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Transcript of 'Baalbec - Ruins of the Temple of Bacchus' podcast

Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen. My name is Peter Betts and I'm one of the education staff at the National Museums Liverpool, or should I say Learning staff we're called now and I'm based here in the Walker Art Gallery.

Welcome to the first of the July Picture of the Month lunchtime talks, but before I start I'd like to say a few words about the origins and the purpose of these successful events which have been held in the Walker Art Gallery since 1998.

I feel the need to fill in the background not least because my little talk on this painting will be podcasted. So there will be occasions when I will appear to be stating the totally obvious or even reading from a prepared script, but this I can assure you is for the benefit of our listeners at home as they used to say or any other part of the world where people thirst after information on the countless thousands of treasures that are in the collections of the National Museums Liverpool.

However, the original purpose was to put a picture or a piece of sculpture in focus, because of course the Picture of the Month is sometimes the Object of the Month or the Stained Glass window of the month or whatever, because we don't just have paintings here and we don't just highlight the paintings, although originally the picture of the month was just the picture of the month and we highlighted a particular picture.

For several years now we've been selecting sculpture and items from our Craft and Design collection.

The original purpose, then, was to put a picture or a piece of sculpture in focus and to supply more information than the bare facts printed on the picture label, which are the title of the picture, the name of the artist, the dates of his birth and death, the date of the picture when it was painted and when the picture was acquired by the gallery which I think is usually of interest actually.

Every picture tells a story but there was a feeling that visitors were not getting the whole story or even an outline of the plot. Regarding this picture for instance, who would suspect that it was painted by a man who started out as a painter and decorator? His first work as an artist was painting scenery for a travelling circus and at the age of 55 he was commissioned by Queen Victoria to paint the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851. So it's not a bad social advancement for the son of an Edinburgh shoemaker.

Each month, visitors are able to read more about a particular picture or object and it is to be hoped that this information leads to a greater understanding and more important enjoyment of the painting, sculpture or item of craft and design which has been selected for a particular month. Visitors are also able to attend as you're doing today and hear at first hand from a curator or education officer why a particular painting, etc, merits a place on the wall. You must never forget that at any one time in the Walker there is only on display less than 10% of the gallery's collections. We like to think it's the best and most significant 10%.

So for the next 15 or 20 minutes I'll attempt to explain the significance of this picture and say a few words about how we acquired it, when and how the artist painted it. Lastly, sketch in some details from the life of the not very well-known artist David Roberts. But, why and how do I hear you say are these pictures of the month chosen. Pictures or objects are chosen because a member of staff believes that a particular item in the collection deserves to be highlighted.

I should say now that I believe it's high time that visitors took over this function. And if there is anyone here today that has a particular or sculpture in mind then let me know. I can't promise that your favourite will be selected next month, but next year could be a possibility.

So, why then did I choose this picture? I've had this picture in the back of my mind as a candidate for picture of the month for some time. A perfect reason arose for choosing it some time ago, when I was at a meeting in the World Museum. Lots of meetings these days. When somebody enquired exactly what would the Walker Art Gallery be doing to mark National Archaeology Week? I should ask you now how many of you are aware that we are on the eve of National Archaeology Week? Very few I imagine.

But what better way to mark the occasion than to draw attention to a particularly fine painting of temple ruins. So that's why we're sitting before this particular picture and considering its significance in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery.

Looking at the frame we can see from the inscription there that it was donated in 1893, in memory of the late Ralph Brocklebank, by his three sons. Also on the frame there is a title, which is, by the way, incorrect. This is not the temple of the Sun, but the temple of Bacchus. We are indebted to the late Director of the Walker Art Gallery, Hugh Scrutton, who visited the site in 1966 and saw that the picture in no way resembled the Temple of the Sun, but it was a near perfect record of an elevation of the Temple of Bacchus.

There are three temples at Baalbek, the largest is the Temple of the Sun. In its time it was the largest religious building in the entire Roman Empire. It was worked on for nearly 50 years and was never completed. So imagine something a lot bigger than this and this looks pretty grand doesn't it.

Today, of the Temple of the Sun, there are only six corinthian columns standing, eight others were dismantled by order of the Emperor Justinian and sent by boat to Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, to be used in the construction of the Basilica Santa Sofia.

