Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Understanding the ancient Celts and their art: the psychology of early Celtic art, part five

From back to front: Jope, 2000; Jacobsthal, 1944, Fox, 1958.  More than 900 different patterns are drawn in them.
It was Paul Jacobsthal who, in 1944, with Early Celtic Art, started the tradition of classifying the elements and motifs of continental early Celtic art with what he called patterns and this tradition was continued for British early Celtic art by Sir Cyril Fox  in 1958 with Pattern and Purpose: A survey of early Celtic art in Britain and, most recently, by E. M. (Martyn) Jope in 2000. Martyn Jope had been Paul Jacobsthal's assistant and what was published as Early Celtic Art in the British Isles was originally intended to be co-authored by Jacobsthal and Jope and the former mentions a plan for a later set of books on British art in his introduction, but Jacobsthal died in 1957 and Jope in 1996. It was Ian Stead who did the final layout and editing and the work was published in 2000. In 1990, Ruth Megaw suggested to her husband Vincent that they should produce a supplement to Jacobsthal's work as so many examples of continental early Celtic art had been discovered since Jacobsthal was doing his early research in Germany. Vincent agreed and they set to work. Ruth and Vincent Megaw had previously published the best-selling Celtic Art: from its beginnings to the Book of Kells in 1989 and an expanded, revised, edition in 2001. Sadly, Ruth died in 2013 and Vincent continues the work. Oxford University Press expected it to be published in March of this year (although it is not yet announced by them on their website). Martyn Jope told me that he was finishing his work in 1989 and OUP made some rather too-optimistic predictions of its publication date and even the Megaws had thought their supplement would be finished about ten years ago. These things take time, and I think that an unrealistic expectation of finishing such works fairly quickly is a good survival trait for an author. How many would really commit to a twenty five to fifty year writing project? One can easily polish off a novel in a few months and there are even three-day novel writing contests, but producing standard works on a subject is a different matter, altogether. I started the research for my book on Coriosolite coins in 1985 and it was published seventeen years later. The first ten of those years were research and writing, the rest was delays, appendices, an index, editing, promoting, and getting it published. Life happens.

The tradition of using patterns has ended and they will not appear in the Megaw's supplement to Jacobsthal. From the outset, there were problems with this method and the published patterns were not just elements and motifs but entire compositions of both. Furthermore, some elements and motifs were neglected. I cannot say why this happened, but in my own case, I had gathered so many hundreds of them that appeared on Coriosolite coins and yet found that only some of these had any value in constructing the chronology and charting their evolution. I finally added most of them in an appendix but grouped a number of them together as one whenever the differences were only spatial (and not in the actual design type). The focus, anyway, was in the elements and clearly isolated motifs and not runs of motifs on a coin or compositions of several motifs. Jacobsthal had attempted to do just that.

In 1989, Colin Haselgrove asked me for a copy of my "Quick Identification Chart" for Coriosolite staters. I sent him one and it was enthusiastically received. He asked me about doing the same for Celtic coins, but my experience told me that this was never going to happen. It had taken me four years to rough out the chronology for just one tribe with a very high level of certainty and I knew that life is just too short to attempt such a thing for all of the coin-producing Celtic tribes. I would have had to do a die chronology for all of them and the discovery of previously unrecorded dies was not only very likely, but could have broken the system. In more than twenty five years, not a single new die discovery has changed the order of my classification system at all, they have all fitted into it perfectly. The existing chronology's weakest point is the exact order of a run of only five dies where the designs show no evolutionary changes at all. While we have tens of thousands of Coriosolite staters, some tribes have very few coins at all that have survived and some types consist of only a handful of examples although apparently struck from many more dies.

This is the biggest problem with early Celtic art in general: the designs are most often unique so every new discovery would threaten any previous classification system. Using a classification system that does work, such as in a combination of style and regional factors would completely occlude the more interesting aspects of early Celtic art; would make most studies really pedestrian and subjective and, because most examples of early Celtic art are not multiple productions of an identifiable artist, evolutionary factors are exceedingly difficult to determine. With my Coriosolite coins, the fact of so many thousands in existence, combines with the fact that their Armorican style is highly variable when compared with other Celtic and Belgic styles to make the nature of their evolution discoverable, and with it the psychology of the artist and his artistic and religious tenets. These can then be applied more generally to other examples of Early Celtic art. More on that psychology tomorrow.

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