25 March 2017

spectacular Anglo Saxon warrior art treasures

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in 2009 near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, Staffordshire by a local farmer and his metal detectorist mate. At the time of the hoard's deposition, the location was in the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. So now the hoard is of considerable importance in Anglo-Saxon archaeology, in both historical content and in quality.

A research and conservation programme was launched and continued for years, conducted by Barbican Research Associates on behalf of the owners and of Historic England, who fund the project. In 2010, the Art Fund led the campaign to acquire the treasure for Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, raising £3.3m.

The archaeologists concluded that the Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found any­where in the world. The 3,500+ items, that are nearly all warlike in character, total 5.1 kilos of gold, 1.4 kilos of silver and 3,500 cloisonné garnets.

So the Hoard almost certainly represents the spoils of C7th or C8th war, fought in the Kingdom of Mercia. But that begs the question - what were these beautiful objects doing, at a time when warfare between England’s many competing regional kingdoms was frequent?
sword pommel

Historians have theorised about why the hoard was deposited where it was, and whether it was Christians or pagans who left the treasure. They know only that the hoard was dis­covered near Watling St. One of the major thoroughfares of Roman Britain, it ran for 400k from Dover past Wroxeter, and was probably still in use when the hoard was buried.

The quality of the workmanship is very high, especially remarkable in view of the large number of individual objects, such as swords or helmets, from which the elements in the hoard came. The hoard contains mainly military items, including sword pommel caps i.e. the tip of the hilt of a sword that anchors the hilt fittings to the sword blade. Single pommel caps from this period are rare archaeological finds, and to find this many together is unprecedented.

The experts also noted the extra­ord­inary quantity of weapon hilt fittings. These decorative items from the handles of swords and knives feature beautiful garnet inlays or animals in elaborate filigree. Some of the gold in the pieces from the original Staffordshire Hoard could be traced to Istanbul in modern-day Turkey, and the beautiful red garnets were imported from India and Eastern Europe, showing the Anglo-Saxons to be accomplished traders.

There are hundreds of pieces of silver foil in the hoard, which are thought to come from one or more helmets. A biblical inscription from an item in the hoard is written in Latin and is misspelled in two places, and reads ‘Rise up, O Lord, and may they enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.’

The most similar archaeological finds are the artefacts from Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, discovered in 1939. A large mound was found to contain a 90’ long wooden ship complete with a central burial chamber. This chamber was once furnished with text­iles and contained the dead ruler’s possessions, including magnifi­cent gold and garnet weapon fittings and a striking panelled helmet.

One comparison between the Staffordshire Hoard and the East Anglian Sutton Hoo collection is fascinating. Sutton Hoo gold objects were made for Anglo-Saxon royals; thus they used high karat material (21-23 karats) which did not need to be subjected to any surface enrichment trick. Gold objects made for the nobility or important military figures, as in Staffordshire, were mostly made from 12-18 karat gold.

pectoral cross

The Tour
The treasure is owned by Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, and cared for on their behalf by Birmingham Museums Trust and The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. Permanent displays of the Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork will still continue in Bir­m­ingham and Stoke-on-Trent and at other venues in the West Midlands. And now (2016-17) there is the opportunity for the hoard to reach new audiences across the UK.

Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Stafford­shire Hoard travelled first to the Royal Armouries, Leeds in 2016, and then to Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until late April 2017. The touring exhibition has 100 items of gold, silver and semi-precious gems from Anglo-Saxon weaponry i.e the fittings from weapons. These fittings were stripped from swords and single-edged fighting knives, and probably represent the equipment of defeated armies from unknown battles during the C7th. The fittings are decorated with gold, silver and blood red garnets, and represent the finest quality Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship.

They shed light on a turbulent time in history and give an insight into the possessions of an elite warrior class. Of course the sword was more than just a weapon – it signified a war­r­ior’s status, wealth, family and even religious beliefs.

In Nov 2012 more artefacts were found in the same Hammerwich area, following a ploughing of the field. Archaeolog­ists working on behalf of Staffordshire County Council and English Heritage used metal detectors to find the items buried just below the surface! The extra artefacts includes a possible helmet cheek guard, a cross-shaped mount and an eagle-shaped figure.

I, Helen, a passionate collector of gold and silver art, live in the wrong country!

The research on the Hoard has shed light on the Dark Ages and brings to life the famous Saxon poem Beowulf, in which great kings with hoards of gold bestow precious gifts upon loyal heroes. Beowulf contains lines that may describe circums­tan­ces similar to the burial of the hoard: ‘One warrior stripped the other, looted Ongen­theow’s iron mail-coat, his hard sword-hilt, his helmet too, and carried graith to King Hygelac; he accepted the prize, promised fairly that reward would come, and kept his word. They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was.’

21 March 2017

Barcelona's very special art nouveau/art deco Hotel Fuster

The old structures along Barcelona’s Passeig de Garcia were made of wood since they were under the con­stant threat of demolition by government ord­er. A military law was in force that prohibited any struct­ure from being built out­side the city within a cannon shot of its walls, a distance of 1,250 ms.

