There I was in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum all ready for a great evening of various activities to celebrate the opening of the new Celts: Art and Identity exhibition. As is the custom just before a performance, particularly an important one in an unfamiliar environment, all the things that could go wrong began to crowd into my head. I was going to tell right beside a marble bust of Zeus and I reckoned that there was at least a 50% chance that I would send it crashing to the ground with an extravagant sweep of my arm and never be allowed to set foot in the place again. I watched two speakers being hoisted onto their stands by the sound technician and imagined the echoey, disembodied din they were going to make, liberally interspersed with the screech of feedback. Half a dozen uncomfortable, folding, plastic chairs were ranged in front of me and the three visitors present moved to a safe distance from me, checked their guide book and left. Things weren’t looking great.
All this paranoia was quickly dispersed be my minder for the evening and the sound technician (thank-you Maria and Rich!). The audience were chivied into place until the gallery was full and soon I was miked up and ready to go with my voice given just the unobtrusive lift I needed.
The choice of what to tell was easy. In one session I gave them Taliesin, a story that is book-ended by magic cauldrons, and since the Gundestrup Cauldron, the mother of all magic cauldrons, was in the exhibition I could not resist. In the other I told Branwen from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi because it ends up in London, on the banks of the Thames, with seven survivors of a bloody and ultimately pointless war in Ireland and features Y Pair Dadeni – ‘The Cauldron of Rebirth’. There was an extra frisson because a number of shields and swords found in the Thames are in the exhibition.
This exhibition invites you to get in close to the artifacts. Apart from some enormous high stone crosses most of the objects are things that people carried or wore and are often beautifully decorated and I found myself spending a long time with individual objects and frequently coming back to them for another look. The exhibition does a great job of contextualising the art by contrasting it with the Classical art of the period. Classical art developed a genius for realism and particularly astonishing portrayals of the human body. These objects stand in their own space and declare their presence unambiguously and brilliantly. Celtic art, on the other hand, blends the decorative and the figurative and allows the end of one figure to become the beginning of another so that, as you make sense of the object, different aspects of it foreground themselves and then melt into the background again as the wings of what you had seen as a bird become the mustache of an upside down warrior’s face. We might all experience gravity in a similar way but the idea that up and down are absolute directions is an illusion that Celtic art exploits to great effect.
The ritual functions of many of the objects are unknown but there was one thing that I thought I understood. The Lichfield Gospel is a Bible and I’ve seen plenty in my time and I have a pretty good idea what they are for. I peered over it, not unlike the medieval monks who composed it, and got sucked into its pages. To protect the vellum the light is kept low and it takes a moment for you to see the intricacy of the illuminations. Paper and screen reproductions of this and other manuscripts flatten the surface but looking at the real thing is a different experience. The vellum is not completely flat and the ink varies in thickness so these traces, far from being just exotic and anonymous remains of a bygone age, suddenly reveal the gestures of a real person who bent over this book to write and decorate it, so that I became the most recent in a line of people stretching back to the eighth century who bowed their heads over his work.
The more I looked, the more I saw. As the main decorative features of the pages became clearer more intricate and finer work became apparent behind it. My perception was that this secondary decoration was not underneath or in the gaps of the bigger shapes and patterns but actually behind it at a distance that was much greater than the thickness of the page itself. Each time I came back it had the same effect and it seemed to me that these Celtic artists not only regarded the old certainties of up and down as an illusion but also the assumption that objects have a clear and defining surface. This page was not a flat surface on which one could write and draw but a membrane through which we could pass and other things could emerge. When I stood up to give my back a stretch I looked round, saw the other objects lit up in their glass cases and realised that they were the same. Going back to some of the La Tène decorated shield bosses I could see that these swirling patterns were not stuck on top of the surface of the object but as the spirals diminished on my side, they grew into the imagined space on the other side.
Another feature of the swirly Celtic style is that the symmetry is almost always slightly off. There is no doubting the craftsmanship of the makers so this almost-symmetry must have been deliberate. Some revival Celtic art is very symmetrical and, compared to the old stuff, seems static. There is something in the design that makes our pattern-loving brains look for the symmetry but the old-time makers play a game with us by making a gap between what we expect and what we see that is big enough to make us feel the dissonance and the overall effect is that the patterns begin to move.
The exhibition is called Celts: Art and Identity and the curators have done a brilliant job of collecting and interpreting the art but they get a bit unstuck with the identity. There is a collection of Celtic revival art as you leave the exhibition and it includes some interesting stuff. Much of it harks back to an imagined Celtic past and the interpretation and the catalogue remind us that this idea of a separate insular Celtic identity is a myth and has been revealed as such by the ‘Celtosceptic’ scholarship of the 1980’s. Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, calls the term a ‘badge of otherness’ and Jeremy Paxman had a good laugh at the expense of revival druids in his opening speech. All very well, but it pays to remember that the Celtic revival happened when the British Empire was a superpower in expansive mood and it is difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like swimming against that kind of tide. We’re all friends now, of course, but it is worth remembering that if you are wearing your official ‘British’ badge and you go to see the neighbours we have all developed ways of presenting ourselves precisely so you don’t see what is going on. Force of habit, I suppose.
