Historical Highlights of 2012
From illuminating exhibitions to brilliant books, restoration projects celebrated by many to a solitary moment in a Surrey church, historians share their historical highlights of 2012.
In 2012 the massive refurbishment of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter was a worthy winner of the Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize, but I’d also like to draw attention to a tiny, quirky but perfectly formed project carried out by a volunteer-run museum in Ware, Hertfordshire. The ‘Great Bed of Ware’, mentioned by Shakespeare, was made for one of the town’s many coaching inns in the 1590s and reputedly sleeps 26. For years it’s been one of the V&A’s most popular exhibits, but last spring it returned on loan to its home town and was lowered through the roof of a specially-constructed extension to Ware Museum. I had the pleasure of attending a riotous, celebratory opening party, packed with museum supporters in Elizabethan costumes drinking mead. (They also gave me the very best thank you present I have ever received for making a speech. It was a specially commissioned, ‘Great Bed of Ware’ decorative chamber pot.)
The British Library has a recording of a Crimean War bugler who survived the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854. Four decades later, as an old man, he plays a final time, sounding the call that had summoned so many of his friends to their deaths. Recorded on wax, transferred to bits and bytes in the virtual world, it echoes, ghostly and more potent than can be imagined. Now the British Library and Radio 4 are creating new ghosts for posterity. The Listening Project is an attempt to eavesdrop, with permission, on the entire country. Any two people can record conversations about anything they choose: why the family stopped speaking to Auntie Dot, how they were courted by their future husband in a Robin Reliant. Gloom-mongers say that, with the decline of letters and ‘writing’, history won’t be recorded, but in fact it is just the type of writing, and the type of people who are doing the writing, that is changing: now what we record, in tweets, or Facebook, or in the Listening Project, gives the role of historian to the people rather than to the elite.
The reopening of the Cutty Sark is a marvellous restoration of one of Britain’s finest, ocean-going ships. Standing beneath the hull, wandering through the cabins, standing on the deck has become one of London’s great treats. Second, the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent: the real gold this summer was not in Stratford, but in the continuing work on the great collection of warrior artefacts dug up from the Lichfield soil. The insights into our Saxon past keep coming and the beauty of the hoard is still bewitching.
Bernini’s Beloved: A Life of Costanza Piccolimini by Sarah McPhee (Yale) is a radical reappraisal of one of the most celebrated works of Baroque art: Bernini’s bust of his mistress. In tracing Costanza’s extraordinary trajectory from possibly unwilling muse to victim of the great sculptor’s razored revenge, through imprisoned adulteress to successful art dealer, McPhee confounds the patronising assumptions of previous critics on the biography of the subject of a revolutionary sculpture. The research is stunningly imaginative and detailed (Mcphee is even able to reconstruct the hang of Costanza’s art collection from objects spied in the corners of 19th-century photographs) and she brilliantly evokes the world of 17th-century Rome, where vengeance is powdered with marble dust. Not just for art lovers: the book will be a joy to anyone interested in Italian history.
I am not a medievalist but have always been fascinated by the medieval period, perhaps because of the sense of it being so different from our own. So I was eager to read John Guy’s latest book, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900 Year-Old Story Retold (Viking). Guy does not disappoint. His description of 12th-century London, where Becket was born, is wonderfully atmospheric and, as with his earlier books, he has achieved an excellent balance between scholarship and story-telling. This is an important period of English history and Becket is one of its towering figures. Guy shows a mastery of the sources in retelling Becket’s life and immerses the reader in its colour and variety. The description of Becket’s brutal end in Canterbury Cathedral is unsparing. Above all, Guy’s expertise reminds us that it is not necessary to force strained comparisons between the distant past and the present in order to make history somehow ‘relevant’ or interesting to a wider audience.
