Changing country and therefore culture and customs means that even familiar traditions take on a different quality, with emphasis attached to other elements and aspects - Christmas festivities being a case in point... Y
Winter cold is biting now and all the branches, twigs and remaining leaves are glistening with frost, as if dipped in crystals...
The conditions reminded me of the 1872 hymn written by Christina Rossetti;
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
When I was a child, I used to love touching the packages of semi-precious gemstones that had been ordered and sent from the suppliers. Unassuming folded white paper could be opened out so that fingers could delve and filtch out the jewels within, running these over the palms and letting them tumble down in a strangely fluid movement ; amethysts, garnets, citrines, moonstones That flowing sensation, with those rich colours delicately glinting in the light has never left me. In other types of package, meanwhile, would emerge the cameos and yet somehow these never left any impression on me at all, except disinterest. Face after face of some classical beauty or other would stare out but I was certainly not interested in returning their gaze and could never fully understand the allure of the resulting rings, earrings, brooches and pendents. How our preception of things changes with age !
Whilst my childhood collection of flawed and thus commercially-worthless gemstones still operate their magic on me, so too do the cameos, as it happens. And surging back came those greedy magpie urges to touch and treasure the beauties on display !!! Being told to simply ‘take what I wanted’ were words almost too magical to be hear, when faced with numerous cameo specimens of varying sizes, some too beautiful in their craftsmanship to even behold ! However, take I did, for fear that this treasure would one eventually end up unloved and lost in a world that does not appear to treasure their understated elegance. Of course, there are still periodic bursts of interest in this centuries-old art. There are an abundance of cameos featuring busts of women in their décolleté finery – typically with carefully arranged hair swept up into sophisticated styles, possibly held by a headdress or left flowing down the nape of an elegant neck to the shoulders.
Many of these are original Victorian pieces, mid 20th century versions of the same or are simply (rather shoddy) modern-day equivalents. Historically, the cameo is synonymous with more Classical themes, with scenes from Greco-roman mythology with their corresponding figures – both male and female. Gods and goddesses were frequently depicted but so too were portraits of politicians, or images of historical or religious figures, many of which, incidentally, would be shown facing to the right. Of the many cameos that have been passed on to me, my favourite is the double profile - capita jugata – which shows two superimposed busts in stunning fine detail, as in the style of the famous Gonzaga Cameo which itself exchanged hands many times before finally becoming part of the Hermitage collection. It seems to me that the majority of pre-21st century cameos are destined to become inheritance pieces, one way or another, to be cared for and handed down to the next generations in a timeless process.
Understandibly perhaps,there is a wish to bring the style and content of the cameo into the new millennium with a more modern approach. Somehow these updated ‘edgy’ versions with trendy images - often machine-carved or laser sculpted - do nothing for me whatsoever. I cannot imagine such pieces having any lasting hold or attraction in time or space but rather will appear outdated in the years to come. Why would you want a cameo of a skull or monkey anyway, I wonder, but each to his own, ultimately…
However, with an art form that has been so intrinsically linked to certain types of image and imagery – be that quaint Victorian belles or bellicose emperors, gods or goddesses – how do you move towards the future in a credible, relevant, aesthetic manner? I have often asked myself why many ultra-realist pieces of sculpture simply do not work as pieces of art and maybe modern-day cameos face the same difficulties. How to display stature and meaning in modern times without looking like dull 3-d print-outs without artistry or aim ? We can surely admire cameos from decades and centuries past, and certainly do, but I am not sure how the form can evolve.
In my childhood indifference to the cameo, I never bothered to find out how they were made or where, beyond the basic knowledge that they were in effect carved from shell. Looking now at the artistry in each piece, I cannot believe I was so underwhelmed, for they are indeed, miniature sculptures and some are truly tiny in size and yet all the details are painstakingly worked to scale. Whatever the proportion, a cameo is a form of glyptography, from the Greek word meaning ‘to carve’. They are hand-carved in relief – relievo - from the Italian relievevare, 'to raise' and as such are the opposite of the intaglio, which is an indented or sunken engraving, often employed as a seal and means of identification.
Although most commonly associated with a shell medium, cameos may also be carved from a layered stone such as agate, onyx, or sardonyx, with the different coloured layers highlighting the sculpted forms ; cornelian, coral, lava and jet have likewise been used. Work on bone, resin, amber or glass is not, however, considered to be genuine cameo artistry and nor is the excessive reliance on modern sculpting techniques such as laser-carving and ultrasonic milling. The subsequent mass production of perfect yet bland, soul-less pieces has done the art of the cameo a disservice and the practice of assembling these from separately carved relief and background - composite cameo-making - is considered by some to be ‘cheating’….
