Mosaics - Standard of Ur - Sumeria

Mosaics from Ancient Times to the Modern World

Roman Mosaics Herculaneum

Mosaic floor at Herculaneum was buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Mosaics are often called ‘eternal pictures.’ Hard-wearing and durable, mosaics survive from ancient cultures providing a valuable insight into life in times past.

‘Mosaic’ is the art of creating pictures and patterns by fixing fragments of precious stones, marble, glass, terracotta, wood, stone, or other suitable materials, into a bed of adhesive.

Some of the earliest mosaics, from Sumerian culture, date from 2500 BC. Early Greeks, Romans and Egyptians made good use of mosaics on walls and pavements – and because of the durability of this art form, many fine examples survive today.

In the 16th century, the Aztecs created colourful mosaic masks and ornaments, while in the 18th and 19th centuries artists such as Giacomo Raffaelli, Luigi Moglia and the firm of Castellani made stylish luxury goods and jewellery with micro-mosaic decoration.

Making Mosaics – How Did They Do It?

One way to make a wall mosaic is to line a wall with a layer of rough cement. A second, finer layer, sits on top. Nails, embedded into these layers, ensure they do not split apart. Once the cement has dried, the artist draws the outlines for the design. A third, thin layer of fine cement is laid on in small sections, and the tesserae, or small mosaic pieces, fixed into it.

The tiny pieces are not laid evenly so that rays of sun or candle light catch the undulating surface creating a flickering effect – floor and wall decorations positively glow.

A small mosaic takes thousands of tiny pieces, each carefully graded according to colour and size. The large floor area of the mosaic from Herculaneum would have taken hundreds of thousands of pieces and a considerable amount of time and manpower to create.

Mosaics - Standard of Ur - Sumeria

The Standard of Ur comes from the city of Ur in Sumeria (now southern Iraq) and dates from about 2500. Image by Alma E. Guinness

The Standard of Ur from Sumeria, now Southern Iraq

The Standard of Ur comes from the city of Ur in Sumeria (now southern Iraq) and dates from about 2500 BC. This item, discovered in one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery takes the form of a box.

When first found, its wooden frame was badly decayed and the panels crushed and broken. In The Horse from Arabia to Royal Ascot, John Curtis and Nigel Tallis tell us the restoration is a guess at how the item originally appeared. Its original function is not known, but historians suggest it is a standard or the sound-box of a musical instrument.

The panels on the front and back are known as ‘War’ and ‘Peace.’ Decorated on all four sides with mosaic scenes made of red limestone, lapis lazuli, and limestone set in bitumen, the scene shown here depicts peacetime.

Roman Mosaics from Carthage

Fishing Scene Mosaic discovered at Carthage, Tunisia. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

A procession of people attend a banquet, bringing with them fish, animals and other goods. At the top, a larger, more impressive person, shares the banquet with other guests. A singer and a musician with a lyre entertain them.

The reverse depicts a Sumerian army with wheeled wagons. Infantrymen kill their opponents with spears and axes. The triangular end pieces depict more scenes of Sumerian life.

Late Roman Mosaic Pavement from 4th-Century Carthage

Mosaics - Roman Mosaic from Carthage

Two Deer Drinking from Fountain. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

This badly damaged fragment of mosaic pavement, dating from the 4th-5th centuries, comes from Carthage in Tunisia.

Two deer, standing among green plants and red flowers, drink from a circular vase that overflows into a square basin. The animals wear amulets round their necks. Above them are two ducks, one green and one blue, each with red feet and head. The scene has a red and black border.

Mosaics from Aztec Culture

Mosaics - Aztec Mask

Turquoise Aztec Mask dating from the 15th/16th century. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Aztecs were developing their own unique mosaics including masks and ornaments featuring serpents. These creatures played a major role in Aztec religion.

This mask, representing Tlaloc, god of rain, fertility and water in the Aztec religion, dates from the 15th/16th centuries. Made of cedro wood (Cedrela odorata) with pine resin adhesive, the mask has varying shades of turquoise mosaic. Moulded from a mixture of beeswax and pine resin, the rattles of the serpent tails were originally gilded.

Mosaics - Aztec Ornament - Double-headed serpent

Double-headed Serpent – this may have been a pectoral, or chest ornament worn on ceremonial occasions. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

This double-headed turquoise mosaic serpent was probably worn as a pectoral (chest ornament) on ceremonial occasions. Masterpieces of the British Museum tells us the serpent’s eye sockets were originally inlaid with iron pyrites and shell. Red and white shell adds details to nose and mouth of both serpent heads.

