Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Book of Miracles

August 6, 2017 1 comment

The recently reformatted and republished Taschen version of “The Book of Miracles” is truly a wondrous thing.

A mirror to the hopes, beliefs and fears of the northern European Renaissance mind, it is a collection of nearly 170 mesmerising watercolour and gouache paintings, that illustrate through a fantastic combination of bold images and vivid colors, a cornucopia of long accepted visions, miracles and wonders from both biblical and secular life.

Astral happenings, dragons & multi-headed monsters, plagues and visitations, spectral apparitions, birth defects, messages from the heavens and other unfathomable acts of God, are all beautifully captured with imagination and skill.

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Commissioned, written and illustrated by wholly unknown sources, the book was originally produced as a folio of images and published in Augsburg, Southern Germany in the mid 1550’s.

How well it was received, how popular it became is not recorded, what is obvious however is that it effectively disappeared from history. That is until an almost intact copy of the manuscript came to light less than 10 years or so ago.

It is this amazing find, along with a handful of previously known pages that can now be seen as being obviously part of the original publication, that Taschen have used to create this latest edition.

The miracles depicted range chronologically from the early stories of the Old Testament and The Book of Revelations, right through to contemporary 16th Century Europe, with the spires and towers of Augsburg itself clearly playing a key part in setting the narrative.

Many of the miracles collected in the book are clearly based on earlier, popular and widely distributed woodblock illustrations by the likes of Albrecht Durer, Hans Holbein and Cranach the Elder, and it seems likely that whoever commissioned this amazing work, was looking to collect and document in a consistent and easily understood style, all the miracles that were known up to that time.

Although these images look undoubtedly dated through our 21st Century eyes (I used the word naive previously) they still have the power to inspire & intrique. I can’t help but wonder if the people that drew these monstrous and fantastical pictures, really believed in them fully. Did their overwhelming faith and fear of the Almighty drive them unquestioningly on, or was there a little voice in the back of their mind saying.. “hang on a sec, five suns in the sky at the same time? Really?.. 


A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method – Sir Banister Fletcher

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

banfletch_cov 001Back in the mid 1980’s when I started learning to be an architect up in Leeds, before the days of the internet with its instant access to unlimited knowledge, the library was where you went to learn more about things that interested you…

Big enough to be exciting to a small town boy like me whilst still being small enough so that all your mates lived no more than 10 minutes walk away, Leeds was a most excellent city to be a student in.

The same couldn’t really be said for Leeds Polytechnic however. Underfunded and lacking those visionary leaders and teachers that set great institutions apart, it generally seemed happy with its lot and didn’t push the design envelope (or the students) too far.

Consequently the architecture library (or more specifically section 720 if I remember the Dewey Decimal system correctly) was disappointingly thin, sadly lacking anything published after about 1975… and the few new/ contemporary books the library had were booked out all term by those that got there first..

Still there was one old book that caught my attention, even if it didn’t really help develop my design skills or understanding of Neo-Rationalism, and that was A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method by the marvelously named Sir Banister Fletcher.

Initially published in 1896, it was a huge tour de force, whose stated aim was to:

“…display clearly the characteristic features of the architecture of each country by comparing the buildings of each period and by giving due prominence to the influences – geographical, geological, climatic, religious, social and historical which have contributed to the formation of particular styles, and which hitherto have not been emphasised systematically in presenting the story of architectural development. The Tree of architecture will help the reader to realise the importance of these influences and the gradual evolution of the various styles.”

tree 001Containing literally hundreds of beautiful line drawings and grainy b&w photos, it became the standard reference text for architectural historians in the first half of last century and I can clearly remember tracing over some of the drawings for various history essay submissions (oh how the tutors must have sniggered, as yet another student tries to pass off achingly familiar drawings as their own…)

Several years ago I came across a Twelfth Edition from 1946 in a local book fair and so for the princely sum of £8, I could once again marvel at the quality of the drawings and wonder at the amount of time and effort that must have gone into this excellent tome…

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banflectch_5 001This last image is from the very back of the book and gives you an idea of how up to date the schemes and visuals were for a student hungry to know more about The Bauhaus and Modernism. And if more evidence were needed, I’ve just checked through the index and even as late as 1946, there is still no mention of Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, let alone Walter Gropius…

Still, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed perusing the yellowed pages of this wonderful old book for today’s post. Well worth hunting down a copy if you have an interest in both architectural history and penmanship…. In fact I’ve just learned that there was a 20th edition/ 100th anniversary version updated by Dan Cruikshank published back in 1996. Its available here on Amazon, but at £145, I’d click over to an online second hand book shop, and see what they’ve got….