One of the pieces that my aunt still treasures is one that I remember from years ago. In hommage to Botticelli’s 15th century painting, Venus is represented borne on a shell, her goddess form having emerged, quite literally from the shell on which it has been carved in relief. With such a work there can be no doubt as to how a cameo is made and indeed very little has changed in the ancestral technique employed by traditional shell carvers, despite the passage of time.
Generally, the ‘cup’ of the shell – the superior convex part -is cut and divided in the ‘scoppatura’ process by carvers using a tool known as the ‘bullino’. The shape of the future cameos is marked out on the inside of the cup during the ‘aggarbatura’, and the subsequent oval and round forms are fixed onto a wood baton, allowing the hand carver sufficient movement and grip to chip the shell exterior and then sculpt the surface below. Although each piece is unique in its own right, carvers have traditionally repeated styles, in addition to perfecting their own ‘signature’ details. The skill involved is immediately apparent, since one false move would wreck the whole since there is no way of correcting an error, as is the case in a full-scale sculpture. With the cameo, however, the tiny proportions require the most accurate and intricate of carving in order to create a work that is well realised and aesthetically pleasing.
For shell cameo carving today, the African Carnelian shell is apparently the type most commonly used, along with the sardonic shell from the Caribbean or Bahamas, both offering optimal contrast in colour to emphasize the bas-relief. Traditionally, the Black Helmet and the pink and white Queen’s Conches were the main medium, both in plentiful supply along the Italian coast – the geographical heart of cameo production. Indeed, for over two hundred years, the coastal town of Torre del Greco a commune of Naples, has been the focal point for the art of shell carving.
A number of the establishments there have been run by the same families, generation after generation, one of the oldest of these being M+M Scognamiglio, set up in 1857. Over a hundred years later, it would be a descendant of the founder, who would come to visit my jeweller family to display and sell his wares. According to both my aunt and father, the signore in question cut a very dashing figure in a 1960s Birmingham that was not accustomed to the sight of immaculately dressed business men, with impeccable taste and manners. Some of the cameos ordered all those years ago are now in my proud possession, to be treasured and later passed on to future generations. My aunt also confided in me that as some of the fine women’s profiles often had rather prominent noses, she would carefully chisel some of these down to a more suitable size and slant !
Although Torre del Greco established itself the centre of cameo manufacturing, it would be a mistake to assume that the cameo originated there. It is in fact an art that finds its origins in prehistoric petroglyphs from around 15,000 BC with figures carved into rock. The Mycenaean civilization followed with the carving of gems, a technique continued in Ancient Greece and perfected by the Romans. The skill of cameo-making spread itself throughout the Ancient Mediterranean cultures via the trade routes running across and between Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire, with work sculpted on varied types of medium. The mastery - and monopoly - of shell-carving in Torre del Greco would come about considerably later, through the convergence of several economic, cultural and geographical factors.
Cameos appear to have been less commonly used as a means of portraiture or allegoric representation during the Middle Ages, but rather employed as amulets (thus similar to Eygptian scarabs), seals and reliquary ornamentation. The cameo gained ground and popularity in the Renaissance, albeit amongst individuals of means and therefore status. Lorenzo de’Medici was a great collector of cameo pieces, as was François I of France. Reflecting the ultimate power and prestige of royalty and grand political personas alike, through allusion to classical figures of antiquity via portrait, cameos could be exchanged, displayed or worn as jewellery of all kinds. Charles IX dedicated a gallery in the Louvre for the engraved gems brought to France from Italy by his mother, Catherine de Medici. The taste for cameos soon passed beyond Italy and France and specialist engravers (generally of Italian origin) were summoned to other courts around Europe. In Tudor England, Elizabeth I commissioned carved gems with her portrait to be set in brooches and pendants. In order to meet high demand, and a lack of gems to engrave, shells began to be used for cameo work from the 16th century.
Early 19th century France was the heyday of the cameo when Napoleon Bonaparte -great collector of intaglios and cameos – recognised how the latter would enable him to display his imperial might as founder of the newly established French republic. Associating his image with those of Roman Antiquity, the cameos served as the ultimate emblem and trophy for the triumphant emperor of France as a political, propagandistic and diplomatic tool of great beauty. His coronation crown (1804) was set with cameos as is the Cameo Tiara, part of a collection of cameos Napoleon gave to his wife, Josephine. He set up a Prix de Rome for gem engraving, alongside those awarded for sculpture, architecture and painting and also created a school devoted to the art of gem-cutting and goldsmithing.
