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Publishers of award-winning illustrated books on art, history, archaeology, world cultures and more.

The Tree: Meaning and Myth

Trees – actual, mythical and metaphorical – are at the heart of mankind’s relationship with the natural and supernatural world, a relationship that serves as a powerful index of both ecological and spiritual well-being.

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The Tree: Meaning and Myth, written by Frances Carey, will be out on Monday from the British Museum Press. To celebrate, we’ve included here an extract from the book. Enjoy!

OAK / Quercus

Over 600 species of oak, both evergreen and deciduous, grow across Europe, Asia and North, Central and South America. As a symbol of strength and endurance the tree has sustained a multitude of myths associated with local, national and imperial identity, and was sacred to gods including Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and Thor, the Norse god of thunder.

At the heart of Zeus’s sanctuary at Dodona in north-western Greece – regarded as the most ancient of all the Hellenic oracles – was an ancient oak (probably a Valonia oak, Quercus macrolepis). According to Herodotus, legend had it that a black dove came from Thebes in Egypt and, speaking in a human voice, told the people there should be an oracle to Zeus on that spot. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus goes to Dodona ‘to hear the will of Zeus that rustles forth from the god’s tall leafy oak: how should he return, after all the years away, to his own green land of Ithaca’.

Gold oak wreaths are listed in inventories from Greek temples and sanctuaries and are known from burials in Macedonia, South Italy, Asia Minor and the northern Black Sea region, including a recently excavated example of the fourth century BC from the ancient Macedonian capital of Aegae (Vergina).

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Gold oak wreath with a bee and two cicadas. Hellenistic, 350 – 300 BC. L. 7.7cm, diam. 23cm.

This reputedly came from a tomb excavated in Turkey on the Dardanelles, the passage between the Aegean and the Black Sea.

WILLOW / Salix

Salix babylonica, commonly known as the weeping willow, has become a universal symbol of grief and loss. The name ‘babylonica’ derived from its mention in the biblical account of the Jewish exile in Babylon. Along with many other species of willow, it is indigenous to western China and was only introduced to Europe in the late seventeenth century. First recorded in England in 1748, it has largely disappeared in the United Kingdom because of its susceptibility to frost. The weeping willow most widely grown today is a cultivar, ‘Chrysocoma’, of Salix x. sepulcralis, itself a hybrid of the Chinese Salix babylonica and the European Salix alba (white willow).

Willows belong to the same family (Salicaceae) as sallows, osiers and poplars, trees that are fast-growing and easy to propogate in a wide range of soils and climatic conditions. Salix alba and Salix fragilis (crack willow) are most commonly found in northern Europe. Their timber is used to make baskets and cricket bats, and they are often planted along riverbanks and canals to prevent erosion. When Leonardo da Vinci was looking at ways to convert the river Adda in Lombardy (which formed the border between the Duchy of Milan and the Republic of Venice) into a canal, he observed that, far from damaging riverbanks, willow roots actually reinforced them. For the same reason willows are a commonplace of the Dutch landscape, as captured by Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

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The Political Weeping Willow, 13 May 1791. Hand-coloured etching published by William Holland (1757 – 1815), 31.3 x 24.7cm.

This image satirizes a famous event that took place in the House of Commons on 6 May 1791, when Charles James Fox wept copiously at Edmund Burke’s renunciation of their friendship because of Fox’s praise for the French Revolution. Burke repudiated him, declaring ‘there is something in the cursed French Constitution which envenoms everything’.

Text and images ©Trustees of the British Museum

The Tree:  Meaning and Myth, by Frances Carey, is published by the British Museum Press (hardback, £25) and can be published online at the British Museum shop.

5000 Years of Glass

Next week, the new edition of 5000 Years of Glass will hit the shelves! The 2012 edition of this definitive world history of glassmaking and decorative techniques from 2500 BC is now updated to include the period 1940 to the present day.

5000 Years of GlassThis classic book traces the history of glassmaking in its many forms, from its origins in Western Asia some 5000 years ago through the invention of glassblowing around the first century BC, to the introduction of mechanized processes and finally to new styles in the 19th and 20th centuries. Highlighted are the flourishing industries of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the extraordinary achievements of the Roman Empire, the elegant vessels of the Islamic Near East, the superb mastery of Renaissance Venice and the wide-ranging experiments of modern Europe and America, all written by a team of distinguished experts from Britain and America.

