Friday, 28 May 2010

First Impressions: Exposed

By Sheila Corr,

‘Snapshot’ started as a term used in firing a gun, which reminds us, together with other familiar photographic terms such as ‘capture’ and ‘taking a shot’, that not all subjects have offered themselves willingly to the camera. Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera opens today, May 28th, at Tate Modern. The museum's fifth exhibition devoted to photography analyses and reflects on this hunt for prey, and explores the nature of intrusion throughout the history of photography, and the viewer’s complicity in the intrusion. Is it acceptable to invade someone’s privacy in this way and if so, when and why? If you look at the results of that invasion, are you too crossing the line?

Contemporary photography is at the centre of 'Exposed', but illuminated by earlier, and often more familiar work. The opening room sets the scene where Walker Evans’ surreptitious close-ups of passengers on the New York subway (taken with the simplest of cameras in the 1930s) are paired with Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s Heads of unaware New Yorkers. The photographic technology of 2000 is certainly much more advanced, but the result is strikingly similar.

The exhibition is divided into five thematic sections: The Unseen Photographer, Celebrity & the Public Gaze, Voyeurism & Desire, Witnessing Violence, and Surveillance. The first of these includes pioneering work by Lewis Hine, which drew attention to the exploitation of child labour in American mines and factories, and Paul Martin’s Victorian London street scenes. They show ordinary people going about their daily life observed by an invisible but highly skilled photographer who often went to elaborate lengths to conceal himself and his camera, in order to catch what Cartier-Bresson (well represented here) called ‘the decisive moment’, the exact second when all the elements needed to create a perfect composition are in place.

The Countess of Castiglione was the first celebrity to manipulate her own image back in the 1860s when she enacted bizarre personal fantasies for the camera. These days, however, fame generally entails relentless pursuit by the paparazzi and even in 1889, the artist Degas was ‘caught’ leaving a pissoir. Less surprising in this section are shots of Garbo trying to shield herself from the public gaze, or Eliabeth Taylor and Richard Burton ‘papped’ by Marcello Geppetti embracing as they sunbathe. Alison Jackson’s ersatz representations of lookalikes posed as the rich and famous in compromising situations, such as Jack Nicholson in road rage, raise questions of the viewer’s role by highlighting the humour.

The later rooms, starting with ‘Voyeurism & Desire’, move into more uncomfortable territory. Brassai’s shots of a seedy thirties Paris are familiar scenes of low life, as are Helmut Newton’s take on the world of fashion, but more dominant here are the reflections of women photographers who turn their critical gaze back on the peeping toms watching strippers and visiting brothels. ‘Witnessing Violence’ takes this questioning further: ‘Does photography allow us to bear witness to a victim’s suffering, or does it anaesthetize us to the horror?’ The horror is dead bodies (Weegee’s New York features strongly), suicides, assassinations, executions and concentration camp atrocities, dating back to the earliest 19th century photographs of conflict by Alexander Gardner and Felice Beato. The answer is ambivalent as war photographers frequently testify.

The intimacy of the photographer’s relationship with his/her subject disappears in the exhibition’s last section ‘Surveillance’, which opens into a much wider, more open exhibition space thus emphasizing that distance. Some of these are random shots taken at a fixed spot by CCTV, intended to record and sometimes incriminate. They often involve no artistic ‘eye’, but are nevertheless an interesting development in the technology and purpose of photography.
Although I like the early aerial views and love Simon Norfolk’s web of wires on Ascension Island, I was less engaged by the detailed recording of the minutiae of time and place while recognising it as an unavoidable conclusion to an exhibition about surreptitious camerawork. These days cameras are turned on us from all sides pretty much wherever we go, leaving our right to privacy an arguable concept. Well and truly exposed.

Walker Evans, Street Scene, New York, 1928
Gelatin silver print
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
©Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
Until October 3rd

Tate Modern
London SE1 9TG
Telephone: 020 7887 8888

Thursday, 27 May 2010

70 years ago today: Operation Dynamo

by Kathryn Hadley

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. Following the rapid advance of German troops during the Battle of France, French and British soldiers became trapped in a small pocket around Dunkirk. It is estimated that between May 26th and June 5th, 1940, over 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain (approximately 200,000 British and 110,000 French).

