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Nicola Gordon Bowe

Celts: Art and Identity (edited by Julia Farley and Fraser Hunter); British Museum Press, 304 pages; 275 colour illustrations, £25, ISBN 978-0714128368

The British Museum, in partnership with National Museums Scotland, heralded the show that this publication accompanied as “the first major exhibition to examine the full history of Celtic art and identity ... over 2,500 years, from the first recorded mention of ‘Celts’ to an exploration of contemporary Celtic influences”.

The British Museum had already mounted original, revisionist exhibitions of “The History of the World in 100 Objects” and “Germany: Memories of a Nation” before “Celts”. In an interview in the Financial Times with Simon Schama, the museum’s outstandingly successful director, Neil MacGregor, who conceived this exhibition as the last before his retirement, was quoted as deliberately wanting his next blockbuster to raise questions about Ireland “within our own history” by “facing hard truths through the eloquence of objects”. In his catalogue foreword to this publication, he reiterates that the show was intended to explore “how the name ‘Celts’ has been used and appropriated over the last 2,500 years. ‘Celtic’ is a cultural construct that has changed its meaning many times ... a word with a purpose: to label oneself or another as different”, a word that “still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, religion and identity”. He concludes: “This word continues to strike a resonant chord both nationally and globally among the populations of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and their diaspora communities around the world.”

Because the Celts left no written records of their society, over 250 exhibits were intended to represent these widely dispersed people through the highly skilled, abstract, linear objects they made, as well as to “raise questions about Celtic identity” throughout Britain, Ireland “and the global Celtic diaspora today”.

Thus, “profound cultural connections across Europe” might be revealed, and explorations made as to who the elusive people known as “Celts” may have been around 300 BC, when elaborately decorated ornaments used by their owners to transform their identities and denote power and status are found across a “mosaic of communities, connected but locally distinct” from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, in which Romano-British culture affected Ireland and northern Scotland much less than those parts of Britain conquered by the Romans in AD 43, “a distinctive form of Christianity,” Julia Farley writes, “emerged in Ireland, Scotland and western Britain”. Some of the lavishly devotional artefacts made in the great monastery communities of these areas, revered centres for learning across Europe – such as illuminated gospels, intricately carved crosses, iron hand-bells rung as summons to prayer ‑ were evocatively displayed in the exhibition as the treasured relics they became. The exhibition concluded by showing how the name “Celts” was rediscovered in the sixteenth century to denote the “pre-Roman peoples of western Europe”, followed by subsequent revivals of interest in local and indigenous history until the present day.

The catalogue, a collaborative project edited by Julia Farley, curator of the European Iron Age collections at the British Museum, and Fraser Hunter, principal curator of the Iron Age and Roman collections at National Museums Scotland, draws on the latest controversial research and new archaeological discoveries and debate to discuss definitions of Celtic art from its origins c 500 BC in western Europe. It concludes with the later manifestations of Celtic art in the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods, and its eighteenth and nineteenth century rediscovery in Scotland, Wales and Ireland as part of the Romantic movement. Contributors representing Edinburgh University and the Scottish National Gallery, the Early Historic and Viking collections at National Museums Scotland, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge and the Archaeological Collections at English Heritage have collaborated on the eleven chapters of the publication. This follows a chronological structure, interspersed with excellent illustrations – often close-up to emphasise craftsmanship – each with informative captions and clear cross-references. A helpful timeline spanning the Bronze Age to the Celtic Revival, and a map of Europe stretching from Ireland to the Black Sea and one of the “United Kingdom and Ireland”, brief the reader.

The first chapter, “In Search of the Celts”, illustrates diverse images of Celts: the Greek and Roman perception of Celts (or Gauls) as wild, naked “barbaric” invaders, quite different from an equally Celtic German warrior proudly wearing ornate armour, and a profusely patterned initial page, “the work, not of men, but of angels” from the eighth-ninth century Book of Kells, now considered “the epitome of Celtic art” even though its illuminators would not have called themselves Celts. Where the word originated remains a mystery, and it was not used again after the Roman period until the late Renaissance. It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as linguistic scholars explored the roots of European languages that similarities emerged between the ancient original languages spoken in Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, called by Julius Caesar “Celtic”. This term was somewhat confusingly adopted first for the diverse languages that current research now proposes developed along the Atlantic seaboard in the Bronze Age, c 2000 BC. It was subsequently adopted from the mid-nineteenth century to describe any ancient object “decorated with unfamiliar styles” as industrialisation and agricultural improvement uncovered buried artefacts with curious spiralling, “complex, swirling, curvilinear shapes” with “suggestions of human and animal forms”. Scholarly attempts at linear historical definitions ensued, although the authors of this publication posit the idea of diversity, of Celtic arts not as one style but each “placed into their own histories”. This was manifested in “different times and places” with “widespread similarities and regional variations”, from the fifth century BC to the seventh century AD as Northumbria converted to Christianity under Irish influence –that is over a long and geographically and culturally varied two and a half millennia. This introductory chapter is broken up, sometimes confusingly, by key images as the authors ask as many questions as they provide suggestions to try to identify what may be considered defining features of Celtic art, described as “Europe’s first complex art style”.