Doves of Pliny – Micro-mosaic by Giacomo Raffaelli

In 19th century Europe we have artists such as Giacomo Raffaelli and Luigi Moglia creating beautiful micro-mosaics on small luxury items. Micro-mosaics require a different technique.

In The Art of Small Things, John Mack tells us the need for greater delicacy led to much finer and tinier tesserae with a colour palette of over 20,000 different tints.

Mosaics - Dove of Pliny Brooch and Earrings

Doves of Pliny Brooch and Earrings designed by Giacomo Raffaelli. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Mack tells us the artist would ‘…lay out the minute strands of the tesserae enamels side by side like upright matchsticks on a slow-drying paste so that only the head would be visible on the finished object. Once done, the whole would be covered in wax and then polished, each step adding to the lustre of the result.’

The Doves of Pliny gold brooch and matching earring set, by Giacomo Raffaelli, is the earliest known example signed by the artist. The original version of this mosaic was found at Hadrian’s villa near Tivoli in 1737and is a 2nd-century-AD copy of a mosaic that Pliny described. The original is 98 x 85 cm. The micro-mosaic is just 5.5 cm in diameter.

Mosaics - Luigi Moglia Spaniel

This micro-mosaic Box Lid – Spaniel was designed by Luigi Moglia. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Luigi Moglia’s King Charles Spaniel is another fine example of European micro-mosaic dating from 1830. Mosaics like this, where we see the finest detail of the animal’s fur, are probably the hardest to execute. In The Art of Small Things, John Mack tells us to achieve such reality that Molgia used minute curved tesserae to produce an incredible degree of naturalism. His signature appears in the lower left corner.

Mosaics - Lamb of God by Castellani

This Lamb of God Brooch was made by Italian firm Castellani. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

In the 1860s, the Italian firm Castellani were also producing fine micro-mosaic luxury items such as the Lamb of God Brooch. Made of gold and enamel, the brooch has a central circular mosaic panel showing the Lamb of Gold standing against a green ground. His gold halo stands out against a background of red, blue and grey.

The border uses the cloisonne technique. The pattern is made up of circles, each enclosing a lozenge. Each lozenge has a small red enamel circle and there are white enamel circles in each spandrel.

Much of the jewellery produced by the Castellani firm resembles early Christian and Byzantine mosaics found in Rome’s churches where mosaics of the Lamb of God were frequent and popular adornments.

South Kensington Mosaics Valhalla

This mosaic representation of Apelles is one of the group of mosaics known as The South Kensington Valhalla. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

The South Kensington Valhalla – Large-scale Mosaics at the V&A Museum

In 1865, Henry Cole, first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, sought to integrate both the decorative arts and the fine arts into the fabric of the new museum building.

Commissioning several promising young artists, Cole ordered a group of large-scale mosaics for the South Court. The group consisted of over thirty mosaics representing important figures in the history of art ranging from the ancient Greek artist Apelles to the 19th-century artist William Mulready.

A magazine of the time, The Builder, nick-named the group the ‘South Kensington Valhalla’ after the palace of the Norse gods. The mosaic shown here is Apelles, designed by Edward Poynter and executed by the firm of Salviati.

The Magic of Mosaics – ‘Eternal Pictures’

By their very nature, mosaics are durable and hard-wearing. Whether they be large-scale pavements and wall-decorations from Roman times, colourful Aztec masks, or luxury micro-mosaic jewellery, they will always fascinate us. The work is delicate and time-consuming, requiring the finest skills and infinite patience. The results are radiant pictures, often reproductions of great works of art, which according to John Mack, many call ‘eternal pictures.’

Medieval Roman Glass Frankish Palm Cup

Medieval Glass – Beautiful Cups, Beakers, Flasks and Drinking Horns that Have Survived the Test of Time

Lycurgus Cup - a rare example of medieval glass

The Lycurgus Cup. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

When exploring art galleries and museums it always amazes me that so many rare and fragile items have survived from the Middle Ages.

The fact that so much survives is possibly due to old customs of burying the dead together with their personal possessions.

The objects found, ranging from simple household goods to luxury glass items, now form the core of many museum collections, providing us with endless opportunities for the study of medieval life.