Later in the century, it was of course Queen Victoria who would continue this devotion to cameo art in the era of the British Empire, and propel this to unprecedented levels of popularity and mass production in an age of industrialization. While Victorian cameos initially dealt with the customary neoclassical themes, often linked to the profile of the Queen herself, towards the later period, they focused more on idealized feminine profiles to decorate all kinds of objects of jewellery and ornamentation for both men and women.
But back to Torre del Greco… Situated near the currently dormant Mount Vesuvius, the town ‘Greek man’s tower’, had once been part of Magna Graecia, the Southern coastal area colonised by ancient Greek settlers. It is thought to have been a suburb of Herculaneum in Roman times, with its fate tied to the volcanic activity from which is has suffered and indirectly benefitted over the centuries. Acting as a beautiful and seemingly benign backcloth to the whole area, this huge sleeping beast infrequently awakens itself to spew lava and ash down its flanks and across the surrounding area. It mocks Man’s arrogant attempts to manage the land and tame Nature. The seismic tremours that pulse through the region today as always, are the erratic heartbeats of a timeless bestial force, lying beneath our paper-thin layer of modern civilisation ; dormant not extinct. Vesuvius famously preserved the nearby ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under a shroud of volcanic debris as proof of its power in AD 79. Torre del Greco itself did not escape the wrath of the land either, as the volcano cloaked the town and its surroundings in a mantle of ash in the 17th and 18th century and thousands of locals were killed or left homeless in the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.
For better or for worse, the town has plunged its roots deep into the land, like some crazed dysfunctional marriage that draws its lifeblood from the good times and glosses over threatening, volatile reality.The town’s proximity to the volcano has shaped its evolution and identity, just as it has those of the art of cameo-making itself. Since Torre del Greco was the closest town to Vesuvius, it became the touchpoint for visitors wishing to set out to see the volcano first-hand. Since the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748, sudden interest in the area led to a steady influx of affluent gentlemen travellers, eager to include this on their Grand Tour of Europe. It was, of course, the foundation of Thomas Cook’s travel agency, with its ‘package’ tours of such sites that led to the term ‘tourism’. Such tourists, wishing to take home trophy souvenirs of their adventures far afield led to a trend in glyptic art with petrified lava cameos taking centre stage as a portable, wearable memento for both men and women.The Neoclassical Movement allowed the glyptic to come back into fashion and an observation made in the Journal des Dames (1805) pointed out that « A fashionable woman wears cameos on her belt, necklace, bracelets and tiara ».
By the turn of the 18th century Torre del Greco had already long established itself in the trade of ‘red gold’ ; coral. As in other coastal towns around the Mediterranean, the residents had been diving for the abundant supply of red coral since the Roman times. From the 15th century onwards, their skill in harvesting their ‘maritime gold’ was such that they were referred to as ‘corallini’ and production of carved coral and shell jewellery was the keystone of the local economy. From the beginning of the 1800s, however, the processing of coral grew further in stature with the founding of a royal-ornament business - Real Fabbrica di Coralli – in 1805 by a certain Frenchman, Paul Barthèlemy Martin.
This coral broker from Marseille was accorded a ten-year exclusive licence to deal in the manufacture of coral artifacts and jewellery on the understanding that local artisans would be trained in the art. Thus, the working of coral and shell was transformed into a highly specialist domain, of which Torre del Greco was at the forefront. Yet as demand for red gold grew, so did the competition from other coastal areas which began to enter the coral market. As this situation coincided with an ever-increasing supply of shells from Africa, Torre began to focus on shellwork to assure their income ; the cameo.
Just like numerous other artisanal family enterprises still running today, the Scognamiglio family initially specialized in coral work, with Michele Scognamiglio (born in 1815) setting up a coral factory in 1857. Over the decades however, generation after generation of workers became master artisans in cameo carving. Whilst most artisans learnt their trade from their fathers and grandfather, some also attended the Instituto Statale d’Arte. Established in 1878 with the patronage of the royal family, this public school was dedicated to the carving of cameos, coral, lava. Freelance artists still work from home to the present day – generally carving on their verandahs which offer the best natural light. Coral and shells are now both imported from other countries as acidification of the Mediterranean waters has led to dwindling supplies and endangered species in need of preservation.
