The Berlin Painter and His World: Princeton University exhibition

By Alastair Harden, Acting Head of Classics

1On a visit to the British Museum with 6.2 Classical Civilization students in February, after looking at the Parthenon sculptures and the frieze from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, I brought the class around the Greek Vase galleries. I know these galleries very well, so I confidently strode up to a glass case, ready to wax lyrical on one of the most beautiful pieces on the A-level syllabus: a magnificent volute krater depicting the final duel between Achilles and Hektor. I mentally gathered my notes and got ready to dispense wisdom when – much to my disappointment – the case turned out to be empty. Well, not quite empty: a card read “This vase has been loaned to the Princeton University Art Museum for the exhibition ‘The Berlin Painter and His World’.” This kicked off a very welcome chain of events that led to me trading the Block 3 Parents’ meeting for an aeroplane bound for New Jersey and attending the most important conference and exhibition on Greek Art to be held in a generation.

2I’d heard that Princeton was hosting the first exhibition devoted to a single vase-painter in almost forty years, so I emailed J. Michael Padgett, Princeton’s curator of Classical antiquities, chastising him for ruining my speech about Achilles and Hektor and fondly recalling the afternoon in 2011 when he took me to the store-room under the galleries in the museum at Princeton to examine some fragments for my doctoral dissertation. To my surprise and delight he replied straight away, inviting me to two events: the fizzy ‘gala opening’ of the Berlin Painter exhibition on March 4th, and a star-studded one-day symposium on April 1st. (Well, ‘star-studded’ to Greek Art enthusiasts. Or really to vase-painting enthusiasts. Well, really, to enthusiasts of early Athenian red-figure vase-painting, which thankfully I am.) I expressed my regret that I could go to neither, but after some string-pulling and many apologetic emails to my Block 3 parents I found myself gratefully bound for the symposium.

3‘The Berlin Painter’ is the name given by the Oxford scholar John Davidson Beazley to an otherwise-anonymous painter of the most beautiful painted pottery of the early fifth century B.C.: Beazley grouped together several vases which he judged to have been painted by the same person in a 1911 article entitled ‘The Master of the Berlin Amphora’, and in doing so he effectively initiated the study of Greek vase painting as a major art form. Beazley remained central to the study of Greek vase painting until his death in 1970, and I was working as a researcher at Beazley’s archive in Oxford (www.beazley.ox.ac.uk) when I left academia to come to Bedales.

The Berlin Painter was one of thousands of painters whom Beazley was to identify on stylistic grounds, but to all scholars of Greek art the Berlin Painter has a special place as the first painter to recognize the aesthetic potential of using the shape of the vase and the framing painted floral and geometric patterns to bring the painted scene to life. Before this, painters usually treated the shape of the vase as a blank field to be filled in, and simply divided the vessel into zones or panels, but the Berlin Painter seems to have had a gifted sense of how the complex shapes of the vases can complement the drawing. He (or she, though we presume the painter was male: that’s another discussion…) also observed anatomy in minute detail, and I hope all of my students share my enthusiasm at how the Berlin Painter renders the complex relationship of the serratus anterior muscles to the ribcage in a level of anatomical detail unprecedented in its accuracy, at a time when sculptors were also looking to complex anatomical accuracy to make bronze and stone resemble real living bodies.

4The exhibition in Princeton brings together a representative selection of pieces from museums all over the world, including the ‘name vase’, the ‘Berlin Amphora’ which Beazley discussed in his 1911 article; sadly the exhibition does not include the beautiful fragment which Beazley saw in Winchester College, pictured, but it was awe-inspiring to be in a gallery with so many pieces of such high quality. The symposium featured a brilliantly stimulating group of lectures, including a wonderful talk by Richard Neer about how Beazley’s sexuality and early Brideshead-like days as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1900s influenced his later scholarship, and a typically poetic paper by the renowned French scholar François Lissarrague on the painter’s astonishingly sensitive use of deep black backgrounds for the figural scenes. Mario Iozzo, director of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Florence (home of the famous François Vase), revealed that he found what all archaeologists long for: a secret message, barely detectable beneath the black glaze of one vase. His paper will quite literally have every curator of Athenian vases looking again for these tantalizing hidden words, which will occupy scholars for decades: they can only be seen with the naked eye under certain lighting conditions, preferably when the vase is being held in the hand, a nice reminder of the tactility of these objects in an era which is increasingly devoted to digital images and accessing artefacts primarily through the internet.