The Lycurgus Cup – One Cup Two Colours – Roman Glass-making at its Best

Roman glass makers of the 4th and 5th centuries AD were highly skilled craftsmen who created items such as the Lycurgus cup, a rare surviving example of a ‘cage’ cup, now in the British Museum.

At this time, glass makers and glass workers were two separate professions. Glass makers made large quantities of glass by melting raw materials in tank furnaces. Glass workers would use cutting wheels and hand tools to cut away parts of a very thick, undecorated, blank vessel leaving an openwork cage in which a container sat.

One cup – two colours: the Lycurgus cup changes colour, from opaque green to translucent red, when light shines through it. Small particles of gold and silver suspended in the glass create this unusual optical effect.

The cage shows scenes depicting the death of the mythical Lycurgus, a king of the Thracians. Legend tells that Lycurgus attacked Dionysos, Greek god of wine, and one of his followers. His punishment was entrapment in the branches of a gravevine. Sitting on a circular silver-gilt base with open-work vine leaves, the cup has a silver-gilt band of leaf ornament around the rim.

Medieval beaker found at Mucking burial site.

Mucking Claw Beaker. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

The Mucking Claw Beaker

While 4th and 5th century Romans glass makers were working with dichroic glass English artisans were creating cups known as claw beakers, so named because of the claws applied to the side of the vessel.

The Mucking Claw Beaker, dating from the early fifth century, is an example of this technique, and comes from a burial site in Essex, England.

Broken and restored, this translucent pale green beaker is not such a lucky survivor as the Lycurgus cup. It has significant damage to the rim and base. The body of the cup has vertical walls with eight claws applied in two rows.

Glass Beaker from Gotland

Medieval glass beaker from Gotland in Sweden.

The Gotland Beaker. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

From Gotland in Sweden we have another translucent olive-green beaker dating from the 5th century.

This conical beaker with its flared mouth and rounded base is not in perfect condition.

According to Sonja Marzinzik, in Masterpieces Early Medieval Art, glass pieces like this were a rare import to Sweden. They were prestigious articles often used in ceremonial drinking practices.

The beaker found its way to England in the collection of Scottish antiquarian James Curle.

Fascinated by Gotlandic archaeology Curle made a number of visits to Gotland, acquiring this beaker in 1891.

Medieval glass drinking Horn from Sutri, Italy

Sutri Drinking Horn. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Sutri Drinking Horn from the Mediterranean Region

From a burial site in Sutri, Italy, we have the powder-blue Sutri Horn dating from the late 6th century.

The colour may come from cobalt in the glass, a commodity easily found in the area either by melting down mosaic tesserae or from recycled glass.

The horn has applied self-coloured lattice-work around the neck and a thin line of opaque white glass trailing around the body forming a pointed tip. Drinking horns were popular throughout Europe but the trailing white glass decoration suggests this one comes from the Mediterranean region.

Frankish Palm Cup – Vibrant Blue-Green Drinking Cup

Medieval Roman Glass Frankish Palm Cup

Frankish Palm Cup. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

One of the most attractive survivals from the Middle Ages is the Frankish Palm Cup.

Coming from Reims, France, and dating from the 7th century, this beautiful translucent, pale blue-green vessel has spiralling trails of vibrant red glass.

With a rounded base these cups cannot stand up, but once empty they rest on their side.

Palm cups were popular during the late 6th and 7th centuries with many being found in medieval cemeteries in Germany, France and Belgium.

More than fifty survive from English find sites. Often buried in pairs, the cups bring to mind the notion of community and communal drinking. This piece of medieval glass looks surprisingly modern.

The Palmer Cup – A High Status Object

Medieval glass - The Palmer Cup

Palmer Cup. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Another fine example of medieval glass is the Palmer Cup. Coming from either Syria or Egypt, the clear glass goblet dates from about 1200-1250.

Enamelled and gilded, the glass sits on a silver-gilt base embossed with Fleurs-de-lis. The base was added in France at a later date.

The cup has an Arabic poem in praise of wine inscribed around the rim.

According to the British Museum website, one line, attributed to the poet Kushajim (died around AD 961) says “Repent! While the cup is in the hand of the beardless youth, and the sound of the second and third [strings of the lute] is loud!

Beneath the inscription a prince sits between two attendants who hold swords. The white enamel figures have fine details highlighted in red and blue.

Coveted by rulers, nobles, and the wealthy, Middle Eastern decorated glass was held in high esteem throughout medieval Europe.

