Art in Roman Britain

Art in Roman Britain

Art in Roman Britain

Art in Roman Britain

Excerpt

The exhibition of Art in Roman Britain held in the Goldsmiths' Hall within the confines of Roman London, from 26 June to 22 July, 1961, offered a unique experience. In it were assembled together for the first time works (140 originals, 12 replicas, and 50 photographs) drawn from almost every area of the province, carried out in most of the many varied media that the craftsmen of the Roman world employed, and reflecting practically every facet of the social structure of this country during its Roman period. It was, in fact, an artistic commentary on the whole of Romano-British life and history. What was its impact on those who visited it? What message did it bring -- that imposing array of sculptures, paintings, mosaics, pieces of decorated metal-work, objects of figured lead, jet, shale, glass, and terracotta? In this introduction to the photographic record and catalogue of the exhibits an attempt will be made to answer these questions.

The most arresting over-all impression conveyed by the Exhibition was that of an immensely rich intermingling in Britain of aesthetic tastes and standards, of patrons of very diverse types, and of subjects of widely differing kinds depicted in both native and imported works of art. Complexity is, of course, a characteristic of the artistic setting of many Roman provinces. But in a distant, transmarine region such as Britain complexity of this sort is more unexpected and strikes us with especial force. Peculiarly remarkable in this connection are the pieces from abroad that linked this country directly with the homelands of Graeco-Roman civilisation.

The forging of a close cultural bond between the centre and even the most marginal of provinces was, indeed, an outstanding feature of Rome's imperial policy. The military conquest and penetration of this island and the garrisoning of its frontiers were but the means to a more important end -- the establishment within it of all those amenities of civilised existence to which stability and peace formed the essential background. The Romans came to Britain, not as a master-race to hold down the natives permanently as subjects and inferiors, but to live alongside of them, to turn them into partners in the Empire, into true 'Romani', who could share their laws and social customs, their administrative system, their urban organisation, their religious cults, their literature, their architecture, and their art.

As regards art, the way had been to some extent prepared before the conquest by the Romanising interests of the Belgic kings and nobles, whose domination of south-east Britain had begun round about 110-100 B.C., half a century before the raids of Julius Caesar. These people continued to maintain their taste for the brilliant Celtic art, native to the country, in the late-La Tène abstract style, an art which consisted mainly of costly metal-work characterised by flowing scroll-patterns and the very formal rendering of animals and of human heads. That tradition did, in fact, hold its own to the very end of British independence and, as the Exhibition showed, was carried on, to . . .

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