Alan Bean: Moon Dust in every Painting…

October 13, 2014 Leave a comment

book jacketI’ve been re-reading Andrew Smith’s excellent book, Moon Dust. Published about 10 years ago it’s an absorbing series of tales that came out of Smith visiting, talking to and recording the thoughts of the last 9 people to ever have walked upon the surface of the Moon. Forty years after the moon landings, how did the momentous events of that period shape their lives once they got back and realised they were never going to top those feelings again…

Over the two and a half year period from July 1969 to December 1972, there were 7 flights to the moon, from Apollo 11 to Apollo 17. Apollo 13 famously didn’t make it due to problems with exploding oxygen tanks, which means that 12 men have left their boot prints in the lunar dust.

At the time the book was written, three of these men, Conrad, Irwin & Shepard had passed away leaving only 9. (To this list we now need to add Armstrong who died in 2012)

I’ve made this quick table of the astronauts that made the journey. There are a surprising number of names that are unfamiliar, considering what they achieved, the CM pilots who never reached the moon’s surface, especially so.

Apollo Flights copyThe book is truly fascinating, touching on the highs and lows, the expectations and the disappointments, the marriage breakdowns, the back stabbing, the hierarchy within NASA, the demeaning appearances at conventions for the less well known, the voices from god, the new age beliefs and ultimately asks each man, where they felt they were at the turn of the 21st century, mentally, physically and spiritually…

I can recommend it thoroughly.

NightLaunch 1975One name that has stuck with me is that of Alan Bean. The fourth man to stand on the moon, his post moonwalk journey seems to have been both less traumatic and less obvious that the others.

Staying on at NASA, he lived in Skylab for 56 days over the summer of 1975, was a key member of the joint US/ Russian Soyuz programme before leaving NASA in 1981 to become a full time professional artist.

Attending art night classes whilst on astronaut training, his early work (Night Launch above from 1975) had to my eyes at least, genuine promise, with its expressionistic plumes of exhaust smoke from the jet engines creating a real sense of power.

beanToolsHowever since the early 80’s Bean has developed a singular visual style that focuses solely on the limited amount of time (in his case less than 4 hours) that he and the others spent on the moon, endlessly reinterpreting and deconstructing his memories, sometimes painting exactly the same scene 6, 7, 8 times slightly altering the colours or minutely correcting details in order to capture the essence of the experience…

Bean begins by painting the canvas (or more usually a solid backboard) with a thick paste which he then imprints with a variety of devices especially moon boots and tools he brought back from his trip. He also sticks into the paste small cut offs from the various badges and patches that were sewn onto his space suit. These are ingrained with fine grains of moon dust which then become part of the painting. He also uses specially commissioned scale models to help him “meticulously construct” the desired view and get the lighting correct..

The results I would suggest are mixed…

Some are pretty good like the following four, which capture some of the feelings of what it must have felt like to be so far from home in such an alien landscape…





Examples of the same view done over and over with slight variations in colour and detail…

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Some works however are less impressive, as Bean seems to rely too heavily on his imprinting techniques to carry his vision across…


And others are just bizarre.. Oddly these seem to be the ones where he deviates from what happened and relies more on his imagination…



Still Alan Bean comes across as a contented man in Andrew Smith’s book, which is more than can be said of the other astronauts he meets, many of whom struggled to come to terms with Life after Lunar. And why not, most of Bean’s work is sold as soon as it’s finished for pretty big bucks. There are a few originals available here if you fancy one. Prices start from around $70K. The cheesy (and not unsurprisingly unsold in my book) flag and gold olive leaf one above will set you back nearly $450K…

There’s also a gallery of all Alan Bean’s paintings here where I’ve taken all of the images for this post from.