Medieval Glass Perfume Flask from Venice

Venetian Perfume Flask. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Venetian Perfume Flask – Inspired by the Islamic World

In the late medieval period Italy, Venice in particular, played a crucial role in the circulation of luxury goods between East and West.

Highly skilled Venetian craftsmen produced top-quality colourless glass pieces such as this perfume flask, dating from about 1500-1550.

Inspired by imports from the Middle East, the enamelled container bears an unidentified coat of arms suggesting it was made for a wealthy or important patron.

19th-century Glassware

19th Century Yellow Glass Jug. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Medieval Glass – Fine Survivors Fit for a Millennium

That something so fragile as a piece of glass should survive for one hundred years is amazing, but when items like the Palmer Cup, the Sutri Drinking Horn, and other rare and beautiful items survive for a millennia or more, I think that is incredible.

This 19th-century small yellow glass jug bears no comparison in quality or skill to items such as the Venetian perfume flask or the beakers from Gotland. It’s just a piece of ordinary glassware.

In Europe we don’t bury our fine glassware with the deceased. It’s more likely to end up in a charity or thrift shop. So, will it stand the test of time? I doubt it!

Nicholas Hilliard Self-Portrait

Nicholas Hilliard: The Gentle Art of Limning

Nicholas Hilliard Self-Portrait

Self Portrait. This is a self-portrait of Nicholas Hilliard. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel. All rights reserved.

Elizabethan portrait miniatures show reliable historical records of court fashions in a past era of wealthy court life.

Jewellers placed these minute treasures, often created as love tokens, or to show loyalty, in exquisitely crafted lockets worn on jewelled chains.

Nicholas Hilliard: The First Home-Grown Artist of International Repute

The outstanding artist in this field is master goldsmith Nicholas Hilliard (c. 1547-1619, also known as Hillyarde).

Working both as goldsmith and miniaturist, he is the first English-born artist to achieve international fame in England and on the Continent.

Hilliard is also known to have painted large-scale portraits but few, such as the Pelican and the Phoenix portraits, are reliably attributed to him.

Nicholas Hilliard The Pelican Portrait

Queen Elizabeth I: The Pelican Portrait, is one of Nicholas Hilliard’s famous miniatures. Image by courtesy of DcoetzeeBot.

According to Dr. Roy Strong, writing in Nicholas Hilliard: ‘He painted with all the passionate conviction of the renaissance artist who truly believed the face was the mirror of the soul.’

Hilliard believed the English race enjoyed a fine complexion not seen in any other race.

Hilliard’s intimate miniatures have a special quality which is not achieved in large-scale Elizabethan portraits of the time.

Painted on vellum, and mounted on card, usually playing cards, this was an elite art form which the rich enjoyed.

The artist’s wealthy patrons paid anything from £3 to £5 pounds for their minute love tokens. This is about £900-£1,300 in current terms. Portrait miniatures were not cheap items!

Nicholas Hilliard Pheonix Portrait

Queen Elizabeth I: The Phoenix Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard depicts the queen in sumptuous fabrics and costly pearls. Image courtesy of PKM.

The Art of Limning – a Treatise by Nicholas Hilliard

In his famous work, Treatise on the Art of Limning, written around 1600, but not published during his lifetime, Nicholas Hilliard describes himself as a ‘limner.’

The word ‘limner’ comes from the medieval word luminer, meaning an illuminator of manuscripts.

From the beginning of the 16th century the term usually referred to a painter of miniature portraits, although limner was often used to describe artists in general. The term became obsolete during the 19th century.

In the Treatise, Hilliard identifies the required qualities of the limner. He calls it a ‘gentle’ art, and states that it is ‘fittest for gentlemen.’ He says limning is a ‘thing apart from all other painting or drawing and tendeth not to common men’s use.’

Hilliard sets out the ideal conditions for painting:

…the practiser of limning be precisely pure and cleanly in all his doings.’

Good easterly light shows the sitter at his best.

Hilliard also advises: ‘…at the least let your apparel be silk, such sheddeth least dust or hairs.’

He also says: ‘…take heed the dandruff of the head shedding from the hair, and of speaking over your work for sparkling, for the least sparkling of spittle will never be holpen if it light in the face or any part of the naked.

As well as describing the ideal environment for painting, the artist also advises on techniques for capturing the sitter’s fleeting expressions that only the artist witnesses.

