Sutton Hoo – A Very Special Place

Tomorrow Netflix is showing ‘The Dig’, a film featuring the discovery of the early seventh-century, Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The original dig was begun on 20th June 1938 when the owner of Tranmer House and Estate, Edith Pretty, invited a local, gifted yet amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the earth mounds on her property. The film stars Ralph Fiennes (incidentally born in Ipswich) as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

The Mounds with Tranmer House, home to Mrs Edith Pretty in the distance.
Mrs Pretty (1883-1942) by Cor Visser (1903-1982) Oil on canvas, 1939. Basil Brown from local newspaper clipping.

The following year, in September 1939, the ship burial and inhumation were discovered and found to be intact as the excavation proceeded.

A hand watercolour photographic panorama of the Sutton Hoo ship by Mercie Lack in 1939. From display on ground floor of Tranmer House.

When Basil Brown began digging Mound One he had no idea that the excavation would turn into one of the most dramatic events in British Archaeology.

Angela Care Evans ‘The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’ (revised edition 1994)

The discovery of the ship burial and a magnificent collection of grave goods is considered to be one of the most significant finds of Anglo-Saxon art to date in Europe.

The Sutton Hoo Helmet. (Now on display in the lighter, brighter Room 41, but it was so busy when I last visited I was unable to get a better shot than this one from 2013 when it was in a temporary location!)

In a startling symbolic composition, a snake body provides the protective rim across the crown. Its beady garnet eyes and gaping mouth meet the beak of a fierce bird, whose wings make the eye-brows, whose body forms the nose and whose tail forms the moustache of the implacable human armoured face.

Martin Carver, ‘Sutton Hoo Burial Ground of Kings?'(1998)
Left. Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasps. Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. Length: 12.7 cm, width: 5.4 cm, length: 5.1 cm (chain) length: 5.7 cm (pin). Centre and right. Purse lid. Gold frame set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19 cm (frame). Mound 1, Sutton Hoo. British Museum, London.

Since 1997 the site at Sutton Hoo has belonged to the National Trust and is open to the public. Recently, in August 2019 a £4 million Visitor Centre was opened to mark the 80th year anniversary of the discovery. The site now includes a cafe/restaurant and shop joining the purpose-built High Hall, exhibition space.

The full size 27 metre long rusted steel sculpture of the Anglo-Saxon ship of Sutton Hoo.
Ship sculpture with the restaurant-cafe section of the new complex behind.

Last September, when Covid restrictions eased and visitors were allowed inside public spaces, my daughter and I went for a look. Of course, she remembered her first visit when we came down from Norwich in 2005 and it had been much, much quieter.

Visiting Sutton Hoo in 2005, and visiting again in 2020. New observation tower in background not open due to Covid.

After walking round the mounds we queued briefly, donned masks and signed in (Covid protocol) to see inside Mrs Pretty’s home, Tranmer House.

Edith May Dempster marries Lt. Colonel Frank Pretty in 1926.

Only parts of the ground floor were open and the space where 15 years ago my daughter and I enjoyed a delightful and memorable retelling of Beowulf (with puppets), is now a small exhibition space. A few photographs of Edith Pretty’s life and many photographs of the 1939 dig are on display.

Not just the great and the good had the opportunity to visit the dig. This photograph shows a party of young naval cadets at Sutton Hoo.

Before leaving, we noticed the queue for the High Hall had disappeared so following the same mask and signing-in routine we entered the exhibition to be greeted by a representation of an Anglo-Saxon, highborn warrior swooping down from the ceiling.

Left. Replica Sutton Hoo helmet by Ivor Lawton. Bronze, silver and tin. Right. The suspended welcoming exhibit.

As you progress through the exhibition many of the exhibits are high quality replicas such as the complete helmet of bronze, silver and tin by Ivor Lawton. There are a few early finds from Mound 17 (the warrior horseman and horse burial site) on display. These are similar to some of the artefacts excavated from Mound One.

Horse harness made of gilded bronze decorated with human faces and patterns of interlacing animals.
Left. Byzantine bucket. Bronze. 330 AD – 900 AD. Excavated from Mound 17, but made over 2000 miles away in a Mediterranean Byzantine workshop. The decoration depicts a hunting scene somewhere in North Africa with lions and a hunting dog. Right. Modern replica of the Byzantine bucket.

A look round Tranmer House and the displays in High Hall are interesting, but all the significant finds are in the British Museum in London. However, that’s not really the point of visiting Sutton Hoo. It is about experiencing the site, knowing the history and seeing the strange Burial Mounds set within the Suffolk countryside.

As I write only the estate walks are open due to the current lockdown restrictions.

Creativity, Riemenschneider and living like ants

Yesterday, I saw blue flashing lights reflected in my computer screen and looking out across the street I saw the ambulance arriving. An elderly neighbour had been taken seriously ill and was rushed off to hospital. Shocking and a nightmare time for friends and family, but for the wider world just another day. It made me think of our daily lives with the mostly bland routines that occupy us and the Henry David Thoreau comment:

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

Ants-not-ants-at-British-Museum-volkswagen

So, what are we busy about? At best, in a post-industrial, post-modern, virtually post everything time, perhaps, it is thinking, creating and caring. Often when I listen to music, watch a film, or visit an exhibition I’m struck by an individual’s drive to make and present their work to others. At the same time it is interesting to observe audiences keen to engage and consider this output.

section of Berlin Wall
Section of the Berlin Wall at the British Museum Exhibition – ‘Germany – memories of a nation’

A couple of weekends ago I went to the ‘Germany – memories of a nation’ exhibition at the British Museum. It was curated by Neil MacGregor and considered 600 years of German history through a selection of objects. It was advertised as

Explore art by Dürer, Holbein and Richter, and marvel at technological achievements through the ages which gave the world Gutenberg’s printing press, Meissen porcelain, the Bauhaus movement and modern design icon the VW Beetle.