The second chapter looks more closely at how we respond to the ambiguity of Celtic art by considering specific objects made over a period of 1,500 years – excavated from the river Thames, in Wales, Bohemia, the Rhineland, East Anglia, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Shetland – until the widespread adoption of Christianity by AD 700. The skilled techniques, materials, craftsmanship, decorative effects, stylistic variations, purpose, symbolic and ritualistic use and value of this art are discussed and clearly illustrated, reminding the reader how brightly coloured and shining bright these high-status objects would originally have been.  In a series of short paragraphs backed up by maps, interpretative drawings explore stylistic development and symbolist meaning,

Chapter 3 looks at a more connected Europe, even though some people continued to move around and others developed local and regional artefacts. Distinctively unique bronze scabbards made in Ulster in the third century BC have been found in rivers or bogs, probably placed there as ritual offerings. Particularly striking are a pair of ingeniously sophisticated bronze, coral and glass decorated wine flagons incorporating animals and birds made in France as early as 400-360 BC, reflecting the influence of Etruscan vessels, unearthed by road-builders in 1927. The incisive geometric decoration and whorling free forms of early Iron Age ceramic pots from southwestern Germany defy belief that they were made as long ago as 700-650 BC. Such work, unlike anything preceding it in style, decoration or detail, was seemingly used to denote status, protection in war, personal ornament, and rituals concerned with fertility, feasting, burial and the afterlife. The discovery in Germany in 1869 of the burial of a prominent wealthy woman adorned in ornate gold jewellery, accompanied by feasting gear, an elaborately decorated chariot, even a low-relief bronze portrait, prompts speculation about her identity. As recently as 1999, the construction of an extension to Roissy airport outside Paris uncovered a small Iron Age cemetery from the early third century BC with a sinuously ornate chariot whose zoomorphic bronze fittings indicate “a fantasy masterpiece, a glimpse into an alien world”, perhaps made for a druid acquainted with the ritual mysteries of the otherworld.

Fraser Hunter, curator of Iron Age and Roman collections at National Museums Scotland, considers in Chapter 4 why so much high-value, wondrously decorated Celtic art of the Iron Age, most commonly associated with the body, the battlefield, the chariot and the feast, was deliberately committed to the earth. The accoutrements of war were made to impress, intimidate or invoke power and protection for their wearer, as witnessed by stunningly decorated helmets, shields, a brooch, sword scabbards, and the magnificent animal-headed horn known as a carnyx, sounded in war and at ceremonies. But they were made to accompany a warrior beyond the grave, to be seen by gods not men. Hunter thinks it highly unlikely that people would carelessly bury such precious pieces of Celtic art in wet, “out-of-the-way locations such as rivers, bogs, lakes or mountains”. Instead, he concludes, “[t]hese items were deliberately deposited, perhaps as sacrifices to unknown gods, during rites of passage, or to seal agreements between individuals or groups”.

So many iron objects, mostly from the late third century BC, but also human and animals remains, were found at La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland that the name was adopted for the styles of artistic production on the site. The accompanying exhibition featured extensive hoards of torcs, an Iron Age symbol of power, never exclusively Celtic, which varied considerably in style, material and function. Most torcs in Iron Age Britain were apparently “solid objects made from twisted wires, rods of metal or occasionally tubes of gold sheet”. The virtuoso gold torcs repeatedly hammered and coiled to create an elusive double-helix form, and the spiralling gold ribbon torcs, “a style characteristic of Scotland and Ireland” were worn by men, women and, it was believed, gods throughout Europe. Scientific analysis reveals the “complicated manufacturing processes” used by Iron Age goldsmiths working in Britain around two thousand years ago to make “some of the most accomplished and elaborate precious metal objects in the ancient world”. Decoration seems to have marked the prestige and ritual intentions of an object’s owner. Deliberately textured, possibly ritualistic bronze dishes in high-relief repoussé, inset with a central hollow, were unique to Ireland over a period of five hundred years, distinctive with their strong arabesque linear decoration. These were among the earliest pieces of metalwork identified as Celtic art by the pioneering antiquarian scholar JO Westwood in 1853.

The sixth chapter shows the use of swirling arabesque developing in Britain and Ireland in the second century BC as it declined on the Continent, epitomised in the British Museum's exquisitely engraved Desborough mirror from Iron Age Britain. New ways of representing animals and human heads more naturalistically on domestic utensils seem to have been associated with feasting and burials, although their mysterious symbolism remains elusive. The decoding necessary to explain the complex mythology on the huge hoards of gold coins buried in a deliberately ritualised manner also remains as yet speculative. Although Ireland never came under Roman rule, it is interesting to see the influence of the triskele-decorated enamelling that flourished in Britain in the Roman period on early twentieth century Irish Celtic Revival wooden, ceramic and enamelled vessels. Similarly, the high-relief repoussé technique spirals made from rare Roman sheets of silver (not mined in Britain or Ireland at this time) anticipate the stylised roses of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the early twentieth century Glasgow School. Links between Scotland and Ireland can be made through decoration on silver items like pins, dating from the fifth to seventh centuries AD, and through the inscribed stones of the same period whose script records a diversity of connected regional Celtic languages, using Ogham and Pictish symbols.