The Ancient Chinese Culture of Sanxingdui…

September 1, 2014 1 comment

624Via the magic that is Google Chrome, I finally got round to watching the recent Andrew Graham Dixon programmes in which he assesses the history of Chinese Art.

As with all of AGD’s art history shows, it was a rather mannered affair, full of confidently expounded theories and ideas, which when his subject is European or Western Art that he’s studied his whole life and in which his expertise lie, is fair enough. I’m generally happy to listen to what he has to say, cringing at some of his tenuous or rather laboured connections perhaps, but enjoying his obvious passion and bowing to his undoubted knowledge.

But I have to admit that I struggled with him on these programmes. The subject is obviously hugely diverse and richly fascinating, but I couldn’t help but get the impression that AGD is very new to the subject and was mostly winging it or relying heavily on more authentic Chinese art historians that were just off screen, diligently writing his script and helping him with pronunciation… Was there not a Chinese expert who could have guided us through their countries rich heritage?

Whatever… One aspect that has stuck with me from the first show however, was that of the amazing Sanxingdui culture…

Since the discovery in 1987, when workman uncovered two pits containing a large number of damaged bronze, jade and gold artifacts in Sichuan Province, Central China, theories around the finds have rapidly developed to the point that many academics contend that they are more important than the Terracotta warriors..

Sanxingdui_1Radio carbon dated to around 4000 years old, the seemingly discarded pieces were painstakingly reassembled over an eight year period to reveal a series of masks and heads that are striking in their appearance. Rumors of a mysterious and ancient tribe known as the Shu (translated as eye) people had abounded in the area for centuries, but it wasn’t until this discovery that any explanation could be given to the stories.

These beautiful masks with their protruding eyes, “enigmatic smiles” and stylised ears are like nothing else in China’s rich cultural history. They offer the first evidence of a Chinese figurative sculptural art (other than straight forward copies of soldiers in terracotta), a style that was thought until this discovery, to have never been part of the Chinese artistic language.

Its always interesting to compare timelines across cultures. 4000 years ago in the British Isles we were making simple stone carvings such as the Westray Wifey, whilst in Egypt the Naqada People were carving simple animal shapes. I think we can agree that the early Chinese cultures were well ahead of the curve in terms of technique.

Nearly 2000 objects were removed from the pits and these truly amazing works are now on display in a purpose built museum near the discovery site. No idea how easy it would be to visit, but it certainly looks like it would be worth it if you ever find yourself in the Sichuan Basin…





One final thought if you’ve got this far. As soon as I saw them, these figures reminded me of the fairly recent additions to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona… It’s the emphasis on the eyes…


Old London Bridge Illuminated…

May 10, 2014 4 comments

027ROY16F000002U00073000[SVC2]I caught the end of a Dan Cruickshank programme earlier this week about the bridges of London, and one image has really stuck in my mind…

It’s a page from an illuminated manuscript dating from 1483, so well over 500 years ago, and shows a scene from the imprisonment of Charles, Duke of Orléans in the Tower of London. Following his capture at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, Charles, a high ranking member of the French Aristocracy was kept prisoner at the Tower for 25 years.

The main pictorial image depicts Charles in various activities: writing a letter, standing at a window of his prison in the Tower and giving an envelope to someone in the courtyard, presumably to send back home to France and possibly containing a love poem (Charles is generally considered to have penned the first recorded Valentines Poem, which began “I’m already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine”).

I digress. The main reason this image was in the programme and the reason it has stayed in my head, is that as well as the Duke, it also contains one of the earliest known depictions of the First London Bridge, which can be clearly seen in the background of the full page and on this detail below.


Apart from being an intrinsically very beautiful object, the quality of the workmanship on this illuminated panel is stunning… Look carefully at the City in the distance.. it’s magical in its appearance with a multitude of church spires and saw toothed roofs. No wonder London was at this time, considered one of the greatest Cities of the World (and still is I might add).