The Four Evangelists  by Tilman Riemenschneider
The Four Evangelists
by Tilman Riemenschneider.
Carved limewood with honey-coloured glaze.
Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany.

St Luke by Riemenschneider
St Luke by Riemenschneider.
Carved limewood with honey-coloured glaze.
Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany.
The main reason I went was to see ‘The Four Evangelists’ by Tilman Riemenschneider. Despite timed entry tickets the exhibition was rather crowded. I’m not sure whether a close, intimate feel to the exhibition was intended, but it left me with an overall impression of the space being tight and cluttered. Nevertheless, it was worth seeing the Riemenschneider limewood sculptures up close.

Riemenschneider (1460-1531) worked from Würzburg, Germany, and was a leading guildsman sculpting in wood. Traditionally, religious works such as altarpieces carved in wood were covered in gesso, painted and gilded. During the second half of the fifteenth century in Southern Germany sculptors working in limewood were commissioned to make unadorned, plain pieces. German Protestantism had brought about a change in attitude towards imagery. Instead of an image being an ostentatious, embellished focal point of devotion, works with an emphasis on sober instruction were favoured. A preference for the unpainted together with the qualities of limewood (a light, close-grained wood) facilitated the advancement of delicate and fine carving. Riemenschneider honed his technique and developed a style that featured sensitive and expressive faces.

Seeing ‘The Four Evangelists’ (normally in Berlin) in the exhibition was a treat. The sorrowful face of St Mark complete with small bags under his eyes and the intensely, thoughtful downcast face of St Luke brought a humanity to these religious figures.

Another Riemenschneider work that can be found in the BM’s main collection is ‘The Adoration of the Three Wise Men’.

The panel is part of an alterpiece thought to have been commissioned between 1505-10 for the Marienkappelle in Rothenburg, Germany. Again, the work is varnished limewood and the facial details are exquisite.

We cannot all be busy sculpting outstanding masterpieces, but I believe many of us would find the world far less tolerable without our own small acts of creating.

Virgin Mary by Riemenschneider. A 15th-century expressive face from the world of Northern Renaissance sculpture.
Virgin Mary by Riemenschneider.
A 15th-century expressive face from the world of Northern Renaissance sculpture.

Josiah Wedgwood and the Portland Vase

Portland Vase
The Portland Vase – the original glass-cameo vase on display at the British Museum.
In 1784 Sir William Hamilton, the diplomat and polymath brought a Roman antique vase to England where he sold it to the Duchess of Portland. This first century Roman cameo-glass vessel became known as the Portland Vase. Although Roman (thought to date from 5-25 AD) it is not mentioned in the historical record until the beginning of the 17th century. Hamilton bought it from the family Barberini who had owned it for 150 years whilst he was British Ambassador to the Court of Naples.
portland vase displayed
The Portland Vase in its display case. It is 24 cm (9 1/2″) tall and 17.7 cm (7″) in diameter.

In 1786, the vase became the property of the Third Duke of Portland who lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood was already a renowned ‘star’ of the times and a very successful businessman having made and developed major innovations in earthenware and stoneware pottery. He had developed a cream-coloured glaze over a cream-coloured body known as Creamware and when in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned a service from him the range was renamed ‘Queen’s Ware’. From 1772 he began work on developing what we now know as Jasperware. Jasperware is a durable, unglazed porcelain with bas-relief white cameo decoration. Metallic oxide colouring agents are used to stain the white Jasper and Jasperware is usually light blue, but it can also be pale green, lilac, yellow, black or dark blue. And, it was with this dark blue that Wedgwood chose to make his copy. It took four years of trials and experimentation until a reproduction of the Portland Vase was completed in 1790. The British Museum also has a Wedgwood Jasperware copy of the Portland Vase on display in the rooms showing 18th century ceramics.

The original Portland Vase and the Wedgwood copy became an 18th century cultural hit taking London ‘society’ by storm and made Jasperware the most sought after ceramics in England and on the Continent. It isn’t entirely fair to make a direct comparison between the glass-cameo and the porcelain vases as being made with different materials there are different restrictions, but the Wedgwood version is a beautiful piece even if it isn’t quite as detailed and delicate as the original.

The Jasperware Portland Vase is a technical triumph and copies allow the beauty of the original to be shared. This is also an example of where the inspiration to copy a work from antiquity furthered the technical knowledge of the 18th century. It was such a success that it also secured the ever resourceful and inventive Josiah Wedgwood a permanent place in the history of ceramics. A famous name that still survives with Wedgwood Jasperware products made and collected in the 21st century.

http://www.wedgwood.co.uk/gifts/by-type/christmas-decorations