Nicholas Hilliard Unknown Man

Unknown Man by Nicholas Hilliard reflects a French influence. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel. All rights reserved.

Early Portrait Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard

Hilliard’s style was well established by the early 1570s. Miniatures dating from 1572, such as Elizabeth 1, aged 39. Inscribed in gold lettering: Ano Dni. 1572. Ætatis suæ 38, the miniature is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

On either side of the Queen’s face, the letters ‘E’ and ‘R’ appear, each topped with a delicately drawn crown.

Hilliard shows us a youthful queen with jewelled head-dress and closely fitting ruff. Her black dress with white sleeves reflects the Queen’s livery.

Also from 1572, the Unknown Man shows the artist’s supreme skill – and the style he preferred for most of his working life. This miniature portrait of a fashionable young man in black suit, against a blue background bears a gold inscription – Ætatis suæ XXIII Ano Dni. 1572.

The painting reflects the influence of French artists such as Jean and François Clouet and Anthonis Mor whose works were well-known in England.

The French influence is also explained by the rapprochement between England and France at the time, and Hilliard’s two-year stay in France from 1576-78.

Nicholas Hilliard Young Man Among Roses

Young Man Among Roses by Nicholas Hilliard may depict the Earl of Essex, a favorite of Elizabeth I’s. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel. All rights reserved.

Full-Length Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard

In the 1590s Hilliard produced some full-length miniatures including the enigmatic lovelorn Unknown Young Man Leaning against a Tree Among Roses.

The eight-inch portrait shows a young man, possibly Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, stepson of Robert Dudley.

With hand on heart, the man wears black and white, showing his allegiance to Elizabeth. Leaning against the tree, the youth is interwoven with leafy branches and roses, the Tudor symbol.

The portrait bears the inscription: Dat poenas laudata fides, loosely translated as ‘praised faith brings sufferings or penalties.’

Presumably the inscription would have been familiar to the unknown youth’s contemporaries. The portrait shows Hilliard at the height of his powers and this portrait is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of Elizabethan art.

The Cult of the Virgin Queen

Warrant holder to Queen Elizabeth I, Hilliard is the first home-grown artist of international repute to serve the English royal family and to recognise the need for a royal ‘brand.’

Before Hilliard’s appointment, the majority of Court artists, including Hans Holbein, Rembrandt and Lucas Hornebolte (also known as Horenbout) came from the Continent.

Nicholas Hilliard The Drake Jewel

Elizabeth I gave the Drake Jewel by Nicholas Hilliard to Sir Francis Drake. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel. All rights reserved.

Although Hilliard held the Royal Warrant, this was not a salaried position and necessity forced him to open a workshop in the City of London. His clients included Sir Robert Cecil; Lord Leicester, the Earl of Essex; Sir Francis Knowles, the Earl of Cumberland; the Earl of Northumberland; Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, to mention just a few.

Hilliard was a well-known figure in royal circles. Writing in Nicholas Hilliard, art historian Erna Auerbach tells us: ‘It was a completely new phenomenon that, at the end of the sixteenth century, an English-born artist had free access to court circles where he was esteemed as the most eminent miniaturist of the age.

Roy Strong tells us in the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign it became fashionable, part of the cult of the Virgin Queen, to wear her portrait miniatures almost as a talisman. When not worn, owners kept the portraits in richly decorated containers such as the Drake Jewel.

Elizabeth gave the jewel as a gift to Sir Francis Drake, possibly in recognition of his role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date on the jewel appears to read 1586. Inside are two portraits of Elizabeth and of her emblem, the phoenix.

Nicholas Hilliard Queen Elizabeth 1

Elizabeth 1 in 1600 by Nicholas Hilliard is known as a version of the Mask of Youth portraits. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel. All rights reserved.

The Mask of Youth Portraits

In the latter part of her reign, portraits of Elizabeth caused something of a dilemma for Hilliard.

He had to show Elizabeth without ageing her – he had to find a way to keep her young and perfect.

His response was to draw the viewer’s eye away from her ageing face by emphasising her magnificent costumes, the intricate ruffs, the beautiful jewellery and the elaborate hair styles.

Heavy make-up hid pox scars and closed lips hid black teeth. There is very little facial detail.

Portraits from this period are known as the Mask of Youth Portraits.

Hilliard’s Legacy

Isaac Oliver Unknown Woman

Isaac Oliver’s Unknown Woman shows a woman in the Elizabethan era. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel. All rights reserved.