What else could I choose but Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies? If her first Thomas Cromwell novel (my choice in 2010) was excellent, this is better. It provides the most convincing picture of Anne Boleyn’s fall that I have come across: a triumph of the novelist’s imagination illuminating historical evidence. When congratulating Mantel on Wolf Hall I wrote to her that she must know it was a great novel since it had just won the Man Booker Prize, but what I needed to tell her was that it was the Tudor England I recognised – her detailed knowledge was not waved around in triumph, as a lesser writer might have done, but unobtrusively deployed in the same fashion as some detail of stone-carving carefully placed by a master-mason in an inaccessible part of a cathedral. And we still need to see the great statesman beheaded.
The work of historical imagination that gave me most continuous delight was Dror Wahrman’s Mr Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age (OUP). On the one hand it is a thrilling detective story – the author’s family insisted he look at an apparently dull Dutch still-life from the 17th century in a museum in Indianapolis, the closer he looked the more he saw, and – whoosh! – he was sucked into a whirlwind voyage of obsession that gobbled up four years of his life. The devil is in the details. The whole story rests on apparently trivial variations in dozens of very similar pictures that Wahrman has tracked down around the world (mostly via the Internet). On the other hand, the reader emerges fully convinced that not only has the author cracked a code hidden for 300 years, but that this code reveals something genuinely important about the media revolution of the late 17th century and the birth of a modern consciousness of the instability of information. Far better than Dan Brown in all respects.
More a study of Shakespeare’s time than of the playwright himself, Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition at the British Museum evoked the late Elizabethan-Jacobean world through a brilliantly rich and eclectic collection of paintings, manuscripts, tapestries, objects and video installations: to me, this exhibition was a glimpse of the future of historical museum interpretation.
Exhibits that have particularly stayed with me are the broken skull of a brown bear, once baited near the site of the Globe Theatre; portraits of richly dressed 16th-century African courtiers; a seven-foot narwhal tusk, thought then to be the horn of a unicorn, and the playing cards of famous queens used to teach the young Louis XIV the lessons of history.
It has been a good and varied year for historical delights from Hilary Mantel’s magisterial Bring up the Bodies to the astonishing exhibition at the Royal Academy of the historic uses of that ductile alloy, bronze, from the fourth millennium until today, including an opportunity to see the Etruscan masterpiece, Chimaera of Arezzo. Then there was Steve Humphries’ compellingly moving documentary series, Love and Marriage: A 20th Century Romance on BBC Four. But for me it was a quiet delight: standing in Oakwood church in the middle of the wooded Surrey Hills and looking through the parish register that the political economist, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, when curate there, pored over in realisation that he had baptised far more infants than he had buried elderly parishioners, one of the insights on which he would draw on to propose his theory that the population was fast outstripping the supply of food needed to sustain it.
Anne Applebaum’s scintillating account, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (Allen Lane), concentrates on what happened in Poland, Hungary and East Germany between 1944 and 1956 as the opportunistic and shallow, the greedy, crooked and cruel got to work. Until now it has not been told in any great detail. Moral passion at what was allowed to happen leaps off these pages. But a cool head and immense analytic prowess controls the material. Communism was based on fear and lies. Subjects obeyed masters out of terror and often told them lies in order to survive. Resentment at being forced to lie gnawed away at the conscience and established a chasm between the Communist regimes and the minds of the people. Iron Curtain is a history of a grim period, but it also exhilarates by showing that there are only so many lies that can be told before the human spirit rebels.
It’s been a good year for those of us who like ‘old’ history. Dan Jones’ The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England (HarperPress) was an exhilarating read – a taut, vivid account of a dynasty that defined medieval England. R.I. Moore’s The War On Heresy (Profile) and Tom Holland’s In The Shadow Of The Sword (Little, Brown), in their very different ways, were not only absorbing narratives, brilliantly told, but profoundly thought-provoking on the subject of the construction of religious authority. And then, of course, there was Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary Bring Up The Bodies – spine-tingling, nerve-shredding and utterly compelling from the very first sentence. My Christmas treat will be to read it all over again.
Two very different biographies impressed this year. Christopher de Bellaigue’s Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup (Bodley Head) is a cool portrait of the Persian nationalist Mossadegh that does not neglect the demagogy and Shia hysteria; while the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power (Bodley Head) gives incredible insights into this wily political operator. I am also enjoying Frederik Logevall’s Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam War (Random House).