Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Art history, today.

“Woman at Prayer”

Attentive readers will remember the excitement, this time last year, when we tried to buy a picture by my husband's artist at auction in NY. It had been "whereabouts unknown" for a centuy or so. My sister and her husband heroically went down from CT to bid for us. We were outbid by a consortium of British dealers. Within a very little time, they brought it round for my husband to see and verify:

You've seen that picture before.

Well, this week's news is that it has been bought by the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, their first by the artist. (He is well represented in Tate Britain and the National Gallery here on the Mound.)

The Kouros of Sounion

Long ago, when I was an undergraduate at Glasgow, I went to tea one day at the home of the Professor of Ancient History, A.R. Burn, a man of considerable distinction and infinite kind-heartedness who was also rather boring. He had, as others did in those days, a little cabinet of treasures. He handed me a piece of marble, about eight inches long, sort of wavy. He had picked it up on Cape Sounion. What did I make of that?

Nothing, was the answer, I am afraid.

[Cape Sounion is not far from Athens. There are the remains of a temple there, where Byron has scratched his name. It is where King Aegeus stood, looking towards Crete, waiting for his son Theseus to come back from his encounter with the Minotaur. The arrangement was that the sails would be changed from black to white if Theseus were to come home safely. But Theseus, in the excitement of having killed the Minotaur, run off with Ariadne and then having abandoned her on Naxos, forgot to change the sails. Aegeus saw the black sails and cast himself into the sea which, to this day, bears his name – proving that the story is true.]

Mr Burn said that he had showed it to a classmate of mine, James Picken, a few days before, and Mr Picken had said, “That looks like Attic hair”.

Gisela Richter's great book on the Kouroi was shelved in that very room. Mr Burn drew it out in excitement, and looked up the Kouros of Sounion. Sure enough, he was missing a corresponding length of hair.

This happened in the early months of 1957, when my future husband and I were walking out together. At some point along then I was promoted to a status which allowed me to be invited to Sunday night supper with his boss, A., one of the very first professors of Art History in Britain. On one of those evenings, as we sat around the kitchen table, he told us how Mr Burn was telling this story to everybody in the Staff Club. He – A. – seemed to think it was funny.

Not funny, that Mr Burn had had a fragment of the Kouros of Sounion in his house for several years and didn't know it until a student told him. I'm sure Mr Burn told the story against himself in those terms. But funny, that Mr Burn was so excited about a piece of stone that might belong to some Greek statue.

I was puzzled listening to this, although in no position to comment. I have often been similarly puzzled in my subsequent 50+ years of experience of British life. A. was an art historian. If he didn't know what the Kouros of Sounion was, he could have looked it up, even in those pre-Google days. My husband's sister often said to me, “There's lots you don't know”, and it remains true. I tried to ask my husband about this not long ago. How could A. have laughed at Mr Burn? “You've always been too solemn,” he said.

But it was, in its small way, back there in Glasgow in 1957, a significant discovery concerning a major piece of European art. Funny? I still don't see it. It's not as if A. had been Professor of Microbiology and could laugh at his colleague in ignorance.

If you have been to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens in the last forty or fifty years, you have seen the Kouros, including the piece of marble I have held in my very hands. When Greek Helen and her family moved to Athens from Thessaloniki a few years ago, I told her all this and she went off to the Museum expecting something mildly interesting in a side room. She was stunned by what she saw, and she says the place where the hair was glued back on is clearly visible.

And, soon, I will see it. I haven't been to Athens since 1955.


  1. That was such an interesting story Jean. How good of you to share it with us. I never fail to be amazed by the diversity of people's nature. I think your husband' s Prof. was perhaps trying to be a bit superior. Who knows what goes on in the staff room.
    So pleased you will be visiting Greece. You deserve a good holiday with hopefully a bit of pampering from your family.

    1. Ditto!
      I had to hold back tears, imagining you there in April.

  2. I've always wanted to go to Greece :) enjoy!

  3. Tremendous. I never miss your posts.

  4. I was in that museum almost ten years ago, sadly I didn't know the story then. Next visit! How exciting Jean - I'm sure there will be a great deal that has altered since 1955. (I know I certainly have.)

  5. You must be so excited!! What a great story (and memory). Thank you for sharing.

  6. What an interesting story, Jean. Do you know who and when the missing piece was returned so it could be glued back on?

  7. This was an exceptional post. If you ever feel that your mental powers are failing, just keep this post in mind.
    Re Attic hair. The daughter of an old college friend (Classicist) recently completed her doctorate on the topic of the way hair is presented in elegies. It's one of those topics which makes you wonder...

  8. Wow. That was quite a post. Thanks.

  9. Good gracious! I have no idea why A, or anybody, would laugh at that. Perhaps he was just filled with joy.

  10. Anonymous9:49 PM

    Wow! That's some essay Jean and quite fascinating. It caused me to think that there is another work of art in Greece which may benefit from being reunited with you!!! Did you notice that the tumbling blocks sweater has suffered from the whisker effect in that some of the neckline stitches have unravelled? One school of thought would dictate to leave it alone in all its glory while another would encourage you to take your knitting needles with you with a little yarn to do a repair job. Jan

  11. Thank you for this great story. How wonderful and exciting it will be for you to be in Greece again after all these years, and to see the piece of marble you have hold in your hand!