Memory of the evacuation diverges on both sides of the Channel, however. The 70th anniversary is featured on the front pages of most of today’s British newspapers; it is not covered, however, in the French news. Whereas Dunkirk is viewed in Britain as one of the most significant episodes of the Second World War, in France, the evacuation was on the whole a humiliation, which has been largely forgotten. In May 1940, Operation Dynamo also caused disputes between the French and British generals, when Gort disagreed with Weygand’s plans to organise a counter-attack on Arras.

What happened to the French soldiers who briefly sojourned in Britain and later returned to France? In Dunkirk: Paradise After Hell Rhiannon Looseley uncovers the forgotten history of the evacuation of over 100,000 French soldiers from Dunkirk to Britain.

Another forgotten episode of June 1940 is the sinking of the British ship Lancastria, on June 17th 1940, in the concluding phase of an operation to bring home British troops left in France after Dunkirk. In Dunkirk: For Those in Peril Jonathan Fenby asks why the greatest maritime tragedy ever to affect Britain was hushed up at the time and has remained a virtually untold story for sixty-five years.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Radicals and religious dissenters: London Non-Conformist registers 1694–1921

by Kathryn Hadley

The names and details of half a million UK radicals and religious dissenters covering a period of 225 years have been made available online, today, for the first time. The Non-Conformist church registers include the baptism and marriage registers and burial inscriptions, dating from 1694 to 1921, of both famous British non-conformists such as Daniel Defoe (1659-1731), William Blake (1757-1827) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and 224,000 ordinary men and women. The records form part of the London Historical Records, 1500s to 1900s held at the London Metropolitan Archive.

The records include the names of Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists, for example, who were persecuted by the state because they refused to comply with the Clarendon Code, the doctrine of the established Anglican Church, which remained in effect until 1828. For the most part, the church registers are the only records of these people in existence because they were not recorded by the state until civil registration in 1837.

Some of these non-conformists advanced progressive causes which formed the basis of modern civil liberties and political rights. The Quakers, for example, were the first religious group to denounce slavery. The Methodists were powerful advocates of women’s rights and the Unitarians campaigned for better conditions for factory workers.

The records are the first part of a number of non conformist collections that plans to digitise and publish online. They can be accessed at

William Blake's tombstone in Bunhill Fields cemetary in Islington, which was used as a burial site for non conformists from the late 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. The memorial stone is believed to be situated approximately 20 metres away from the actual spot of Blake's grave, which became lost in the 1960s when gravestones were removed to create a new lawn.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Ten Shocking Statistics: Did you know that…

by Kathryn Hadley

- Nearly half (47%) of 18-24 year olds don’t know that the Romans built Hadrian’s Wall.
- Nearly half (45%) of 18-24 year olds don’t know that Admiral Nelson led Britain to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
- 28% of 18-24 year olds believe that the Battle of Trafalgar was part of the English Civil War.
- 15% believe think that Oliver Cromwell was the leader of British troops at the Battle of Trafalgar.
- One in ten adults in England (i.e. those aged over 18) thinks that the Battle of Trafalgar was fought on the border between England and Scotland.
- More than one in three (33%) adults in England don’t know that Charles Darwin was English.
- One in five thinks that Darwin was Scottish.
- 12% believe that he was American or Canadian.
- 14% of adults in England think that the Vikings first came to England in the 16th century.
- Almost one in five adults in England (17%) don’t know that Thomas Beckett was assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral.

These statistics are the results of a survey commissioned by Sing Up, the National Singing Programme, which aims to put singing at the heart of primary school children’s lives. The survey was carried out by the pollster Populus, which interviewed 1,762 adults (over the age of 18) between 23rd and 25th April 2010.

As a result of the findings, Sing Up’s latest campaign, School Trip Singalong, was launched today at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in an attempt to combat these growing gaps in knowledge about British history. Sing Up has partnered with seven of Britain’s leading historical attractions, including the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Stonehenge, Jorvik Viking Centre, the Eden Project, Chester Zoo, Roman baths and Canterbury Cathedral, to develop specially commissioned songs to help bring historic learning to life. From June 7th, a Sing Up school bus will begin a two-week tour of the country giving pupils the chance to take part in school trip singalongs to some of these attractions.