We’ve showcased here some examples of the beautiful glass works featured in 5000 Years of Glass.

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Tall core-formed alabastron of sea-green glass. Said to be from Pozzuoli (ancient Puteoli) in Italy, but probably made in western Asia in a Phoenician glasshouse in the 7th or the 6th century BC.

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According to the bold inscription on the body, this lamp was made for Saif al-Din Shaikhu’’l-‘Umari, a prominent Mamluk official and powerful supporter of Sultan Hasan. The lamp was probably intended for the mosque, monastery (Khanqah) and tomb which he built in Cairo between 1349 and 1356. The three roundels on the neck contain Shaikhu’s blazon, a cup, which indicates that he held the office of cup-bearer. Syria or Egypt, about 1350.

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Nef (or ship) ewer of cristallo with added details in blue glass and two mould-pressed satyr-mask medallions. This is one of the few genuine specimens of this fragile Renaissance table decoration to have survived, although they were being made in Venice from 1521 by Ermonia Vivarini under a special privilege. Hitherto it has been universally accepted that they were also being made at the leading façon de Venise centre in the Southern Netherlands, the Colinet glassworks at Beauwelz, but the evidence – a sketch (with commentary) in the MS pattern book shown as the ‘Catalogue Colinet’ (Rakow Library, Corning Museum of Glass) – can no longer be regarded as authentic. This sketch purports to be a record of the very large glass nef offered to the emperor Charles V in 1549. Venice, about 1525- 50.

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‘Inari’ bowl, designed by Tapio Wirkkala in 1967 for Iitala. Produced 1967 – 81. Inari is the area in the far north of Finland on the arctic border. Wirkkala was fascinated by the experiences of everyday life in this harsh frozen landscape, recreated here in glass. Mould-blown and partly cut glass.

Text and images © Trustees of the British Museum

5000 Years of Glass, edited by Hugh Tait, is published by the British Museum Press (paperback, £25) and is available from the British Museum online shop, and will be available in bookshops starting on Monday 26th November.

Ash Dieback

You may have read in the news recently that ash trees across the country are under threat from ash dieback, a serious disease caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea. The UK’s population of 80 million ash trees are deemed to be at serious risk of contracting the disease, which causes leaf loss and can lead to tree death, with the disease now having been found in Carmarthenshire, Greater London, Essex and Kent. The same disease decimated 90% of the ash tree population in Denmark. According to the BBC, the disease has now been confirmed at 82 locations in England and Scotland (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20201708), with some saying that it may be too late to halt the spread of the disease.

You can check to see whether ash dieback has reached trees in your area by using the AshTag app or by visiting http://ashtag.org/.

In view of the crisis, we thought we would publish an extract from our forthcoming book, The Tree: Meaning and Myth, which tells the story of the ash tree and what it means to British history.  We hope to get some good news on British ash trees soon!

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“The use of Ash is (next to that of the Oak itself) one of the most universal: It serves the Souldier… the Carpenter, Wheel-wright, Cart-wright, Cooper, Turner and Thatcher… From the Pike, Spear and Bow… to the Plow; in Peace and War it is a wood in highest request.

-John Evelyn, Sylva (1664)

“THE ASH (Fraxinus ornus, sometimes known as the manna ash tree because of its sweet sap ) was used to make spear shafts, the most celebrated being the spear of Achilles, with which he slew Hector and the Amazon queen Penthesilea in the battle for Troy:’ ‘No other Achaean fighter could heft that shaft, only Achilles had the skill to wield it well: Pelian ash it was, a gift to his father Peleus presented by Chiron once, hewn on Pelion’s crest to be the death of heroes’.

In Scandinavia the ash acquired mythic status as Yggdrasil, the world tree in the poems and tales of Norse mythology known as the Eddur. There was intense literary and artistic interest in the medieval Norse sagas in the later part of the nineteenth century, championed in Britain by William Morris, who translated them from Icelandic.

