City of the Lotus (Two Weeks in Macau)

Kun Iam Statue, Macau

My job usually takes me to familiar European climes, but occasionally I get a taste of the exotic: Japan, China or, most recently, Macau. A former Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China in 1999, although traces of its Portuguese heritage remain strong. All street signs and civic buildings bear Chinese and Portuguese names, while delicious egg-custard tarts are ubiquitous in the city’s many bakeries. Arriving by air from Taipei, I was surprised to see rocky, verdant hillsides rising from the sea, looking more like the Amalfi Coast than the smog-wreathed towers of Shanghai (my only available comparison for Chinese landings). Those bucolic hillsides were a little misleading, because what awaited me was a vibrant and frequently jaw-dropping city, where everyday life shoulders up against neon lights, all-night casinos and extravagant amounts of gilding. As the only place in China where gambling is legal, Macau has become a playground for this vast country’s rich and hopeful, with flashy hotels to match. I thought I’d give you a brisk whirl around the main things I managed to see during my busy fortnight; and fear not: there’s plenty of bling ahead. It’s a long one. Buckle up!

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Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

Scythian Rider

(British Museum, London, until 14 January 2018)

Since I began the year with a tale of adventure in the Caucasus, I thought I’d follow that up by (finally) sharing some thoughts on the Scythians show at the British Museum. I hasten to add that the exhibition is nothing to do with me: I’m simply a visitor, and an enthusiastic one at that. I’ve been round five times now and the exhibits never cease to amaze me. Excavated from the Siberian permafrost, they offer a compelling picture of a people largely overlooked by the modern world, but who were admired and feared in equal measure by their ancient contemporaries. The Scythians were lethal horse-archers, notorious drinkers, proud warriors and superb craftsmen in gold, wood and leather. And yet so little of their culture survives. These treasures from frozen tombs help to bring that scintillating world back into focus.

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Defacing the Past (2017)

Head of Germanicus

Damnation and Desecration in Imperial Rome

(British Museum, London, until 7 May 2017, Room 69a)

We all know what it means to deface something, but pause a moment and think about the word in greater detail: to de-face, to erase identity, to obliterate the memory of a person. It is one of the most profound punishments that history can inflict, for it either condemns a man to oblivion or associates him eternally with the shame of his downfall. This small but carefully curated show, focusing on coins and medals with some pieces of sculpture, looks at how defacement was used as a political punishment in Ancient Rome, and how it grew out of preexisting traditions of damnatio memoriae that have continued in various forms right up to the present day.

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Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King (2015)

Triumph and Disaster: Medals of the Sun King

(British Museum, until 15 November 2015)

When you think of Louis XIV, chances are that you think of Versailles. The Hall of Mirrors; the fountains and festivals; the gold, glass and glitter of the Ancien Régime. But medals? Maybe not. And yet Louis was responsible for one of the most ambitious and innovative of all medal series, the Histoire medallique. Published in 1702, towards the end of his reign, it aimed to celebrate and promote his victories, both as a military commander and an administrator, and to gloss over his defeats and failures.

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The Cheapside Hoard (2013)

The Cheapside Hoard

(Museum of London, until 27 April 2014)

All that glisters is not gold in the Museum of London’s dazzling new exhibition: there are also rubies, emeralds, garnets, diamonds, pearls and cameos, amethysts, rock crystal and sapphires. Discovered just over a century ago, during demolition work on a row of 17th-century houses in the City of London, the Cheapside Hoard is a treasure-trove of more than five hundred jewels, which offer an unparalleled glimpse both of Stuart tastes in jewellery and of the goldsmith’s trade in early modern London.

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Artists in Focus: Derek Chambers

Chambers: Bear

Derek Chambers was born in Ilford 1937. In 1952 he started work as a messenger in a London advertising agency and worked as a creative consultant and graphic designer until 1994, when he moved to Aldeburgh, Suffolk, to concentrate on drawing and painting. Derek has had several one-man shows in Aldeburgh and in 2008 shared a portrait exhibition with his friend Peter Polaine. His work has been exhibited at the Royal Watercolour Society, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions, The Mall Galleries, The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, The Royal Society of Marine Artists and The Royal Society Of Portrait Painters, among many others. 

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Artists in Focus: Sue Cave, Sue Scullard and Sue Woollatt

Cave: How Still It Is

There’s been a rather exciting development in recent weeks. I’ve bought some art for my flat, in the form of wood-engravings by three artists: Sue Cave, Sue Scullard and Sue Woollatt (it’s complete chance that they share a first name). This is a momentous step for me: although I spend a good proportion of my life looking at art, I don’t own much. Indeed, what I have so far can be counted on one and a half fingers.

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Gold: Power and Allure (2012)

Gold and pearl mechanical mouse

(Goldsmiths’ Hall, London, until 28 July 2012)

Publicity for this exhibition has been rather limited – I only found out about it because I spotted a poster while going up a Tube escalator one day – which is a shame, because it really is something not to be missed. It’s an unprecedented show of almost 500 gold objects, the vast majority of which were made in Britain, showing the versatility and skill of the goldsmith’s craft over the last 4,500 years.

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The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe (2012)

Combined rapier and wheel-lock pistol

(Wallace Collection, London, until 16 September 2012)

Precisely focused both in historical period and subject, this exhibition gives a glimpse of the social culture of swordsmanship that existed in Europe between about 1550 and 1610. It traces the development of the rapier from the broader, shorter swords of the early Renaissance and late medieval period. This wasn’t just a stylistic development: it heralded a completely different approach to the handling of the sword.

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