In view of all of the above, I am certainly very happy to be the current owner of the collection of cameos in my care…
I recently rediscovered one of the most famous sets of stained-glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones 1833 – 1898, within the small cathedral in the heart of Birmingham city centre. I always remember the grounds of this site as being quite atmospheric, whatever the weather, with old dark gravestones engraved with ornate yet now barely legible inscriptions. The stonework of these graves has been worn away by time and blackened by centuries of grime since the consecration of the initial parish church of St Philip in 1715. Even as a child the place felt truly old, overlooked by tall trees which attracted the starlings at dusk that left a dank smell in the air. Far older again than the grand facades of the redbrick Victorian architecture in the city and perhaps more so than the cathedral itself but now I can see how they were indeed very much of the 18th century, when Birmingham began to thrive as the world’s ‘first manufacturing town’. These remaining graves, along with the majestic Georgian and Regency buildings that survived the devastation of the Blitz years and the ravages of post-war urban modernization reflect the years of the Midlands Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution when industry and trade transformed the Black Country, making Birmingham the ‘city of a thousand trades’. As the population grew in line with commerce, so too did the number of parishes and the obligation to have further administrative centres to cater to the growing congregation’s needs.
Designed by Thomas Archer in an Italianate style, the Baroque parish church of St Philip was named in honour of the benefactor who had donated the land on which it had been built. Not long after the town of Birmingham had become a city in 1889, it was decided to make this existing church a cathedral, as opposed to building an entirely new edifice for the purpose, as was the case in Liverpool and Truro. Of only 45 metres in length, St Philip’s is, as a result, one of the smallest cathedrals in the country, set in the Colmore Row district. Despite its modest proportions, it houses the three vast Burne-Jones windows that have been described as the greatest stained-glass works of all time. I am not sure you can ‘rate’ art in such a way, but these certainly are beautiful pieces, whether they are compared to others or not. When the initial church was enlarged in 1883-84, extending it eastward and producing a full chancel, the large central window required appropriate decoration, and Burne-Jones was commissioned for its design.
In fact, Burne-Jones had been born in Birmingham and baptized in this very church and therefore readily took up the commission. Furthermore, having studied theology at Oxford University and considered life as a church minister, it is not surprising that he accepted to depict scenes from the life and death of Christ. While he is said to have grumbled at the modest payment for the work rendered “ a flagrantly inadequate sum” , so admirative was he of his finished stained glass piece – The Ascension of Christ (1885) – that in 1887 he carried out the design for the other two windows, on the left and right; the Nativity and the Crucifixion, respectively. He later completed a fourth window, the Last Judgement, set in the western part of the church; the baptistry. The four works were therefore carried out over a twelve-year period between 1885 and 1897.
Burne-Jones was one of the founding partners, with William Morris, of the furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. He worked prodigiously in a vast array of the crafts, including the design of ceramic tiles, mosaics, jewelry, tapestries, and stained glass. I had seen his paintings and drawings well before any of his other work since many of these have been exhibited at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for all my life. He was a second-generation Pre-Raphaelite, likewise taking inspiration in Arthurian legend, medievalism and poetry and sharing the movement’s love of delicate, jewel-like colouring. I used to love looking at the elegantly elongated forms of his characters and their strangely serene expressions– especially in The Wizard (1898) and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1883), displayed in the museum. In fact, the same aesthetic is seen repeatedly in his art, whatever the medium, and his work is always populated with beautiful other-worldly figures of men or women, or indeed angels, whether they be on Earth or in heaven. The windows at St Philip’s are no exception, of course, although in their case, there is the added dimension of luminosity, as the light flows in through the intricate panels of vibrantly coloured glass.
Thanks to Burne-Jones the tradition of stained-glass art in Britain was revived, especially in churches and cathedrals, and I was stunned to see just how much of this work he produced in his lifetime. Although the photos I took during my recent visit do the windows no justice whatsoever, the mastery of the glasswork was incredible. The colours, forms and even the leaded cames are all used to create a flurry of movement, either tension or calm, so that the myriad of glass panels swirl above us to great effect. I just wish I could have got a little closer to get a decent photograph - however the link here provides many!
Arriving in London at the what felt like the very tip of the tail-end of summer - given the incredibly warm sunny weather of late - I went to Hyde Park to breathe in what for me is the very essence of England... Well one of these, at least.