Friday, 21 May 2010

What will become of Gordon Brown? The fates of former British prime ministers

by Kathryn Hadley

In 2007, the former MP and journalist Matthew Parris claimed that ‘no British prime minister in history has ever done anything seriously worthwhile or interesting after leaving Downing Street’. A Guardian editorial in 2008 reasserted Parris’ claim: ‘no British prime minister has ever found significance in a new role. Their best times are always behind them’.

History, however, has proved otherwise, or, in the very least, that the afterlives of British prime ministers are not predetermined in any way. In a new History & Policy paper published on Wednesday and entitled ‘What next for Gordon Brown’, Kevin Theakston (University of Leeds) argues that many British prime minsters have pursued successful careers and done ‘interesting and significant things in the years after they have left Number 10’. Moreover, success or failure as prime minister does not predict what may come afterwards.

There are now four living former prime minsters, including Lady Thatcher, Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. What will Gordon Brown do now that he has joined what Theakston describes as this ‘small and exclusive club of living former prime ministers’? There is no established role for former prime ministers: some completely withdraw from the political scene; others write their memoirs; some retire to their country estates; others fall into debt; some die soon after leaving Downing Street; and others hit the bottle.

A few former prime minsters warned of the dangers of seeking a continuing role in politics and public life. When Baldwin retired in 1937 he is said to have resolved to make no political speeches; Macmillan also advised against ‘hang[ing] around the greenroom after final retirement from the stage’. Other 20th century premiers who largely disappeared from the political scene include Attlee, Eden and Wilson. It seems that as time has moved on fewer former prime ministers have stayed on as MPs or party leaders. According to Theakston, whilst nine 19th century prime ministers had two or more consecutive terms in the office, only four premiers serving entirely in the 20th century managed to hold on to the party leadership after losing a general election and came back to serve for a second term (Baldwin, MacDonald, Churchill and Wilson).

It seems unlikely that Gordon Brown will ever serve a second term; but it may also be unlikely that he ends his days as plain ‘Mr’ Brown. To date, only nine prime ministers did not accept a peerage or knighthood: Henry Pelham (1694-1754), George Grenville (1712-1770), Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), Spencer Perceval (1762-1812), George Canning (1770-1827), William Gladstone (1809-1898), Andrew Bonar Law (1858-1923), Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), and Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940). 29 prime ministers became Knights of the Garter and many joined the House of Lords, described by Tony Benn as ‘the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians’.

If Brown withdraws from the political scene, he may still follow in the footsteps of the majority of former 20th century former prime ministers and write his memoirs. Brown has already written several books and may publish other historical or political works. In his post-premiership years, Balfour wrote numerous philosophy essays and Churchill completed his History of the English-Speaking People. Heath published books about his interests in sailing, music and travel before completing his autobiography entitled The Course of my Life (1998) and, following the publication of his Autobiography (1999), John Major wrote a history of cricket, More Than A Game: The Story of Cricket’s Early Years (2007).

Several prime ministers have made considerable amounts of money through the publication of their memoirs. Tony Blair has negotiated a deal worth £4.6 million for his autobiography (due to be published in September) and, in the 1930s, Lloyd George received £90,000 from the Daily Telegraph for his memoirs (equivalent to about £3 today). However, some prime ministers have struggled financially after leaving Downing Street. Pensions for former prime ministers were only introduced in 1937 at the rate of £2,000 per year (equivalent to over £70,000 today). Both William Pitt the Younger and his father died with huge debts that were paid off by parliament with public funds, King George III lent money to Lord North (1732-1792) and Queen Victoria also lent money to Viscount Melbourne (1779-1848). Attlee lived modestly off his pension, the House of Lords attendance allowance and the money he made from lectures and journalism. He left just £7,295 in his will, the smallest sum left by any former premier in the 20th century.

