In 1707 the Welsh linguist and antiquary Edmund Lhuyd published the Archaeologia Brittanica, in which he described the ‘Languages, Histories And Cultures of the Original Inhabitants of Great Britain‘. If it were not for the publication of this book then the British Museum’s new Celts: Art & Identity exhibition probably could not have happened. Were it not for this book, then so much of what we instantly identify as Celtic – from those ringed stone crosses on bleak and windswept coasts to the interlocking circles and swirls that decorate clothing, furniture and buildings – we might not even identify as a single artistic style. And Celtic football club would probably not even exist. At the very least, Glasgow’s biggest football club would not have that name. For it was in his Archaeologia Brittanica that Lhuyd, intrigued by the linguistic similarities between Cornish, Welsh and Breton, first lumped together these ‘native’ languages, histories and cultures of the British Isles and labelled them ‘Celtic’.
The Gundestrup cauldron, thought to have been used for communal drinking ceremonies, possibly before battles. Discovered in 1891 in Gudestrup in Jutland, Denmark, it is the largest known example of European Iron Age silverwork (Evening standard)
Scotland, Wales and Ireland may think of themselves as the Celtic nations today (along with, to a slightly lesser extent, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany), but they certainly did not at the time Lhuyd was writing. We may think of Celtic history stretching back into the mists of time, beginning long before the Norman, Anglo-Saxon and even Roman invasions. And yet the very earliest description of any kind of ‘Celtic’ culture existing in Britain dates from as recently as 1582, from George Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia. The Romans, meanwhile, certainly did encounter Celts on their travels, describing them as brave and fearsome warriors, but not in Britain. Their historians called the native inhabitants of the empire’s cold and rainy outpost Hiberni, Scoti, Caledoni and Picti. And as for the people who first coined the term ‘Celts’ (or “Keltoi“, in its original form), the ancient Greeks – they used the word to describe the people who lived to the north of the Hellenistic world (or, central Europe).
From the very start, the exhibition makes clear just how difficult it is to pin these pesky Celts down. Basically, nobody really knows who they were (or, indeed, are) and where they came from. With no written history to guide us, it is impossible to compile any reliable or coherent Celtic chronology. Archeologists even disagree as to whether the Celts’ homeland was in the ‘Celtic nations’ of north-west Europe, or in Austria and southern Germany. And fundamentally, since the Celts were never a single, united people but a collection of different tribes, spread out over an area that stretched from the Shetland Isles to Turkey, it is problematic trying to work out what defines one tribe as Celtic and another as not Celtic. There are moments when the exhibition simply and strikingly shows us something that all these groups did have in common, such as the cabinet full of torcs. These neck rings were used to signify a person’s wealth or status, and varied greatly in style, but have been found in archeological sites all across Europe (as shown in the accompanying map on the wall). But then there are other times when the exhibition struggles to unify this disparate and diverse group of people, by either bringing together objects from different places or time periods that don’t appear to have a lot in common, or by simply being vague, such as when it speaks of ‘communities that produced objects reflecting a distinct, non-Mediterranean way of thinking about the world.’ For sure, the Celtic battle helmet – found washed up on the banks of the Thames near Waterloo Bridge some two thousand years after being worn by a Celtic warrior – looks very different to the Greek helmet displayed alongside it. But so do Roman battle helmets, and other helmets made by Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean civilisations alike. And as for the spectacular Gundestrup Cauldron, while a wonder to behold and one of the exhibition’s highlights, its inclusion in the exhibition confused me. Can something from 9th-century Denmark really be Celtic, when the exhibition’s own geographical definition of Celtic lands does not include Denmark?
Riders of Sidhe by John Duncan, 1911 © Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums)
What struck me the most as I went around trying to figure out what, over the millennia, made a Celt a Celt, was that it seemed to matter far more who you were not, as opposed to who you were. In short, a Celt was essentially someone who was Not Greek. Not Roman. Not Anglo-Saxon. And in the British Isles, increasingly from the early modern period onwards, Not English. It is curious how, as Britain began building its Anglo-Saxon empire, looking to the future and setting its sights on a quarter of the globe, the people of Wales, Scotland and Ireland began increasingly to look back, into the distant and mysterious past of their own lands, for a sense of national identity. It is this so-called Celtic revival, and the huge impact it had on British art and literature, that makes up the second half of the exhibition.
Perhaps the most poignant piece of art on display from this part of the exhibition is a painting from 1840, thought to be a John Harrison copy of an original by Philip James de Loutherbourg. It depicts the Bard, a spiritual leader and poet from Welsh folklore, standing on the edge of a cliff-top, about to leap to his death before he is captured by an English army approaching in the distance. He holds a Clàrsach, a type of harp and one of the most Celtic of all symbols (made famous in more modern times by the Guinness logo). The painting is both an incredibly romantic portrayal of the conquest of Wales by Edward I of England in the late thirteenth century, but also a perfect metaphor of how many Welsh people saw their culture at the time: defiant, and heroic, but on the brink of destruction.