Majestic trees standing proud cast slanting shadows across lawns and paths, and whilst the Rose Garden initially appeared to lack the extremes and exuberance of the Summer months' blooms and greenery, there was magic to be found!
The notes of a tin whistle could be heard, playing out over the early morning noise of the park that was waking up to the last day of October, glowing in lingering sunlight which caught the dew on branches and leaves. There, sitting on a bench without any pretentions, was a man practicing his music to the absolute delight of this particular passer-by!
There was bird song too, of course... The bold and brazen green parakeets let out their characteristic squawks and shrieks as they swooped between the large trees in the heart of the park, leaving the more discrete and daintier species of bird to flit in the undergrowth of the rose bushes, singing from hidden branches. An inquisitive little robin followed my meandering walk but bluntly refused to be photographed!
What I learnt after my brief visit was that the landscaped Rose Garden was designed to represent the sound of horns heralding one's entry into this Royal Park from Hyde Park Corner. The circular area at the centre of this garden, hedged in by yews, symbolizes the mouth of a brass wind instrument whilst the flower beds are the flaring notes of music.
Typically, I was more focused on the delicate details of the dew-soaked roses in the morning light to notice the 'bigger picture', but nevermind...
Likewise, with the timeless quality of its peaceful paths, pergola and bowers, I had no idea that the Rose Garden only dates back to 1994, even if the two fountains - Boy and Dolphin (by Alexander Munro) and Diana the Huntress (by Lady Feodora Gleichen) are both from the late 19th/early 20th century.
To be plunged into this whole atmosphere of elegant Nature was a welcome relief from the seemingly growing ugliness of our 21st century 'civilised' existence that swamps everything in a tsunami of screens, sneakers, synthetic materials and oversexualized images and allusions.
Although autumn has arrived, roses were still in bloom, albeit rather faded, and some flowers were even a little scented. Somehow their very presence towards the end of the year made them appear even more precious. The delicate petals of the eglantine roses were almost moving, as they glistened with beads of water.
The darker coloured roses seemed to have emerged straight of out of a fairytale, with enchanted flowers gently bowing their heads in modest beauty!
Meanwhile, Diana the Huntress looked on as I prepared to head back to the station, back to the brisk pace of the busy streets...
For a number of years now, Reims city centre has been occupied by rather spectral figures that tower above the hurried citizens that rush about their daily activities, too busy in their present thoughts perhaps to think of the past. Are these dark, massive forms with their passive yet forceful, brooding presence doing this for us? It is difficult to tell if they are our guardians as they peer out, keeping a benevolent, vigilant gaze on their urban surroundings and our existence therein or if they are rather guards, surveiling our every move, ready to take action if we overstep some mark, known only to them. Placed in different sites around Reims, these sculpted forms with their block-like, feature-less faces appear to follow us from every possible angle, from their chosen vantage points. With their plain silhouettes, without limbs or even actual faces, let alone facial expression, we nevertheless feel their human force. Carved from old trees, each with their own past, their rough, rugged blackened wood creates an impression of something timeless, tied to the land and mankind alike. And yet they are weighted down in history; our collective history, one that is universal. These are the work of a regional artist, Christian Lapie (1955- ), for whom the wounds of the war years are almost tangible, pulsating below the surface of the modern-day city of Reims and its region, some hundred years after the Great War. Charred and scarred, these figures evoke the soldiers and civilians alike who so suffered in the "war to end all wars". Likewise, they seem to underline the fact that war still rumbles on, further afield, continuing its grotesque work regardless, with its dehumanizing hold on humanity that is now part of the human condition. Although I am not generally attracted to modern art, these pieces fascinate me. Each time I catch sight of the huge sculptural forms of these enigmatic sentinels grouped together, I somehow sense a reassuring force that is tinged with with a strange evocation of past mistakes and the lessons that have not been learnt from these but could still.
I am not particularly interested in Halloween, but at the moment there are some beautiful displays in the florist's in my street, with delicate purple and green - a magical mixture!
As always at this time of year, as la fête de la Toussaint aprroaches, chrysanthemums are sold to decorate the graves in the cemeteries and as a consequence this beautiful flower is forever tinged with funereal connotations. Not for me, however...
I just love the waxy, delicately tinted petals that curl inwards like feathers, whilst you can almost hear the rustle of the papery florets of the hydrangea heads, all of which is further highlighted by glowing orange and red of the autumn leaves on the trees outside, leaving us suitably spell-bound!