Modern Baalbek is in a town in the Bekaa valley in the Lebanon. In Roberts's day, it was in Syria, or what was known as Syria. Baalbek is rightly famous for its richly ornamented Roman temple ruins. When this part of the world was part of the Roman Empire, Baalbek was known as Heliopolis, with that name you can guess that prior to the Roman Empire it was part of the Greek Empire in the Mediterranean.

Baalbek has been designated a World Heritage site since 1984, there are no plans as far as I am aware to construct there a modern museum of Baalbek. The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved of all three of the temples, although the site was shaken by three earthquakes in the 12th century and once again in 1759.

So, we're looking at a view of ruins which have miraculously survived very well and I can say that about 6 years ago I had staying in my house someone who was working on a temporary contract at the Conservation Centre and he was a specialist in metal conservation and he had previously worked on an archaeological excavation at Baalbek and he showed me some photographs. I was very foolish, I didn't ask for copies but I can tell you that it is every bit as impressive as this, more so than this.

If you imagine something like St George's Hall, but a little bit smaller. A temple ruins, I say ruins but lots of the columns and steps, etc, are perfectly intact, but surrounded by a ruined amphitheatre and things like that. It is a very important site, not much visited these days, for obvious reasons that for 15 years there was a terrible civil war in the Lebanon and it's probably still not the no.1 tourist destination these days either.

David Roberts went to Baalbek in 1839 in the course of a tour of the Middle East and we have a reference to his experience in his diary he wrote on May 4 1839 'have begun my studies of the Temple of the magnificence of which it is impossible to convey an idea either by pencil or pen. The beauty of its form, the exquisite richness of its ornament and the vast magnitude of its dimensions are altogether unparalleled'. So there you have it in the man's own words, it's no ordinary site and indeed no ordinary picture.

Roberts was a master of perspective and we see here the ruins in all their grandeur. He makes use of sharp contrasts between the brilliant sunlight and the deep shade to paint a perfect illusion of deep pictorial space. Similarly the figures seen here not only enliven the composition, bit of human interest, but they are of critical importance in conveying a sense of scale. We know these are massive ruins because we see these very sharply painted tiny figures. Well that's one of the reasons we know why.

Roberts's tour of the Middle East lasted 11 months during which time he completed hundreds of drawings which were reproduced as lithographs, published between 1842 and 1849, in 6 large volumes. I should say a lithograph is a form of printing which is still used today, in fact most magazines are produced by this process but it's a lot more mechanised and sophisticated than it was in Roberts's day. Lithograph - the origin of that word is litho (stone), graph (writing) - Greek.

It was a method that was invented for reproducing drawings, invented by an Austrian in the late 18th century, and it meant that by drawing on a piece of smooth and sensitised limestone you could get very fine tonal gradations. The Audubon prints that you might have seen in the Picton Library next door are lithographs, hand-coloured lithographs. I'll say more about that later, if anybody's got a particular interest in the subject.

These albums of lithographs made his fortune. The life story of David Roberts is worthy of note. David Roberts was born in Edinburgh in 1796, his father was a shoemaker, apprenticed him to a housepainter and decorator, but at the end of 7 years he found work as a scene painter with a travelling circus and also worked for theatres in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. By the early 1820s he was in London and working in Drury Lane theatre and then at Covent Garden, but he had greater ambitions than being a simple painter of theatrical backdrops.

By the age of 30 he was exhibiting at the Royal Academy and by his mid-thirties he had abandoned all theatre work, save from designing scenery for several Charles Dickens productions. So something in the news, something high status - he didn't mind doing that and for something that he would be very well paid I should imagine.

Roberts was the first British artist to draw the ruins of Ancient Egypt and even today his lithographs and paintings of Egypt are still popular and frequently reproduced. As recently as about five years ago, facsimile prints of his original lithographs were available on sale in George Henry Lee's. I went back there last week, they don't sell them anymore, which is a great pity.

I can say, for the cinema buffs amongst you, there was a brief appearance of one such print on the wall of the hallway in the film Notting Hill. Hugh Grant goes to open the door, where the lovely Julia Roberts is waiting with all those marvellous teeth, grinning on the step, but just to the left, top screen, there is a ladder leaning against a wall and hanging on the wall is a David Roberts lithograph, not an original one, but a modern facsimile image.

They are enormously popular, they are very finely delineated, beautifully drawn and they're in nice warm colours, particularly when he's describing the coloured decoration of the Egyptian ruins. It's all sort of particularly finely done.