Lastly, it is to be hoped that Brown’s health will not suffer too much from the stress of his three years in Number 10. Theakston describes the premiership as ‘gruelling and stressful’ and claims that serving prime ministers age at two or three times the normal rate. Seven prime ministers died in office; nine died within two-and-a-half years of leaving Downing Street. The longest-lived prime minister was Callaghan, who died a day before his 93rd birthday in 2005; the shortest-lived was the Duke of Devonshire who died in 1764, aged 44. The average age of ex-premiers on leaving Downing Street is 61 and their average age at death is 73.

The release of Theakston’s paper was accompanied by an article published in the Yorkshire Post.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

First Impressions: Galleries of Modern London

by Paul Lay,

Next Friday (May 28th) sees the opening of the Galleries of Modern London at the Museum of London. It aims to tell the story of the city from its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666 to its current status as the world’s greatest global metropolis. The £20 million it cost to refurbish the gallery has, by and large, been well spent. The Sackler Hall, the gallery’s entrance and hub, is encircled by a 48-metre long digital ribbon called LDN24 created by a group of conceptual artists called The Light Surgeons. It’s the kind of thing that could go terribly wrong. But it succeeds brilliantly. Its focus is a speeded up film of 24 hours in the life of London, which manages to capture its rush, flavour and diversity, eschewing the stereotypical images of smiling policeman and red buses, and replacing them with images of office workers exercising; packed restaurants; traffic jams; bewildered tourists; shoppers. All go about their business against a backdrop rich in history and referenced again and again in the new galleries. An enveloping stream of statistics is emitted on the surrounding LED display. Looking up, as images of the financial powerhouse of the City of London beamed from the screen, I learnt that the highest paid male executive of a FTSE company earned an annual salary of £36 million; his female equivalent gets by on just £4 million. The statistics never cease.

Wealth and poverty are at the heart of London’s story. Perhaps the most memorable new item on display is a mid-18th century cell from the Wellclose debtors prison, originally located near the Tower of London. Its cells lay beneath a public house called the Cock and Neptune which was connected to a courthouse for which the pub’s landlord acted as a gaoler. The damp wooden walls of the cell are covered in the scratched scrawls of the inmates. One reads:

The Cubard’s Empty
To Our Sorrow
But Hope it will
Be Full to Morrow

The wealthy and those curious of their activities, may have made their way to one of the Pleasure Gardens that grew up on London’s outskirts – most notably Vauxhall – during the 18th century and were much imitated elsewhere. Within the circular Pleasure Garden gallery, a new addition, with its filmed backdrop of 18th-century characters, there are figures in costumes that imitate those of the time, created by the likes of London’s leading fahionistas such as the late Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. Masked ladies, acrobats, harlequins and ambassadors cavort as a surprisingly witty commentary unfolds.

Elsewhere in the galleries, old favourites remain, though now with more space in which to be appreciated: the Victorian Walk, with its rich, evocative array of pubs, banks, workshops and tea rooms; the wonderfully ornate Selfridges lift from 1928; Nelson’s sword of honour, emphasising the debt that London’s traders owed to the Royal Navy’s policing of the oceans; and the Lord Mayor’s State Coach, made in 1757 and still used annually in the Lord Mayor’s Show, which gets its own gallery, visible from London Wall.

The largest display of new material comes at the end. Much is made of London radicalism and eccentricity, embodied in characters as different as the ‘Protein Man’, Stanley Green, who until his death in 1993, warned commuters and shoppers of the uncontrollable passions aroused by eating too much protein; and Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, whose courage and deep principal, borne at great personal peril, is symptomatic of London at its best. The same embrace of difference is on display in the collections of fashion and music, in which for the best part of half a century, London has been a world beater with no sign of its energies waning; quite the reverse. Pamphlets, magazines and books from the 1960s onwards abound, just as they do in the galleries dedicated to the 1700s. London’s incontinence of ideas, innovation and communication has been a constant for centuries.

All in all, the gallery succeeds, not so much as an encyclopedic trawl of London’s history, more in summoning up the dissenting, tolerant mentality that is at the heart of London’s cultural and economic success. No city has been so successful and influential for so long. While other European cities such as Paris or Rome or Berlin seem mere shadows of their former greatness, replaced by the vigorous new conurbations of Asia and Latin America, London swaggers on. The Museum of London’s new galleries demonstrate how and why.