Martin Goldberg of National Museums Scotland explores the legacy of Roman Britain, identifying a tiny late Roman silver and enamel pin found in southwestern England as the ancestor of the handpins found across Britain and Ireland, and the popular use of penannular brooches by the Romans as clothes fasteners, increasingly embellished in Ireland and Scotland as prestigious vehicles for high-status display.

With their gold, gems and contorted beasts, the wonderfully constructed and inscribed early eighth century Hunterston brooch in Edinburgh and its Irish contemporary, the “Tara” brooch, exemplify new relationships with the Anglo-Saxon world after earlier differences, while the finest skills of the jeweller were also applied to church metalwork, for example in the chalices of the hoards of Derrynaflan and Ardagh in Ireland. Although that fusion of styles known as “Insular” art was used for brooches and other dress ornaments, its distinctive ribbon interlace, scrolls, trumpet-spirals, swirls, triskeles and elongated animals remain most magnificently associated with Christian art objects in stone, metalwork and illuminated manuscripts. The conversion to Christianity of those peoples living at the Western edge of the Christian world, united by the Latin language, played a seminal role in the establishment of the great monastic centres of Iona and Lindisfarne, centres of radically new artistic production. Portable shrines and reliquaries helped spread the word. But the caveat remains: “People living in early mediaeval Britain and Ireland would not have defined either their language or their art as Celtic.”

Citing such eighth century treasures with their prominent but by no means exclusively “Celtic” interlace ornament, the final chapters are devoted to the survival of Iron Age Celtic and Insular traditions after the Viking invasions, particularly in Ireland with the emergence of the Hiberno-Norse style after Brian Boru’s defeat of Norse forces in 1014. The revivals which flourished under the guardianship of the Gaelic chieftains in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries are exemplified by exquisitely inscribed celebratory manuscripts recording the earliest written versions of the great “Celtic” mythological cycles. As hereditary keepers of their ancient heritage, such families commissioned and preserved masterpieces, some now in public collections like those of the Royal Irish Academy or the national museums of Ireland or Scotland.

However, while sixteenth and seventeenth century antiquarians proudly claimed a direct if eccentric line to the past, the nineteenth century Celtic Revival was a “Romantic reconstruction of Britain’s ancient past” as part of a nationalist agenda. A chapter on “The Celtic Revival in Britain & Ireland” rightly credits the importance of the careful archaeological and antiquarian acquisitions of George Petrie for the Royal Irish Academy at the same time as the production of facsimile versions of ancient treasures, such as the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch. The popularity of “Celtic” brooches at the popular international exhibitions after the 1851 Great Exhibition in London was partly due to Queen Victoria's enthusiasm for them. Brightly coloured chromolithographed pattern books and transcriptions of manuscripts illustrating Celtic ornament provided designers with source material, but artists such as Mary Seton Watts, Harry Clarke, John Duncan, the Glasgow “Four”, Phoebe Traquair and Archibald Knox, who were able to incorporate early Celtic references within a modern artistic idiom, achieved an impressive originality – in for example Cork, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Like Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Brittany, Wales celebrated its ancient Celtic origins and heroic bardic culture through the Eisteddfod, a festival of music and poetry revived as early as 1792. In Ireland, the Celtic Revival was also appropriated politically by a nation seeking independence. As this publication concludes:

The debates that surround the Celtic Revival – issues of nationalism, identity, ‘race’ and notions of ‘authenticity’ – are still entirely relevant today and may explain the continuing appeal of this period in art history.

Because of the collaborative nature and shared material of up-to-date findings delivered by contributors in the catalogue, there is a considerable amount of repetition in some of the chapters which would have benefited from stricter editing. Although this reflects a concerted attempt to try to make the complexities of current scholarship accessible to the layman, backed up by mostly summary endnotes, the text can appear disjointed, inadequately integrated or structured thematically ‑ and is thus at times hard to follow. Valuable, however, is the thorough bibliography at the end, which includes periodicals, academic proceedings, unpublished theses and periodicals, as well as the most important books published between the nineteenth century and the present day. This is preceded by a “List of Exhibited Objects”, arranged “by broad period, then by country, city, lender and findspot”, identified by inventory numbers from the British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland – where the exhibition was mounted, although not all items were shown in both places.

01/06/2016

Nicola Gordon Bowe is Associate Fellow at the Faculty of Visual Culture, NCAD (NUI) Ireland. She has lectured and published extensively on nineteenth, twentieth century and contemporary applied arts and design, especially on aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Celtic Revival in Ireland and Central Europe. Her publications include Harry Clarke (Douglas Hyde Gallery), Harry Clarke: His Graphic Art (Dolmen Press), and Harry Clarke: The Life and Work (2012).

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