Temples, Tombs and Treasures: In Search of the Queen of Sheba
She is referred to in the Bible, the Koran and in Ethiopian History but who was this Queen who ruled Ethiopia in the tenth century BC? Did she visit King Solomon to test his wisdom and did they have a son, Menelik, from whom kings of that mysterious country are said to have descended?
The Book that was raffled was ‘Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen’. It is the catalogue for an Exhibition at the British Museum held in 2002 but probably one of the best accounts of all we know about the mysterious Queen. It is now difficult to obtain but includes some remarkable pictures and information. Louise suggests that you might like to read Queen Sheba’s Ring by H Rider Haggard. If you have a Kindle, you can download this free!
Wonderworkers and the Art of Illusion – Bertie Pearce
Members of Stratford Decorative and Fine Arts Society are accustomed to lectures on very diverse topics but magic was certainly a first. The Civic Hall rang with laughter and applause on January 16 as Bertie Pearce, internationally acclaimed magician, robustly supported by his audience, ran through a repertoire of tricks, many dating back to antiquity.
Even today in a super technical age of electronic devices, magic, instanced by the Harry Potter craze, is as popular as ever. Seneca, the Roman Stoic Philosopher said that it was the trickery which pleased him. Once he knew how it was done he lost interest. Try as we might, none of us, even on the front row, could see how it was done!
Frank Pick and the London Underground – Launce Gribbin
If traffic in Central London seems unbearable today, imagine what it would have been like in the nineteenth century with horse drawn transport and the consequent filth. The solution was to transport passengers under the road by opening the first underground railway in 1863, though travelling through a tunnel in a windowless carriage hauled by a steam train was not immediately popular, explained Launce Gribbin in his lecture.
Frank Pick was the man employed in 1906 to popularise London Underground. Even the introduction of electric trains had not improved the financial viability of tube travel; commuters used the service twice daily to go to and from work but the general public were not inspired to ride on it in between times.
Though not a designer himself, Pick had the happy knack of commissioning the very best artists and architects to realise his vision. Re-branding is not a modern marketing technique: under his leadership, the roundel sign for the Underground, the typescript for station names, simple eye- catching advertisements, the iconic tube map based on an electrical wiring diagram, art deco stations, and colourful, now eminently collectable, posters were developed. Branching out, he oversaw the transformation from tramcar to bus, the use of reinforced concrete for bus stops and a mini skyscraper for London Transport HQ. Forming the Design for Industry Association – later to become The Design Council – he and his colleagues were passionate advocates for modern design and the best examples in 1930’s London were provided by London Transport.
Illuminated Manuscripts: Mediaeval Books of Hours – Dr Christopher De Hamel
Most of us will receive at least one Christmas card with an illustration taken from a Mediaeval Book of Hours, highlighting the enduring appeal of these personal prayer books, now most famous for their illustrations. In his lecture on November 21, Dr Christopher de Hamel, internationally renowned expert on mediaeval manuscripts, explained the origins of these exquisite, hand- written, decorated texts.
Legend has it that at the Annunciation, considered the most important experience ever for any human being, the Virgin Mary was reading the Psalms – in Latin of course! Something of Mary’s experience could be shared by reading aloud, in private, prayers for the eight canonical hours of the day along with the seven psalms. Optional texts included a calendar of Saint’s Days with special days marked in red, hence red letter days.
Books might be large, with jewel studded covers and gold illumination or match box size for travelling. They were often the prized possessions of women, and children were taught to read from them hence the word Primer for a textbook to teach children to read from Prime, the prayer at first light.
Shakespeare’s Richard the Third is advised to present himself to his subjects, appearing to read a Prayer Book. Amazingly, the King’s actual book still exists with his own annotations.
The Decoration is among the glories of western art; Illustrations from the life of the Virgin, each Hour marking a different stage in her story, are interspersed by others, distinctly secular, providing one of our best sources for insight into daily life in the Middle Ages often depicted with sly humour. Margins are filled with brilliantly coloured birds, animals, insects and flowers, as captivating today as 500 years.
CARMEN – Fatal Attraction – Jonathan Hinden
Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ is probably the most popular of all operas, its tunes the most hummable; can it also be ‘high art’? ‘Of course it can’, responded Jonathan Hinden, former Glyndebourne Opera Principal Coach, in his lecture on October 17. ‘We undervalue the work because it is so well known yet it is technically immaculate, the characterisation superb’, he went on.
Playing the piano and singing to illustrate his points, Jonathan Hinden gave a non-technical and often very humorous account of ‘Carmen ‘, focussing on the composer’s ability to express emotions, moods and atmosphere through music.
First performed in Paris in 1875, the opera pleased neither the bourgeois family audience at the Opéra-Comique – the story was too racy and the gypsy heroine no role model for a well brought up daughter –nor the critics. Fortunately a more broad minded audience in Vienna loved it and within a decade ‘Carmen’s’ celebrity was assured though Bizet did not live to see it.