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Fraxinus excelsior (European or common ash) is the most widely found species of ash in many parts of Europe. An early and remarkably complete item made from this wood is a sword-sheath from the Iron Age fortifications at Stanwick St John in North Yorkshire, a stronghold of the Brigante tribe, whose territory extended over much of the north of England in the first century AD. Fragmentary evidence of the same wood has been found in connection with objects from many other archaeological sites in Britain, including the shield and buckets from the early seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. But the Stanwick scabbard was exceptionally well preserved because it remained waterlogged in silt at the bottom of a defensive ditch, and was thereby deprived of the oxygen that causes decay.” …

The pliability and toughness of ash make it particularly well suited for timber frame structures, which are emulated in a ‘living sculpture’ by David Nash, an artist whose career has been dedicated to exploring the relationship between man and nature. His project Ash Dome began in February 1977, when he planted twenty-two saplings in Snowdonia, North Wales, with the intention of developing a domed space over thirty years.”

Text and image © Trustees of the British Museum

The Tree: Meaning & Myth, written by Frances Carey, will be published on 26th November by the British Museum Press. To look inside the book, visit the British Museum online shop.

Remember, Remember, the 5th of November!

Shakespeare -staging the worldShakespeare: staging the world, written by Jonathan Bate and Dora Thornton, offers a fascinating view of the early modern world through the eyes of Shakespeare, his players and audiences and is a unique opportunity to examine how London’s identity was being shaped four hundred years ago. While matters of religion, trade and war were being contested, the role of the playwright developed to inform, persuade and provoke debate on the concerns of the day. None performed this role with more brilliance than William Shakespeare, whose legacy shaped a new national identity.

This richly illustrated book presents an extraordinary collection of objects from the British Museum’s unrivalled collection, as well as key pieces from Britain and elsewhere. One of these objects is the infamous Guy Fawkes’ lantern, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. We’ve included an excerpt relating to the Guy Fawkes’ lantern here in celebration of Bonfire Night.

‘dire combustion and confused events’ (Macbeth 2.3.52)  Lantern traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes, given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot, is currently on display in the Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition at the British Museum. Made of sheet iron, it would originally have had a horn window and could have been closed completely to hide the light of the single candle within.  Sheet iron, H. 34.5 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Lantern traditionally associated with Guy Fawkes, given to the University of Oxford in 1641 as a memento of the Gunpowder Plot, shown on display in the Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition at the British Museum. Made of sheet iron, it would originally have had a horn window and could have been closed completely to hide the light of the single candle within. Sheet iron, H. 34.5 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

“The spectacular fiasco of the Gunpowder Plot or Powder Treason in 1605 – a Catholic act of terrorism allegedly designed to blow up the king, his family, Parliament and the judiciary – provided the essential backdrop for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which deals with ‘dire combustion and confused events’ (2.3.52). This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the word ‘combustion’ and it is in this play that he introduces the word ‘assassination’ into English literature (1.7.2).

“However the precise significance of the Gunpowder Plot is interpreted, there is no doubt that it changed the British national psyche forever and put an end to any possibility of a reversion to Catholicism as the state religion. The preacher Lancelot Andrewes referred to it in a famous sermon of 5 November 1606 as ‘our Passover’, the salvation of a people by the direct intervention of God, which required a ‘yearly acknowledgment to be made of it through all generations’ in the manner of the Jewish festival of Passover. The Plot inspired ballads, broadsides, plays and sermons within the year following its discovery, and in the following decades it was paired with the defeat of the Armada in written and visual propaganda. In each event, the ruler had been promoted as the saviour of the nation, divinely protected and justified. Both events were seen as a national victory for Protestantism against an international Catholicism that threatened England’s very survival.

“’Guy Fawkes’ lantern’, a secular relic now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, takes us close to the Gunpowder Plot and its legacy. Fawkes was identified with his lantern in the popular imagination and in contemporary images, and a number of lanterns with alleged links to him survive. This one reputedly given to Oxford University in 1641 by Robert Heywood of Brasenose College. His father was the Justice of the Peace who had arrested Fawkes underneath the Palace of Westminster as he was about to set off the explosion. It was shown in the Bodleian Library as a document of British history and as a testament to anti-Catholicism and Catholic exclusion from the time of its gift into the 1880s, when it was transferred to the Ashmolean Museum. The fact that an ordinary lantern of this kind was kept as a talisman or icon – whether or not it was indeed associated with Fawkes – testifies to the role of the Plot in the British imagination”.

Excerpt from Shakespeare: staging the world, published by the British Museum Press (hardback £40, paperback £25),which is available from the British Museum shop. The Shakespeare: staging the world exhibition runs until 25th November, and tickets can be purchased here.

Text ©Trustees of the British Museum