Lucy Worsley: An Appreciation

Most people spend their lunch hours…well, eating lunch, I suppose. I don’t normally have time to take an hour, as it happens, and while I do manage to eat at some point, I tend to spend my midday repast watching documentaries online. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been delighted by several television programs hosted by British historian Lucy Worsley. Dr. Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charitable institution that runs and maintains several famous royal residences in Britain, including Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London.

A television documentary charting the origins of the palace of Versailles, or the rise and fall of the Romanov dynasty, might seem the sort of thing that only a real history nerd could love, and I make no apologies for being just that sort of nerd. Yet Dr. Worsley is not the sort of dry, boring history professor that one might expect to tackle such subjects. She’s smart, sassy, and just a tiny bit saucy, so that you never quite know what she is going to do next.

Take “If Walls Could Talk”, a four-part series about the domestic history of the English home. Each episode tackles a different room of the house: living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Dr. Worsley traces the development of each room from the Middle Ages up to the present day, and during the course of her journey she not only educates the viewer, she manages to make him laugh as well.

In “The Bedroom” for example, I learnt the origin of a number of common phrases in English whose origins I never stopped to question before, such as “hitting the hay” or “sleep tight”. We get to see what went into the construction of a bed from the Tudor period, as well as some of the bizarre nighttime rituals which our forbearers engaged in to try to keep both critters and evil spirits away, when they turned in for the night. In order to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a rather dry presentation of facts from becoming dull however, Dr. Worsely plays dress-up, and goes about doing some rather unusual things.

In “The Bathroom”, in order to demonstrate the bizarre 18th century medical advice which recommended sea water as a cure-all, she dons a Georgian bathing costume, downs an atrocious-looking drink made of milk and sea water – “This tastes exactly like vomit,” she remarks, in her wonderfully unique accent, after spitting out the noxious concoction – and then plunges into a very cold and rough-looking sea. Later in the same episode, in order to demonstrate how far bathroom development had come by the Art Deco period, she checks into a suite at Claridge’s Hotel in London, gets a period makeover (including having her hair set in a Marcel wave), and shows how a glamorous film star of the 1930’s would have relaxed in a state-of-the-art luxury hotel bathroom, complete with cocktail and bubble bath.

Lest one think that this is merely history as popular entertainment, Dr. Worsley manages to bring some real historical analysis into these programs, by examining not only the motivations of the people involved, but also by looking more closely at some of the documents or objects associated with them. In her survey of the Hanoverian monarchs for example, she draws our attention to the almost hereditary problem of father-son strife that occurred during the reigns of the first four Kings George, where each father as he ascended the throne managed to alienate his son and heir into setting up his own, rival court. This allowed rival factions in Parliament to politically manipulate king and crown prince into casting their support in one direction or another, with respect to the development of policy.

In tracing the time that the Mozart and his family spent in London when the great composer was just a child prodigy, Dr. Worsley reads to us from letters which Mozart’s father Leopold wrote back to Austria, giving a foreigner’s perspective on the moreys of English society at the time. She also shows us how propaganda, published in the Georgian equivalent of the tabloid press, was used both by Mozart’s detractors, as well as by the Mozart family itself, to affect the boy genius’ career. And because she herself is a competent pianist, Dr. Worsley gets to sit down at the keyboard with musicians and musicologists, in order to look at some of the complex compositions coming from the mind of this wunderkind.

Many of Dr. Worsely’s documentaries are available to stream on YouTube, but her work can also be found through PBS and other sources. I encourage you to take the time to seek her out. You’ll not only learn a great deal, while appreciating her rather impish sense of humor, but you’ll have a great time while doing so.

Pooping on Paganism: A Remarkable Find in Ancient Israel

The ancient site of Tel Lachish is now a ruin, but in its day the city of Lachish was almost as large as Jerusalem. Lachish is mentioned throughout the Bible, including in the Books of Joshua, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Chronicles II, Kings II, Micah, and Nehemiah. Outside of the Hebrew Scriptures, Lachish was also a familiar place to other ancient cultures. The capture and destruction of the city is recounted on the walls of the palace of King Sennacherib, in the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nineveh. It also appears in the so-called “Amarna Letters”, a group of tablets containing diplomatic correspondence found at Amarna, which was briefly the capital city of Egypt under the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten. Lachish was destroyed and rebuilt many times, until it was finally abandoned sometime during the reign of Alexander the Great.

During the reign of King Hezekiah, we read in the Second Book of Kings that:

In the third year of Hoshea, son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah, became king…He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, just as David his father had done.  It was he who removed the high places, shattered the pillars, cut down the [pagan] sacred poles…He put his trust in the LORD, the God of Israel; and neither before nor after him was there anyone like him among all the kings of Judah.
(2 Kings 18:1, 3-4)

Archaeologists excavating at Tel Lachish have recently uncovered a gate-shrine in the ancient city, and you can see a video about the dig here. Inside of the city gate was a pagan shrine, containing two altars as well as numerous offering vessels. At some point in the ancient past, the pointed, horn-like corners of the altars were deliberately smashed off. In addition, a rather grand toilet had been installed smack in the middle of the space. This is a particularly interesting find, because it is very similar to what the Bible describes in 2 Kings 10:27.

