A visit to the British Museum, London, England
Where else could you see Kozo the double-headed dog, or Dr Johnson’s touch piece? The British Museum in London is a fantastic resource for artists and it is free. It may not be at the top of your agenda as a place for artists to sketch, but I’ve been getting ideas from there for years. A good place to start is in the Great Court where you can find out what you want to see and where at the information point.
An art teacher from many years ago introduced me to the idea of museums as a source for sketching. It has many advantages. You don’t get cold or rained on; there are seats if you get too tired and the cafe is nearby for a break. The negative points include tourists peering over your shoulder to see what you are sketching or you will be contending with other people who stick their heads in front of the object you are drawing. However, the disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages. If crowds bother you too much, you can always decamp to a remote room on the top floor and have the place virtually to yourself. Or you can go at a less popular time and visit some of the less popular exhibits, all equally as interesting.
I went to the museum with a couple of friends, but I’m not sure how the museum would react to a large group sitting sketching. I can’t imagine they would mind but it might be a good idea to contact them first if you are thinking of going in a large group.
Greek, Roman and Egyptian rooms, British Museum
I started where everyone else seems to start in the British Museum, in the Greek, Roman and Egyptian rooms. The sculptures in these rooms, range from the bizarre and humorous to the monumental and slightly scary. The European rooms including the medieval and celtic rooms can be quieter, although the quietest room I found was the 20th century section.
Most people probably associate the Egyptian rooms in the British Museum with mummies contained within glass cases and the Greek collection with the Elgin Marbles. But there are hundreds of other equally fascinating objects that are perhaps not as politically sensitive. Not only can you see the human form in many guises, as prisoners, gods, godesses, half-human and half-beast, but also a surprising selection of animals and insects carved out for eternity in stone, marble and metal. I tend to feel more drawn to more mundane objects than the great facades of palaces and temples. The humblest object can offer glimpses of a sense humour and view of the world long thought lost.
An explanation of what each object is or what exactly it was taken from is very scant in the British Museum. You find yourself miandering from one object to another wondering about its original setting or context, thinking where the hell is Assyria and who are all these Egyptian kings? How do they relate to each other? Why is there a huge sculpture of a big beetle? What’s a horus falcon? Why did the god Bes have such a big beehive hairstyle? Did that collosal head once have a collosal body to go with it?
Putting all these questions aside, they make great objects to sketch and just to look at. The easiest and simplest forms to sketch are some of the hieroglyphics. I have no idea what they mean. I created objects from clay and in watercolour after my visit.
The Lewis Chessmen, British Museum
It would be very difficult to play a game of chess with these figures as they are displayed and kept in several places and there is no board to play them on. Eleven pieces are in Edinburgh and eighty-two are in the British Museum, London. There are enough pieces (with some missing elements) for four sets and they measure approximately 10cm (maximum) high. These delightful little figures are found in two separate rooms of the British Museum (Room 2 on the ground floor and Room 42: Europe AD 1000-1540 on floor 6).
It’s difficult not to fall in love with their expressive faces and intricately carved clothes and hands. “Aren’t they sweet?”, you hear people cry as they crowd around the glass cabinet to peer at them. Apparently they are made from walrus ivory and whales’ teeth, not your everyday materials to be used by artists today. The pawns, in the shape of obelisks, are as interesting as the other figures.
It’s difficult to tell which one is which when you compare them to the current pieces in chess. The king has slightly startled bulbous eyes; the queen, if I’ve got the right one, looks like she’s got toothache as she holds a hand to her cheek; and one of them looks like he’s eating a shield with an exquisite row of carefully chiselled teeth. The origins of the chessmen are mysterious, no-one knows whose they were or where exactly they were found. I made a few sketches of their faces. This is incredibly useful if you need to learn how to create characters and expressions for illustrations.
European objects, British Museum
The range of weird and wonderful gets even better in the European section. You can see a cauldron from the Sutton Hoo find, lots of gold and silver jewellery, coins, religious objects and much more.
Twentieth-century objects, British Museum
By the time I got to this section my feet and back were hurting enough to quit. But I still managed to enthuse at the range on offer. Perhaps I’ll start here on my next visit rather than leaving it until last.