Matthew Arnold was a great Victorian champion of old Celtic literature and regarded it has a great treasure. He is less enthusiastic about their descendants. In On The Study of Celtic Literature He is clear sighted enough to understand the separate identity of the non-English countries, which at that time included the whole of Ireland, but his solution is drastic. “The sooner the Welsh language disappears as an instrument of the practical, political, social life of Wales the better; the better for England, the better for Wales itself”.
Mathew Arnold really knew the old Welsh material and was clearly in thrall to its mystery and beauty but he wanted to save it from the Welsh who, he believed, had no idea what any of it meant even as they committed it to vellum. “The very first thing that strikes one, in reading the Mabinogion,” he writes “is how evidently the medieval story-teller is pillaging an antiquity of which he does not fully possess the secret; he is like a peasant building his hut in the site of Halicarnassus or Ephesus; he builds, but what he builds is full of materials of which he knows not the history, or knows by a glimmering tradition only”. Charming.
Arnold puts himself outside the experience of those who created the work and helps himself to the story, in translation naturally. But what of those who speak from the inside? Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) achieved literary success with a direct style using everyday language and wrote of his early life in Iniskeen in County Monaghan in The Green Fool. He had no illusions about the privations and problems of rural Ireland but he also marvelled at the sheer transcendent beauty of the landscape that could be glimpsed when observer and landscape found some deeper connection. “The beauty behind the beauty” as he called it. He also took the precisely opposite view to Arnold writing “The peasant and folk knew the love and strange knowledge of God and Greece that they didn’t know they knew”.
The excellent exhibition book notes the popularity of figures from British pre-history in the Victorian period. Thomas Thorneycroft made his huge statue Boadicea and her Daughters that stands on the Embankment and the exhibition guide book informs us that Boadicea’s name (rendered today as Boudica) ‘was said to mean Victory’. Here, again, the view from the inside is different. From a Welsh perspective the connection is much clearer because the queen of the Iceni’s name in Welsh is Buddug, which means, plain and simply ‘Victory’ and the name is still current today, if a little old-fashioned. From there the Welsh mind makes the link, not with Queen Victoria, as was Thorneycroft’s intention, but to Gwenllian, the Welsh warrior princess who died leading her soldiers to battle against a later invader, the Normans, and whose name became a battle cry for her soldiers after her death.
On the whole the interpretation in this exhibition is excellent and, because this is a museum, there is an attempt at taking the view from nowhere and seeing things, perhaps too much, at arm’s length. One of the swirly plaques that caught my eye was from the lake Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey (the island stronghold of the Druids in Roman times and before). I had been staring into this mysterious and beautiful object for quite a while before I noticed its interpretation label telling me where it had been found and when I looked back at it, it looked completely different. This is because I have spent quite a long time on the shore of the lake where it was found in the company of friends listening to Elfyn Owen Jones tell the story of how her father, William Owen Roberts discovered the hoard in 1943.
The hoard was put in the lake for a reason, most likely as part of a ritual and as part of a sacred ‘gift economy’, as Lewis Hyde would have it. The treasure had passed through the membrane of the water’s surface, to serve some function or other, and a couple of thousand years later I was looking at it glinting in its case bringing with it my experiences of spending time by the lake, listening to Elfyn’s stories in the company of my travelling companions.
Since we know comparatively little of the Celts our experience of their artifacts is full of gaps and it can be tempting to fill those gaps according to our our own tastes and proclivities. We can try to make scientific hypotheses, invent rituals and beliefs for our ancestors or invoke the deities we imagine they worshipped. However these gaps are part of the picture and make the space between us and the physical and narrative artifacts resonant. Perhaps one way forward is simply to give these amazing things that our ancestors made our attention and be tolerant of a degree of incoherence and incompleteness. It’s okay not to have all the answers.
Back to the stories. I had a great time in the Enlightenment Gallery in the end. People flooded in from who knows where and soon more chairs magically appeared and those without made little nests for themselves at the foot of sculptures and display cabinets. Once again the stories reminded us all that there is no weirdness or exoticism here. There is no feeling of ‘otherness’ in spite of the magic, transformation and other peculiar things that happen. For me there seemed to be a profound recognition of something that we all feel and know and in the gathered listening words like ‘Celtic’ seem suddenly irrelevant – a handy signpost for us to get our bearings, perhaps, but not much use when confronted by the art and the stories as experience. When we listen to a story that a people grew from their lives or gaze at the beautiful objects they made we come to the realisation that these objects do not belong to the distant past alone but are here fully alive and present now.
This blog post was origanlly published on another site on February 10th 2016