Our Reviews Editor, Juliet Gardiner, reviewed the new Galleries of Modern London on BBC Radio 4's Front Row programme on May 27th.

Galleries of Modern London
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN

- The Sackler Hall © Museum of London
- Wellclose Square prison cell, 1750 © Museum of London

Monday, 10 May 2010

Wood from the tree that inspired Newton’s theory of gravitation travels into space

by Kathryn Hadley

A piece of wood engraved with Sir Isaac Newton’s initials from the tree which inspired him to formulate the theory of gravitation will travel into space on the next NASA mission STS 132, this Friday May 14th. The sections of wood pictured here are from the tree from which Newton (1643-1727) famously saw the apple fall at some time during 1665 or 1666. The tree still stands in Newton’s former home, Woolsthorpe Manor, in Lincolnshire. The Royal Society, of which Newton was a former president, has entrusted the section of wood to the British-born astronaut Piers Sellers as part of its 350th anniversary celebrations. He will be flying with the larger piece of wood as well as with a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton.

Piers Sellers described the mission:
‘We’re delighted to take this piece of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree to orbit.
While it’s up there, it will be experiencing no gravity, so if it had an apple
on it, the apple wouldn’t fall. I’m pretty sure that Sir Isaac would have loved
to see this, assuming he wasn’t spacesick, as it would have proved his first law
of motion to be correct. After the flight, we will be returning the piece of
tree and a flown picture of Sir Isaac Newton back to The Royal Society.’

The NASA mission will last 12 days. The piece of wood will thereafter be held as a permanent exhibit at the Royal Society.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society made available online, for the first time, the original manuscript of William Stukeley’s biography of Newton. Stukeley was one of the first biographers of Newton and was also a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

65th Anniversary of VE Day

by Kathryn Hadley

Today marks the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe.

The Kremlin has planned the largest parade in history, due to be held in the Red Square tomorrow, with 10,000 troops, 160 military vehicles and 127 aircraft on display. In The Guardian, Luke Harding reports from Russia on how, despite the planned commemorations, the Kremlin has recently been accused of historical revisionism and has failed to recognise some of the horrors of its Stalinist past.

Christian Neef and Matthias Schepp also report in Der Spiegel on how, five decades after his death, Russians are still disputing whether or not Stalin can be a positive role model.

In London, the Soviet Memorial Trust Fund is organising a programme of events in co-operation with Southwark Council and the Imperial War Museum London, this Sunday May 9th. The events will begin at 10.45am with an Act of Remembrance at the Soviet War Memorial in the Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, adjacent to the Imperial War Museum London. It will be followed, in the afternoon, by an illustrated talk by historian and former diplomat Sir Rodric Braithwaite and a series of films screenings from the IWM archives.

Participants in the Act of Remembrance include British and Russian Second World War veterans, The Lady Soames, the youngest daughter of Winston and Clementine Churchill and the Russian Ambassador, HE Yury Fedotov.

Members of the public are welcome to participate in all of the events. For further information, visit the website of the Imperial War Museum.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Last British Hung Parliament: A Short History of British Politics

by Kathryn Hadley,

In just over an hour David Cameron is due to make a statement and the Liberal Democrats may consider forming a coalition with the Conservative Party.

The last British hung parliament dates back to 1974, although the results of the polls were reversed with Labour winning 301 seats, the Conservatives 297 and the Liberals 14. In The Guardian, Andy Beckett describes the Conservative leader of the time, Edward Heath, as ‘a stubborn prime minister battered by strikes, a sudden recession and Tory rebellions, [who] was determined to cling on’. Heath invited the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, to London to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition, notably in return for a vote in the Commons on electoral reform! The situation 36 years ago appears eerily similar to that today and one cannot help but wonder how Gordon Brown will react. Will he too go down in history as ‘a stubborn prime minister battered by a recession’?
There is an excellent selection of pictures of the 1974 election on the website of Getty Images.

