Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mini and micro treasures from the British Museum

It strikes me that an ideal complement to a perusal of the British Museum's book The Art of Small Things would be Steven Millhauser’s short story “In the Reign of Harad IV,” published April 10, 2006 in the New Yorker.
In that story (which Cynthia Ozick chose it to read aloud in their monthly fiction podcast), a court miniaturist creates progressively smaller and more intricate replicas of reality until his objects become so infinitesimal that no one can see them—a sort of black hole of artistic endeavor. Then there's the person in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman who constructs progressively smaller decorative chests to fit inside one another until No. 28 "looked like a bug or a tiny piece of dirt." Reductio ad absurdum?
In any event, here are a variety of wonderful objects from the book. The charming 6.5 cm–high Inca llama (Peru, 1400-1500) is made of 13 pieces of thin, hammered gold. It was found in a funerary site and is assumed to have a sacred purpose. Below, a Persian cast-gold model chariot, 5th-4th century BC, 18.8 cm long.

At right, a close-up of the "Phoenix Jewel," a portrait of Elizabeth I that is 4.6 cm in diameter. Created c.1570-75, it was one of the founding items of the British Museum. (The name derives from a gold phoenix on the reverse.)
These circular playing cards made of lacquered cloth are individually hand painted. They depict life in the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (AD 1542-1605).
"The task of rendering minute things visible to the naked eye at a viewable scale required not just the means of seeing things, made possible by the microscope, but the equally tricky process of reproducing them at a much enhanced scale so that others could see them too. Robert Hooke's Micrographia represented the crucial breakthrough." Above, his drawing of a flea.
Above, pieces from the set known as the "Lewis Chessmen." Probably Norwegian, they were made of walrus ivory and tooth, 1150-1200. The height of the largest figure is 10.2 cm.
At right, this woodcut of Kabuki actor Sanogawa Ichimatsu holding a bonsai tree illustrates the miniature concept brought to horticulture. 
Below, Edward Bawden's The Dolls at Home pictures the life of paper dolls whilst the humans are away. Akin to the Russian nesting dolls concept, one wonders what transpires in the little red dollhouse.

Note: Daedalus Books & Music has now broached the twittersphere: @daedalusbooks. So for pithy updates you could bookmark us on your mobile devices etc. (I'll be posting Daily Glean items.) We also have links to other bookpeople, and will be building them as time goes by.
 



 

19 comments:

  1. Who doesn't love miniature things? The best part about having a dollhouse was always buying tiny place settings and furniture and artwork to decorate it.

    I don't remember where, now, but I remember seeing
    photos of intricate carvings in the graphite core of a common #2 pencil. Simply astounding

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  2. Imagine the craftsmanship needed to produce such beautiful and tiny objects! I had a charm bracelet as a child, and I loved the tiny fish with its moving joints, and a hat box with an openable lid. The playing cards and the chessmen would be lovely for a game.
    Thanks for showing us such delights.

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    1. Reminds me of tiny Limoges boxes ... I so want some!

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  3. The Lewis Chessman look like they saw that flea...

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  4. What is it about miniatures that's soooo fascinating?! The more miniscule the better:) Also, Kudos for the great literary references to Flann O'Brien's absolute masterwork and, in my opinion, one of our underrated treasures, Millhauser.

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  5. Ahh the glory of little tchotchkes. The worried and bothered faces of The Lewis chessman, are rather suspicious and at the same time humorous. I wonder what was going on the artists head when he/she was carving up these pieces, very doom of gloom.

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    1. Agreed the chessman are awesome. I especially like what I'm assuming is meant to be the king. I guess he's holding a sword, but he looks like he is intensely rolling out a piece of dough with a rolling pin.

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    2. The chessmen look like more evidence of Scandanavian depression. Is that a pawn gnawing on his shield in abject terror?

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    3. The chessmen do look very worried. Maybe the pawn is gnawing on his shield to express his fear? Lol. I do love the detail.

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    4. looks like some further investigation on theories about their expressions is warranted!!

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  6. It’s great to see these elaborate, quirky sculptures without knowing who made them or why; sometimes the cult of personality surrounding an artist can affect how we see their works. And as Wilhelm said, hurray for the Flann O’Brien reference. The scene mentioned here is one of the funniest---and for some reason one of the most intense---in modern fiction.

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    1. It is the favorite book of our esteemed President, Robin Moody. (So I guess I'd better hurry up and read it!)

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  7. I’m interested to learn that the Lewis chessmen (named for their place of discovery, the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides) come from Norway. I've seen them in the British Museum, and my sister, the Scottish nut, has a few replica pieces in her house next door. They seem to me like figures right out of Alice in Wonderland.

    p.s. Also a big Flann fan...

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  8. noFischerofchessmenAugust 9, 2012 at 6:19 AM

    Replica pieces? I was hoping the British Museum might sell a knockoff set in their gift shop. As a so-so chess player (so slow, so short of sight) I could really use the distraction of those funny pieces to eke out a win.

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    1. You've got the right idea but the wrong museum. It's the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh that sells the set. (Expensive. Less expensive.) My sister got her king there, and apparently our niece found some other pieces for her at a yard sale in Ithaca NY.

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    2. noFischerofchessmenAugust 10, 2012 at 3:03 AM

      Many thanks for the link, RPS. One can only speculate how a fancifully carved Norwegian chess set (of 93 pieces!) wound up in a sand dune on the isle of Lewis.
      I have been known to toss pieces in frustration, but this must have been one monumental choler.

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