Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Masterpieces of Medieval Art

At the weekend, I visited the British Museum’s newly opened Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe. Regular visitors to the BM won’t see anything new on display, but they will see a coherent and informative collection of medieval artefacts put together by curator James Robinson (whose Masterpieces of Medieval Art, published by the BM, is a superb commentary on the display). The Lewis Chessmen finally gain the prominence they deserve, but my own personal favourite from the gallery is the Dunstable Swan Jewel. This exquisite white enamelled livery badge dates from about 1400. The swan was associated with the House of Lancaster. It has a delicacy and fragile beauty that mirrors the National Gallery’s Wilton Diptych from the same period and reminds us that the Middle Ages were not all tenebrous gloom.

"The permanent collections are the great strength of the British Museum"
What was most encouraging was the number of children at the gallery, seemingly enraptured by the array of fascinating material, from great broadswords to medieval tiled floors, all clearly explained in language that was anything but patronising. In many ways, the permanent collections, with which one develops a strong relationship over time, are the great strength of the BM; the blockbuster exhibitions are often expensive and cramped. There has been much concern about the neglect of medieval history in schools. The Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery (he’s chairman of the V & A and an ex-Goldman Sachs banker) offers a riposte to those who would marginalise this fascinating period.

There’s another excellent exhibition on around the corner from the BM, at the Foundling Hospital, Brunswick Square. 'Handel the Philanthropist', a small exhibition which details the benevolence shown by the great composer towards destitute musicians and abandoned children during the time of his greatest commercial success. As the permanent display at the Foundling Museum also demonstrates, the 18th century, though often brutal in its social attitudes, saw the birth of modern charitable giving, of which Handel along with Hogarth and the Foundling Hospital’s founder Thomas Coram, were prime exemplars. The exhibition, commemorating 250 years since the composer’s death, is a valuable insight into a musical genius and his time, housed in a wonderful building which deserves more visitors.

Back in 2001, Daniel Snowman compared Handel's two homes in England and Germany for History Today. We're reprinted the article in full here to mark 2009 for London's adopted Hanoverian composer.

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