By Graham Gendall Norton
“Celts: art and identity” is the title of a grand partnership between the British Museum and National Museums Scotland (and with input from museums across Europe) on what we now call Celtic art.
There’s still just time to see this exhibition at the British Museum — it closes at the end of this month. It will reopen in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, on 10 March. What it uncovers is that the name “Celt” was first used by Greek writers around 517 BC for the shifting peoples to the north and west of the Mediterranean on the European landmass. The Romans also used it.
But: “The traditional model of the Celts as a single people who migrated across broad swathes of Europe is now widely challenged,” says the excellent and profusely illustrated book that accompanies the exhibition.
It then gives an alternative view: that there was an original Celtic language zone, consisting of Ireland, the western half of the British Isles along the coasts of Scotland, England, and all of Wales and Cornwall, and then Brittany — and that is where we think of Celtic Europe today.
The Exhibition shows some splendid examples of Iron Age objects, like great heavy silver chains and gold torques, worn round the necks of rulers, from all over Europe too, stylistic similarities showing how Britain and Ireland were not culturally isolated from the continent.
There’s an impressive section: the Edge of the Christian World. Amongst the many exhibits, a chalice from 700 AD, and huge granite crosses, around 30 feet high, with intricately carved decoration.
There are two Scottish reliquaries in silver and copper from 700 AD in the rough shape of a church, one now in Copenhagen, looted by the Vikings. Later come sumptuous silver shrines dating from around 1100 AD for bells that were carried at services in Scotland.
In French and English the word “Celt” emerged around the 16th/17th centuries — Milton used it, as an adjective. Then in the 18th century, with the Romantic Era’s poetry and plays, interest increased much due to Edinburgh being such a cultural powerhouse in the late 18th century for the whole of Britain, and indeed Europe, from the economist Adam Smith (“The Wealth of Nations”) to the historical romanticism of Walter Scott and the poems of Robert Burns.
From that arose the 19th century’s strong “Celtic” revival. As the curators of the exhibition say “the idea of Celtic art was a Victorian invention”. Appropriate, then that Queen Victoria in the 1850s loved to wear copies of Irish brooches. Ireland, with Catholic emancipation in 1829, embraced its “Celtic” culture and identity.
By the last decades of the 19th century, and the beginnings of the 20th, what the last stages of the exhibition shows is how the “wave of nationalism that swept across Britain (and indeed Europe)” idealised the Celts, looking back to a world before industrialisation. Here physical art is the focus, but now there were inspiring gatherings, in Wales the Eisteddfod (actually revived in 1792) and the Gorsedd — later joined by a Cornish one.
“Celts” are complicated, but this intriguing exhibition, and its accompanying book sheds a pleasurable and impressive light on artistic achievement and inspiration.
Opening details of the exhibition in London and Edinburgh are given above. Adult admission tickets £16.50 London, £10 Edinburgh. The beautifully illustrated book of the exhibition costs £25 pb, £40 hb. Order, post free, from www.britishmuseumshoponline.org