Back to work; archaeological discoveries, and a sneak Peake

This weekend I am finally back at my desk after a month’s rest, following our wedding, and a short honeymoon in Paris.


We didn’t see any paintings in Paris, apart from this one on the Metro with Zak in the foreground, an extraordinary twist on the Arundel portrait of King Charles I by Van Dyck.

At first I thought it was rather disrespectful – the King is advertising cut-price phones and laptops – but then again I quite like this hardman portrayal with his cynically cocked eyebrow, the man the King’s enemies believed they were fighting against. And when Royalists pledged to ‘Remember!’ after Charles I’s execution in 1649, they might have been pleased to know he would still enjoy such brand recognition 366 years later.

Elsewhere in Paris, amid a mass of wonderful things – we came back to England in a state of rampant francomania – I particularly liked this fountain. We were wandering round the Marais, with all those Three Musketeers-period courtyarded mini-palazzi, and we’d stopped to rest for a minute in the Place Joachim-du-Bellay. I wish I’d taken a photo at the time, because from the gutter where we were looking up at it, this gem of street-furniture was set against a garish run of shops, the French equivalent of KFC and Footlocker. Most online photos make the square look quite smart, but this one gets a sense of how it was, with ‘Tattoo Piercing’ in the background.


(c) Moonik

At first I thought the H monograms between the Corinthian capitals must be for King Henri IV (reigned 1589 – 1610) who built the Place des Vosges nearby, the inspiration for Covent Garden laid out by the Earl of Bedford a couple of decades later.



When I looked it up later, however, I found out that this is the oldest surviving public fountain in Paris. ‘H’ stands for King Henri II (reigned 1547 – 1559). The crisp detailing and mannerist nymphs might have told me that, but we’re so unused to seeing public sculpture that old in this country. Unconsciously I think of Paris in terms of London which, Tower and Westminster aside, dates mostly from the Seventeenth Century (rather than, say, Rome, or Edinburgh where I was equally surprised by the Sixteenth Century busily rubbing shoulders with the here-and-now).  This was like seeing Holbein Gate still standing in the middle of Whitehall.

We were looking at the surviving pavilion of the grand loggia-fountain built by Jean Goujon for Henri’s grand ceremonial entry into Paris in 1549. The ground floor was made as a public fountain, and the upper level was a covered viewing platform for watching the procession.


Fontaine des Innocent c.1670 (c) SiefkinDR

What an amazing sight it must have been. The remains are particularly exciting because they date two years after the death of King Henry VIII. Tudor architecture may never have been as Classical as this, but Goujon’s fountain gives a good idea of what the carved and painted plaster interiors of Henry VIII’s palaces would have looked like.

Elsewhere in the world it has been a month of discoveries. A train under a Polish mountain might hold the key to the mystery of the lost Amber Room and Raphael’s missing self-portrait, whose fate otherwise has been speculated on by ‘The Monuments Men’ and ‘The Simpsons.’ Or it might rumble on unresolved forever feeding our enduring fascination with one of history’s most depressing and soul-numbing regimes. I couldn’t care less about Nazi gold.

More interestingly, Dr Dennis Reeves, an Egyptologist from the University of Arizona claims to have discovered the tomb of Nefertiti, which he believes is hidden behind a plastered-over door in the tomb of her son Tutankhamun, the area shown in red in this photo.


(c) Daily Mail

Tutankhamun died suddenly and his tomb was assembled in a hurry, rather than planned out over a long reign. It is quite conceivable that the cramped couple of rooms occupied by his mummy and grave goods was originally the antechamber to an earlier burial. I await further developments with interest.

Nearer to home, near where I grew up in fact, Charles Woods a metal detectorist, has uncovered an early high-status Anglo-Saxon burial on the hill above Long Compton on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border.


(c) Daily Mail

The skeleton dated to c.600 AD belongs to a woman, who was buried with grave goods including a large amber bead and a patera, a Roman implement often used to hold offerings to the Gods.