Although remembered mainly for portrait miniatures, Hilliard was equally eminent as a goldsmith, a craft he practised throughout his career.

Many beautiful miniatures, together with cases that Hilliard designed, survive intact, and through these items, Hilliard tells us about the fashions of the royal court and the upper echelons of society.

In the Art of Limning we see Hilliard’s attitude to his art and his patrons. He outlines his methods and processes and gives instructions for making pigments, gum, and other components of his art, and above all, he stresses that limning is a most genteel art, fit only for gentlemen.

Like all master craftsmen, Hilliard had his own workshop where his pupils included artists such as Rowland Lockey and Isaac Oliver, although art historians claim that no one has yet surpassed the supreme skill of Nicholas Hilliard in the field of miniature portraits.

Microscopic Treasure - Oxus Chariot

Microscopic Treasures from the British Museum: The Art of Small Things

Microscopic Treasure Lamb of God Agnus Dei Pendant

The Lamb of God Pendant symbolizes great power in Christianity. This pendant is only 1.9 centimetres high  – that’s about .7 inches. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

The British Museum is home to some of the world’s finest microscopic treasures ranging from pre-historic times to the present day. Some of the most beautiful items in the Museum’s vast collection are also some of the smallest.

According to art historian John Mack, writing in The Art of Small Things, economist Ernst Schumacher coined the expression “small is beautiful” in 1973, but our fascination and admiration for miniature and microscopic art works goes back long before 1973.

In The Savage Mind, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said, “all miniatures seem to have an intrinsic aesthetic quality.”

We often describe beautiful miniatures or microscopic works as exquisite, and indeed, it is difficult to imagine the same word used in praise of something like a giant statue or a large-scale work of art.

What is Small? What is Miniature?

When we discuss small works of art, one of the questions frequently arising is how do we define ‘small’ and ‘miniature?’ There is no simple answer. In Aspects of Miniature Painting, its Origins and Development, Danish art historian Torben Colding said, “Mere smallness is a poor criterion; every size is small in relation to a larger one and large in relation to a smaller one.”

Does size matter? Perhaps this depends on our relationship with art. How does any one particular work of art affect us? How do we relate to that work? Obviously, there can never be a definitive answer because we all see art differently.

The Power of Small Things

But what about the power of small things? Just because a work is minute doesn’t mean it lacks power. For example, the tiny Lamb of God is symbolic of the most powerful of all Christian concepts. This Spanish jewel, inscribed “ECCE AGNVs DEI,” dates from about 1600-1650.

Made from gold and white enamel, and decorated with rubies and pearls, the pendant hangs on four gold chains. A central pearl hangs above the lamb which rests on a closed book, representing the judgment of Christ. This was a popular theme with Spanish jewelers in the early 1600s.

This tiny gold jewel has an overall height of 5.5 centimetres. Remove the chains and the pendant alone is just 1.9 centimetres high.

Microscopic Treasure - Oxus Chariot

Cast Gold Chariot includes the dwarf-god Bes – this sculpture is a little over 7 inches long. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Oxus Treasure – Cast Gold Chariot

One very fine collection housed at the British Museum is the Oxus Treasure, one of the most important surviving collections of Achaemenid Persian gold and silver metalwork.

Consisting of over 150 objects, mostly dating from the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the treasure includes a miniature model of a gold chariot carrying two figures dressed in the style of the Medes of the Achaemenid Empire in Iran.

Four ponies draw the chariot, but only nine legs survive intact.

Originally, the wheels, one of which is now broken, rotated freely, but these are partially glued, thus preventing their movement.

On the front of the chariot, the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes offers protection to the riders. The overall length of the chariot and ponies is 18.5 cm.

Microscopic Treasure Anglo-Saxon metal work The Pitney Brooch

The Pitney brooch shows a snake and a four legged-animal in combat. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Treasures from Sutton Hoo – The Pitney Brooch

The British Museum’s Sutton Hoo and Europe gallery is home to many fine Anglo-Saxon treasures including the Pitney Brooch.

Named after the Somerset Village where it was found, the brooch measures 3.9 cm in diameter, and dates from the second half of the eleventh century.

Cast in bronze and gilded on both sides, the brooch shows a four-legged animal and snake in combat. Delicate beading highlights the main animal.

The snake bites the underside of the unidentifiable animal, which in turn bites itself.