‘The Historic Labour Party’, an illuminating article by R.I. McKibben dated November 1983, is equally reminiscent of the current political uncertainty and crisis of the Labour Party. McKibben argues that the Labour Party’s crisis at the time could only be explained by examining the history of the Party’s structure, in particular its relationship to the trade unions, the social character of the Party's active membership, and its legislative and ideological aspirations.

If Gordon Brown stays in power and forms a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, it seems almost certain that electoral reform will be on the cards and he may finally implement the programme of constitutional reform that he promised when he became prime minister in 2007. If Britain adopts a written constitution, it will not be the first in British history, however. In ‘Writing it Down’, Patrick Little charts the history of two previous British constitutions which date back 350 years: The Instrument of Government under Cromwell and the Humble Petition and Advice, which passed into law on June 26th, 1657.

Finally, if you think the current political situation is complex, Diana Spearman’s article ‘The Pre-Reform British Constitution’, which considers the deep complexities of the pre-Victorian political landscape and electoral system in Britain may prove particularly enlightening and reassuring.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A Short History of UK general elections

by Kathryn Hadley

When today’s newspapers are filled with stories about the general election, only ‘The Modern Historian’ seems to have remembered that 43 years ago, May 6th 1967, was also a historic day in India. On May 6th 1967, the electoral college of the Republic of India cast their vote in favour of the country’s first Muslim President. Dr. Zakir Hussain became a week later, on May 13th 1967.

On the website of The Times, Antonia Senior also highlights another important anniversary, which risks being overshadowed by today’s electoral fever: the Stuart Restoration of May 8th, 1660. However, interestingly in our April issue Derek Wilson argues that for most of the population, the Restoration had little effect and life under Charles II was much the same as it was under Cromwell.

Thirdly, it is also important to pay homage to those women who devoted their lives to the fight for female suffrage: Millicent Fawcett who founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage; Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU); Emily Wilding Davison, who became the first Suffragette martyr when she threw herself in front of the king’s horse during the Derby races of 1913… In ‘The fight for a woman’s right to vote’, the Virtual Victorian provides a summary of the history of the fight for female suffrage. ‘Deeds, not Words’ was the motto of the WSPU and in our article of the same name, June Purvis charts the career of the founder of the movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, suggesting that she may have been misrepresented and misunderstood.

Did you know that Scottish men played a significant role in the campaign to get women the vote in the years before the First World War? Leah Leneman explores the forgotten part played by men in the female suffrage movement in Britain in ‘Northern Men and Votes for Women’.

Lastly, to mark today’s general election here are the top three articles from our archive charting the history British general elections. In January this year, in the midst of the scandal over MP’s expenses, Trevor Fischer explained in ‘The Old Corruption’ that our parliament was far from being 'the most corrupt parliament ever'; in the 18th century, bribery was rife and rigged elections were common and gaining public office was a means to private wealth.

Labour came into office for the first time in January 1924, with the election of Ramsay Macdonald as Prime Minister. In ‘The Last Hurrah’, York Membery suggests that if the Liberals had done better in the 1923 polls, they would have formed a minority government with Labour support and 20th century political history would have been very different. Has the moment come for the return of the Liberals?

In January 1979, temperatures of -7ºC were recorded at Heathrow. They fell much further to -17ºC at Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire and flights from Heathrow were cancelled or heavily delayed. In ‘Labour Wasn’t Working’, John Shepherd looks back to the Winter of Discontent explaining how it heralded the demise of the Labour government and paved the way for Margaret Thatcher and 18 years of unbroken Conservative rule. This scenario sounds eerily familiar. Will the results of today’s election see history repeating itself? Will the recession pave the way for the return of a Conservative government?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

First Impressions: Antifascistas: British and Irish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

‘Antifascistas’ opened today, May 5th, at the 12 Star Gallery in the European Commission’s offices in Westminster. Our Picture Editor, Sheila Corr, attended the official opening yesterday evening. She shares her first impressions of this exhibition on the British and Irish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War.

By Sheila Corr,

The Spanish Civil War is now generally seen as the prelude to World War II in Europe’s 20th century fight against fascism. ‘Antifascistas’ puts the conflict firmly in that position.

