Postcard from La Hougue Bie Jersey

The entrance to the Neolithic passage grave beneath the medieval Chapel of Notre Dame at Hougue Bie

This week I am revisiting one of my favourite archaeological sites on the Island of Jersey, La Hougue Bie. The site traces human activity and spirituality over millennia and the passage grave dates from around 4500 BC. Today it is in the Parish of St Saviour up in the country.

The name La Hougue Bie is thought to refer to ‘a building on an earth mound’. My father in law, Frank Falle, a respected Jersey historian, has spent a considerable time piecing together the importance of the Vikings in Jersey’s history and it is likely that Hougue derives from the Viking word for burial mounds, ‘haugrs’.

I think we suffer from a lack of humility in our current age when we reflect on the culture and achievements of our ancient forebears. It must have been an enormous undertaking for this community to bring the large upright stone and capstones from different areas in the east of the island. There are 69 large stones, some weighing 30 tons.

The passage measures some 31feet in length and although it is known as a grave passage it would have been used for rituals and ceremonies as well as burials, rather like a church today.

The site was first excavated in 1924 and the massive stone structure was revealed by archaeologists in the early 1990s. Their work revealed that the interior passage and chambers we see today were part of the first phase of building and were covered by a beautifully constructed cairn. Evidence of this can be seen at the entrance to the tomb. The dry stonework and earthworks followed.

Remarkably on the 20th March 1996 the rising sun cast its rays along the length of the passage grave, perhaps for the first time in some 4500 years, revealing that it was aligned to capture the rising sun of the equinox.

Inside the passage grave at La Hougue Bie, Jersey

The chapel was built in the 12th century and would have probably replaced an earlier wooden structure. There are fragments of frescoes depicting angels on the ceiling of the vaults but more of them anon.

Today La Hougue Bie is an extraordinary museum with what is described as the World’s largest coin hoard on display and with human structures dating from 4500BC to the Second World War. No trip to Jersey in the Channel |Islands should be complete without a visit to this wonderful place which captures the procession of human history so eloquently.

Anglo Saxon Coins Discovered near Storrington

A collection of six Anglo-Saxon sceats dating from the 7th and 8th centuries

A Sceat or Sceatta was a tiny, thick silver coin usually measuring about 3mm in diameter (about an 1/8th of an inch in old money). They were minted in England and on the Continent during the Anglo-Saxon period. Sceats are diverse in origin and design, and highly sort after by collectors.

Toovey’s coin and antiquities specialist, Mark Stonard, explains “The large number of finds by detectorists in the last 30 years or so has dramatically altered our understanding of this coinage. They were certainly used across eastern and southern England from the early 8th century.

You can see the influence of the Celts and the Vikings in the two coins entered for my next specialist sale of coins on 11th July from a private West Sussex collector. The first depicts a standard bearer in a hatched tabard looking to the right. On the reverse there is a serpent whorl. Tony Abramson who is one of the leading authorities has recorded this sceat as being a unique new variety. The find was made in the Storrington district here in West Sussex in April this year. It carries a pre-sale estimate of £800-£1200. The second coin has a Woden style head, unusually depicted with amulets by the neck. On its reverse is a depiction of a dragon. The beast is looking back on itself and is perhaps influenced by the Vikings. It’s again estimated at £800-£1200.”

Mark continues “They’re Southern types often found south of the Thames. The large number of detectorist finds is extending our knowledge and understanding of the coinage and their times with many coins being re-attributed to specific districts and areas, challenging the long-held view that the majority were made in Kent and the Thames estuary. From the early 700s there was an expansion of minting all over southern and eastern England in every major Anglo-Saxon kingdom. It’s entirely possible that these examples could have been minted here in Sussex which was part of the kingdom of Wessex.”

The strength of the market for coins is bringing fine collections from all periods to auction. A number of collections of sceats have been sold at Toovey’s in recent times. The six sceats illustrated totalled more than £2000.

Two Anglo-Saxon sceats entered for sale in Toovey’s next fine sale of coins

Mark concludes “The specialist collectors’ fields like coins, antiquities, medals and militaria remain really strong and its exciting that our understanding of sceats continues to grow.”

Mark Stonard is still inviting entries for his next specialist sale of coins on Tuesday 11th July 2023 and can be contacted by telephoning 01903 891955.