At the reception following the conference I re-connected with Prof. Lissarrague, who wrote the single most beautiful book on Greek vases (Greek Vases: The Athenians and Their Images) and, much less illustriously, examined my PhD thesis in 2013 (‘Animal-skin garments in archaic Greek art: style and iconography’). I also caught up with several other academics whom I knew through my five years working at the Beazley Archive: I was reminded of the joys of research, and I’ve already since been consulted by a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York about an animal skin on an ancient statuette. It has been very rewarding to spend even a brief time among academics and curators, and I plan to re-enter this world by writing a paper this summer on the Berlin Painter’s use of animal-skin garments: this will be one of hundreds of pieces of research inspired and stimulated by the epoch-making conference and exhibition, with its beautiful catalogue, and it was truly a privilege to have attended this monumental event.

On the day of the exhibition’s opening, Michael Padgett gave an excellent introductory lecture on the Berlin Painter which you can see here.

Exploring Sicily’s ancient sites

IMG_1070It seems like an age ago – probably because everyone is now immersed in the work of revision – but just four weeks back, 19 sixth-formers and three teachers visited the gloriously beautiful island of Sicily, and surely if they close their eyes they can recall it all: temples, theatres, cafes, guides, beaches, bars, basalt (there is a lot of that; Sicily is made of basalt. We were told so many times…).

Highlights of the trip included the balconies in every room. Margaret Rice (Head Girl) particularly enjoyed the use of hers, stating “It was just a super chill place to hang out with friends and enjoy the sea breeze.” Lydia Nethercott-Garbage enjoyed herself greatly especially the “evening strolls along the beach” at Giardini Naxos, where we explored the coast and got lost at least once.

IMG_1108  Taormina (3)

On the more cultural side, we visited a range of sites, including some which UNESCO deigned to be World Heritage Sites. From temples (be it standing, or destroyed by the Carthaginians) to theatres set in the picturesque mountains of Selinunte and Taormina. At Selinunte, the ‘valley of the temples’ presented us with example after example of extraordinary precision and refinement in building. Piazza Armerina proved as amazing as the guides said it would be, with room upon room of the most colourful and exotic mosaics. Social life apart, the six days spent in Sicily were packed with visits to a wide range of Greek and Roman sites of extraordinary richness, and most of the party filled their iPhones with pictures! Even the weather was kind, starting dull but ending with a taste of summer (by British standards anyway).

IMG_1082  IMG_1124

Practically, the lower sixth Class Civ students have now seen many of the temples and other pieces of classical architecture which they will meet again in class. Everyone had the chance to enjoy all aspects of Sicily ancient and modern – art, colossal feats of building, ice-cream, and local delicacies such as cannoli and arancini.

View photos

By Christopher Grocock, Head of Classics


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Medals at Classics reading competition

A group of intrepid Classicists ventured out to the 65th annual Southampton Classical Association Latin and Greek Reading Competition at Cantell School, Southampton recently. We were dressed in our customary array of dazzling costumes – much to the amusement of the other suit-clad participants. However, it wasn’t a fancy dress contest, and it soon became apparent that competition was fierce. Nevertheless, proving that we have brains as well as beauty, we achieved three bronze medals and the highest accolade of all: gold medals in senior Greek reading by Sofia Tavener and Angus Carey-Douglas, which included a financial reward. Who says Classics doesn’t pay!  View photos.

By Robin Allez, 6.2

*************************************************************************************************

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Greek Tragedy for classicists

Before Christmas, 6.1 Classical Civilisation students attended a series of lectures in London on Greek Tragedy, given by professors from Oxford and King’s College London. The lectures covered the plays being studied for the AS exam as well as giving a flavour of what Greek theatrical festivals were like and for what kind of audience the plays were written. Themes such as the use of symbolism, the role of women in society (and in particular the threat to men when they act beyond this role – Athenian women were not expected to command their men) and heroism in drama were discussed. As well as a useful day of lectures it was a chance to see what Classicists from the rest of the country look like!

By Alex Walker, Head of Classics

*************************************************************************************************

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Visits enhance Classical Civilisation studies

Before half term Block 4 Classical Civilisations students visited Butser Ancient Farm to explore what Celtic life may have been like in the Iron Age and to examine different types of construction. This local site is very useful because it demonstrates at first-hand the uses of experimental archaeology. Block 4 student Hannah Rogerson said of the visit “I think it was extremely useful in showing what life was like in ancient times as you really got a feel for how they would have lived.” 6.2 Classical Civilisation students also recently visited a newly-discovered Roman villa excavation at Colemore which nicely tied up their study of Roman Britain as they were able to see an actual excavation in progress.

By Christopher Grocock, Teacher of Classics

Butser Ancient Farm

*************************************************************************************************

Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.