Barcelona’s aristocracy and bourgeoisie already knew Passeig de Garcia well because they strolled and amused themselves there. Be­fore the start-up of The Cerdà Plan for the Expansion of Barc­el­ona (1859-61), the Eixample district had pleasure gardens (including Prado Catalán, Camps Elisis, Jardí de la Nimfa, Criadero, Tívoli and Español) leading off from the road, with restaurants and theatres. Once the Cerdà Plan put an end to the old restrictions, a new age of building fever started. Now the most prominent families of Barcelona left the narrow Old Town behind them, moving their mansions to this new and more spacious and prestigious area. And the most exclusive stores progressively moved from Carrer Ferran and the Rambla to the new avenue, in the wake of their wealthy clientele.

Hotel Casa Fuster
opened in 2004

The rediscovery of Catalan Modernisme/Art Nouveau heritage turned Passeig de Garcia, and the whole suburb of Eixample, into a favourite part of Barcelona. Originally these architectural masterpieces were not app­reciated by everyone because they looked fussy and contrived. The French prime minister Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929) visited Passeig de Garcia and was offended by the excessive colours and ornament­ation on the façades.

Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923) was in charge of a project that started in 1901. The Hospital de Sant Pau/Hospital of the Holy Cross and Saint Paul complex was the most relevant public building of Catalan Art Nouveau. But not all Art Nouveau was the same. Lluis Domènech i Montaner was far more restrained than his Cat­alan contemp­or­ary, Antonio Gaudi (1852–1926). In 1912 Gaudi’s newly finished Casa Mila was derogatorily known as La Pedera/stone quarry.

Mr Mariano Fuster i Fuster, an older, cashed-up businessman from Mallorca, met and adored Ms Consuelo Fabra i Puig, the daughter of the Mar­quis of Alella, in Barcelona. Fuster saw Domènech’s architecture, loved it and put him in charge of a new and ambitious project – a family home at the top of the very elegant Passeig de Gracia. The new casa was to be a gift from Señor Fuster to his beloved wife, with the added (ambitious) goal of making the city of Barcelona more beautiful! Domènech was to design and built the house, under the supervision of Mrs Fuster. In fact Mariano Fuster put the house in his wife’s name.

Passeig de Gracia

Domenech worked on the building from 1908 to 1911, together with his son Pere Domenech i Roure  (1881-1962) , another architect. By the time it was built, Casa Fuster was considered the most expensive house in Barc­elona. Other citizens noticed that the vast facade of the house was the entirely made with high quality white marble! Other feat­ures of the building were pink columns, trilobate windows and classic floral motifs across the casa’s three facades. The building, topped with a mansard French style, was a dignified masterpiece, the symbol of the greatest period of splendour and prosperity in Barcelona. Inside, the five storeys of designer luxury included the ornate ground-floor salon, used for grand society receptions.

Domènech was influential in the Catalan Art Nouveau movement, yet Casa Fuster also had neo-Gothic elements. Its white marble undoubted­ly gleamed in the sunshine of the Passeig de Gracia, but did the styles harmonise together?

In 1911 the Fuster i Fabra Family moved into their casa. But due to the fearfully expensive construction of the casa, and to the high maintenance costs, the family lived there only briefly .. until the early 20s. This might have been a financial lesson to other ambitious families.

After the family left, their huge lounge room became Café Vienes and other small businesses took over smaller spaces eg a barber shop. Event­ual­ly Cafe Vienes became the favourite place for Catalan bohemians, artists and writers to meet each other. (I have written a lot of posts about Barcelona, but they all concentrate on two things: the arts and the drinks). A dance hall known as El Danubio Azul became very popular in the 1950s, but eventually the building was showing its age.

In 1962, the ENHER electrical company bought the house with the intention of demolishing it and building a sky-scraper. The people of Barcelona were completely against it and thanks to many protests and newspaper articles, the crisis was averted. So between 1962 and 1974 ENHER had to renovate Casa Fuster, at least minimally.


the hotel's Cafe Viennes 

the hotel's events room,
now called the Domènech i Montaner hall

In 1999, the casa was put on sale and the Hoteles Center chain bought it a year later. Casa Fuster was completely restored in 2004 and turned into a grand hotel. Since standard rooms at the hotel begin at €270 a night and suites from €369, spouse and I stayed in Barcelona’s lovely B and Bs instead. But I have examined all the public spaces in the hotel carefully.

The original decorations were not destroyed, in order that the hotel could preserve some of its history. But the 75 rooms and 21 suites are now furnished in Art Deco style with warm tones and elegant materials. The hotel lobby's Art Nouveau shell of black mosaic floor and fluted pillars have been updated with post-modern flourishes, as is the lounge. The hotel’s ten salons have been adapted for seminars and business conferences. Now the sumptuous Café Vienés, which I first saw in Woody Allen's 2008 movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona, hosts a jazz performance every Thursday night. The Galaxó restaurant is splendid.