Art of Japanese Cloisonné

A midnight blue Japanese cloisonné vase and cover by Namikawa Yasuyuki

Japanese cloisonné has long been admired by collectors and amongst the most revered cloisonné artists was Namikawa Yasuyuki (1845-1927).

Japan was a society closed to the outside world for almost all of its Edo period (1600-1868) but American gunboat diplomacy by Commodore Perry in 1854 opened Japan to trade with the outside world. The Japanese were determined not to be a subjugated nation and during the Meiji period (1868-1912) they embarked upon a commercial and manufacturing revolution. Alongside this Japan promoted herself through her cultural heritage. Japan first exhibited her exceptional craftsmanship at the Paris Exposition in 1867, including cloisonné wares.

Cloisonné describes a particular decorative process where enamel is poured into compartments known as cloisons formed of a network of metal bands.

Many western travellers visited the studios of Japanese cloisonné manufacturers. Among them was Sussex author Rudyard Kipling, who in his book From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches wrote of his visit to Namikawa Yasuyuki’s studio in the late 1880s: “It is one thing to read of cloisonné making, but quite another to watch it being made. I began to understand the cost of the ware when I saw a man working out a pattern of sprigs and butterflies on a plate about ten inches in diameter. With the finest silver ribbon wire, set on edge, less than a sixteenth of an inch high, he followed the lines of the drawing at his side, pinching the wires into tendrils and the serrated outlines of leaves with infinite patience… With a tiny pair of chopsticks they filled from bowls at their sides each compartment of the pattern with its proper hue of paste… I saw a man who had only been a month over the polishing of one little vase five inches high. When I am in America he will be polishing still, and the ruby-coloured dragon that romped on a field of lazuli, each tiny scale and whisker a separate compartment of enamel, will be growing more lovely.”

Japanese cloisonné vase and cover by Namikawa Yasuyuki, with floral decorated vertical panels

Namikawa Yasuyuki’s work is still revered today. The signed vase and cover, finely worked with polychrome flowers and butterflies on alternating differently coloured vertical panels, has just sold for £13,000 at Toovey’s.

By the 1890s Yasuyuki was producing dark grounds which required a much higher level of technical skill. The smaller vase, decorated with wisteria on a midnight blue ground, realised £4000.

Toovey’s Director and Oriental works of art specialist, Tom Rowsell, is inviting entries for his next fine Asian sale on 31st August 2023.

Gwen John Exhibition at Pallant House Gallery

Gwen John – A Corner of the Artist’s Roon in Paris, circa 1907-09, oil on canvas

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition. It places this early 20th century British female artist and her work in the context of her life and times. Gwen John’s works are filled with restraint – an innate stillness, luminosity, and insight. Her paintings are beautiful and arresting.

The exhibition illustrates how Gwen John was influenced by her male contemporaries and yet her paintings stand apart, giving voice to an independent, modern woman’s view of the world. So many exhibitions today make assumptions about the knowledge and understanding that the viewer brings under the excuse of ‘letting the pictures speak for themselves’ but this existentialist approach neglects the importance of narrative, time and place, which enhance our understanding of an artist and their work. The narrative which accompanies Gwen John: Art and Life is superb and refreshing. This chronological exhibition traces Gwen John’s forty year career in the context of her time in London and Paris.

She was tutored by Henry Tonks and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After a time at the Slade, she moved to Paris in 1904 where she would remain throughout her career. Gwen John had a ten year affair with the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. His influence blessed her with a fluidity and sureness of line. From 1904 her intimate life centred on Rodin. Her profound and overwhelming experience of sexual desire and love for him was given explicit voice in her writing but not in her art. She wrote extensively to Rodin, hence the poignancy of her pencil and watercolour study, Autoportrait à la Lettre, which she painted for her lover.

Autoportrait à la Lettre (Self-portrait with a letter), watercolour and pencil

Her relationships with contemporary women artists of the time including Mary Constance Lloyd, Ida Nettleship, Ursula Tyrwhitt and others are also explored. Gwen John’s paintings focussed almost exclusively on women and interiors. The similarities between Gwen John’s and Édouard Vuillard’s work is often commented on, particularly in relation to their beautifully observed and articulated attention to tone. Her oil, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris at first seems intimate and personal to her but paradoxically it is influenced by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi who knew Ida Nettleship’s family in London.

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris runs until 8th October 2023. The beauty of her painting and insight is amplified by the quality of this exhibition’s narrative which eloquently describes the importance of relationship and place.