Last Wednesday, my daughter and I were in London. Early in the morning we passed this very long procession of geese on their way to a pond on Ham Common.  There must have been fifty of them walking single file.  We had a lot to do, and we didn’t realise its significance at the time, but I see it now as a harbinger of our visit to the British Museum.

On trips to London when Alma was younger we would usually spend the afternoon at the Regent’s Park Zoo.  This time, round about lunchtime, we knew we were very close to the British Museum and so we decided to spend the rest of the day there.

We entered past these huge Chinese bells on a staircase by the back entrance:

It takes you eventually into the old courtyard, which Norman Foster enclosed, in 2000, and turned into a central public space.

It surrounds the base of the famous old reading room where Marx worked after 1857, when it opened.  Other writers and researchers – from Kipling to Virginia Woolf, Jinnah to Gandhi, H.G. Wells to Lenin – also worked there and I remember there was some grumbling when the Library was separated from the museum and located in new premises.  Anyway, the new Great Courtyard is very successful, enormous and difficult to photograph.  Everybody wants to know how they clean the glass (I think it’s self-cleaning):

Our first goal was to the right from the courtyard, the Rosetta Stone.

Only one person was looking at the back, and for good reason. There’s nothing there.

The front was a different matter.  It’s one of the most popular items – what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, I suppose :

You only have to walk a little way, past this delightful 5-legged Assyrian bearded creature – part-man, part-bird, part-lions perhaps? (there are four of them flanking this archway and several more quite similar ones in the adjoining

galleries) – to come to the Elgin Marbles and more half-man depictions, this time a centaur kicking another bloke in the balls almost certainly in self defence.

There were three or four centaurs in the Parthenon galleries in relief on the metopes.  There’s also this freestanding horse’s head from the tapered end of one of the pediments:

Alma pointed out that it’s not symmetrical, a nice change from the more static Assyrian sculpture.

After a little while it struck me that there may be more animals on display at the British Museum than there are at the London Zoo.  There are cattle all over the place.  This is a tiny Minoan bull tossing a man:

There are lots more Cretan bulls, all quite small.  Here are three:

In another part of the museum is a much larger, copper Sumerian bull, one of originally four found in 1923 by Leonard Wooley, near Ur.  It’s dated 2600 BC, and the display, with what looks like some house-cleaning polish in the background and lines of ducks and cattle below it, reminded me of the processing geese on Ham Common.  It decorated a temple to Ninhursag, whose name means ‘lady of the steppe land’ where cows were put out to pasture.

There were many lions, tigers, Egyptian cats, seals, otters and other creatures that I didn’t photograph.  I can’t remember seeing many birds or fish.

In the print room on the almost top floor was an exhibition of Goya’s etchings and those of some of his contemporaries.  One of them had etched a copy of His Majesty’s Giant Ant-eater, a 1 x 2-metre painting recently attributed to Goya, in Madrid.  Apparently the animal was brought, aged two-and-a-half, from Buenos Aires, and was presented to Carlos III in 1776.  As far as I know it led a happy life in Spain.

As well as the crazy, grizzly Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra) aquatint etchings which I won’t show here, Goya himself had quite a lot of bullfight scenes and a couple of dogs on show.  And then there was this elephant, called Who Will Bell the Cat? (Quién le pondrá el cascabel al gato?), from Los Proverbios.

The generally accepted interpretation of this print is that the elephant, representing the people, is being seduced into accepting laws which would sap its strength and put it at the mercy of the ruling class. The fable of the mice who held a meeting to discuss what to do with the cat (they decided to bell it, but then had to decide who would take on the task) was in an anthology that was almost surely known to Goya. In the composition one of the cowering Moors holds a book (laws?) while another holds out a bell harness in the direction of the massive animal.

There were a few other things I photographed.  One, next to the Goyas, was this Indian openwork teacup;  I wondered at first why the tea didn’t come spilling out of the holes but it’s got a leakproof layer inside:

Here’s the BM’s own picture, below; it’s quite different from mine.  The museum says the teacup is from 1900 and cast from silver at the Workshop of Oomersee Mawjee (also spelled Oomersi Mawji) in Bhuj, Gujarat, in western India.  “The greatest silversmith in India”, here are some photographs of a holy-water container he made, from silver and coco-de-mer, in the form of a cow.

Tea-cup and saucer.  Each element is made up of an outer and an inner skin of silver; the decoration appears on the outer skin while the inner face is undecorated and shiny.  The decorated part appears as a pierced skin through which the shiny interior part can be seen.  These separate parts are screwed together on the base.  The decoration on both cup and saucer is the same – a main band of floral scrollwork with, above and below, a small band of acanthus leaves.

 Another object I liked was this large Japanese Haniwa 埴輪 terracotta tomb figure, upstairs.  He’s from around 500 AD, a warrior chieftain from Ibaraki.  This is a subject I know nothing about but I like the hat, beard, tunic and trousers.  It’s nothing like any Japanese art or costume that I’ve seen elsewhere.

We got out of the BM, at the front end, at about three thirty.

There was just time for a cup of tea at the London Review of Books‘ bookshop & café, round the corner, and then we had to head home.  I didn’t see one single goat all day.

Advertisements