Reflecting both Viking and Anglo-Saxon styles, the openwork brooch shows a high level of skills, indicating that it was a prestigious item most likely owned by a wealthy man or woman.


Microscopic Treasure - Anglo-Saxon Art Strickland Brooch

Strickland Brooch is an Anglo-Saxon piece. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

The Strickland Brooch – Another Treasure from Sutton HOO

The Strickland Brooch is another fine Anglo-Saxon piece.

Dating from the ninth-century, the basic material is silver with extensive use of gold to enhance the elaborate brooch.

The focal point is a cruciform design with a boss at the centre. The beaded rim encloses an intricate pattern of lively puppy-like animals with glittering gold bodies and blue glass eyes. The brooch is inlaid with niello, a black metal alloy, that was popular at this time.

The mixture of materials was unusual for a brooch of this date and a wealthy woman probably wore it.

Boxwood Carvings – the World in Miniature

Many of the British Museum’s most interesting treasures are not made of gold, silver, or precious gems, but from densely-grained boxwood.

In the early sixteenth century sculptors in the Northern Netherlands invented a new form of art: microscopic boxwood carvings tell the story of Christianity.

Microscopic Treasure - Boxwood Altarpiece

The Boxwood Microsculpture Altarpiece is an intricate look into the life and Passion of Christ. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Their minute scale and virtuosity made them highly collectible. Only wealthy art patrons, such as the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, could afford them. Used for private devotion and enjoyment, these pieces reflect the virtuoso skills of their creators.

The finely detailed altarpiece shown here is one of the best examples to survive. It shows, in minuscule detail, scenes from the life and Passion of Christ.

Doors open to reveal the Crucifixion. The vaulted interior contains intricately carved figures. The inside of the doors show Christ Carrying the Cross on the left, and the Resurrection on the right.

Beneath is the Last Supper. The disciples sit with Jesus behind the table while Judas, who will betray Jesus, sits in front of the table. Surrounding the scene are cherubs and lions holding shields which originally would have identified the patron who commissioned this sculpture. A label dates the piece to 1511. The altarpiece has a leather case to protect it.

Our Fascination with Microscopic Art – Understanding and Appreciating Small Things

It seems that most observers agree with Ernst Schumacher and small is nearly always beautiful. Whether a piece is made from gold, silver, precious gems or wood, the virtuoso skills involved in creating that précis of a larger concept fascinates us.

Microscopic works of art are so full of miniature detail that even with hours of scrutiny we never really understand all we see. We must look more carefully at the world in miniature to gain a greater understanding of the world at large.

Collecting Classic Cameras

What Do Collectors Collect and Why? One Dedicated Collector Speaks to Decoded Past

Collecting Classic Cameras

Cameras – a Private Collection. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Many of the world’s great collectors, such as Sir Hans Sloane, whose vast collection played a major part in the founding of the British Museum, and Sir John Soane, founder of the Soane Museum, planned their collecting activities specifically with a view to creating long-lasting legacies.

Their fascinating collections now provide rich sources of knowledge for today’s museum visitors, be they acknowledged experts or just merely curious.

But what of the hundreds of thousands of collectors who are just individuals fascinated by particular items?

Their collections might seem insignificant when compared to the great collections mentioned above, but the process of collecting is the same, with some collectors going to any lengths to acquire specific items.

Many keep meticulous records in much the same way as Sloane and Soane.

We should never belittle them since they, too, can provide a valuable insight into the past.

Models of Yesteryear – Schweppes Buses

Three Schweppes Buses by Models of Yesteryear. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Ronald, a Dedicated Collector, Speaks Exclusively to Decoded Past

Visiting Ronald’s home is a bit like visiting a museum, but on a much smaller scale. He has a fine collection of prints by well-known artist Beryl Cook, but he also has a smaller collection of prints and paintings from the not so well-known artist, Henry Mathews.

Ronald’s collecting activities don’t stop there. Over the past thirty years, he has also acquired more than 300 die-cast vehicles as well as hundreds of classic cameras and a comprehensive collection of very beautiful porcelain figurines.

Guiseppe Armani Figurines

Figurines by Guiseppe Armani. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Decoded Past: Which collection did you start first, and why?

Ronald: The camera collection came first. It started when I saw an old camera in a shop window. It was like one I had when I was a teenager, and I had to have it. Since then, I’ve just been unable to stop.