About a century before King Hezekiah ruled in Judah, King Jehu of the northern kingdom of Israel, went after the cult of the pagan god Ba’al. He smashed the shrines to Ba’al, and then installed toilets in them so that these places would remain permanently unclean. This is the first time that archeological evidence of this practice has been found. It would not be surprising then that King Hezekiah, in his zeal to stamp out paganism in Judah, would take the same steps as King Jehu had taken in Israel.

In essence, these Jewish kings were telling the pagans: “I poop on your false god.”

Proving or disproving the historicity of events recounted in the Bible is a fruitless exercise. The Tel Lachish excavation simply indicates that the events recounted in the Bible have some basis in fact – they do not turn the Bible into a history textbook. More importantly, and this is the real takeaway here, the find paints a rather vivid picture of the ancient struggle between Judaism and paganism in the Holy Land as something palpable and quite real.

Beautiful, Old Things

When you try to keep current with subjects like archaeology, architecture, art history, or the art market., but you are capable of forming a rational thought pattern, you often find yourself in rather a lonely place. For every article about the reemergence of a lost masterpiece, or the discovery of fascinating buildings from ancient times, there are ten about – I kid you not – whether Kate Middleton is a bad influence on the art world. What I have learned over the years, watching the lunatics take over the asylum, is that the relative lack of interest in beautiful, old things, which has become so ingrained in the groupthink of the creative classes, has greater significance than simply in questions of taste. We are in serious danger of losing our artistic and cultural heritage of beautiful, old things, to the worship of all things ugly and new.  

Some countries are much more on the ball about protecting and celebrating their beautiful, old things than others. Yesterday for example, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 4thcentury A.D. Roman shipwreck in the harbor of Caesarea – a town well known to Christ and indeed to you, if you’ve ever read the New Testament. Items recovered included a number of bronze statues in a remarkable state of preservation, from having been covered with sand for centuries. I’m always impressed by the way that the Israelis make a point of celebrating these historic works of art. They place a premium on preserving and sharing this history and beauty with their citizens and with visitors.

Sad stories about the lack of due care shown to our past, like the general neglect of Pompeii, are all the more remarkable when stories emerge about how earmarked taxpayer funds have gone to waste. It is true that brazen thefts of well-documented works of art sometimes have a happy ending, as occurred recently with the discovery of a cache of Old Master paintings that were stolen in Verona last year. Because of the chronic underfunding of museums and historic sites, it’s a thief’s paradise out there, and we hear less about what is missing than about what is recovered.   

Yet I don’t believe that the answer to the problem of preserving and protecting artistic patrimony lies in simply throwing more money after it, at least not exclusively. The fact that there is so much decay and theft, it seems to me, stems not so much from underfunding as it does from a lack of leadership, which itself comes from a lack of appreciation. A greater value has been placed on trendiness over tradition, which spills over into issues like understaffing or a lack of security. The illegal trade in art and antiquities would not be possible without someone, somewhere, turning a blind eye, or giving up the fight out of frustration. 

The real root of the problem is the ignorance of the supposed cognoscenti, an ignorance most easily demonstrated by a glance at sales figures from the art market. When art requiring little or no artistic skill, such as pseudo-graffiti created with stencils, cause institutions and philanthropists to dance to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, what does that say about our society? How can a wax dummy of Adolf Hitler, by a contemporary artist whose name I’ve already forgotten, go for $17 million, while a beautiful, old bust by Houdon, one of the greatest sculptors of the 18thcentury and indeed in the history of Western art, is only worth $25,000?

If the powers that be cared more about our artistic heritage, and less about getting Beyoncé or one of the Kardashians to appear at their cocktail parties, I believe the situation would be quite different. Collectors and philanthropists who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the work of contemporary artists, but spend a fraction of that amount – if any – on the preservation and celebration of beautiful, old things, thanks to the infernal whisperings of alleged experts in the arts, have contributed in no small way to this mess. You cannot expect the public to sympathize when you call for the protection of ancient buildings and works of art, when you yourself fail to throw your weight and, yes, your money behind it.

Credit where it’s due, there are certainly many who do their fair share. The Italian luxury goods retailer Fendi, for example, paid most of the $2.4 million needed to restore the recently reopened Trevi Fountain in Rome. Other Italian companies are picking up the tabs for preserving the Coliseum and the Spanish Steps. The Italian government at least recognizes that it does not have the resources to address these projects on its own, and has reached out to companies who care about these things to get them to help.    

Meanwhile in France, the government of Le Petit Hollande spent untold millions at the Palace of Versailles last summer to host a monumental sculpture exhibition by the decidedly untalented British sculptor Anish Kapoor, one of whose rather adolescent and prurient works was designed to evoke the nether regions of Queen Marie Antoinette. This summer the artist whose work was chosen to litter the gardens of the grandest chateau in France is the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson. Mr. Eliasson’s most recent work involves carting large blocks of glacier ice to public spaces and then allowing them to melt, in order to draw attention to climate change. God help us all.

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Part of the Roman bronze collection found in Israel this month