The hotel is representative of the most prosperous and splendid period of Barcelona. And it is also blessed by its neighbourhood. In easy walking distance are some of Barcelona’s main attractions eg two of Gaudi's major works, the Casa Mila apartment block and the Casa Batllo town house. Visitors can travel east from Casa Fuster, down the narrow side streets, and find the Eixample neigh­bourhood, filled with bars, designer shops and restaurants.

The original architect's son Pere Domènech i Roura went on to design the façade of the Olympic Stadium at Montjuïc, the Casa de la Premsa/Press Hall for the World Fair of 1929 and the Cooperatives Agrícoles at l'Espluga de Francolí and Serral. But the father was more famous. Domènech Senior’s Hospital de Sant Pau and Palau de la Musica Catalana were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Senior Suite, totally Deco


18 March 2017

Quick and cheap weddings - Gretna Green

My first connection with Gretna Green (pop 2,700) came, not via his­t­orical texts, but in Jane Austen’s novels. It is a village in S.W Scotland in Dumfries and Galloway, 1.5ks across the border from Eng­land.

By the mid C18th the country was facing serious social problems caused by large numbers of irregular marriages taking place. Rumours emerged about underage heiresses who had been tricked, or kidnapped and forced into marriage by unscrupulous men. So to prevent families seeing their underage offspring preyed upon, English law lords app­roved new laws to tightened marriage arrangements. In particular, note Lord Hard­wicke’s Mar­riage Act for the Prevention of Cland­estine Marriages (1754). Couples had to reach the age of 21 before they could marry without their parents' consent and their marriage had to take place in a church. The new law was rigorously enforced, and clergymen faced 14 years of transportation for breaking it.

The Famous Blacksmith's Shop
Gretna Green

Scottish law however was different, as was Irish law. In Scotland marriage was permitted for girls from 12, and for boys from 14. And anyone in Scotland could marry couples on the spot in a simple Marriage by Declaration ceremony, requiring only two witnesses and assurances from the couple that they were both over the age of 16 and free to marry.

With such a relaxed arrangement within reach of England, it soon led to the inevitable influx of thousands of young couples running away to marry as quickly as they could. For travellers from the south, Gretna Green was the first Scottish village they entered, follow­ing the old coaching route from London to Edinburgh.

In coaching days, there was sometimes a frantic carriage chase through England to the border, presumably to evade angry fathers of vulnerable brides. In those days a black-smith’s shop was an obvious stop, the place very where run-away weddings began. The blacksmith was the heart of any village, always at work making horseshoes, fixing carriages and farm equipment in his work­shop. Honest men of toil! Being right at the heart of the heart of the village, the now famous Famous Black­smith's Shop is at the junction of the old coaching roads.

Couple in a carriage, racing to the border ahead of her angry father

How strange that a blacksmith’s shop would also become synonymous with a hot bed of scandal and intrigue, with daughters from respect­able families eloping to marry a scoundrel. The so-called Anvil Priests would perform the ceremony for a wee dram or a few guineas, depending on the couple’s status and financial standing. The hammering of the anvil soon became a key sound; grooms romantically said that like the metals he forged, the black­smith would join couples together in the heat of the moment but bind them for eternity.

A few years later in England, Lord Brougham's Act provided the cooling-off act that stipulated a three-week residency in Scotland prior to the marriage. For the marriage to be legal, this Act applied to at least one of the marrying couple. But it seems that the new English amendment made little difference to affianced couples.

Today, pass through the narrow walls and low ceiling of the Famous Blacksmith's Shop to feel the dramatic atmosphere of this old building. The blacksmith, and his legendary anvil, become synonymous with c5,000 Gretna Green weddings each year. It was never a secret! One blacksmith wrote to the Times in 1843, stat­ing that he had single handedly performed c3,500 marriages in the town over 25 years.

In 1940 the institution of "marriage by declaration" was outlawed in Scotland and in 1977 English couples could finally get married without parental consent at 18. There is still a small Gretna Difference in the two legal systems. Marriage is legal at 16 in Scotland, without parental consent. The marriage age in England without parental consent dropped to 18 in 1977, Lord Brougham's Act was repealed and religious weddings could happen outside a Scottish church. Civil weddings blossomed.

Although 15 days' notice is required to marry in Scotland, there is no residency requirement. Thus English couples can still get married there at relatively short notice.
Note the blacksmith and two witnesses

Despite the legal distinctions that once made Gretna a marriage capital, it still holds a romantic appeal. "Running away to Gretna Green" is a phrase still used today. Since couples still make the trip, an entire industry has built up around Gretna Green’s history: hotels, wedding planning companies, car hire firms, photographers, gift shops and hair salons are everywhere in this small town.

The Mill Forge Hotel sees c600 weddings a year, of which 80% are English couples. The main customer base is from Manchester, Liverpool, Yorkshire and Birmingham. And they have also had wedding parties from South Africa, South America, USA and New Zealand.

Gretna Green has always traded on its difference from England, relying on cross-border trade. What might have changed, had Scotland achieved independence? The issue of Scotland’s independence probably did not arise for Gretna, a town built during WW1 to provide homes for 30,000 employees of a huge munitions factory.