Like the Bard, and like all the best Celtic (and, indeed, British) heroes, the warrior Cuchulainn ends up defeated and killed, by a superior force that outnumber him. When he realised his battle wounds were fatal, Cauchulainn tied himself to a rock so that he could face death standing up, making him, quite literally, the perfect back-against-the-wall hero. He became such a powerful and enduring figure of northern Irish folklore that he went on to be adopted as a symbol of resistance by both Loyalists and Republicans. To Republicans, Cuchulainn continues to be celebrated as an all-Irish hero who fought against foreign invaders, while Loyalists will point to the fact that the homeland he was defending was Ulster, and that the invaders he fought came from Connacht (in the modern-day Irish republic).
Poster for the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, by Herbert McNair, Margaret and Frances Macdonald, 1894 (British Museum)
Something I have always found fascinating about when a modern culture embarks on this process of ‘discovering’ its past is just how little care is taken to ensure historical accuracy. It seems that when peoples and nations look back to their past, what they look for is great stories, and great heroes, not concrete facts and precise dates. And they make sure they find these great stories and great heroes even if, sometimes, they aren’t there. About the time that Edmund Lhuyd published his Archaeologia Brittanica, and historians and antiquarians were becoming increasingly fascinated by Britain’s pre-Roman past, William Stukeley got a little carried away and suggested that Stonehenge and the Avebury stone circle (thousands of years too old to be considered remotely Celtic) were Celtic temples. Meanwhile, when trying to imagine what a primitive, ‘native’ Briton of the distant past might have looked like, Theodor de Buy simply drew on his sixteenth-century European notions of what a ‘barbarian’ is, resulting in a rather comical depiction of a Pictish woman who looks exactly like a native American and holds a Turkish-style sword. Even as late as 1890, George Henry and Edward Atkinson Hornel were painting druids (another culture clumsily bolted on to Celtic mythology) that look uncannily central-American. But when it comes to romanticism triumphing over historical fact, the epic poems of Ossian take some beating. One of the great ‘discoveries’ of the Celtic revival, Ossian gave Britain its very own Homer, whose works were admired the world over by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Napoleon. Ossian’s poem about a chieftain named Fingal and his daughter hiding in a cave inspired the composer Felix Mendelssohn to visit ‘Fingal’s cave’ in western Scotland and write an overture about it. Incredibly, however, Ossian never even existed, and his poems were actually written by the man who had invented him, Scottish writer James MacPherson.
In bringing together this collection of objects from all across Europe spanning more than two millennia, and then repeatedly pointing out how no one single Celtic culture ever really existed at all, and then
showing how all the historians and artists of the Celtic revival that came later were wrong about everything, the exhibition is far from straightforward in its narrative. Some reviewers of the exhibition have suggested avoiding its text altogether, and to simply enjoy the art. Certainly, when you chose to make your exhibitions historically accurate, to ensure that they tell a complete and comprehensive story and bust a few myths along the way, you take a few risks. In busting the myths you certainly stand a good chance of removing much of the intrigue, the drama and the romance, as the British Museum found last year with its Vikings exhibition
. Many visitors complained that by emphasising how the Vikings did an awful lot more than rape and pillage – and pointing out that they didn’t even wear horned helmets – the exhibition ended up being rather dull.
Detail from a title page from the St Chad’s Gospels. Housed today in Lichfield Cathedral, they are thought to be Welsh in origin, dating from the early 8th century. The decoration is typical of the kind of early medieval Celtic style that would go on to influence both the arts and crafts and art nouveau movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (theUpcoming.co.uk)
There certainly are many similarities between both the Celts and the Vikings themselves, and the British Museum’s exhibitions about them. Both travelled much further and wider than most people realise, yet neither carved out an empire in the way that the Romans did. Both began as pagans and converted to Christianity. Each influenced the other’s art. Both gradually interbred with local populations and both now make up a small portion of the DNA of many modern Britons. As for the two exhibitions, both feature a similar assortment of objects (plenty of coins, jewellery and pottery), both examine the lasting impact made by this people on British culture, and both emphatically declare that most of what we think we know about this people is almost certainly wrong. Why am I labouring this point about the two exhibitions so much? Because, given their similarity, I find it strange that Vikings: Life & Legend generated so much bad press, while Celts: Art & Identity has, by and large, received rave reviews. Perhaps it says something about which of these cultures, both of which form part of our past, our present and our future, the British public feels more of a connection to. Personally, I enjoyed both exhibitions equally.
Celts: Art & Identity runs at the British Museum until 31st January 2016. Tickets cost £16.50 for adults and can be booked here (concessions available).