As for the Thames itself, it looks almost inviting in azure blue and turquoise. The white lines under each arch by the way, represent the effect that the massive piers had on the flow of the river. It’s been suggested these massive structures would have reduced the width of the river by upwards of 60%, resulting in a rushing effect through the openings, especially as the tide turned…

The First, Old or Medieval London Bridge was begun in 1176 and was known to have been completed by 1209, which means it took more than 30 years to build. It was the first known stone bridge in the world and was quite rightly considered one of the wonders of the age: 8m wide (26 ft) and around 255m (850 ft) long, it sat on 19 irregularly spaced arches with a drawbridge at the center to allow tall ships to pass. Also towards the center of the bridge was a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas Beckett. As the bridge was the only crossing for many miles, everyone who couldn’t afford a boat to cross the Thames, had to use the bridge, with most offering a prayer and votive  coins at the chapel.


Famously the bridge had rows of shops and houses on either side, which resulted in a restricted and narrow route through for wagons and horses and was ultimately (along with rotten timber structures, stinking gutters and dangerous alleyways) the reason other wider, non populated bridges were built…

This amazing structure stood for nearly 600 years before being finally demolished in the 1830’s. During its lifetime it survived  The Reformation of King Henry 8th in the 16th Century and the Great Fire in 1666, remaining the only crossing in London until 1750.



One final thing, the building in the center of the painting above was added to the bridge in 1579 and was known as Nonsuch House. Originally built in the Netherlands 2 years previously, it was dismantled, shipped over to London and re-erected on the bridge without the use of a single nail, and being significantly wider than the bridge itself, cantilevered precariously over the water on each side.

Now that really would have been something to see…

A New Union Jack…

December 6, 2013 Comments off

It hadn’t occurred to me before I read this article on the BBC website, but if the Scots decide to go it alone and vote for independence next year, there is a very strong argument that the Union Jack, our national flag for the last 200 years or so, should be redesigned to reflect this new situation…

In a follow up article here the BBC asked readers to submit their own suggestions, some of which are pretty good, others are just silly. But it’s got me thinking about how I might approach the problem…

_71534769_350618I certainly like the idea of introducing green into the flag, and this suggestion from Dave Parker could be a good starting point for my money. It keeps the basic, universally recognisable appearance, which is probably the right approach, but uses the different colour to emphasise our Welsh connections…

Obviously the die hards and traditionalists will decry the loss of the red, white and blue that has for so long defined our Nation, but if the Scots take their blue flag of St Andrew away, can we still legitimately include it within the New Union Jack?

Interesting. I think I might have a little go myself and see if I can come up with something of my own…

PS. I’m also really enjoying my word for the day… Vexillologist or flag expert. I’ve not come across that one before…

Lazy Post No. 2: U-118 on Hastings Beach…

August 22, 2013 2 comments

In April 1919, the surrendered German Submarine, U-118 was being towed from Cherbourg to Scarpa Flow up in Scotland to be broken up as scrap, when in the midst of a storm in the English Channel it broke free of its towing cables and drifted off uncontrollably on the rough seas…

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To end up on Hastings Beach, almost directly in front of the Queens Hotel, where it instantly became a huge attraction as thousands of people used their Easter Holidays to travel down to the South Coast to go and see this technical marvel for themselves… Tours were organised inside and over the outside of the huge vessel and a small industry of souvenirs and keepsakes developed around this unusual piece of  jetsam…

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Despite attempts to remove it using various means including tractors towing it back into the sea and, believe it or not, a Destroyer firing at it from off shore, the sub stayed firmly put. It wasn’t until about 5 months later in October 1919, when work began proper to cut up the hulk and take it off to be scrapped, although there are still persistent rumors that parts of it can still be found buried under the beach…

These pictures are all either contemporary postcards or pictures from the national papers and illustrate not only the impressive size of the submarine and the challenge posed in removing it, but also the wonderfully anachronistic Edwardian clothing… dark suits, big frocks and hats, lots and lots and lots of hats…

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