Between 1936 and 1938, 2,500 British and Irish men and women went to Spain in an astonishing show of international solidarity to defend democracy, and this is their story. It is told on 15 display boards rather than as a three-dimensional exhibition of photographs, posters and banners, though they are all represented here, together with many personal and moving tales of heroism. Much of the visual material reproduced is from the Marx Memorial Library to whom the International Brigade Association donated their archive back in 1975, and where I have been fortunate enough to look through photograph albums and other memorabilia, sitting under the British Battalion banner. This is a fitting home as most of the volunteers in the 15th International Brigade were members of the Communist Party, and many had shown their colours confronting Mosley and his Blackshirts at Cable Street in October 1936.

Picasso’s famous painting in response to the bombing of Guernica was on display in Paris during 1937, where it was seen by volunteers heading to Spain. English artists and writers such as W.H.Auden and Laurie Lee recorded their own experiences, though some, such as Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell, died in the process.

Altogether 500 British and Irish died in Spain, but others returned to continue the fight, including Tom Wintringham who was the driving force behind the Home Guard, and Jack Jones who became an important Trade Union leader. Last year, in acknowledgement of their enduring debt, Spain gave citizenship to the remaining veterans.

‘Antifascistas’ is an intelligent, informative exhibition which is well worth catching on its forthcoming tour of Britain. It is at the 12 Star Gallery, Storey’s Gate until 14th May, and from 22nd at Newcastle City Library.

A well illustrated book of the same name accompanies the exhibition.

Antifascistas: British and Irish Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
May 5th – 14th

8 Storey's Gate
London SW1P 3AT

- The British Battalion banner
- British volunteers returning to the front following convalescence at Benicasim (Marx Memorial Library)

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

First Impressions: Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda ad Art

Our picture editor, Sheila Corr, reviews the British Library's latest exhibition, 'Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art', which opened on Friday.

by Sheila Corr,

Works of art, signs of power, instruments of propaganda – these are some of the ways maps are, and always have been, subjective. Anyone who has ever been taken aback by seeing a country other than their own at the centre of a world map, will probably already be aware of this, but the British Library’s new exhibition offers plenty of surprises.

Fra Mauro produced what many consider to be the first ‘modern’ world map c.1450 as it included recent Portuguese discoveries in Africa. The importance of these is underlined by the fact that Africa is shown at the top, so you are immediately conscious of Portuguese domination. The East India Company considered the British Empire to be the natural successor to Portugal’s and commissioned this copy in 1804.

The scale and scope of 'Magnificent Maps' is extraordinary. Apart from a Roman marble fragment, the earliest map on display is a 13th-century Psalter Mappa Mundi illustration with God at the top and Jerusalem in the centre; the most recent is a Grayson Perry etching inspired by such spiritual representations and displayed beside them. The world and small significant sections of it are shown on vellum and cloth, in tapestry and wooden globes, and good use of additional visual material adds context to the ways these would all have originally been seen. Eight non-chronological rooms recreate the settings, so the first four, which deal with royal dominance, feature impressive, and often vast, maps designed to be hung as status enhancing works of art throughout a palace. The next four rooms cover political propaganda and advertising, domestic display, government agenda, and finally education or indoctrination. Alongside mass-produced prints reflecting a variety of political viewpoints, are faithful paintings of a Sussex estate and a bird’s eye view of Canton, which reminded the first owners of their source of wealth and power, and impressed visitors. Many of the exhibits require very close inspection, and magnifying glasses are provided for looking at some of the displays.

The Klencke Atlas is the largest book in the world and, at almost six feet tall, you can see why it has not been on display before. Charles II was given the book at his restoration to the throne in 1660 by the Dutch merchant Johannes Klencke. It is displayed close to the smallest atlas, which was made for Queen Mary’s dollshouse in 1924 and has Britain represented on every page.

It was an enormous help to be shown round the exhibition by the curators. Peter Barber, who has been at the Map Library for 30 years, has an enthusiasm for his subject and love of the 4 ½ million maps making up the collection, which is infectious. All but nine of the one hundred examples on display belong to the British Library.

- William Frazer, The Fra Mauro World Map of circa 1450, 1804 (British Library)
- Johan Maurits of Nassau, The Klencke Atlas, c.1660 (British Library)
Blog Directory