Are there any questions about anything that I have said or crossed your mind? In a few minutes I want to draw a comparison between Roberts's painting of the Ruins of the Temple of the Sun and the ruins of Holyrood Chapel, a little closer to home here. Although I imagine these two artists never met, there is a close link between the two. It's not just that their paintings are hanging side by side.

Any questions?

- Would the characters in the picture normally be expected to be there?

I think you would find these characters clothed in Middle Eastern Arab dress and there's a black servant, or even perhaps a slave waiting on them, Roberts would have scene such people on the site. there would have been people but I think the principle reason for playing them in the picture is to add a bit of human interest, as it were, because the nice sharply contrasting colours, the overall tone of the picture is quite a mid-warm, beigey, sandy colour. But these darker tones and bits of red, etc, blue, they provide an interesting contrast but above all it's the painting of the figures that communicates the grandeur, the sense of scale of these ruins, which is something that he struggled with. I quoted from the diary, he was faced by these ruins and he thought it would be impossible to convey either with pencil or pen how extraordinary these ruins were.

- To what extent is this painting a comment on its subject matter? I'm amazed that such a temple was built to such a God.

Well, the Romans were not abstainers. I think his knowledge of the site was pretty sketchy as was anybody's at that time. The site was not properly studied and measured and excavations made until German archaeological teams set out on that task in the late 1890s.

Prior to that people tried to link it with the Old Testament, Joshua Chapter 11, verse 17 'Baalgad', but there is no Biblical connection. But I think he could have confidently believed that this was the Ruins of the Temple of the Sun. He was just a visitor, he had great experience of these sites, but his knowledge would be pretty sketchy because the only serious research of this site began 50 years after David Roberts went there.

- So the impression he wants to convey is primarily an architectural one?

It's architectural, he wants to show something exotic, he wants to show something grand, above all he wants to market something that would appeal to people who could afford to purchase these books, these albums of lithographs. He was not some sort of tormented genius, starving in his attic. He started off as a painter and decorator, very matter of fact business, he started in a travelling circus and went on to be a scene painter in theatres. He went there to make money, that was the reason.

- So, in a way, it's like a postcard, a picture of exotica and people would like to collect these?

Yes, wealthy people would buy them because in those days these lithographs would be very expensive indeed. These albums of lithographs made his fortune and they also established firmly his reputation as an artist so much so that when the Great Exhibition of 1851 opened, Prince Albert's inspired idea, Mrs Albert chose David Roberts to paint the opening ceremonies because she knew from the work that she'd seen that this was a tremendous perspective artist and he was able to create something that would credit this enormous crystal palace structure.

I can't say I've seen the painting but I imagine it is in the Royal Collection somewhere.

I did say I'd just refer briefly to this painting here by Louis Daguerre. It was presented to the Corporation of Liverpool in 1851 I believe and for decades it hung in the Town Hall. Louis Daguerre who painted this picture, like David Roberts was a scene painter, but Daguerre was particularly involved in the production of dioramas and panoramas. Dioramas and panoramas are not much thought about today and some people think it's a television programme, but in the late 18th century, early 19th century, panoramas were painted scenes, whether views of Venice or battlefields and they would fill an entire room or they would be on a roll which would be unrolled.

There would be lights and there would be music or spoken commentary, so it was in a way a forerunner of the cinema. And the interesting, I think, about Daguerre's achievements is that he spends about 30 years of his life painting panoramas, dioramas, pictures like this and then at the age of 54 he actually invents a photographic process which we know as the daguerreotype. If you see photographs of early scenes of Paris in the 1840s or 1850s then it's a daguerreotype. The unfortunate thing about the daguerreotype was that it was a blind alley, it wasn't a positive/negative process, it gave you a unique image and it's only reproducible by modern photographic printing methods. A bit complicated but the method of photography pioneered by Fox Talbot, the positive/negative process, meant that you could reproduce easily these photographic images.

It must have been an intensely satisfying experience for Louis Daguerre to come up with this photographic experience despite the fact that most daguerreotypes were about this big, infinitely smaller than the paintings that he actually spent about 30, 40 years of his life producing, these dioramas, these panoramas.

But they are both beautiful examples of perspective, lovely sharp contrasts of colour and tone in that painting also. If you get very close you can see that Roberts has actually inscribed his name on the end of that mass of slab of stone, lime in the foreground of the picture there.