(c) Daily Mail

This, and the fact that the woman was buried near the Rollright Stones, has led locals to speculate that this may be the Witch of Rollright, who tricked an ancient King and his army into being turned to stone, as recorded in an old rhyme which everyone thereabouts knows at least part of.

Witch of Rollright

The King and his army survive as the famous ring of stones, the Whispering Knights (a neolithic tomb) in a field nearby and the Kingstone himself standing alone above the village.


The Whispering Knights, thought to be conspirators leaning together.


The Rollright Stones


The Kingstone craning for a glimpse of Long Compton photos (c)RM

The legend of the Witch as it survives has much in common with other Northern European stories of the Lady of the Elder Tree, so at first glance it seems unlikely to be inspired by a single person, powerful as she was in her day. But I am reminded of the Witch of Wookey and her crystal ball, said to live in Wookey Hole cave in Somerset. In the 1920s, the skeleton of a Romano-British woman was discovered within the cave, buried with grave goods that included an alabaster ball. Given the religious importance to the Celts of rocks and water, the lady of Wookey may well have been a priestess, and I can believe that a folk memory of her or the cult she served lives on as the Witch of Wookey.

Folk memory in traditional societies is very powerful and long-lived, and for all its distortions over time, surprisingly accurate. I’ve just finished reading Rory Stewart’s breathtaking ‘Places In Between‘, an account of his walk across Afghanistan from Herat to Kabul in 2002. One of the highlights of his journey was confirming from local stories that the Minaret of Jam which dominates a mountain pass in the remote and near-inaccessible Ghor Region, is the remains of the lost Ghorid capital, Turquoise Mountain, destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1222.


(c) David Adamec

Since Stewart visited, the tower has become unstable and the widespread looting of the surrounding area has removed much remaining archaeological evidence, but he preserved a remarkable story, passed down over eight hundred years, of two huge gold statues in the shape of mythical houma birds which decorated the city’s ramparts. One of these, the villagers said, was melted down after the city was sacked and used to make a great bowl in the mosque at Herat. The villagers had never been to Herat, or seen the bowl, but Stewart had, at the start of his journey. The bowl was in fact bronze, so he concluded that the birds must have been made of gilt bronze. The villagers’ story is the only evidence of the statues and their fate, but it is undoubtedly true.

On more familiar territory, Dad told me yesterday of a couple of results in a sale at Mitchell’s in Cumbria on Friday. These two paintings were too expensive for us, but we flagged them up as rather interesting.

Portrait of Lady Parker


‘Mary Senhouse Lady Parker’ estimated at £3,000 – 5,000 was a clear stylistic fit for Robert Peake the Elder, and the age-date inscription looked like Peake’s characteristic calligraphy with his idiosyncratic asterisk-like abbreviation for (Ae)tatis suae. I wondered if Lady Parker’s inscription had been retraced in an earlier restoration, and I look forward to seeing how she turns out. It is a fine portrait, and with a £3,000 – 5,000 estimate she sold for £54,000 hammer.

Peake calligraphy 2

Inscription on Lady Parker’s portrait (c) Mitchells

Peake calligraphy

Another example from Sir Roy Strong’s English Icon Paul Mellon Foundation 1969

Sir John Puckering MP (1544 – 1596), Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Keeper of the Great Seal under Queen Elizabeth I, was a straightforward historical portrait.

Portrait of Sir John Puckering

(c) Mitchells.

Interestingly the only comparative image of Sir John I could find online was his tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey, but the Mitchells portrait has such a wealth of internal evidence with heraldry and seal-bag that the identification can be in no doubt. He sold for £24,000 against an estimate of £4,000 – 6,000.

Sir John’s magnificent tomb has same arms and his effigy in painted alabaster looks a compatible likeness with the portrait. It shows Sir John lying with his wife Jane Chowne beside him. The inscription’s penultimate lines are, ‘His wife this statue rears to her beloved spouse, The test of constancy and marriage vows.’ I must go and see it.

Sir John and lady Puckering effigies

(c) Westminster Abbey

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