The theme is the clash between two incompatible cultures: Carmen herself represents the ‘other’, the strong willed, charismatic, gypsy girl living and dying by her own code who is loved by a seemingly virtuous young soldier whose violent and unstable nature, only gradually revealed, makes him act atrociously against society’s rules. The music reflects this theme with its Spanish flavour; it hints of a different world, Moorish and exotic.
A warmly appreciated lecture ended with a plea for us to by-pass TV and DVD and see a live performance of ‘Carmen’ as soon as we could find one.
‘As if by Magic’: The Secrets of Turner’s Watercolour Techniques – Nicola Moorby
It must have been the coldest day of the summer and the Civic Hall is in the middle of major renovation but STRADFAS members are, fortunately, determined people who coped well with temporary problems of temperature and sightline to enjoy a fascinating lecture.
Nicola Moorby’s command of her visual presentation reflected the skills of the artist who has been her major study as a curator at Tate Britain.
JMW Turner is generally considered the greatest practitioner in watercolour the world has ever seen and his achievements are still the benchmark for artists today but how did he do it? Nicola set out to unlock the mysteries behind his special effects.
He was notoriously reticent about his methods and though his contemporaries thought his painting nearer to sorcery than craft he once responded grumpily , ’the only secret I have is damned hard work’!
The one person who has left a record of watching Turner work describes him starting after breakfast in a chaotic frenzy of pouring, rubbing and scratching to produce, by lunch time, an amazing picture.
Modern forensic study, using the entire contents of his studio, the Turner Bequest, housed at the Tate Gallery has enabled researchers to analyse his practices. We saw images of his tools and materials and learned of his experimental approach to techniques far in advance of anything that had gone before. Small wonder that the prestigious award for cutting edge art is the Turner Prize!
Paintings such as, ‘The Blue Rigi’ would be a challenge for an artist even today, while unfinished pieces in his sketchbooks, untitled and never shown or sold by Turner, are valued as abstracts and considered perfect in themselves.
Knowing how he did it, understanding his techniques might have decreased our appreciation of Turner. In fact the opposite was probably true and our admiration has increased with our knowledge.
Wandering among the nomadic tribes of Iran and Afghanistan – Brian MacDonald
‘Wherever lies thy carpet, there lies thy home’ said a tribal elder to our lecturer. To a great tale of adventure coupled with illustrations of exquisite workmanship, members had the extra pleasure of handling 19th century salt, wheat and saddle bags, together with rugs and mats.
Nomadic families migrate across rivers and mountains, and the women are intensely creative, singing and chanting the colours of old talismanic symbols of their religion into their weavings as they walk. Skills are passed on to their daughters, as articles are woven for dowries – always for practical rather than decorative use.
Sadly, tribal weaving has succumbed to the demands of commercialisation, so plastic bags now replace woven wheat bags. However the wonderful free expression of these works have made them highly desirable collector’s items.
Italian Renaissance Princes and their Art: The Gonzaga of Mantua: Shirley Smith
Renaissance Italy was not a country but a collection of republics and duchies, in which the ruling families displayed their wealth and power, not only on the battlefield but by commissioning works from the best artists, musicians and architects of the day.
This re-birth of learning brought renewed interest in classical art, and in Mantua the Gonzaga family commissioned Andrea Mantegna, renowned for his paintings of the ancient world, to sustain their family image; his wonderful paintings in the Camera degli Sposi looks like a natural portrayal of family life.
Isabella d’Este, married to Francesco Gonzago, was one of the greatest patrons of the age, and she managed to collect some sixteen hundred valuable antiquities. But inevitably the family funds ran out, and many of their great paintings were bought by Charles I and shipped to England, although Oliver Cromwell subsequently sold many of them to royalty in Spain.
Eighteenth Century English Gardens: James Bolton
The transition from French formality to the peculiarly English phenomenon of glorious landscaped parkland happened over the turn of the 17th-18th centuries; since gardens are often about one-upmanship, the English nobility vied for the services of great designers such as Vanbrugh and Kent, who produced designs in neo-classic, Gothic and English styles.
Eventually, the landscape extended right up the the house, and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the omnipotent magician, created rivers between grassy banks, and well-placed clumps of trees, all of which appeared entirely natural.
Repton returned design to the more practical, still beautiful but starting to incorporate developing technology such as glasshouses, until by the 19th century, the garden design had turned full circle to embrace, once again, formality.
The Golden Age of Venetian Glass: Jane Gardiner
Not surprisingly, it was the Romans who first learnt how to make glass, and by the 4th century BC they had perfected many techniques. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the skills were lost and the Venetians re-invented these techniques in the 13th century and monopolised luxury glass-making, especially on the island of Mureno.
By the 15th century, gold leaf and enamelling was being used on beakers and cups, and later craftsmen started to exploit the quality of the glass itself, creating beautiful clear drinking vessels.
Commissions encouraged the development of techniques such as millefiori, filigree and lattimo, but the Venetians couldn’t keep their secrets for ever, and by the late 17th century craftsmen in both England and Germany were developing their own distinctive styles.