I’m not sure when I started collecting the die-cast toys, but I do know why! If you look along the shelves you’ll see groups of cars that look the same. But they’re not! Every single one is different. Manufacturers like Models of Yesteryear often made different versions of the same vehicle with several variations. You need to look closely to spot them. It might be the size or colour of the steering wheel, or it could be the colour and style of the seats. The number of spokes in the wheels can vary and the wheels on one car might be a different style to the wheels on another.

Decoded Past: You have very mixed tastes – what about your other collections?

Lumix and Lizars Challenge Model E

Lumix and Lizars Challenge Model E. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Ronald: I have a very large collection of figurines. This collection is very closely focused. The figurines are all by the same designer, Guiseppe Armani.

Extremely fine details show the fashions of the 1920s and 1930s which is why I find these figures particularly appealing.

I have books about fashion history but when you actually see the styles on the models, you get a completely different view.

With the cameras it’s very different. I collect anything, by any manufacturer, so long as it’s vintage, affordable, and in working order. Of course, I can’t always get the film these days, but there are still one or two specialist shops in London that keep a small stock. What I find so fascinating is researching the history of the camera, where was it made and who made it?

Kodak Hawkette No. 2

Kodak Hawkette No. 2. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Decoded Past: Your collection spans over 120 years of photographic history so what are the major changes you’ve noticed?

Ronald: Well, for a start, the obvious change is the reduction in the size of cameras.

When you look at a modern digital camera alongside one of the old heavy folding cameras like the Lizars Challenge Model E, which dates from about 1905, it’s amazing that photography was such a popular hobby. You can’t slip the Model E into your pocket!

Also, there’s the invention of new materials like Bakelite. This led to new design opportunities. Manufacturers like Kodak were quick to take advantage of Bakelite with the introduction of the Hawkette No. 2 in 1954.

This was a cheap “premium” camera, and a lot of people saved coupons from cigarette packets and magazines to pay for their cameras. Bakelite cameras are keenly sought by collectors.

Kodak Sterling II - A Classic Camera

Kodak Sterling II. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Decoded Past: I am surrounded by cameras – do you have a favourite?

Ronald: When I was a schoolboy in the mid-1950s, one of my favourite cameras was the Sterling II, another Kodak. It has an Anaston f4.5 105 mm focusing lens and Pronto shutter. It’s rarer than most folding cameras of its time, and like the Hawkette, it’s also highly collectible.

Decoded Past: You’ve got a selection of prints by Beryl Cook and Henry Mathews. What is about their work that interests you?

A Fine Figure by Beryl Cook

A Fine Figure by Beryl Cook. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

Ronald: Well, Cook’s work is instantly recognisable. She seems to paint mostly women but I do have one of her men, A Fine Figure, placed among my ladies.

Cook’s works show people she met in everyday life, usually having a good time. She had no formal training and didn’t start painting until she was about thirty years old.

She once said, ‘I don’t know how my pictures happen, they just do. They exist, but for the life of me I can’t explain them’. She was a very shy and private person and I think her paintings reflect the type of person she really wanted to be.

Henry Mathews, on the other hand, is not such a well-known artist. In fact, I’ve not been able to find out much about his life, other than he lived in Hampstead in north-west London, where I visited his studio in the late 1980s. I think he died in 1991.

Harlequine and Columbine – Henry Mathews

Harlequine and Columbine by Henry Mathews. Copyright image by Frances Spiegel, all rights reserved.

His work is completely different to Beryl Cook’s. He came to painting late in life, interpreting popular themes or works by great literary figures such as William Shakespeare or composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. Harlequine and Columbine is one of the few oil paintings in the collection.

Mathews uses a single curved white line to give Harlequine his shape. The painting is vibrant, full of life, and very powerful. Harlequine, playing the lute, poses elegantly as Columbine watches from above.

One of Mathews’ favourite devices is to use pieces of music from printed scores. In this case, the fragment is from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval. I think Harlequine and Columbine will always be special because it was the first oil painting my wife and I chose together.

Does it Really Matter What You Collect and Why?

So, does it really matter what you collect and why? Probably not, as long as your collections give you pleasure. To give a collection real value for generations to come it’s very important to keep the results of any research you do, and to catalogue the collection objectively, preferably with detailed notes and photographs.

Decoded Past asked Ronald just one more question: Who dusts and cleans all these collections?

Ronald: That’s my wife’s job. She’ll probably tell you that as long as I don’t start collecting wives she doesn’t really mind!