at eye height (and so were the labels – hurray!) and it was possible to step back, and move forward and sideways, without the sense of being a nuisance to others which was all-pervading at the BM.
Turner’s wrestling with the sea was laid out chronologically, with useful exemplars of the earlier artists who had influenced his marine pictures, and some of his contemporaries, including one Francis Danby, who I had never come across before but whose melodramatic choice of subject and colouring shows a similarity to the apocalyptic works of John Martin. The most melodramatic Turner was the 1824 ‘Battle of Trafalgar’, painted by royal command for the Painted Hall at Greenwich, and considered to be historically inaccurate as it combined events from various different times in the battle. But as so often with Turner, it’s the disastrous aftermath, whether of battle or storm – the dead and the dying – that occupies the foreground.
The exhibition also contains the work claimed by Ruskin as Turner’s best sea-scape, and several of the wonderful late paintings which are pure colour conveying pure light – quite extraordinary. On the other hand, the accuracy needed to get boats looking plausible was demonstrated by a large-format colour book (Liber Nauticus and Instructor in the Art of Marine Drawing, 1805) showing all the ships of the line with their rigging properly displayed: useful if you were trying to sell your art to the likes of Admiral Croft in Persuasion, who goes to stare at a painting in a shop window: ‘But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that?’
Emerging, blinking, into the sunlight, I decided to walk up to the Observatory and take in the views. Flamsteed’s House, and – who knew? – the only surviving segment of William Herschel’s enormous telescope from Slough. A beautiful little garden full of camellias and birdsong, and of course the meridian line – which apparently was moved by Sir George Airy 19 feet from its original position as measurements became more accurate.
And then, having strolled round the Cutty Sark (China tea, anyone?) to look across the river, I saw in the distance a monument which looked faintly familiar, and proved indeed to be the obelisk set up by his English admirers to the memory of French officer Joseph René Bellot, lost during one of the Franklin rescue voyages for which he had volunteered, and which appears in his biography. Altogether, a Grand Day Out.